By Ronald E. Keener
Parents and kids are hearing the same teaching at the same time.
The approach to children’s ministry at Palm Valley Church in Goodyear, AZ, in the west valley of Phoenix, is like many other churches in one respect. They use their weekend services to structure an environment for kids who are geared to their age and development level.
But what is different, and likely a growing movement in children’s ministries, is using the worship services to reach out to families by providing their kids a safe and loving environment, says Darius Sanders, family life pastor.
“Our approach is to not just grow children into spiritual champions, but to grow families. Our lessons are prepared beforehand and use age-appropriate levels of repetition to help reinforce the lesson being taught,” Sanders says. “Different styles of learning – verbal and auditory – are incorporated so that children with different learning styles get the opportunity to receive what is being taught in the way that reaches them best.”
Special for kids
“Just like the main service their parents attend, we want them to experience worship, a message and a creative element that’s been prepared for them,” says Sanders.
Ministry leaders write their own curriculum and focus the lessons and the adult services on the same theme so that the entire church is learning the same thing at the same time.
“Whenever possible,” says Sanders, “we try to match the series or theme that is being taught in the main service so that parents can easily connect what their kids are learning to what they also are learning. The teaching is tailored to the learning level of each age group.”
“Our goal is to help the kids we are entrusted with to learn what we are teaching regardless of what style of learning suits them best. We do teaching, singing, hands-on activities, and body movement we call dance parties, to provide multiple avenues for learning,” he adds.
Each age or grade has a different comprehension level. Younger kids enjoy lots of activities and presentations while those in kindergarten through third grade like some discussion. Fourth- and fifth-graders are engaged primarily through discussion and some activity. “As the kids age they are better able to express how they feel, ask questions and engage in conversation,” Sanders says.
Palm Valley teachers have created what they call the “Pin Packet” for kindergartners through fifth-graders. It is a reward system that encourages kids to read their Bibles daily with their parents, furthering the family approach. Over the course of a series, which could run several weeks, children need to read, memorize and share what they are learning. For their active participation, they receive a pin at the end of the series. As an incentive, those who earn multiple pins get to attend a party. The reading matches the reading plan the parents are doing.
Sanders says that as a church, families are encouraged to reach together and journal on what they are learning using the acrostic SOAP, which stands for Scripture, Observation, Application and Prayer.
Serving children with special needs
Melinda Campbell-Weber says that with about one out of every 88 children being diagnosed with autism or a special needs disorder in America, families are being affected by special needs now more than ever. “The need for programs for these families in churches has now hit epidemic levels. Churches can no longer ignore the need,” she says.
Campbell-Weber is the “Buddy” coordinator at Palm Valley Church and has two special needs children of her own.
“In my conversations with churches around the country, I have found that these families are becoming a priority to churches. They are finding that they not only need to service the needs that they did years ago (the sick, the homeless and those struggling financially) but are now needing to expand programs to help with families of special needs children.”
She responded to questions about their program:
What is the need in your church’s area? Every church, regardless of size, will likely have a least one family with a special needs child in it. Many times, families can’t go to church together because someone has to stay at home with the child; they feel they have no other alternative. When I started volunteering last April, the Buddy program had already been in place for some time and there were about five children in the program. Today we have about 15 children in the program and are continuing to grow.
How do you serve special needs kids at church? We pair each child with an adult volunteer. The child and volunteer attend the child’s service that best fits the child’s cognitive level rather than age level. At Palm Valley Church, we want all of our children to be exposed to God’s word at the level that they can understand it most effectively. Therefore, each special needs child is placed in an environment where they can understand the lesson and also develop relationships with their peers. So in most cases, we place our special needs children in classrooms with other children to get the most out of their church experience.
How do Buddies serve the kids and the parents, and what is a “Forever Buddy”? Buddies serve as a support system for our special needs families. They often keep in touch throughout the week with each other, check in on their Buddy child (especially if there’s been an illness or surgery) and make plans for the coming weekend to make sure each of them will be there. A Forever Buddy means that the volunteer will be permanently paired up with the child as long as they attend Palm Valley Church and are in need of a Buddy volunteer.
Are there a variety of needs among the kids? We have children with a vast array of special needs, from autistic, non-verbal and ADHD to more severe issues, such as brain damage, cerebral palsy, and children born suffering the effects of drugs from their birth mothers.
Are you advocating for the kids beyond what you do in the church? There have been times when our volunteers have attended meetings at schools with our families and provided more of an “advocate” role when the children were not receiving appropriate services. We have also had volunteers spend time with families on a more social level, having lunch together or offering to babysit on special occasions.
What is done to give a breather to the parents/siblings at church or during the week? By having a volunteer available for our special needs children, our parents are able to get a breather by attending worship services knowing their children are being cared for by a caring, specially equipped volunteer who knows their children and their special abilities. We also offer a “parents night out” event every quarter, where our special needs children and their siblings come to the church for a night of pizza, a movie, craft and story time. This also provides parents time for a date night, errands, etc., for a few hours.
What are the benefits of a special needs program provided by a church? With the divorce rate of special needs parents at around 90 percent, the financial and emotional strain can be overwhelming without the support of their local church. The benefits of a special needs program in churches provides that support system that these families are so desperate to find on a more intimate, spiritual level.