In 2004, First UMC West Plains realized that fewer young families were attending worship services. This awareness sparked a change and a commitment from the church to strive to offer outstanding faith development opportunities for children in the community.
“God has truly blessed our ministry here at First UMC and it is only because of the Holy Spirits prompting in the hearts and lives of our members that our Kingdom Kids Children’s Ministry is able to reach more young families for Jesus Christ,” said Children’s Ministries director Beckie Legler.
In 2005, the church began developing a rotational Sunday school model, with classrooms built for specific purposes to accommodate different age groups as they rotated through. Institutional classrooms were updated to theme rooms. The children learn Biblical principles as they are engaged with a variety of workshops (cooking, storytelling, art, science, drama, computers and video) and they learn to live by the Great Commandment.
“We have two or three mission projects each year, like making cleaning buckets for Festival of Sharing, helping with our food pantry, collecting baby items to be given to young mothers, the Heifer Projects or Nothing But Nets,” Legler said.
The Middle School Sunday School program underwent a restart in March of this year. For several months only one or two middle school age students were attending Sunday school.
“It broke my heart that this classroom sat empty and dark on Sunday morning,” Legler said. “The Holy Spirit convicted several parents that we were losing an important age group, so we met and brainstormed ways to encourage that age group back to Sunday school.”
The church transformed the middle school Sunday school room with new paint, a flat screen TV, Wii game system, and three iPads. They also provided a snack bar and refrigerator stocked with water, juice and soda. One of the dads stepped up and committed to teaching this age group of kids. The group had seven students on our first Sunday of the grand re-opening, and has recently averaged about 14 youth.
“We have also had fun events such as laser tag and zip lining for this group so they know that you can be a Christian and still have fun,” Legler said.
The greatest jump in seeing more children in church was when First UMC started offering Kid’s Church during our 8:15 Contemporary Worship service in 2007. With a change in worship styles, a younger age demographic was attracted to worship and a fun atmosphere to learn about Jesus was provided for their children during that time. This was such a success that in 2010 the church started offering Kid’s Church during the traditional service and they have seen that service grow, with several younger families attending as well.
A fledging after-school program that involved about a dozen children six years ago, has grown to five times that size. The God’s Kids program is from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, and involves devotionals, snacks and games. It has become a great outreach tool since about half the children are from First UMC West Plains, 25 percent attend another church and 25 percent are unchurched.
Vacation Bible School at the church has grown an incredible amount, from about 25 children eight years ago, to 178 in 2007, to 310 this past summer. There were a total of 136 volunteers involved in Vacation Bible School.
“Many of our lay people take vacation time from their jobs to serve during VBS,” Legler said. “Six years ago we only had two men involved. This year we had around 30 men and young teenage men helping. That speaks volumes about the men in church taking spiritual ownership of the children in the church.”
The church budgets around $10,000 for the Vacation Bible School, which is about 40 percent of the children’s ministries budget. Because this is a community outreach event, every child gets a t-shirt and a music CD. “This CD might be the only Christian music that child ever hears, and the t-shirts are great way to get our name out in the community” Legler said.
The church has even taken their VBS international to Guatemala and to Jamaica twice with their medical and construction mission teams.
“We used the mission trips to help our teens connect with serving beyond our walls,” Legler said. “It is also a wonderful opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with children in other cultures.”
First UMC also runs a daycare and preschool Monday through Friday, which serves about 50 children, from infants to school age.
The combination of all the different programs focused on children’s ministry has brought real change to the make-up of the congregation at First UMC. “We are always looking for ways to improve, change or innovate our programs to reach more families for Christ.” says Legler.
“We have a lot more younger families involved in the church now,” said Rev. Mark Mildren. “It’s been a big success.”