As workers in Children’s Ministry, the time we get with the kids in our program each week is very limited. It is critical that we make the most of that time to build concrete and lasting relationships with the kids.
I am currently blessed to be able to volunteer in the Children’s Ministry at my local church. On the weekends, I work with kindergarten and first graders. During the Wednesday night Awana program, I work with three and four year olds. Each of these opportunities gives me the chance to spend some small group time with a select group of kids as well as large group time with the entire class.
At our church, we are fast approaching the weekend when kids graduate to their new classrooms. I will lose some of my “favorite” kids, and I will be faced with a sea of new faces intermixed with the ones I already know. Given that change, it seems like an appropriate time to sit back and collect my thoughts on how to get connected with the kids in our classroom. My experience has generally been with elementary age kids, and you will no doubt see the bent of that experience in the following list (for example, being goofy works well with younger kids, teenagers will think you’re just plain strange if you go too far over the top). So, with that said, here is a list of 30 things I have found that are useful in getting connected with kids:
- Pray about connecting – Anything successful in Children’s ministry generally begins with prayer. Ask God to give you deep and lasting connections with the kids in your group. Ask him to give you opportunities to invest in your kids. Ask him to remind you frequently that you are there to invest in the lives of these kids and not just to herd them from one activity to the next. Ask him to give you the wisdom to disciple your kids, and thank him for giving you the privilege of working with his children.
- Prepare to connect – Connection is not something that just happens! You must be very intentional about it. You’re doing that right now by reading this article. Think about, and meditate on, ways to build connections. Be creative! Have fun! Figure out what is going to work best with your personality.
- Greet each child when he walks in to the room – Don’t let them feel like they are just one kid in a crowd. Greet them heartily when they walk into the classroom. Give them a hug or a high-five. If they “sneak” in, seek them out just to say hello.
- Learn the kids’ names – This should go without saying, but if you have to look at their name tags every time they’re in your classroom, you will never really connect with them. They may not remember your name, but you have got to remember theirs. In my groups, we often play games to learn names. The kids go around the circle and try to name everyone sitting at the table in order. If they get really good at it, we try to do it with our eyes closed. Make sure you take a turn too. It helps you to remember their names, and it also builds camaraderie and community amongst the kids. If you are bad with names, like me, and forget the name of a child you are talking to, there is only one solution – ‘fess up. Apologize for forgetting their name and promise that you’ll remember it next time. If you promise though, you better follow through and do it. If you need to, make a list of the kids’ names and some notes to remember them by. This will help when it comes to praying for them as well.
- Talk to the kids – Spend some time just talking to them each week – no script – no goals – just talk! Ask about their week. Tell them what you did. Ask about their parents or their siblings. Ask them what’s on their mind. Spend some time in conversation with them catching up like you would with any friend.
- Learn all you can about them – Ask about what they do when they’re not at church. What sports do they play? What positions do they like? Do they have brothers and sisters? How many? Are they younger or older? Who brings them to church? Do they have pets? This chit chat goes a long way towards connecting. And, the conversation can go far beyond just chit-chat too. Find out what scares them. Ask if there is anything going on in their lives that they are struggling with. I write it all down as much as I can utilizing the list of students’ names that I prepared earlier. If you go that route, it is important to study your list as well. It doesn’t do much good to write it all down and never take the time to learn it. Kids appreciate it when you can remember the little things that they tell you. I can’t tell you the number of times a child has really warmed up to me because I remembered that they played soccer and asked how their game went this week, or because I remembered that their grandmother had been sick and asked if she was all better now.
- Pray for your kids – Use what you’ve learned from talking to the kids to pray for them. Pray for specific things in their lives. Pray for their families. Pray for wisdom for them to discern the truth of God. Pray for their protection. Thank God if they are already part of his family. If they are not, pray that God would draw them near to him. Tell the kids that you are praying for them in your daily prayer time. Ask them if there is anything specific that they would like you to pray for.
- Sing and dance with them – If I’m confessing, I have to admit that I struggle with this one. It took me a long time in my Christian walk to get over my apprehension about singing with other people around. It only happened once God opened my eyes to the reality that I was singing for and to him and not for the other people in the room. I still find myself a bit apprehensive and tentative about dancing and doing the hand motions inherent in most Children’s Ministry songs. Two things really help me when I struggle with this. First, I remind myself that I have no problem doing these things with my own children. We are forever singing, dancing and worshipping God through music at home at church, and in the car. There is no reason for me not to do that same thing at church with the kids there. Secondly, I remind myself that the kids in my class (especially the boys who tend to be more apprehensive in this area) are looking to me and how I model my faith as an example. I have to constantly resolve, with God’s grace, to never let my inhibitions stand in the way of those kids worshipping God to the fullest.
- Be energetic – Kids can sense when you’re faking it. Children’s Ministry can tax your energy. As much as you enjoy it, it will really sap you as well. If you are “down” going into it, things will only get worse. You have to find a way to get up mentally for your time each week with the kids. Ask God to help you with this. Get a good night’s sleep the night before, and try to put aside any negativity before you go into the classroom.
- Involve the kids –Ask them to help you set up before class or clean up afterwards. Ask them what they think of how the class is going. Get them to answer questions. Anything you can do to get the kids involved will help them to feel more like part of the group and assist you in making that lasting connection.
- Ask them what they think – Find out what they like and what they don’t like. Do they like your small group time? How do they feel about the games? What did they think of the teaching or the music this week? What do they think you could do better (I will warn you that this is a scary question to ask a bunch of 5 and 6 year olds). Obviously you can’t cater to their every desire, but just feeling like you care about their opinion makes them feel needed and included.
- Don’t be afraid to be goofy – This one is huge! Kids, especially elementary age kids, seem to react really well to goofy. There is certainly a time for seriousness, but there is also a time just to have fun. Make the silly faces. Wear the silly hats. Let the kids decorate you. Tell them your embarrassing moments. Just let your guard down and be goofy. One of the highest compliments I have ever received in Children’s Ministry was from a five year old girl who, through the biggest and cutest grin and giggles, said “Mr. Wayne you’re the silliest person ever!”
- Play with them – Many times we view game time as a chance to relax or get ready for the next item on our list. To the contrary, game time is a great time to connect with the kids. If you’re not leading the game, jump right in there and play with them. When was the last time you played “Red Light, Green Light” or “Duck. Duck, Goose?” Let go, and have fun!
- Laugh with them – This one goes right along with playing with them. Laughter really opens the kids up for connection. Make them laugh (see “Don’t be afraid to be goofy”) and laugh at what they find funny. I think kids tend to think of the authority figures in their lives (like teachers) as very stoic. When you laugh with them, you show them that you are human after all and not all that different from them.
- Know how the kids interact – All kids are different. Some like to hug, and some absolutely hate it. Some are shy, and some will never stop talking. Some will open up with a little prompting, and some will never say anything unless forced to. Some will never raise their hand, and others will shoot their hand up before the question is ever even asked. Some get embarrassed easily, and others could care less. Learn how your kids interact with others so that you can make the best use of your time.
- Pray with the kids – So, if you’ve been through this whole list, you’ve already prayed about connecting and prayed for your kids. It is also important to pray with them. Sometimes kids take a while to “warm up” to praying – especially out loud. But, if you model it for them consistently week after week they will likely get on board and learn the joy of praying from you eventually. I do think that your prayer should be genuine and not simply recited from some prewritten curriculum script. While there is certainly room in your prayer time for words relevant to the lesson you’ve learned that day, I think you should also use your prayer time for the broader purpose of allowing kids to talk to God openly and learn from you modeling prayer for them.
- Be an authority but not a dictator – It is, of course, important to maintain control of the classroom. This can be a chore in and of itself with that many kids in one room. It must be clear that, for their time in your classroom, you are the authority. Blatant disobedience and disruption must be dealt with in an appropriate manner. That said, it is also important that the kids understand that any consequences you dish out are not the result of you being annoyed, mad or inconvenienced. Rather, the consequences are necessary because they are there to learn about the glory of God. There is a fine line when it comes to consequences in a church setting, and everyone seems to have their own ideas. A full discussion of that issue is far beyond the scope of this post. The one thing I will say is that most kids desire an authority figure. It gives them a sense of comfort that someone is in control. They may rebel against it from time to time, but I think you will find that you have fewer and fewer problems once you establish that you are the authority. Likewise, problems will decrease once you have developed relationships with the kids because they will be compelled to behave not only by your authority but by your relationship.
- Interact outside the classroom – Your ability to interact with the kids outside of the classroom may be limited, but you have to take full advantage of every opportunity you are given. For example, we do not live in close vicinity to our church (we’re about 40 minutes away). So, I have never seen one of the kids from church riding his bike down my street. What I am able to do is interact with them when do I see them in the hallways or at other church events. The other night, my daughter had a dance recital at the church. I saw a handful of the kids from my classroom either in the recital or there supporting their siblings. I tried to go say hello to every one of them. If I see a kid on Sunday who is from our Wednesday night class, I try to go out of my way to say hello. If they weren’t there the previous week, I try to tell them how much we missed them and find out if they will be there the coming week. This summer I am volunteering for Vacation Bible School to spend even more time with the kids. There are multitudes of ways to interact with the kids outside the normal classroom setting.
- Let them know you’re human – Your kids will tend to put you up on a pedestal in their minds. It is important for connecting with them that you let them know you’re human. Tell them age appropriate stories about your failures and struggles. Not only does this help them to connect with you, it also models a more genuine Christian walk than they may otherwise see.
- Connect with them by having them connect with one another – I find that most kids are more comfortable with kids they don’t know than with adults they don’t know. One way to help them get connected to you is to join them in getting connected to one another. Play games that help them learn one another’s names. Have them talk to each other rather than just you. Pair them up or put them in groups for certain activities. By helping them to get to know one another, you build a sense of community and perhaps lasting friendships.
- Bring them something special – Never underestimate the power of a bribe. In all seriousness though, kids like to get stuff. It doesn’t have to be anything big, but for many kids just bringing them something small may be the way to start a fruitful relationship.
- Don’t underestimate them – You would probably be surprised by what kids (even young kids) really know. Some of the deepest spiritual truths I ever heard came from very little mouths. Likewise, what they can do will amaze you. Challenge them with difficult question. Encourage them to memorize scripture. Charles Spurgeon once wrote “If there be any doctrine too difficult for a child, it is rather the fault of the teacher’s conception of it than the child’s power to receive it.”
- Talk to them not at them – Relationships are based on communication and that must be a two way street. Your goal should be to have a conversation with the kids in your class or small group not just to give them a lecture.
- Don’t talk down to them – This goes for all people but especially for kids. My experience is that kids will tune you out when they sense that you are talking down to them. As we said earlier, they are capable of a lot more than we imagine. Our goal as teachers is to take difficult concepts and reduce them to a level they can understand. However, in doing this, we should never take license to talk down to them.
- Time, time, time – I used to work in the Children’s Ministry every other week. It wasn’t until I started volunteering every week that I really started to bond with the kids. Bonding and building relationships takes time. It takes time to prepare and it takes effort to get to know the kids. To be successful at it, you must be passionate about it. What we are passionate about we will fill our time with. It is important to remember that we are not only giving our time to these kids, we are giving it to God!
- Don’t be too rigid with your schedule – Schedules are important for keeping things on track – especially with kids. However, our schedules should never become so sacrosanct that we cannot adjust it on the fly to allow time for bonding with the kids or those special “God moments” that come up in Children’s Ministry.
- Tell them “goodbye” when it’s time to go – Like greeting them at the beginning of class, it is equally important to tell them goodbye when they’re leaving. Thank them for coming. Thank them for their contributions. Tell them to have a great week, and you can’t wait to see them next week. Make their last impression of their time with you as positive as their initial impression.
- Don’t spend all your time with the small number of kids who require the most attention – I almost didn’t include this one, but I think it is important. It is easy to find yourself preoccupied with the relatively small number of kids in your group causing the problems and disruptions. While it is necessary to address these issues, try your hardest not to let this consume all of your time to the detriment of building relationships with the other kids.
- Give it time – All of these techniques will help you in connecting with your kids. However, despite your best efforts, some kids will take longer to warm up to you than others. Give it time. Keep loving on them and it will happen eventually.
- Love them like Jesus – This one is a lot more than just the last item in a list of 30 techniques. This one really is the culmination of the first twenty-nine points. If you’re working in Children’s Ministry, you are an ambassador of God to the kids you are working with. Scripture tells us that Jesus had a clear affinity for children. As his agents in teaching children about him, it is critical that we exhibit that same love to them. Their eternity may depend on it!
Great list of ideas! I think building relationships is one of the most important things we do when we spend time with kids at church. We communicate more about God’s love by the way we interact with them than we could ever communicate through words.
I really appreciate your point to talk to the children and not at them. Often we say lots to kids but don’t really listen to what they say to us. Have a true conversation (and remember what they tell you) and relationships will truly grow.
Thanks again for the great ideas.