Hospitality and Outreach
Let the Children Come To Me
As church leaders, we are called to invite all people in, to help them feel comfortable and loved. Plenty of resources are available on the hospitality of adults, but what about children? Although it will be parents who ultimately decide whether or not to return to your parish, there are ways to specifically welcome young people. The nursery, worship and formation are areas where you can provide intentional hospitality to kids. Parishes that find ways to practice hospitality toward children experience successful results.
Keep in mind that potential parents and grandparents might keep an eye on the nursery for months before they bring children in. They are checking to make sure it is a safe, clean, uncluttered, nurturing and welcoming space. Do the caregivers engage with the toddlers, reading and singing to them? Try getting down on the ground where the toddlers are; you might be surprised at what you discover from that angle! If you have a single room for your nursery, consider building a half-wall to divide the infants from toddlers. The preferred location for the nursery is near the nave, but if it is in a separate building, the audio from worship can be transmitted into the nursery so the caregivers and children can enjoy the service.
The need for clear, directional signage is obvious, but so is the need for signage on the nursery door. I once saw a nursery door with a Do Not Enter sign, the day school signage, which could easily be covered with a Welcome to the Church Nursery sign during child care for services or church events. What about posting a greeter near the nursery door to welcome families and assist with sign-in and drop-off?
Walk the campus with fresh eyes, as a visiting or new parent might, to see whether you are doing all you can to welcome young children to your nursery. New parents should be asked to complete a nursery registration form and leave it with the caregivers for the files. This is not an inconvenience! It’s what parents expect nowadays. The form should ask for contact information, allergies and special needs. In addition, sign-in/out sheets should be posted at the door each week so that parents can provide information about where they will be and how they may be contacted while their child is in your care. Parents will feel their children have been well cared for if the caregivers provide them with a brief form reporting how the morning went.
Make sure there are changing tables in multiple men’s and women’s restrooms and stepstools for little ones to wash hands. Depending on your church size, consider designating parking spaces for expectant parents or parents with small children.
There are many ways to welcome children in church services, and it begins at every entrance to the worship space. If your congregation is truly welcoming families into worship, ushers need to be trained to do that. They can encourage families to sit up front, so they can see what’s going on. Instead of assuming parents plan to utilize the nursery during worship, ushers should wait to be asked and then escort parents to the nursery instead of merely pointing the way. It is also helpful if older adults encourage families to sit up front near them. Praygrounds that allow young children to sit comfortably at small tables or on the floor somewhere in the sanctuary have become popular. If there isn’t space for that up front, child appropriate tables and chairs with activities can be available in the back of the nave.
Many parishes provide worship or activity bags at entrances in the narthex and transepts. These are bags of quiet toys and activities like board books, sewing cards, colored pencils, cardstock, fuzzy sticks and child friendly bulletins. Offering two choices of worship bags, one for preschoolers and another for early elementary ages, with developmentally age appropriate activities for each takes this idea one step further. What if the children of a visiting family also received a welcome bag like the adults? Just take a worship bag, add a letter from the children’s minister, using lots of photos, and include crayons with a church information sticker and information about Vacation Bible School or other family-friendly parish activities. Some parishes include children’s illustrated Bibles in the pews, a children’s sermon in worship or a family service.
Children may be hesitant to walk into a classroom for the first time – or even once a month. If one of the adult leaders sits on a chair and greets children at eye level, it can ease some of that hesitation.
Registration offers a good way to capture the information you want to meet a child’s needs. In addition to food allergies and any special needs, find out what sports they play and what their schedules are like. If you find you have students with special needs, keeping a basket full of sensory products (such as fidget toys) in the classroom can enhance learning and promote independence. And finally, create Faith at Home bags or boxes with take-home resources to give families seasonally so parents can access resources for sharing their faith with children throughout the week.
The parish website should include specific information about what to expect on Sunday mornings – times, offerings, locations, procedures. A three-, six-, or twelve-month schedule of classes and activities, including when childcare is offered, should be mailed and handed out. A children’s ministry page on your congregation’s website describing the curriculum, class routine and pick-up and drop-off times and locations, is important. The following welcome language is found in many worship bulletins around the country:
To the Parents of Our Young Children
Relax! God puts the wiggle in children; don’t feel you have to suppress it in God’s house. All are welcome! Sit toward the front where it is easier for your little ones to see and hear what’s going on at the altar: they tire of seeing the backs of other’s heads. Quietly explain the parts of the service and actions of the priest, altar servers, choir, etc. Sing the hymns, say the prayers and voice the responses. Children learn liturgical behaviors by copying you. If you must leave the service with your child, feel free to do so, but please come back. As Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” Remember that the way we welcome children in church directly affects the way they respond to the Church, to God and to one another. Let them know that they are at home in this house of worship.
To Our Parishioners
The presence of children is a gift to the Church, and they are a reminder that our parish is growing. Please welcome our children and give their parents a smile of encouragement.
If food and drinks are served during fellowship, a simple hospitable gesture would be to include child friendly snacks, water and perhaps juice boxes. Welcoming children is much more than just welcoming their parents. It is about attending to them, paying attention to them, to their needs and their lives. Finally, you will need to get to know the children – and more than their names, seek to learn what is on their hearts. Pray for them, follow up and check in when they have been absent.
Paying attention to the needs of children and parents shows that your church is interested in the needs of all its membership – young and old. Welcoming families requires attention to many details, but without young families, parishes won’t remain viable.
Jamie Martin Currie is the Missioner for Christian Formation at the Episcopal Diocese of Texas where she develops new children, youth and family ministers, oversees the diocesan youth ministry and trains consultants to assess ministries in congregations. Before joining the Diocese, Jamie led the children’s ministry at St. Bartholomew’s, New York, and St. Martin’s, Houston. She is the former president of Forma and serves on Forma’s Youth and Children’s Certificate faculty.
- Beloved Children of God by Richelle Thompson, ECF Vital Practices blog, May 10, 2016
- Can Children Understand Worship? by Heidi Clark, ECF Vital Practices blog, February 21, 2014
- The Church that Plays Soccer by Ginny Anton by Ginny Anton, ECF Vital Practices blog, December 28, 2012
- Children ARE Welcome. Really. by Richelle Thompson, ECF Vital Practices blog, August 12, 2013