The Power of an Hour – Tutoring

This is the third in a series of ten posts on reaching city kids.

Once a week I coordinate a tutoring program at the grade school closest to our church. The first year I did it was the hardest – adjusting to the noise, the rowdiness, the need. When I pulled my van up to the school, bracing myself to haul tutoring supplies into a cafeteria full of clamoring kids, Andre would always be running towards me, beaming. He would give me a hug and help me carry the stuff in, then ply me with questions, “What game are we gonna play today? What did you bring for the snack? Do we still get candy if we remember the verse?”

As the weeks of patient tutoring went by, I saw changes in him. His reading was more fluent. His failure to memorize gave way to an ability to study and proudly recite two or three sentences. He began to disclose his fears and anxieties when his tutor prayed with him. We got him enrolled in our church’s summer camp. “That was probably the most fun I will ever have in my whole life,” he announced on the ride home.

Then he was gone. Medical bills competed with rent, his family was evicted and they moved to some other neighborhood. When I pull my van into the school parking lot, I can still see his eager, beautiful face, and I remember what he said when I asked him why he liked Treehouse Tutoring so much.  He said, “Because we get to have fun and everyone be nice to us and we learn about God.”

298ebf903bd410f962d80cd90d821cefThe magic of this program is in the one to one ratio; in a caring adult listening, reading, helping, praying. Many of these children have no one else with time or energy or know-how to help them read and do their work, so even an hour a week of focused attention is precious to them.

Treehouse Tutoring, much like the city-wide program, Whiz Kids, aims to improve literacy. In Treehouse we want kids to understand the love of God, so we use the Bible as our text. But even more important than the content is the relationship.

The after-school coordinator once said to me, “As soon as I get one of our at-risk kids into a program where they are getting some attention, their attitudes change. I can just see it.”

“Even just once a week?” I asked.


To pull off a weekly tutoring experience, you need:

  • A school willing to welcome volunteers. Our faith-based program can only operate after school hours, of course, but the school is the host and you need to work with administrators to get space, referrals of children and parent contact information.
  • Tutors who can love and discipline kids, and model fluent, thoughtful reading. They also need to be willing to get a background check, which all schools will require.
  • One or more coordinators with around ten hours per week to prepare or find curriculum, plan activities and gather material and snacks (Don’t skip the snacks; kids are hungry after school, especially if they’re living in poverty.) Coordinators also keep records and stay in communication with administrators, parents and tutors.

It’s a lot of work, just for an hour a week with a dozen kids. But I always remember Andre, telling me that Treehouse was his favorite thing all week.

If you have questions about Treehouse, email me at

To learn more about City Gospel Mission’s Whiz Kids, go to

Here’s a sample of a Treehouse lesson.

Connecting No Matter the Differences

(Second in a series of ten posts on reaching city kids)

You can’t generalize about city kids. Cities are usually diverse, with people of different races and income levels living close. So a church within city limits is ideally a diverse congregation.

The children and teenagers in our church are Americans and immigrants, black and white, some with their natural parents and some adopted. We have kids with parents who own companies and kids whose single moms are on public assistance. We have children with autism and other disabilities.

11143420_1040266829337559_8766542514211627706_nIt can be harder to meet the needs of diverse groups than homogenous ones, but there is no more visible witness to the love and power of God than a bunch of really different people getting along together.

I’ve found that it helps me to keep three things in mind when working with diverse groups of kids in church:

   1. Focus on Jesus: Any church should be doing that by definition, but with a diverse group of kids, God may be the only thing they have in common so you might as well get right to the point. Don’t gather to have fun or give people a chance for ‘fellowship’ or provide ‘a safe environment’. Gather to worship, pray and learn the Scriptures. Gather to draw near to God together.

Many of our high school kids, at an age when kids often drop out of church, have been sticking around since they started meeting in ‘huddles’ – discipleship groups where there is a teaching about one aspect of the Christian life followed by a check-in time where people disclose what’s going on in their lives and pray. In this structured setting of confidential honesty, cultural differences no longer separate people. A kid from the foster care system and a kid from a privileged family are on equal footing when it comes to following Christ.

     2.  Have a lot of adult leaders: It is crucial that kids are safe and feel understood, so we need enough adults to monitor behavior, with zero tolerance for put-downs,  disobedience or exclusivity. We state up front that this is a safe zone, a place where      everyone gets respect. Have clear, simple rules enforced consistently. The worse kids’ behavior is, the higher the ratio of adults needed.

There should always be adults available to help kids one on one if they struggle with reading or communicating, or to remove kids who are disruptive. I have four adults when I work with a dozen fourth through sixth graders. At our summer camp this year, we added older adults to assist the high school and college interns we hired. We need as many  spiritually mature adults as it takes to establish a culture of love and respect.

        3.  Be brave: I used to worry about mixing rough, unchurched kids with sheltered      Christian kids. I was afraid they would misunderstand each other, avoid each other, hurt each other. But I wasn’t thinking about how they could bless each other. One day a guy called me on it. He said, “You’re overthinking this. Just throw them together and they’ll have a good time.” He should know. He has a household full of his natural kids, adopted kids and foster kids. Of course he is vigilant about supervision, but he’s brave too.

Every week, our pastor leads us in a prayer that includes, “Connect us in Jesus, no matter our differences.” To see a roomful of people – adults and kids, black and white, rich and poor, – all laughing and talking and playing together – that is a great joy and an answer to our prayers.

A Church Without Walls

                                                                                                                                                          (This is first in a series of 10 posts on reaching city kids.)Jesus University Dancers

Lots of city churches are dying. I know, I travel with a Christian theater company, and over the years I’ve seen many mainline churches in city neighborhoods getting smaller and smaller, older and older. These churches are full of loving, devout Christians, who puzzle over how to welcome young people.

I’m no expert on church growth or evangelism or youth ministry, but there are some things we’re doing at our church that have given children and adolescents some wonderful experiences of God’s love and power. So, in the next ten posts I’ll share some things we’re doing at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati.

Go Where the Need Is

At the risk of stating the obvious, going to church is no longer mainstream. “Beyond our Walls” is a phrase that’s worked itself into many of our church’s documents, and into many of our hearts. We know that most people are only going to come to our church, after they have gotten to know us and trust us in some other place. So we go to the local school and tutor kids, we have a big party for the neighborhood in our parking lot with free music and food, we get into partnerships with food banks and homeless shelters and global missions. Several families have taken in foster kids.

Welcome People in Different Ways

Then we make sure there are different events at the church that make us a welcoming community. Not everyone feels safe or interested in a worship service, so we have meals together, we have game nights, we have youth groups and kids groups that do Bible study in fun and challenging ways, we provide homeless people with temporary shelter. We have a writer’s group, as well as a dance group and choir for children in a school district that struggles to fund the arts. We have a cooperative pre-school in our building. Our pastor, Drew Smith, runs a discussion group where people talk about race problems in a safe, respectful setting. We try to be accessible and very welcoming to the people who do walk through our doors.

During every worship service, we welcome visitors and invite them to a welcome table to talk after the service. After every service we offer to pray with people who need it. We have a good digital check-in system so people know their kids are safe, and greeters at each of our doors. We provide free snacks and drinks on Sunday morning, which draws people from group homes near the church, and some neignborhood kids who come without their parents. We’ve had to set some rules for the kids, (requiring them to attend Sunday School or services rather than just rattling around the building,) but always with love.

At one of our prayer meetings, we often pray that people will feel the love, peace and power of God as soon as they walk in. But we know that a lot of people are not going to walk in, until we go where they are, demonstrating God’s love, peace and power in how we relate to them.