According to the Talking Toddlers report, three quarters of parents of under 5s have contact with a church through children’s activities.
The great outreach opportunity
If you are a parent of a pre-schooler, it is likely that you are struggling to think strategically about evangelism. (It’s all right to laugh out loud at that statement.) Your nights are probably interrupted, so simply coping at a basic level frequently feels like a challenge. If you are a first time parent, you can add a bundle of confusion into the mix. You had just about worked out how to live your own life adequately when you were back to square one with a new life to nurture.
But that is the reason why this is the golden opportunity for reaching your fellow parents. All parents with young children are feeling groggy, dazed and confused. The difference between you and the others is that you have Jesus Christ and his church walking this journey with you. So when your church opens its doors to the other young families in the community offering warmth, care, cake and clean toys, they come. And the data says they keep coming: 86% of families of under 5s who come to church activities come regularly.
I remember the first time my church ran a Saturday morning toddler group for dads. We already ran three toddler groups during the week, and as with most churches, those groups were almost entirely made up of women. I quietly thought that a monthly group solely for dads on a Saturday was a mistake. I look back with endearing affection at our team’s plans. We put out newspapers (because men don’t talk to each other, do they?). We planned running races for the toddlers (because men don’t do Bible stories, do they?). Being hopeless evangelists, the team of a dozen church dads arrived to set up and pray without a single invited friend between us. That first Saturday, sixteen other dads came. My eyes were on stalks. In those first months, I gradually found out why they had come:
‘I’ve got nowhere else to go with my child. Thanks for being here.’
‘My partner told me I had to come. She wants a rest.’
‘If I come here and give her a lie in, I get to watch the football this afternoon.’
After that first session, we ditched the races and did a Bible story time. We never bought newspapers again. We got bolder, praying for opportunities to share life and talk faith. We learnt to get each other’s numbers in our phones, remembering to text our new friends the evening before reminding them to come. And I remember the advice I heard from a church that was more experienced than us: ‘It’s when we started to get into each other’s homes that our toddler groups took off.’ It is the old story. Real friendship comes with an open door. Or at least with a trip to the park together.
Whether you are part of a church toddler group or not is a detail. Please know that this is a life stage when parents are usually building a local network of friends, because suddenly it’s hard to travel far with young children. Friends need to be local. Friends need to know what it’s like to have a little whirlwind dominating every waking (and sleeping) moment. Make friends and care for them enough that you can join with Paul in saying:
‘Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well’ (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
If you are a church leader, remember that 40% of practising Christians in Great Britain say they came to faith under the age of 5. Both the Bible (Deuteronomy 6:1–4; Proverbs 22:6) and developmental studies tell us to pay close attention to those first years as they disproportionately shape the following years. Let’s not leave these children to their parents alone, but encourage their families to engage with our churches.
When parents on the edge of church things were asked why they came to pre-school church activities, the most popular three answers were all about the child. Modern parents make decisions with their child in mind. So, as with all ministry, reaching families with young children is a team game. We will need to find those with experience of young children to ensure we meet their parents’ expectations.
We need our events to cater for young children, but once we get the family through our doors, it is the parents we reach. Out of all the fringe parents who have stepped into a church building at least once in the last year, 84% said they felt welcomed by us. And the majority of those parents who had never had contact with us before said that our events helped them to explore their faith.
So please stop and consider – has my church been focused enough on reaching the under 5s and their parents with the gospel? The data suggests it might represent your best opportunity to see people brought to faith in Jesus!