Magazine Features

Building a Children’s Ministry
from the ‘solid’ ground up

“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock.” 

—Matthew 7:24, NLT


In 2014, when Lieutenants Brennen and Allison Hinzman arrived at their first assignment as corps officers in Red Bank, N.J., they were surprised to see that there were no children in church on Sundays. Allison recalls, “It was weird, maybe because we grew up in larger Salvation Army churches, and we’ve always had kids in church. As new officers, we’re told we should wait a year before making any drastic changes, but we thought, this can’t wait a year! So we began to also think, how do we get some children coming to our church on Sunday?

After studying the needs of the community more broadly, the Lieutenants Hinzman decided to adopt as a top priority the work to grow the after–school program at the corps with an emphasis on teaching about Jesus and His gospel. From that experience, they hoped that some of the children and their parents might come to attend Sunday services. There had been a small after–school program at the corps, with typically four children attending two days a week, but missing a strong Christian education focus. The Hinzmans had passion for and experience in youth ministry, and both were graduates of the Salvation Army’s former Railton School for Youth Worker Training. At first, they planned to lead the new program themselves, living out the Gospel with love and caring for the children. In January 2015, they kicked off the new program by distributing flyers, working through the Red Bank public school system and charter schools.

Today, three years later, the Red Bank Corps has a thriving and growing after–school program as well as a broadened childrens’ ministry, led by Ministry Assistant Annabel do Santos Concha and supported by the corps officers. During the school year, four days a week, there is an after–school program. It includes programming for Bible study, music, health & fitness, and drama & timbrels, with 23 children attending. During the summer, a four–or six–week day camp for 6 to 12 year olds takes place. It can be described as an extended Vacation Bible School with weekly field trips. Twenty–seven children attended last summer. Throughout the year, children have participated in divisional events including Star Search, music camp, and family camp. Many of participants, aged 12 to 20, regularly attend church, where they contribute to the service by ministering in song and drama, help collect the offering, pray, and share testimonies. It is a delightful transformation within the Red Bank Corps that is certainly pleasing to the congregation and to God.

Considering the program’s impact since its start, Lieutenant Brennen Hinzman said, “One of the most uplifting things that I’ve noticed with our children’s growth, is that all of the kids, whether they’ve stayed with us for the whole time or we’ve lost them for a period of time, have all experienced Jesus. They are learning Jesus in everything we are doing!” The childrens’ ministry continues to grow on the strong foundation of Jesus Christ.

As a delighted member of the congregation who is experienced in knowledge engineering, I sat down with the Hinzmans and Ministry Assistant do Santos Concha, to gain insight into how this transformation was accomplished. From our discussion, we’ve gleened 10 contributing factors and included them in this article. We hope that this guidance will help other childrens’ ministry leaders.

In June, the Hinzmans became corps officers at the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden, N.J. Lieutenants Giovanni and Lilybeth Otero replaced them and continue to enthusiastically support the childrens’ ministry at Red Bank, with Lilybeth having also graduated from the former Railton School for Youth Worker Training.

 

Sylvia Kuzmak, Ph.D., is an adherent member of the Salvation Army’s Red Bank, N.J., Corps. She helps in the after–school program, providing homework help for the kids. She also leads the adult Sunday school and the women’s Bible study. She is semi–retired, and does part–time consulting, and writes on psychology, education, and Christianity.

A 10–Point Guide to Build your own Childrens’ Ministry:

  1. Have leaders with passion and experience work with children.
    Allison: : “You definitely need someone passionate for children, because if you don’t have a desire to work with the kids, it will be a struggle.”

  2. Pray and seek guidance from the Holy Spirit.
    Allison: “You need a lot of prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit. Anything we do in ministry has to be done in the Spirit.”

  3. Be open minded about how the ministry will take form.
    Allison: “Every corps is not going to have the same youth ministry. For example, some corps have a flourishing preteen ministry, but here, we’ve got mostly young 7 to 8 year olds—so our teaching style is different, and learning styles can be different, and also the kids’ capacity to sit and pay attention.”

    Annabel: “When I came, I didn’t bring a formula. I came from a successful program, but I didn’t come saying that is what I am going to do here. I came and observed and learned the community and what was already existing in the church and built off of that.”

  4. Be guided by the needs of the community.
    Allison: “The needs of the community are important. When we first walked around our neighborhood, we realized there were lots of Hispanic families. So when we were looking to hire a ministry assistant to lead the children’s program, a requirement was that the person be bilingual Spanish–speaking.”

    Annabel: “And when I arrived, there was one Hispanic family that already liked The Salvation Army, but it was just the language holding them back. So when my husband Felipe and I began to talk to Rosa [mother] in Spanish, she soon decided that she and her children would become soldiers and they were enrolled.”

  5. Teach about Jesus and His gospel.
    Brennen: “I think that the growth that we’ve seen in all of our programs has a lot to do with the fact that the kids are learning about Jesus, and that is such a priority for all three of us.”

    Annabel: “Yes. For example, one of the parents with a child in day camp told me that their child liked the Salvation Army day camp because ‘the kids are nice.’ I explained to her that that’s part of what we do, we’re not just watching the kids during your work hours, we’re teaching them to be Christ–like, to love each other, and follow Jesus. Kids who have been here longer have grown to be an example for new kids coming in, so it’s not just me teaching them, but it’s seeing the example of other kids. At the end of day camp, many kids said that learning about God was their favorite thing. Those are simple words, but I take it to mean that they understood how great God is, and what real love is—that Jesus died on the cross for you. They learned something that speaks to their heart, makes them feel good, and gives them hope.”

  6. Love the kids as in a family and in a home.
    Annabel: “People go where they feel loved, and where they feel they belong. And the way you make people feel loved is to love them. Following Jesus, we don’t pick and choose whom we love, it’s everybody across the board. So providing a safe place where children feel loved means that I need to love them. So when I look at a child, I tell myself to care, because at the beginning, we are strangers. I look at them in a much more sensitive way, and they pick up on that. That helps to make the group strong, a family that belongs together. And if someone else comes in, ‘you are welcome to our family!’”

    Allison: “Yes, relationship is key, because, even something as simple as knowing everyone’s name sends a message that we care. We learn their names, about their families, what they love to do, and how they like school, or don’t like school. That’s what makes the difference between what we do here and what other organizations provide.”

    Annabel: “And it’s not just building relationships with the children, but also with their parents. For example, there is an opportunity to talk to parents at pick–up time, or at any moment that we’re standing in the same place at the same time. I say, ‘How’s it going? How is he or she doing in school?’ Over time, we’re building a relationship with the family, so we are an extension of home for them.”

  7. Be realistic, don’t be afraid to start small, and avoid burnout.
    Allison: “I think there is no shame in starting small. Burnout is a hot topic in youth ministry. If you start with a large program and you’re the only one running it, you go all out, you’re fully invested, and it’s exhausting. Then you end up hating it, because you’re exhausted. And the kids see that. So it’s important to avoid that. You need to plan realistically. There’s only so much that you can do. Don’t compare yourself to other corps that may be more established and have more staff. Just start where you are at, with what you have. In time, it will grow.”

  8. Set short–term goals, have a vision for the future, and always listen to the Spirit.
    Annabel: “We have a vision, from prayer in the Spirit, of children learning about Jesus, growing in faith, coming to church, and being part of a church family—and we needed to stick to it. Sports activities are very popular in this county. We’ve had suggestions to start sports leagues. We have to ask, ‘What is the purpose?’ Is it just to say we have more people in the building? Or is our goal to grow strong Christians?”

    Allison: “From our vision, we set short–term goals. In January 2015, we started with one day a week of after–school programming in music and arts, with the support of the divisional music staff. With plans in progress to hire a ministry assistant, in September 2015, we expanded to two days a week, adding a day for Troops, which is Bible–based and covers life skills. And then after Annabel arrived, by March 2016, we had expanded to four days a week, with the support of divisional staff in music and drama. Members of our congregation also pitch in, for example, providing homework help and serving snacks, and that has been a goal, to involve our church family.”

  9. Go the extra mile to help kids who are especially involved to stay involved.
    Annabel: “Along the way, we’ve had to overcome obstacles. For example, during day camp, one junior soldier was coming every day, and then didn’t come for a few days. I called and found out that the mom got a new job. Her schedule didn’t allow her to bring her daughter during our drop–off and pick–up times, so the child was at a babysitter all day. Now, we didn’t have the capacity to provide transportation for everyone, but because the child and her mother were so involved, we started to pick the child up in the morning and take her home again to the babysitter to allow the child to stay involved.”

  10. Invite, invite, invite, to encourage children and parents to increase their involvement over time.
    Brennen: “We purposefully have a Family Sunday once a month, with the sermon geared to children and translated into Spanish. The children participate in the service, performing the Bible–based songs, music, and drama they have learned after school. We invite their parents to attend, to worship with us, and to see their kids participate in the service. We also have a community meal after the service, an opportunity to get to know each other better. We are continually inviting the kids and their parents to be involved in the corps programs, our church, and divisional activities. We want to welcome all to be part of our Christian community and our Salvation Army family.”

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