Wouldn’t you know it! The week you make twenty-five ice pops as a treat for your kids (more than enough!), twenty-six children show up. The next week, just to be sure, you make thirty Rice Krispie bars and eight children get to share them. The kids are happy, but you are left scratching your head.
One of the facts of life, hard to accept but true nonetheless, is that coming to your group is optional for many children. Families these days are stressed and busy; parents don’t always understand the vital importance of their kids’ spiritual nurture; single parents may be sharing custody of their children. Sunday school is not the only game in town — sports events, birthday parties, and community celebrations are often scheduled for Sunday mornings too.
We may not like how this plays out, but deal with it we must. How do you cheerfully handle the unpredictable size of the group from week to week? How can you encourage children who come consistently to welcome those who come only occasionally? How can you stay in touch with kids whose attendance is sporadic?
A good place to begin is by recognizing and accepting reality. In an ideal world, children would wake up their parents on Sunday morning and clamor to be taken to Sunday school. Face it, that doesn’t happen! But whoever does show up should be able to hear God’s message presented in the best way you know how. Remember that Jesus promised, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). Two people — that’s you and just one child. Isn’t it wonderful to feel sure that the Maker of the universe will show up for a meeting with just you two?!
Nevertheless, you’ll still want to put lots of energy into encouraging everyone to come every time. Here are some suggestions from seasoned teachers:
- Prepare welcome bags for each first-time visitor to take home. Fill the bags with some or all of the following: a welcome letter; information about the program; a brochure or card with contact information (names and phone numbers of teachers and leaders, name and address of the church, website address, and anything else that will be helpful to parents — even a photo of yourself); a fridge magnet with a blessing or poem; a simple gift such as pencil and pad, coloring book, or Bible storybook. (Stamp your gifts with the church name and information.)
- Be warm and welcoming. In a culture that presents children with options, they’ll choose to come to a place where they’re recognized and appreciated. Help them feel included within the first few minutes of arriving. Welcoming kids by giving them nametags is helpful too. Ask kids to put on their tags as soon as they arrive to help you call everyone (especially the sporadic members of your group) by name. Consider appointing a greeter (perhaps another child) whose job it is to give visitors and newcomers such basic information as where the restrooms and drinking fountains are and to introduce them to other children.
- Arrive early. Newcomers are often early birds because they want to scope things out before making a commitment to stay. If you’re waiting for them with a warm smile and cheerful words, you’ll make a great first impression. Leaders are also role models, so monitor your words and attitudes: no “insider” jokes that might exclude some children; no “teacher’s pets.” Explain routines that may be new or unfamiliar to some children, and keep the language simple. Watch for signs of confusion that call for clarification.
- If you have a core group of older kids who come each week, consider starting a “Kid2Kid” partnership program. Pair a regular attendee with a child who’s new or who comes only occasionally, and encourage that child to be responsible for welcoming his partner, phoning him if he misses a session and looking out for him.
- Whenever you divide kids into small groups, be sure a newcomer is paired with an outgoing, friendly child.
- Many churches ask leaders to make home visits part of their Sunday school programs. A home visit is usually quite informal, something as simple as a short introduction on the doorstep, delivery of a welcome bag, and encouragement to parents to contact you with questions. There are so many benefits to these short, friendly visits — you’ll get a more intimate perspective on each child’s home life; you’re giving parents the gift of knowing someone else cares about their child; and children will feel good knowing that they are special enough to deserve a visit from you!
- Communicate regularly. Communication specialists suggest that people need to hear a message many times in order to really remember it. There are many different ways of communicating beyond the standard note sent home with the child. Consider the following ideas: once each quarter, send a postcard in the mail; add a Sunday school blog link to your church website, and have leaders post what’s been happening in their classes; mail or hand deliver the children’s take-home paper to families, adding a personal note; email families with occasional updates on what’s happening; email children with an occasional “Hi, how’s it going?” message, reminding them of something that is coming up; take photos and create a class poster to hang in the fellowship room; call parents on the phone just to touch base.
- Set up special events. Bible Character Sunday (kids dress up as their favorite Bible characters); Sundae Sunday; bring a friend Sunday. Passing on information about these special events gives you an extra reason to communicate with sporadic attendees.
When you are intentional about building community, God is pleased. Do your best and ask God do the rest.
Do you have any other ideas for encouraging everyone to come every time? Share below!