October 22, 2018

By Amy Houts

What’s a bright spot in your church that can continually bring in — and keep — new families? Why, the preschool, of course! It’s true that people may seek out a church home at any age and stage in life, but the reality is many begin their search in earnest when their children are young. Parents of small children are more open to the church and are looking for the perfect place for their preschoolers’ faith formation. How can you help ensure your ministry is that place? By opening your arms wide and offering hospitality that would make Jesus proud. 

THE REALITY OF RADICAL

“People are searching for churches that make them feel welcome and loved, needed, and accepted,” says Bishop Robert Schnase of the Rio Texas, formerly of Missouri. “Too many churches want more children as long as they are as quiet as adults, more ethnic families as long as they act like the majority in the congregation. We can do better.” 
    
One of the Five Practices that Bishop Schnase left the Missouri Conference with when he was appointed to Rio Texas was “Radical Hospitality.” 

“Radical hospitality is the active desire to invite, welcome, receive, and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ.” Radical Hospitality is a concept Thom and Joani Schultz, authors of Why Nobody Wants to Be Around Christians Anymore, have also written extensively about. Underlying the concept is the idea that people are welcome just as they are. It’s an idea that permeates everything—from the registration desk to the take home materials—that we’re in this together. 
    
“All of us desperately want and need to be accepted and loved unconditionally. Don’t you?” ask the Schultzes, who are also the president and the chief creative officer, respectively of Group (group.com). “So when others feel we judge them without accepting and welcoming them just as they are, they don’t want to be around us. They don’t get that baseline need of love and acceptance met.” 
    
“Preschool is a pivotal time in a family’s life,” says Rev. Rosanna Anderson, Associate Director of Intergenerational Ministries for the United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tennessee. 
    
“The wonderful thing about preschoolers is that they are curious, and they are old enough to begin to understand about worship.”
    
Treating even the youngest child with respect is part of a radical welcome, acknowledging that even though they are young, preschoolers have the capacity to worship. 
    
“Recognize that the child has a relationship with God. Honor them as Christians who are part of a community of faith,” says Rosanna. 
    
She believes that Sunday School helps to prepare preschoolers to have a meaningful relationship with God and the church. “Snack prepares children for the church worship service and the Lord’s table [communion]. We worship together in church, but Sunday School is a more intimate time. Children learn, ‘Jesus is for me. God is listening when I pray.’ ”  
    
How do you incorporate radical hospitality in your preschool program? You let it soak into every aspect of your ministry. 

COME JOIN US!

The first contact a family has with a church member is key in welcoming that family and making them feel comfortable.  
    
“If someone walks into church with a preschool-age child, the frontline person (the greeter) would need to recognize this and address it in a positive way,” says Rev. Scott Moon of First UMC in Maryville. 
    
He explains that the greeter should describe what the church offers and anticipate the questions a family might have, such as, “Where is the Sunday School room?” Ideally, the greeter could leave his/her post and take the family to the preschool Sunday School room or nursery, introduce them to the teacher/caregiver, and help the child check in. Signing children in (either on paper or electronically) before they are separated from their parents is a crucial step, not only for their safety and security, but also for parents’ piece of mind. 
    
Moon explains that in his church, the greeter informs parents that children are welcome in the sanctuary but that the nursery is an option for all or part of the worship service. When renovating his church, the nursery was moved closer to the sanctuary. Additionally, activity bags with coloring pages, stickers, etc., are available in the sanctuary for children to use during worship. A rocking chair is located in an alcove. Making families with children feel welcome and comfortable is a key aspect of radical hospitality. 


A NEW WORLD VIEW

Your culture is also key to providing preschoolers with radical hospitality. This means you’ve carefully thought through what a preschoolers environment looks like —from the perspective of little ones and their families. 
    
Preschoolers thrive in an ares that is neat and uncluttered. Light-hued walls are soothing. Clean windows allow for natural light. Child-size furniture is perfect for this age group. An area rug provides a soft place for story time and worship, especially if the flooring is tiled. The teacher’s caring and compassionate attitude also sets the tone of hospitality.
    
“When we think about Sunday School, we come with preconceived notions of what you think children should do and be,” says Pradnya Patet, director of Children and Family Ministries at the First UMC in Maryville. “Is that faith formation? No, it’s not, not if children have to sit a certain way, and be quiet, and act a certain way. Let children be children.”
    
On a sunny morning, Patet welcomes preschoolers into her Sunday School classroom by name. Veronica Romig and her mom, Julie, sit at a low table eating snack with Andrew Wilmes. Two-year old Shayde Spire is usually in the nursery, next door. But today she wants to stay with her brother, Krede; even though the preschool class is for 3-5 year olds, Pradnya says it’s OK.
Patet sometimes has a helper as children walk in. “The greeter says, ‘Would you like a hug, a handshake, or a high-five?’ They can do any of these because not everybody likes to be hugged. So we learn at a young age that respect is important. It is your choice.”
    
In the center of the table, a bright red plate holds cookies cut into fourths and slices of apples and glazed donuts. When Hans Randall and Hinton Hamilton enter the room, Hinton doesn’t want to stay. But he eyes the snacks and decides to sit at the table while his father says goodbye. 
    
The atmosphere in the room is casual, calm, and child-centered. Children can take off their shoes if they want and put them in their cubby. The teacher purposely keeps the lights off, but sunshine lights the room. 
    
“So we think, what does it mean to be a church family?” Patet asks. “One thing families do together is eat. Snack is a big part of preschool. That’s where the best conversations happen because they want to tell you about their week.”
    
As the children eat and talk, they choose the special job they will fulfill that day. Each child has a job, such as the greeter, acolyte, prayer helper, story helper, sticker helper, etc. 
    
Patet states, “If we all have jobs, then that makes us important in the family. Having a job is a privilege.”
    
While his classmates finish eating, Krede performs his job. As the sticker helper, he places a sticker on the attendance chart for each friend who attends Sunday School that morning. 
    
Children used to put their our own stickers on the attendance chart, but Patet explains that this changed because “we want to create a community. The children recognize who is missing from their church family.” 
    
Krede places stickers on the chart but not for Maverick Sandusky-Ury.
    
“Maverick is not here,” says Pradnya, solemnly.
    
Patet, who has a Ph.D. in Family and Child Development and is an associate professor at Northwest Missouri State University, is quick to credit Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline model. Patet adapted the model for her Sunday School room but doesn’t train volunteers in this philosophy. 
    
Speaking of volunteers, Patet says, “We want you, your faith, and your dedication to children just the way in which you bring it. We can share resources and ideas and grow together.”  
    
She believes that radical hospitality rather than classroom management can be woven into Sunday School teacher orientation. Therefore, key features of her classroom are related to routines. Activities occur in the same order each week: snack, music, worship, story, prayer, crafts, and closing. Young children like the consistency of routines. Songs and action rhymes are used at transition times. Patet chooses an age-appropriate, Bible-based curriculum that emphasizes experiencing stories through dramatic play, building community by working together, and applying learning to students’ daily lives. 
    
“Children learn what they live,” says Patet, referring to acting out the Bible story of Paul getting out of prison. “The idea is not so much that Paul escaped from prison but that he had friends who got together to make a plan to do that for him, just like we got together to make our story. The next time we talked about it, they remembered it because we had not just read the story, we had reenacted it.”
    
Patet believes church and Sunday School are the perfect place for preschoolers. She relates faith to child development. 
    
“The younger you start, the better,” she says. “Early childhood experiences give them a good foundation, a good footing to launch. Think about faith and how it emerges. It goes back to how a child’s brain is developing. The limbic system [which controls basic emotions and drives] is developing. It’s a critical time in their lives.” 
    
Soon, the class experiences a pleasant surprise. They were missing their friend Maverick, but he walks in with his mother, Andrea Sandusky-Ury, the volunteer who alternates with Patet in teaching the preschool class. 
    
“Maverick is here!” Patet says, truly joyful that their Sunday School family is complete. The small room fills up with other helpers: Maverick’s 10-year old brother, Ambrose, and Pradnya’s 10-year old son, Matteo Paul. Veronica’s father joins his wife and daughter. All are welcome. The good will and caring community is a key reason the children come back each week.    
    
Amy Houts (amyhouts.com) is an author of more than 70 books including The Giant Book of Bible Fingerplays for Preschoolers, available through Cokesbury at: https://www.cokesbury.com.