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Start at the very beginning

17 March 2017

Struggling to attract or keep children and their families? Margaret Pritchard Houston advises on developing a ministry from scratch


Challenge: many congregations are struggling to attract children to church

Challenge: many congregations are struggling to attract children to church

ONCE upon a time, the people lived in a beautiful garden, where they had everything they needed. Then it all went wrong, and now they live in a desert, where life is hard.

That foundation story of our faith — that the world used to be good, and is now fallen — is often reflected in the stories that we tell of our churches: “Once upon a time, we had loads of children and an active youth group. Then it all went wrong, and now we have nobody under 50 in our pews.”

Just as the Bible tells us, we cannot go back into Eden, but must go forward to the next chapter of our story; our churches are often stuck wanting to travel back in time to this mythical perfection, when our churches were full of children. But we cannot. We have to go forward from where we are now.

At three “Getting Started” events in the diocese of St Albans last year, aimed at helping churches to dev­elop their children’s ministry, people were asked to raise their hands if any of the following sound­ed familiar:

“The boys love coming to church, but rugby is on Sunday mornings.”

“She’s with her dad that weekend — we can’t make it.”

“I’ve just taken this new rural post, and the church is miles from the village.”

“We’re an urban church in a majority Muslim area. Our inter­faith and schools work is strong, but there’s little potential for mission with families.”

“We get one or two children sometimes, but they misbehave and the congregation get distracted.”

Each one was met with a sea of hands — and rueful chuckles. And there was also a sense of relief, as people discovered that they were not the only ones facing these struggles.

The context in which we do children’s work has changed in the past 30 years. More and more, churches face competition on Sunday mornings with other events. Families are more spread out; so children who come to church twice a month may be coming every week­end they are in town, but the incum­bent can see their attendances as only occasional, and feel like a failure.

Greater religious diversity, and a genera­tion of parents who were raised unchurched themselves, means that we can no longer assume that everyone in our area is even culturally Christian. And, because church atten­dance is no longer a social expectation, parents who do not feel welcome and wanted are not likely to persevere.

For churches with few or no children, the idea of starting mission with children and families can feel overwhelming. Nevertheless, there are success stories among the trials and errors, and also the stubborn belief that this work is crucial: not just to “save the Church’s numbers for the future”, but because the body of Christ is richer when all ages are present, and because children and young people matter.

Each church will have its own solution. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Some churches may not be ready even to think about the work itself until logistical issues such as kitchens and lavatories are sorted out. If your children’s work for the next few years is to raise money to install a lavatory, then that is your children’s work. And, of course, the topic of getting started in children’s ministry is bigger than one article can cover. But I hope that these ideas will encourage you to think that you can do this.


WHEN people are talking about ministry with children and families, the first thing that comes up is children at church on Sunday morn­ings; and this brings with it a huge range of possibilities — and chal­lenges.

I have heard variations of “Members of my congregation say they want children, but they don’t want actual children.” And parents come with stories of being stared at, shushed, tutted at, or told off, even when their children are actively engaged in worship.

Without changing this culture, you can do everything right, and get families through the doors, and still be driving them away. Addressing this has three parts: the children, the parents, and the other worshippers.

First, children in church need to be able to see, hear, and engage with worship (or they need a Sunday school that is nourishing and not dictatorial). A children’s area in church is a good way to start, but these spaces must be more than “dead-teddy corners”, as the diocese of Gloucester’s children’s adviser, the Revd Dr Sandra Millar, calls them.

They can be filled with toys and resources for imaginative spiritual play, such as a mini altar with a chalice and paten, a Noah’s ark, a nativity set, a Jesus doll, a baby doll in a christening gown, puzzles of Bible stories, and more.

The Spiritual Child Network’s website (spiritualchild.co.uk) has some examples, as has my blog (https://stalbanscme.com/cat­egory/prayer-spaces/). This space should be within sight of the altar — or wherever the action happens — but, if possible, it should not require new parents to march to it in full view of the congregation.

If your space cannot support a children’s area, bags or boxes that contain similar resources can be provided for children to play with in the pews. For older children, books such as Pray, Sing, Worship (SPCK, 2011) can be helpful in guiding them through the service, as can plain paper and markers: children often process experiences through art, and their drawings made during a service will often be surprisingly profound.

Parents can be encouraged to use skills that they already have to help their children engage in worship. Carolyn Carter Brown, the author of the Worshipping with Children blogspot, has a wonderful short article that can be used as part of a parenting course, or printed out and given to parents as they arrive.

“Parents can no more worship ‘beside’ their children than they can eat ‘beside’ their children,” she says. “Instead, they must wor­ship and eat ‘with’ their children, coach­ing them along the way.” Reminding parents that their children are not “guests at an adult event”, but are part of an intergenerational family, can help them to relax.

As for the wider congregation, generally, hostile behaviour towards children and families often comes from one of two sources: pain or fear. The first requires pastoral concern: the older couple glaring at the toddlers may be grieving for their lack of, or estrangement from, grandchildren. They may have never had children they longed for. They may have lost a child. Pain often reveals itself as anger.

The second, fear, requires gradual change. A church that has been a spiritual home, maybe for decades, is changing to be more welcoming to children. Some people may have the idea that this means dumbing down, to a circus-bright, slapstick, laugh-a-minute style of worship. If their spiritual nourishment comes from quiet contemplation, or a great choral tradition, they may be fearful of losing their home.

Making gradual changes, con­sistent with the existing tradition of the church, can help reassure mem­bers of the congregation that they have nothing to be afraid of. I have seen the most rigorously sceptical adults come away moved from an all-age service, and astonished that there was something there for them as well; but it took time.

Finally, give your existing congregation the chance to build relationships with new families. The Revd Ally Barrett, a tutor at Westcott House, who lectures on all-age worship and preaching, says: “It’s harder to ‘tut’ at a child you know.”


MANY churches are addressing the lack of children and families by starting new congregations. This can give great flexibility in terms of scheduling and how you worship.

You can, for example, start a family service at a time that does not conflict with football on Sunday morning, or start a weekday-after­noon Messy Church. Or you can start a toddler praise-group in the village hall, if your church is miles away from where the families are. These congregations can be lay-led, al­­though clergy or clergy teams should be involved and present, to support the work and get to know new families.

Even if the work you begin with children is outside of Sunday morn­ing, your congrega­tion will need to provide financial resources, space, and time for this ministry: your Messy Church (for example) will not exist entirely outside of your Sunday-morning congrega­tion.

So, if you plan to look at mission op­­­portunities, you will need to consider, from the start, how you will inform the existing congre­gation of what happens in your new congregation, and how you will help them to feel that it is theirs, too, and that they have a stake in what happens to it.

One of the most common op­­­port­unities for this kind of work is through a toddler group. New re­­­search into toddler groups con­­ducted in 2016, by the Church of England and the Church in Wales, with Nine Dot Research, has shown that families who come to church-based toddler groups are receptive to Bible stories, worship, invitations to church events, and having prayer as a part of the group’s gatherings.

The report found that “most [toddler] group users were either de-churched or unchurched, with toddler groups being the main or only point of contact with church. As such, they provided precious opportunities for building good relationships based on positive ex­­peri­ences of church.”

While many toddler-group leaders expressed a reluctance to “push” faith on to those who at­­­tended, the par­ents and carers them­­­­selves did not see this as a prob­­­lem. Many expres­sed surprise that there wouldn’t be Bible stories read at a church toddler group.

”It was clear that there is far greater risk from disappointing those who want to see Christian dis­­tinc­tiveness in a church-run toddler group than of upsetting those who may be a little apprehensive,” the report says.

These are the most common ways of getting started outside Sunday morning, but there are others: creating a prayer tent at Sunday-morning football, for example (with permission), or starting a lunchtime or after-school club that includes worship.

Since ministry begins with rela­tion­­­ships, there are ways of reaching out to your local community outside of Sunday morning in ways that do not explicitly include worship. If you have a foodbank near you, why not gather a bunch of children’s books and read to children while their parents receive their parcels? (If you can sustain it through do­­­nations, give each child a book to take home, as well.)

Or open your church as a café, with a soft-play area, one morning a week, and have clergy, pastoral-team members, or church families available to chat and befriend.

Consider what talents are avail­able in your congregation. Do you have retired teachers? Could you start a free homework-help club after school one day a week? If you have retired accountants, how about free sessions on smart finance for new parents? Use what you have, and encourage relationships, invita­tion, and welcoming.


EVEN the best ideas can flounder, however, if they are not built on. Getting contact details for the children and families you encounter — at crib services, parade services, or new programmes that you begin — is crucial. The Christenings Project discovered that, often, churches sit back waiting for a family to reappear, while the family itself is often waiting to be invited.

It is easy to forget that churches feel strange and new to many people; that they do not know the “rules”. Today’s young parents may not have been raised in church themselves, and may feel shy and uncertain about coming. Don’t just be a welcoming church: also be an inviting church.

Of course, every success then creates new difficulties. A successful toddler praise-service will mean figuring out how to keep contact after the children get too old for the programme. A Messy Church in the village hall creates the possibility that your original congregation will feel disconnected from the new work. But what did Jesus say? “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomor­­row will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

For now, he reminds us, “seek first the Kingdom of God.” Then worry about what comes next.


Margaret Pritchard Houston is the children’s mission enabler in the diocese of St Albans.

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