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.

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.