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Something happened a little over four years ago that changed how I visited a church: I had a kid. Before that moment going to a new church involved looking up times on the website, hopping in the car, grabbing a coffee on the way in, and then discussing the sermon or music with my wife on the drive home. Those were simpler times when things like “a conversation” just - you know - happened. With no interruption.

Now when we visit a new church we worry about a million details, from getting everyone packed up, to getting there on time, to not forgetting something either our 2- or 4-year-old need. We recently visited the church of a pastor/friend of mine, and midway through the music, I realized we’d left my oldest kid’s dairy-free snack substitute in the car. I had to run back out to parking lot, get the snack, go to the children’s area, realize my wife had the drop-off ticket, go back into the service, get it from her, leave again, drop off the snack, and then re-enter the service for the third time. So yeah, just like in every area of my life, church is not about me anymore.

This is why when I visit a new church the first thing I notice is the children’s ministry. Before I ever attend worship service I’ve already learned quite a bit about a church’s culture. Here are three primary characteristics I’m looking for from a church’s children’s ministry.

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Competency

The biggest, number one, nothing-else-comes-close-to-rivaling-it concern I have when visiting a new church is “do they know how to take care of my kid.” Before anything else, I want to know that all the volunteers have background checks, that there are two adults in every room at all times, that the check out system verifies who the parent is, etc. Fortunately, there are plenty of systems out there, like, for instance, what Church Community Builder offers. These systems automate most of these processes in a way that ensures a child’s safety without placing a crushing logistical burden on the church.

I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. If a church can’t answer some basic questions about my kids’ safety, I’m not dropping them off, and I’m never coming back. This might seem like helicopter parenting to some, but as a journalist who has written extensively about sexual abuse in the church, I am painfully aware that churches without protective systems around their children are flashing neon signs that attract predators. Churches who don’t realize that might be well-intentioned, but they are not a place I’m willing to leave my child.

Convenience

This runs a distant second to competency, but it is nice when a church makes its children’s ministry as accessible as possible. If you’ve ever had young kids you know that getting them anywhere is a hassle. Just the process of getting our 2-year old in his car seat involves asking, pleading, cajoling, screaming, threatening, and a level of nuanced diplomacy that could have solved the Cold War in a day. My point is that anything a church does to make this process easier is an answer to an extremely felt need.

The church we recently visited provided an online pre-check option that let us fill out our first time drop off info online the night before. This 1) meant we didn’t have to show up super early to navigate that process and 2) meant we didn’t have to wrangle two extremely active and curious children while filling it out the morning of. Hours before we attended this church, my wife and I felt cared for and understood. What an amazing first impression!

Creativity

I have consistently noticed that the churches most committed to teaching my kids about Jesus, are also the ones who make their children’s area look fun, vibrant, interesting, and warm.

Not all churches have access to the same resources: some operate on a shoestring budget, some have to set up and tear down every week, some have an understaffed children’s ministry team doing the best they can on limited pay. I’m not saying every church needs to spend thousands of dollars on design, but that churches invest creativity and energy into making a space that communicates to my children “we’re glad you’re here.”

It’s easy for us to ignore the personhood of a child in conversations about children’s ministry, but it’s worth considering what a fun children’s ministry intuitively feels like to our kids. I have noticed 4 year old responds to the creative look and feel of the children’s ministry area well before we get him to his classroom. He is sizing up his environment and determining whether he feels safe. Creating a welcoming and interesting children’s area isn’t about good branding, it’s about contextualizing the Gospel to kids, letting them know “you’re welcome here.”

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