Everywhere I have lived, I’ve heard similar sentiments about where people want to bring their kids to church. Nearly every parent I talk to says it’s all about the programing. Is there Sunday school? Youth group? Will someone take my kid on a mission trip?
These are valid questions about some good options. In each town where I’ve served, the churches who offer these options tend to be the places where all the kids and families go. I can’t say I blame parents – it makes sense to go where friends are – but church and faith formation are about so much more than programs and events.
I don’t want to fault churches with large, well-run programs who are doing the work of God in the world, (I am grateful for the ways they are using their gifts)! I am so glad parents are making the effort to get their kids there. I am impressed with the dedication of the volunteers it takes to execute excellent programing.
However, there is a part of me that wants to scream, “Hey, give us a chance!”
As a seminary intern and pastor, I have only served churches with mixed-age Sunday school classes. It is a challenge to teach everyone from 2-12 in the same room. I have done it, and it gets chaotic! I watch a small but dedicated group of volunteers tackle this task every week because they believe firmly in teaching our children about a life of faith. So when you ask if we have Sunday school, the answer is, YES! Do we have a huge education wing and flashy programs? No. Yet, we do have folks who will know your child and love him. This week my daughter celebrated a birthday and, in the mail, came a card signed by that blessed team of volunteers. They know her name and birthday and that she has an undying love for animals. They lovingly sit with her when she ends up on her own in a pew because Mom is preaching, and Dad is doing tech. None of this is because she is the pastor’s kid; this is how each of the children are loved.
When I was a seminary intern and my then preschooler had an accident that left her with a broken arm repaired with surgery, that congregation surrounded her with love and care (and her parents too). A fellow parent had a friend who made her a cape and a one-armed sweater to keep warm in her winter of the cast. One of her young friends even sent a flower home to help her feel better. A few years later when I was in a car accident as a new pastor, it was folks from my smallish congregation who stepped up to pick her up from school when I couldn’t drive. They brought meals that catered to her 6-year-old sensibilities. When she hadn’t been there long enough to make friends and her birthday rolled around, it was church ladies who showed up and played My Little Pony photo booth with her. She insisted on inviting them every year after that and a lifelong relationship bloomed!
If you ask if we have an active youth group that your kids can join, I have to answer “no.” I do however have a couple of teenagers I get the joy of working with. Even as a solo pastor, I can show up at sporting events, plays, etc. and cheer them on. I’m proud to tell you that recently I ran into a bunch of my church folks who were also there to cheer them on!
If you ask if we can take your kiddos on a mission trip, the answer is “not right now — we do not have the means for such a large undertaking.” (If I am honest, I have some theological and ethical concerns about short-term mission trips.) I can, however, take you out across our parking lot to meet the volunteers in our community garden who have turned a narrow piece of land into fresh produce for those in need in our community. I could arrange for you and your family to help in the garden and then take the produce over to a local food pantry. You could see the amazing local impact you have! There is something that forever changes in you when you watch a person weep over access to fresh cucumbers.
If you are under 50, you might not see a whole lot of people in your age bracket or place in life on Sunday morning. We are mostly made up of retired folks, with a few families with younger children peppered in. They genuinely want you there and I know they long to hear the sounds children bring to worship again. Sometimes, at fellowship, when the younger parents leave, I hear my people celebrating how great it was to hear a baby in worship that day.
I may be partial because I am raising my own child in smaller congregations and I feel very much called to smaller church ministry, but I think small churches are pretty amazing at loving the children they worship with.
Small church life is not with out its challenges. Having a mostly retired congregation means many folks’ physical abilities are changing — they can no longer volunteer for VBS or to clean the gutters. Aging buildings are expensive, and finances are tight. The church is made up people and people are messy creatures to work with. We are never perfect, yet we are committed to love one another. Parents, I know you are busy and exhausted, but we need you too! You have ideas and energy to share! We are ready to provide you with a place to recharge and I promise you will find support when you need it, even when little Marcus has a full-on meltdown mid-sermon. Most of faith formation happens at home and that is a daunting task even with a seminary education. We are ready to support you with resources and listening ears.
All of these amazing things are examples of how the church is a community. The kind of community Jesus calls us into to love and care for one another. It is a community that encourages learning and exploring faith. It is also a community that is taking very seriously the vows they make every time a person is baptized in our midst. We promise to guide and nurture, in word and deed, with love and prayer. We promise to encourage the newly baptized to know and follow Christ and be a faithful member of his church. I get to see this lived out on the sidelines at soccer, in the pews, the classrooms and at birthday parties for 6-year-olds. I see that beautiful and beloved community growing one relationship at a time. Community, after all, is all about being in relationship together.
So, my fellow parents, if you find yourself looking for a church, please don’t overlook the smaller congregations full of retired folks. They are so ready to love your family with the love Christ. Bring your energy, your ideas and your babies that haven’t slept all night. The best part about programs that haven’t been created yet is that you can help shape how they grow. I’m itching to do some hands-on church one evening a month, which could eventually grow into a youth group. I would love to welcome you alongside me to help shape and build a community that gets messy in worship.
Can I tell you something I love about being a small church pastor? I know the names of people in the pews on Sunday morning, including our youngest disciples. There isn’t much that warms this pastor’s heart more than hearing, “HI PASTOR BECCA!” when I am out an about, and getting to respond with “FRANCINE! How wonderful to see you!”
REBECCA GRESHAM-KESNER is pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Medford, New Jersey. Outside of church and family life, you can find her in nature, finding fun ways to be creative or asking awkwardly deep questions of people she just met.