Religious houses couldn’t exist without steadfast leaders at their helm and dedicated men and women in their seats. But, staff at area worship centers say it’s just as important for kids to get involved.
Children’s and youth ministries are a major focus of many local churches, which plan special programs to reach this young audience. In addition to Sunday School and Wednesday night family programs, churches host annual events like vacation Bible school, weekend retreats, fall festivals, Easter egg hunts, and special Holy Week and Christmas activities.
“Our purpose and our focus is just to show children the love of God and basically help them form a foundation that’s going to be an anchor for them for the rest of their life,” said Melissa Strout, children’s pastor at Centerpoint Church in Warner Robins. “Children are the church, they’re not just the future of the church. They need to be loved. They need to be guided and put on the right path as much as possible.”
Julie Long, associate pastor and minister to children and families at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, said church is one of the few places where generations are mixed outside their family. Kids can find another kind of support system here.
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“While parents are the primary influence on their children, we are partners in supporting families as they raise their children to know God and to become all that he intended,” said Debbie Hendrix, who leads the children’s ministry and pastoral counseling at Harmony Community Church in Byron. “This is done not only through education, but also by our example as Christians, caring about the children as individuals, and also be embracing that kids often learn best through fun experience.”
Infants, toddlers and preschoolers
Most churches offer child care for their youngest members. Harmony Community uses a check-in/check-out registration system to guarantee the safety of children who come to its nursery during services and adult life groups meetings, Hendrix said. Rooms are staffed with experienced workers and outfitted with items like playhouses, play kitchens, easels, Legos and train tables that make kids excited to be there.
Strout said parents at Centerpoint can drop their babies off at a fun, safe environment while they go to the main worship area Sunday. She said curricula begin with the 3- and 4-year-old class, and kids are taught on their level through song and dance about God’s love.
“This day and time, there aren’t enough programs that are Christ-Centered,” said Laurie Ann Smith, children’s director at Byron United Methodist. “I’m passionate about it. I feel that a lot of kids aren’t getting enough of it at home. I just think it’s important for the church to stand up for its values.”
Preschoolers at First Baptist attend part of the Sunday service and then go to a different room for children’s church, Long said. Smith said little ones have a place at Byron UMC’s Wednesday night program too, where they can enjoy dinner, a lesson, games and crafts.
“We start forming faith even at birth,” Long said. “Even infants are getting their first impressions of God and of faith by the care they receive. We think it’s important as a church that we are a part of learning that at an early age.”
In addition, Crossroads United Methodist in Perry gives moms a much-needed break and kids ages 1-4 some extra play time during Playschool/Mother’s Morning Out on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, said Children’s Ministry Director Daniel Langston.
First-graders and older at First Baptist are part of the full worship experience on Sunday, Long said. They read scripture, light candles, usher, hand out bulletins and sometimes say prayers.
“We’re including them in the community and the leadership of the church now,” she said. “We try to put a real premium on celebrating children for who they are, to help them see their own gifts, and to help them see how they can use them in service to the world.”
At Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Warner Robins, kindergartners through fifth-graders study a new topic each month during Sunday School. Director of Children’s Ministries Cynthia Nelson said they rotate through a different station each week — such as lecture, scrapbooking, craft and movie — to provide new perspectives on the subject.
Centerpoint Kids is for age 5 or kindergarten through fifth grade. Strout said Sunday lessons include more details on the Bible stories and how scripture applies to life today, as well as fun music and games. The church has different life groups that meet on Wednesday nights, and Kids Life is for age 3 through fifth grade
Elementary-age children at Harmony Community can join the Kids Clubhouse during the 10 a.m. Sunday service, Hendrix said. They make crafts; play board and card games, air hockey, foosball and ping pong; and learn Christian lessons. Kids at Byron UMC stay for half the service and then go upstairs for a short lesson and a game or craft, Smith said.
Crossroads hosts Kids Club on Sunday and Wednesday for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Langston said kids have a full hour of learning and growing their faith through age-appropriate activities while their parents are at the 10 and 11:15 a.m. Sunday services, and they have time for outside/inside play, snacks and a lesson Wednesday night. The church hosts a family-oriented activity — such as a movie night, swimming party or fishing trip — every two weeks during the summer.
“I think a lot of people are looking for some kind of involvement for their kids to keep the church fun instead of just a place to worship on Sundays,” Langston said.
Strout said Byron UMC has 27 kids from Byron and Kay Road elementaries enrolled in its afterschool program. They do a devotion, have a snack, play games or make crafts, and work on their homework or read.
Churches sometimes plan special trips just for this age group. Harmony Community students recently went to Precision South Gymnastics Academy, and visits are being planned for Rigby’s Entertainment Complex and Sky Zone. Byron UMC has taken kids to the pumpkin patch at Lane Southern Orchards, and many attend Camp Vinson Valley in the summer. First Baptist’s third- through fifth-graders can sign up for summer camp, too. Kids in those same grades at Crossroads and Byron UMC can take advantage of fall weekend retreats in Georgia.
Middle and high school
Middle- and high-schoolers at Centerpoint gather at 6 p.m. every Wednesday during the school year. The church’s recently remodeled youth room has a relaxed, coffee-shop feel, said Worship and Youth Pastor Thomas Brown. The teens start out together and then break into three groups: high school, middle school boys and middle school girls. It’s a time of teaching and listening, and group leaders help the students grow closer to God and get outside their comfort zone.
“Authentic relationships don’t just happen once a week. It’s an everyday thing,” Brown said. “That’s the only way they’re going to earn our trust. It’s about forming those relationships with them so they can walk through life, and (we can) point them back to Jesus whenever they’re struggling.”
Brown said special events like a meal out, bonfire, movie or football game will be scheduled every couple months once the fall rolls around. During the summer, the church hosts occasional youth outings rather than meeting Wednesdays, and many of the kids go to the weeklong Verge Camp in Destin, Florida. In addition, the youth group is teaming up with the missions team to do service work like spending time with nursing home residents.
First Baptist’s youth ministry meets twice each week. Members do Bible activities and local service opportunities with community groups, and they can participate in several retreats and a mission trip each year, Long said.
Nelson said Mount Calvary’s older students also go on a lot of trips, including ones that are mission-focused. They have been to Nashville, Cincinnati and Jacksonville in recent years, and the high school students will go to a national Lutheran youth gathering in New Orleans this year. The youth meet on Friday and Sunday nights, and the high-schoolers also get together every Wednesday in the summer. They do service projects such as yardwork for the elderly, food bank assistance and Christmas cookie deliveries to shut-ins.
Sixth- through 12th-graders at Harmony meet from 6-8 p.m. Wednesdays, and students interested in learning how to lead worship or being a part of the youth band arrive a half hour earlier, Hendrix said. Many of the older students assist teachers with classes, crafts and activities for the younger kids on Sundays, and they have traveled for mission work.