Building Community in Children's Ministry

Small groups are an essential part of children's ministry.

During a recent toy repair project at home, I shared the recipe of two-part epoxy glue with my eight-year-old son. "When both clear gels are mixed together, they become super strong." At the time, though, I didn't realize that I had accidentally glued a screwdriver to the table.

Children's ministry also has two key ingredients that, when mixed together, make it "super strong": 1) creative, relevant Bible teaching and 2) community. Teaching tools, techniques, and creative curriculum seem to receive more than their measure of attention. So for now, let's stick with the other key ingredient—community.

Community for kids

"Miss Jamie lets me say stuff without interrupting me. I wish my brother was like that," is why 4-year-old Erin loves the Yellow Team, her Sunday morning small group.

What is community for kids? The simplest formula is to divide your children by age into groups of six or eight, assign a leader, and call it a small group. That's a starting point. But the recipe for real community involves much more.

The world today is a tough place to grow up. The obvious emotional pain of divorce or parental absence, the quiet dilemma of watching hurricanes destroy lives and livelihoods, and persistent peer pressures all mix and stick to kids more than ever. For many kids, safety in life seems non-existent. That is our opportunity.

On Sunday morning, it is possible to offer a place to know and be known, love and be loved, serve and be served. It is possible to be a place where every child is individually treasured and valued—an emotionally safe place. A place where, every week, kids can build healthy bonds and trust with the same kids and same leader. This place is rarely found in other parts of a kid's life.

"I know we have real community when no one is seen as fat or thin, rich or poor, cool or outcast; everyone is accepted the way they are," describes Joy, a fifth-grade small-group leader. "They don't get that level of full acceptance in school or their neighborhood."

Girls in Joy's group enjoy relationships with each other, as well as the benefit of seeing an adult Christ-follower up close. To that end, kids in small slices of community can see that Christianity does work in real people. And in this safe setting, they have the freedom to figure out how to really apply Bible truth to their lives, ask questions, and process life's ragged edges.

Without being interrupted.

Building community for kids

Regardless of size, any children's ministry that strives to build thriving community should begin with four essentials. First, your ministry must be completely clear on the importance of kids to God. That must serve as the primary motivation to building community. The disciples received extreme clarity on this in Matthew 19. God loves people and knows they should not face life alone. This includes little people.

Next, elevate community as a high value in your ministry and state it boldly. Adopt a strong statement such as, "We value intentional shepherding of children through small groups." The level of commitment your ministry has to building community will be proportional to the clarity and conviction of the vision you cast.

Third, make it a mission to find small-group leaders who love kids and want to be used by God to change lives. Gifted shepherds will not only implement a vision for community in your ministry, they will make it spring to life. Bob, a second-grade small-group leader, illustrates the healthy heart needed when he says, "I want each of the guys in my group to know I care about them. If a boy has a dad doing that already, then he'll like it. If a boy doesn't have a father doing this in his life, he'll crave it. Either way, it's great to give them something I know they need."

Fourth, make sure your ministry delivers community consistently; it must be a non-negotiable every week. Kids must be able to rely on the "safe place" of community to be there for them because no one knows when their life is going to go out of control, making the need for "someone" critical. The Bible repeatedly tells us to expect troubles in life, but nowhere does it say to deal with them alone.

Reliability leads to trust, and life's troubles tend to break the trust of kids a lot. Remember, reliability and trust can only be built over time, so be patient. And never forget that reliability and trust will be re-earned every week, so be consistent.

Advice from the pros

"My small group rocks because of my leader, Mr. Phil!" says Jake, a fifth-grader.

If an environment has been set for community to thrive, the adhesive that holds community together is the small-group leader. Given clear vision and room for creativity, leaders act as the catalyst for life-change in kids. If your leaders see the value they bring, the inventory of great ideas will swell. Here are a few to share with your ministry:

Joy maintains connection with the girls from her group by calling or sending a postcard once a month. This extra contact lets each girl on her team know that Joy cares for her, which flows from Joy's commitment to prayer. "I am constantly praying for each of them, for specific issues in their lives, and for them to put into practice what we talk about each Sunday morning," Joy says.

Bob makes it a practice to call each boy on his team by name as often as he can during small-group time. "It's a little thing to do, but sure makes them feel affirmed when they hear their name; kind of a man-to-man thing," Bob says. "An adult who is willing to look them in the eye while they talk also helps them feel that what they are saying is important."

Roxanne, a fourth-grade leader, describes two ideas that help form strong community. First, she learned that pictures are great tools to help everyone in the small group relate. So, she asks her girls to bring in pictures from all corners of their lives, and then puts them on the walls in the area where they meet. She explains that photographs help the girls say to each other, "I know more about who you are now!"

Her second idea is to use activities outside of church to make small-group memories. On a recent small-group afternoon trip, a new girl named Sandy showed up in Roxanne's group for the first time. "It was a fun afternoon, and the girls just accepted Sandy immediately. I'm thankful our community is so strong that we can share it freely with anyone," Roxanne says. "Because of that experience, Sandy and her family decided to begin attending church more regularly."

This taste of community was likely not the sole reason Sandy and her family are now in church each week, but it may have provided a very strong reason—especially as an ingredient of a thriving children's ministry. The desire of a child to go to church is a strong motivation to even the most unchurched parents. Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels says, "Your ability to reach seekers is directly related to how well you care for their kids."

When God says it is not good for man to be alone in Genesis 2:18, he indicates that he has made us to be relational people. This need to bond with others is abundantly present in kids, too. If a children's ministry can establish a well-worn path toward community for kids, they are certain to better navigate the challenges of life they face now, as well as those that lie ahead. But they can't do it on their own; your ministry must have a clear vision of community for them.

Just imagine how a strong small-group experience sticks in the hearts of kids. Imagine the "super strength" of children's ministry that mixes community kids love with creative, relevant Bible teaching.

Want to learn more about using small groups in your children's ministry? Check out these training downloads from our partner site, Building Children's Ministry:

Lead a Children's Small Group: This training theme is designed to help children's small-group leaders bond with their group, establish guidelines, and get every child to participate.

Introducing Small Group Shepherding: Regardless of the size or status of your ministry, with a solid vision and a few practical steps you can create small-group discipleship opportunities for your children.

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