The mission and ministry of Johns Creek United Methodist Church was formed around thirty years ago. The one constant fact during these years has been the ministry of VBS. Hosting a Vacation Bible School for families at our church has been unwavering.
As far as any of our church members can remember, this was the first year in our history we didn’t offer in-person day camps for kids. Instead, for the sake of safety and social distancing, we invited families to participate in an online VBS program. We used Cokesbuy’s Knights of North Castle curriculum and implemented VBS though a private Google Classroom and a private Facebook group.
Our Children’s Ministry leaders plan and implement Vacation Bible School for three main reasons:
- to teach children truths about God,
- to provide a fun and safe experience for children,
- and to invite local families into the life of our church.
Even during a pandemic with all our VBS plans changed and rearranged, the first two goals were easily accomplished. Online Vacation Bible School was an effective method to provide children with memorable biblical truths and fun, safe activities. Parents were especially grateful to have some busy activities for their children during the summer once public online school had finished for the year. By the first two measures, online Vacation Bible School was indubitably a great success. However, the third goal, inviting local families into the life of our church, has been the most challenging no matter the year, but especially during a pandemic.
During any typical year in the past, Vacation Bible School works as a great icebreaker to familiarize new families with the parking lot, the building, and a few friendly faces. Once the parents feel any sense of belonging, the possibility of trying out a regular program like worship, choir, or Sunday School is much less intimidating. In years past on the last day of Vacation Bible School, flyers and emails have been used to invite families back for three consecutive major events after VBS is over.
Those main events are:
- a special “VBS Sunday,” in which the students lead a song in worship,
- our annual “Back-To-School Sunday,” which is typically our highest day for new visitor attendance,
- and a large annual in-person service project, “Rise Against Hunger.” Especially low-commitment activities may be most enticing to a newcomer.
No matter what method the church chooses, the goal has always been the same. We strive to build closeness and community for all. Unfortunately, none of those three major events were able to happen in the same capacity in 2020. We’re challenged to grow our community and closeness without usual community events and physical closeness.
Instead of leveraging flyers, parking lot familiarity, and enticing major events, invitational ministry this year looks different. Various methods of contact have been used. We have invited families to various online and in-person events in the life of the church. My hope is that there is a safe and appropriate option for families no matter their comfort level with crowds. As of September, our ministry has been offering online Sunday School, outdoors in-person Sunday School, and three weekly Zoom social calls for kids (with a prayer and a Bible lesson snuck in there). Although all this information is on the church website for members to find, guests and newcomers need to specifically be invited and guided to participate. I have chosen to communicate with families in three ways: social media, email, and snail mail.
Vacation Bible School participants were participating using a Google Classroom and a Facebook Group both used for VBS activities and posting photos. It would be a shame to leave these lines of communication unused for future church events. Our ministry continues to use those social media options to post information concerning upcoming events, such as when we held our first outdoor in-person worship service. A decision was made to not include them in the regular recurring events each week because that is likely to cloud up someone’s feed and cause them to mute the Facebook group. On social media, posts should only be about one event at a time. When there are several topics that need to be communicated, these details are divided up into several messages so that parents can easily find one post about worship. One post about Sunday School. One post about Zoom socials, and so forth. If one item in the Google Classroom stream contains two opportunities for connection, one of the two will get overlooked. Social media is just for the major highlights only, and parents who are active on social media are highly likely to see it in the Facebook group.
Email is the quickest and easiest way to reach the whole group of families and give lots of details about upcoming events. Email is the best way to convey a whole list of options to connect such as Zoom links, sign-up forms, and details about safety precautions. I send emails to VBS participants before every major change in ministry (such as starting a new in-person program or changing the times of Zoom meetings) but these items are not included on my usual weekly email blasts to ministry roster because newcomers are the most likely to unsubscribe. Email is the best for conveying detailed information and long lists. However, email easily gets lost in the inbox of a busy parent. Email should never be the only method of communication, and a long boring detailed email should never be the first email that reaches a brand new family.
Contacting families by mail is the slowest, most labor intensive, most expensive, yet most effective way to get kids excited about church. Unlike email and social media, snail mail can be addressed and targeted toward the child himself instead of their parents. I made a decision to send personal cards. First, I printed out a cute back-to-school prayer for the children and decorated each child’s name on the prayer and on the outer envelope. I chose to hand-write the addresses instead of printing them to add more character and personality to the letters. I would also recommend using real postage stamps with kid-friendly designs instead of running the letters through a postage meter. Luckily there were several kid-friendly stamp options to use, which were a hit with the kids. Nothing makes a child feel more special than receiving something personalized especially for them. For the children who were too young to read, I drew a small smiling recognizable cartoon face next to their name to help make the paper seem special to them. It took over a month to finish my entire children’s ministry roster, including VBS visitors, but I received such positive feedback from parents that their child was overjoyed and reminded how much their church loves them. My goal is to send another round of personalized mail to the kids in November inviting them to a few Christmas events, both online and in-person. Personalizing names on mail is a perfect way to let kids know that they are individually wanted and valued in your church.
Tips for Clear Communication
During these past few months of a pandemic, when communicating with a newcomer, I have learned that it’s more confusing than helpful to attempt explaining what we “usually” offer. For too long I held out hope that things would snap back to the previous way any upcoming day. Instead, I am now assuming we are never returning to exactly the way our Children’s Ministry used to operate. Even after the pandemic is over, there will be tweaks and improvements to our typical programs. In fact, I’m using this time to rebrand the ministry and redecorate the classrooms and hallways. So whatever the programs used to look like is irrelevant to a new guest. Instead, I prefer to only explain what our Children’s Ministry has to offer their family right now, which doesn’t go too far into the future. Personally I know our children’s ministry is offering online programs, and outdoor face-to-face programs, and a couple of Christmas events.
We may not be able to see into the future and communicate our plans as well as we want to, and even if our church’s doors are closed, we must figuratively hold the doors open for our neighbors. Even beyond this pandemic, as our ministries are planning and rearranging to meet the needs of families around us, may we continuously find new engaging ways to practice hospitality and invitation.
Director of Children’s Ministry at Johns Creek UMC
John’s Creek GA