10 Ways for Churches to Love City Kids

(Last in a series of 10 posts on reaching out to city kids.)

I think many urban churches need to cross cultures and classes and ages. I’ve visited a lot of mainline churches in urban areas struggling with aging, declining membership. Often they are predominantly white and middle or upper class. Often they are in neighborhoods where many people are not white and may be poor. The challenge to these churches is to become parish churches for the people who live right around them, and it may be as challenging as going with a mission organization to another continent. So be it. God has put us here for such a time as this.

2247327_orig (2)Most people who become Christians do so when they’re children or teenagers. So kid-focused ministry makes sense. It’s a joy to witness the group that shows up for youth group at our church on Sunday nights. This is our first group that has integrated black and white, rich and poor, for a sustained period of time. These kids are playing games, talking and praying together. Those who have committed to following Christ work together as interns in our summer programs. I would not have been able to imagine this even ten years ago.

There is so much transforming power in Christian community. Even a struggling little church full of people over 60 can change the future for the kids in their neighborhood.5794254_orig (2)

Here are ten ways to start, linked to articles that explain more (click on the orange letters to go to the articles):

  1. Go where the need is. In a post Christian culture we can’t just do things inside our church walls and expect people to come. We need to take our ministries out into the schools, libraries, preschools, community centers, day cares and playgrounds.
  2. Don’t be afraid of differences. Connect with minorities. Wade into poverty. Welcome people who dress funny. Do not fear other languages, multiple piercings, bizarre tattoos, kids who come only for the food, or anyone who does not yet believe in Jesus.
  3. Consider tutoring at a struggling school. In after-school programs, it’s legal to use the Bible as a text.
  4. Consider throwing a free party for the neighborhood, outside in the summer time. Include free food and water, and think of ways for people to meet, have fun, get into conversations, and draw closer to God.
  5. Consider becoming a foster parent, or providing help to other foster parents.
  6. Consider helping a single mom in your community to raise her family. One older man in our congregation did this, and his love transformed an extended family.
  7. Consider hosting a preschool or day care at your church.
  8. Find ways for artistic members to pass on their gifts to children, with free or reduced cost lessons, classes, mentoring relationships, or by leading dance teams, drama groups, bands, or teams of visual and production artists.
  9. Find ways for athletic members to pass on their gifts, by starting teams, coaching existing teams, sponsoring teams or passing on skills in free or reduced cost lessons.
  10. Provide church camp for children of the neighborhood as well children within the church, and sponsor the kids who can’t afford it. If you don’t have camp, partner with a camping ministry to send a few kids there.

There is a big harvest of children longing for love and truth, in every city. Sometimes people doubt whether they are qualified, or  ‘fun’ enough to work with kids. I say, if you can pass a criminal background check and you’ve got a pulse, find at least one kid to help.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Church Camp

(Ninth in a series on reaching out to urban kids.)

9902990_orig   For years, summer camp was a reliably idyllic experience for the kids at our church. We always went to some awesome facility where kids could swim, boat, run around, eat s’mores around campfires, have raucous worship and animated teaching, sleep in cabins and practice minimal personal hygiene.

Then we started inviting kids from the local school and surrounding neighborhood, reaching beyond the crowd we’d all raised to share the same values and good behavior.

The first year we did this, it was rough. We took on more needy kids than we could supervise well. We had fights, we had kids refusing to do activities, we had kids from tough home environments acting out like crazy, especially on the last day of camp.

My personal low point came on our last morning, helplessly watching an eight year old leap into one of the camp staff’s golf carts and drive it erratically around the cars of parents who had come to pick up their kids.  It was one of those moments when seconds felt like minutes.

We felt pretty beat up after that camp – physically, emotionally, spiritually. What had always been a high point of the year for adult volunteers became something that some of us needed to recover from.

But Jesus didn’t say, “Go create wonderful experiences for your children in safe and sheltered environments.” He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel,… teaching them to observe everything I’ve commanded you.” Summer camp is a superb opportunity to carry out that commission with children and teenagers. So we didn’t give up. We pulled back and regrouped, but we didn’t give up.

5345345_origHere’s what we do differently to make camp a good experience for children from different backgrounds:

  1. Set up high staff to camper ratios that ensure activities can go on while other leaders are free to trouble shoot rebellious behavior and emotional melt-downs. In the past, we had two teenagers in cabins with eight or ten kids. Now we have an experienced and spiritually mature adult in every cabin too. We also have an extra staff person in any cabin with a kid who has a disability like autism or a history of behavior issues. We have always had a nurse on site, now we have a mental health counselor too. Even if it means turning some kids away, we are committed to keeping enough staff per camper to ensure that all kids are well supervised and cared for.
  2. We offer summer camp as a privilege for those who have behaved well during the school year. and reserve the right to refuse children who have been repeatedly defiant or destructive.
  3. We have few rules, but they are clear and consistently enforced.  We require parents or guardians to come to meetings before camp so they understand the rules too. Even families who get scholarships have to pay at least $10, and if a child has to be driven home early, they lose their money. If the child behaves well enough to stay at camp all week, they get their money back.

Last summer, camp went really well. These changes kept the atmosphere positive most of the time. The healthiest environment is a mix of rich and poor kids of different races with enough loving, mature leaders to set the tone. Put that together with worship, fun things to do and the beauty of nature, and camp is as close to heaven as it gets.

Cooperative Preschools Build Community

(Seventh in a series of articles on reaching out to city kids.)

download (1)I have so many good memories of taking my kids to pre-school. They attended 3Cs Nursery School, a Christian cooperative at College Hill Presbyterian Church that focuses on building a supportive environment for families.

I was often scheduled to work at the same time as a young dad, a big, muscled African American guy who looked terribly uncomfortable on the tiny classroom chairs, his knees up to his ears. My son loved him.

He was a kid who hated crafts and wanted to play with blocks. The kids were supposed to finish their ‘small motor activity’ before they were allowed free play. This dad would  only require the bare minimum before he cut him loose. “Me and Daniel, we got an understanding,” he said, winking at Daniel as he hastily scribbled a picture and took off.

Several good things are happening at once at a cooperative pre-school. Children are learning from the teacher and from socializing with others. The parents are helping the teachers so kids get more attention.  The parents are probably learning most of all – both from the gentle, patient teachers, and from watching how their kids interact with others. They’re also saving money because cooperatives require less paid staff. In addition, they are forming relationships with other parents and grandparents who have kids the same age.

Even though I didn’t always feel like dealing with a bunch of three or four year olds, it was very good for me to do so. I learned what was developmentally appropriate for my kids at that age – especially helpful with my first child. I observed that he was way ahead of kids in some areas, lagging in others, and I adjusted how I worked with him accordingly.

I also saw how he related with other kids. At one point he was under the influence of a child with a strong personality, and was getting into trouble under that kid’s direction. I may not have picked up on what was going on if I were not there. Because I was there, I could coach him on how to say no or switch activities to break the pattern.

Not everyone in our neighborhood can afford to pay for pre-school, so 3Cs  has several fundraisers to raise scholarship money. Staff and volunteers run a resale store for children’s clothing and toys, Sonshine House.  They also host Gingerbread Shoppe, an enormous craft show that fills every corner of the church and raises around $8,000.

3C’s current director, Shannon Caton, has worked hard to make the preschool accessible to everyone.  The seventy children now attending are racially and economically diverse.

“It’s been challenging to reach beyond the middle and upper classes to make it a place where everyone can benefit, but that’s what we need to be doing.

She said about half the families are receiving some amount of scholarship money, or working extra time beyond their coop commitment. Some families may only be paying $5 a month, but she has found that it is important to require people to contribute something.

Another way the program has changed to accommodate families with single parents or two working parents is to reduce the coop commitment to once a month, and offer a four-hour preschool as well as the former two and a half hours.

“That gives part time workers time to work a whole morning, and gives grandparents who are taking care of grandchildren more time to rest,” Shannon said.

3Cs has been part of our community since 1968, and because it has adapted to meet the needs of our neighborhood, it will probably remain for years to come.

Give a Home to a Child

(Sixth in a series of posts about reaching out to city kids.)

I am challenging myself as I write this post because the most time I’ve had a child in our home, who is not part of my family, is six weeks. But I still have to mention it as a key way to reach out to city kids, because the number of children needing foster care and adoption is epidemic.

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Cincinnati’s county alone, Hamilton County, has over 2,100 children in custody, the most in at least the last 20 years, maybe ever. More than 40 per cent of those kids must be moved out of our area to find a home. The heroin epidemic as well as many other stressors have pushed the number of displaced kids to all-time highs.

I think giving a child a home is one of the most generous and loving things people can do. I’m struck by how many families in our church have reached out in this way.

There’s the couple with two boys who took in a baby girl with a severe disability. There are two couples who took in five kids between them, a family from Columbia. The father of one family and mother of the other are brothers and sisters. These two families live on the same street, and so do two sets of grandparents. One of these older couples also has foster children. They form this marvelous community of caring adults, with a dozen or more children between them.

One single lady, after raising her own family, took on a second family by adopting three siblings. Another couple with their own three boys are carrying for two more little boys.

And there are more. I’m so proud of these families, who are living out their faith in Jesus in sacrificial ways. I’m also continually delighted by all these diverse kids, with the joy and energy they bring to our church. If I try to imagine Sunday mornings without all these children, I realize how much quieter, more somber, less fun – our church would be!

Throw a Block Party

(This is the fourth article in a series on reaching city kids)

In early August our church throws a big party in its parking lot. There’s a stage with a good sound system, music, speakers, dancing. There’s free food and water. Civic organizations set up tables. There’s a bouncy house for kids, and a tent with a sign that says, “Free Pop if you Talk with us about Jesus for Three Minutes.”Image may contain: 6 people, child, shoes and outdoor

I think the block party has done a lot to connect our church to people in the neighborhood who may not otherwise have come into the formidable stone edifice. We needed to get outside the building to show people that we cared about them.

Traditional church festivals are fund raisers, selling food and games to raise money for the church. But we wanted this party to exclude no one, including the 21 percent of our residents who live below the poverty level, so everything is free.

We also decided that we didn’t want it to be only about having fun; we wanted people to experience God’s love. Hence the “Jesus Tent,” with its offer of free pop for a brief conversation. We wanted to create a space where people would feel free to have conversations about faith.  So we made our signs, filled coolers with drinkimg_20160802_190850450s, set up chairs, prayed, and waited to see what would happen.

The results were delightful.  People of all ages came and eagerly talked of their faith, their doubts, their grievances with the church, their needs for prayer, their testimonies of the goodness of God.  Intense, personal  conversations about spiritual things, which so rarely flow for most of us in the routine of our  lives, flourished in a setting that simply gave permission. Sometimes, when people were willing, the conversations ended in prayer.

Lots of children came, so we have expanded our conversations to include activities such as reading a Bible story, or making a bracelet with beads that represent key truths of the gospel.

I recall meeting Shauna, and her son Shallum, new in town, the first year we put our signs out (We didn’t have a tent then, just a table.) They have been coming to church ever since. Shauna often helps out at our front desk, and Shallum brings more friends to youth group than any other kid. I can’t imagine our church without them.img_20160802_190909758_hdr

Other encounters I will never forget:

The skeptical girl in her young teens who wanted to know how she could know that God is really there.

The boy, around 10, who told one of our high school volunteers that his mother had just died the week before.  It was precious to see the older boy praying for strength and comfort for the younger boy.

The young woman in her 20s who wanted to stand strong in her faith and realized that this meant she was going to have to distance from some destructive friends.  She accepted our prayers with hugs of gratitude.

The four siblings who responded to our invitation to come to church and have been showing up ever since, even though their parents don’t come.

I’m so glad we started the block party, to show our neighborhood that God’s people care about them whether they come to church or not. And I’m glad we have the ‘Jesus Tent’, unsophisticated though it may be, because it gives an open invitation for people to draw closer to God.IMG_20160803_185747311.jpg

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.