Building a Bridge to Young Families

Building a Bridge to Young Families

Like many congregations, First Church of Christ in Woodbridge (CT) has very few young children participating in worship.  In a recent conversation, Interim pastor, Rev. Susan Murtha described how this congregation took steps to reach out to families in the area.
  • How did the ideas for these experiments first surface?
We looked at MissionInsite statistics for this area and knew that families are out there. Instead of trying to attract them to a worship experience, we asked, “What do families want and how can we reach them?”   We knew that many parents are feeling stressed and overwhelmed and that some feel reluctant to commit to church membership. An article by Rev. Dr. Anna Hall helped guide our planning. So, Your Church Wants More Young Families?
  • What were your goals or hopes for the events?
First, we wanted to get to know the community and be in relationship with families.  We focused on families with young children since they are in formative stages of creating new connections. We were not trying to attract them to worship but started instead by connecting with activities that focused on kids. Our aim was to provide a family-friendly program/gathering once a month. We offered something that children and parents could do together easily, without pressure or preparation on their part. The overall emphasis was on nurturing young families.
  • What was your process for planning? Who was involved?
The church was really starting from scratch and the first piece was recruitment of some key leaders.  I asked:
Who is connected to families in the community? 
Who loves children and relates well to them?
Who has complementary skills, especially in music and arts & crafts?
We were fortunate to have two gifted people in our own church community.  One is a high school student who loves kids and crafts.  Additionally, the church was already home to a local musician who leads weekly classes for young children and parents.  I gathered an ad hoc team and involved a variety of volunteers from the church.  Another blessing was that we secured a small grant through a local foundation.  This allowed us to compensate new partners in this ministry and cover costs for specials guests and supplies.
  • Can you describe the format for the events?
Events have been offered once per month since October, on Sunday in the early afternoon or on Saturday.  They are theme-based and connect to seasonal holidays. I have two young grandchildren and I have watched what they do and what their parents like for family outings. Face painting is a big draw, so we started with that last October. Others were Sing and Say Thanks in November and a Pop-up Christmas Pageant in December.  The gatherings are 90 minutes and usually have three table crafts for kids to do as people are arriving.  Our musician leads simple songs, many with hand motions. There are some group games and another group craft. 
Our participants are not necessarily churched, or Christian but I have introduced some universal spiritual concepts on several occasions.  In November, I shared a simple homelife practice around expressing gratitude.  We talked about sharing appreciations at dinner time.  This included a few examples and some instruction: “Start with what you do appreciate, not what you don’t.  Always offer an appreciation for the cook!”  Then I asked for a child to volunteer so we could role-play to demonstrate the simple ritual.  It helps to have a few props, so I put out a plate, napkin, and utensils and pretended to have a meal with the child.  We modeled the conversation, and this helped kids and parents to get comfortable expressing their thanks.
  • How did you identify your audience and then reach out to them? 
A key piece was that our music/song leader, who already has a following, was willing to promote our events to her communities.  One volunteer from our church offered to hand out flyers at Stop & Shop.  I noticed that other churches did this to promote events and this volunteer decided to give it a try.  In addition, we used some social media and one parent shared our posts with a local Mom’s group. At each event we invited participants to fill out a simple sign-up form (name and email address only) if they wanted to get an email about future events.   I send out a weekly email on Thursdays and also include information about our Sunday morning Kid’s Church.
  • What have you learned?
  • We make it easy for adults to participate.  They are not required to pay a fee, do any prep work, or complete a registration form.
  • It was important at the start to compensate the key leaders and the grant allowed us to do so.
  • Some congregants have been willing to help with specific tasks and as the events have taken hold, people are beginning to come forward.
  • The format of including parents in our events helps build in supervision and minimizes need for lots of volunteers. 
  • Early on, we had a session when no one came. That was terribly disappointing, but we used the time for our team to brainstorm and strategize together.  This non-event was super helpful going forward!
  • The recent events have been hugely popular with over 75 at the Bunny Bash, and then 250 attending the Farm Animal Petting Zoo on Mother’s Day! 
  • Smaller gatherings allow parents to connect with one another; larger gatherings get the word out that this congregation wants to serve and nurture families.
  • I continue to seek out the unique local resources: For example, the Executive Director of the Eli Whitney Museum in New Haven, who is a friend of our church community, helped us develop a beautiful activity for the “Stick Together” event in April.
  • What are some of your next steps? What has been the impact on your congregation?
We rolled out Kid’s Church five months after the monthly family program was established. Our growing connection with families, as well as our growing email database, gave us a way to create this bridge to our faith community.  Now, three months into Kid’s Church, we have six or seven families participating on Sunday mornings – some every week and some on occasion.  So, a next step is to build some support around that programming.  We call it Kid’s Church by intention, to show that it is not a “school” model. We will take some time this summer to review goals and curriculum materials.    
We recognize that this is a good model (monthly family events and weekly Kid’s Church), but we are working to see how to make it sustainable.  At this point I serve as the creator, manager, implementer, and host and we want to involve others in leadership.  For this congregation – seeing children in the sanctuary, the Parish House, and the church green – has been an enormous blessing, giving them hope that they can be born anew.
Closing Thoughts:  Our churches long to share God’s love with their communities.  My goal is to help them to see that when we shift from the notion of “getting families” to “serving families” our labors become most faithful and abundantly fruitful.  I’m so excited to see all that God’s Holy Spirit will do with our young ministry in Woodbridge!
Rev. Susan Murtha has served as a settled minister, intentional interim minister, and church consultant throughout  Connecticut.  She has special gifts for leading congregations in visioning their future path and implementing organizational adaptation, while spiritually grounding them in their purpose.

Bridge Image by Luc De Cleir on pixabay



debby kirk.jpg
Debby D. Kirk

Debby Kirk serves as leader of the staff team that provides resources for the work of nurturing disciples of all ages in the local church. Her area of focus is youth ministry. Contact her for:  Faith Formation Communities of Practice Confirmation ...

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