There is nothing more fun than seeing the sanctuary so filled on Sunday morning that preschool children must sit on their parents’ laps in order for everyone to have a space to sit. It’s not “standing room only”; it’s “lap space only”. It’s noisy and energetic and simply crazy, and it can happen in your church.
Church leaders often complain that young families just aren’t interested in going to church anymore, or that they only attend fundamentalist churches. This simply isn’t true. However, what is true is that many established churches have a hard time attracting and maintaining young families with children.
Curiously, many churches have preschools that meet on their campus. Most of these schools are connected by corporate status to the church. Some are independent and act simply as renters. Regardless of the preschool status, churches often ignore their preschools and see them simply as means to financial solvency. Few churches make a concerted effort to connect with these families.
What we need to understand is that most of these young families are not connected to any church and would probably attend if invited, and would stay if warmly welcomed. Nationally we know that church attendance has fallen to new record lows: Barely 15 & to 25% of the population are active in a local church in any community. That means that 75% to 85% have no church home. This is true of the parents and families in your community as well. On Sunday morning, they aren’t going to any church. What would happen if you invited them to come to a service designed for their children?
It is my experience that connecting with your preschool families can result in growth in the church and Sunday School. This takes a complete rethinking of what you do for families, for children and for parents. It also requires a lot of preparation to establish the lines of communication and trust that will result in the kind of Sunday I described above.
So, where do you start, what are the steps, what is the goal?[Let me stop here and note one potential problem: Intra-church warfare. There are many preschools and church Sunday schools that do not cooperate on anything. They do not share rooms, resources, custodians, playgrounds, teachers, and they despise and detest one another. There may be differing personalities, power struggles, or a scarcity of resources, or there may be a historical point of friction that dates back to the Harrison administration. If you find that your Sunday school director and preschool director do not speak to one another, you will need to broker a peace agreement first. Outside help may be required. Yet assuming that they are not throwing hand grenades at each other in the parking lot, the steps below may work.]
Start by connecting with the Preschool Director
Every preschool has a director. This person is the key. I once inherited a preschool director who encouraged her families not to attend our church because there was nothing there for them. She would direct them to the other churches in town that had great Sunday Schools and fabulous family programs. As a result, our church had very few children and no weekly Sunday School. When I confronted her about this, I had to agree with her rationale. However, over the next year I also enlisted her in helping me rebuild the Sunday School to the point when she could recommend it to new families. When I left that church, there were lots of children in our very active happy Sunday School. Cooperation and assistance from the preschool director were critical in establishing a quality program for children and families.
Then start to connect with the Board of the Preschool
There are many preschools that do not operate with a board of directors: The preschool director runs a small dictatorship and sees no reason to answer to either the church or the parents. Often churches simply cash the check and don’t ask questions.
The best-run schools operate with a board of directors made up of a couple teachers, a couple parents, a couple church members, the director and the pastor. An operating board is probably called for in the articles or policies governing the school. If your preschool does not have a board, do a little digging and find the articles or policies that govern the school, then insist that they be followed; or, if a board is not called for, change the policies. Pastors should attend most of these meetings. It is a great way to keep the preschool calendar on your appointment list and begin to connect with parents and teachers.
Step 1 – Work together
Attending preschool board meetings is the way you begin to create events that can be sponsored by the whole church, preschool and Sunday school combined. Cross-pollinating the calendars with good fun events, educational events, and even worship opportunities, allows the church to easily invite all these families into the community of faith.
It can also provide opportunities for the church to assist in the continued development of the preschool. Carefully listen to the board members describe the preschool’s needs, and find creative ways to help meet those needs.
Step 2 – Claim your connection
Many families assume the preschool is an independent organization and is not connected to the church. Some schools promote this misconception. So, it is important to claim and promote the church’s ownership or sponsorship of the preschool. I encourage pastors to be very active in connecting with families, reminding them that the church is here for them; they are part of your broader church family, even if they are not members.
The best way to do this is to establish the church’s ownership of the school, right at the beginning. Write a letter of welcome to be included in the packet of materials the school produces for the new school year. This letter should be on church stationery, signed by the pastor, and it should be on the top of the materials that get mailed or handed to all families. You can find a copy of a letter I used at a previous church here: Letter of Welcome. Customize the letter to reflect your church and school names, and fine tune it so that it speaks in your voice. Make sure it is welcoming and not exclusionary.
Step 3 – Meet the Parents
Most schools have an introductory meeting with new parents prior to the start of school. Be present to welcome the parents at that meeting and at any back-to-school nights sponsored by the school. Pastors are scary creatures to people who don’t know you. You probably don’t need to greet the parents by saying “Be not afraid!” However, keep in mind that there are all kinds of preconceived ideas about pastors, and you want to put the negative ideas aside and replace them with the reality that you are a kind, caring, approachable human being and pastor.
You don’t need to be long-winded; just take 45 seconds to say, “Welcome to our church family; please know that we are here for you regardless of your faith.”
Step 4 – Meet the children
Be present on the first day of school. Arrive early, greet the teachers, and then stand outside and greet all the children and their parents as they arrive at school during the first week. Seeing you at school reminds them of the connection and puts your smiling face into their memory banks one more time. If you have a staff person who relates to children’s programs, he or she might want to join you. Many children will have different start days — Monday or Tuesdays or sometimes even Wednesdays — so talk to the director to ensure you are present to greet every child and the drop-off adult during the first week of school.
Step 5 – Integrate your programs
Most preschools operate 9 to 12 months a year. At the very least, it will be helpful if there are events every quarter (fall, winter, spring) that are sponsored by the church and the preschool jointly. At the most, one event cosponsored every month will fill a calendar.
You will find a list of possible events which give you lots of ideas. But don’t be limited by these, create new ones — wild and crazy ones — that families of all ages can enjoy.
The more events you co-sponsor, the more opportunities there are for preschool families and church families to make friends and feel comfortable on your church campus for more than just classroom time.
All we do in the church is to magnify the glory of God. Therefore, our goal in all that we do is to help people connect to God’s love and be filled with that love. The most common event at which we do that is worship. We eventually want to invite people to come and worship with us on a regular basis. To achieve this, we must invite them a first time.
At my last church, we called it Preschool Sunday — The one Sunday every year when the whole preschool was encouraged to be in church. The preschool children practiced several songs they would sing for the congregation. The church children’s choir sang a song as well. The Sunday School and Preschool teachers sent home fliers and talked it up with all the parents. The worship was completely redesigned to accommodate preschool attention spans, songs were from the Vacation Bible School song book with dancers and words on the video screen. Yes, the choir still sang the introit and an anthem, but it wasn’t in Latin or German, and it was music that was designed to touch a contemporary heart with a simple message of God’s love. Yes, the praise band played, too — fun happy songs that had everyone clapping and singing. The message was designed for children and families and included music and video images on screen. The whole celebration took less than an hour and culminated in a pancake breakfast in the Fellowship Hall which everyone attended. It was almost as exhausting as Easter Sunday: It took a ton of planning and energy, but the payoffs were fabulous because 90% of the preschool families don’t attend any church, and now they have attended one that was so fun that the children want to come back!
It took us three years to build a strong positive reputation for Preschool Sunday. There was resistance from parents about going to church, there was resistance from teachers about being required to attend church, there was resistance from church members who really didn’t want hundreds of screaming children sitting in “their” pews. Yet we stuck with it, ran the plan, and we discovered from those families that we had become their church, I had become their pastor, and then they started to come back and some even joined the church.