By Melinda Shunk

Children's Ministry Coordinator

Fort Smith First United Methodist church is headed for the rails! The train rails in the park to be more specific. When Sally Ware first started in Children’s Ministry 20 years ago, the children and their families walked in the church doors with little to no invitation. Parents had been taught by their parents that behind those church doors their family would be taught the love of Jesus!

Somewhere in those last 20 years parents lost the direction they once had to give their children a church family that helps them experience Jesus. Today, Sally and the program staff at Fort Smith First UMC downtown have meetings about how they can serve the community outside those doors so that people will know Jesus loves them.

Last year, at one of those meetings, they decided to go outside the church doors and meet the families where they are: the Creekmore City Park, waiting to ride the city’s Christmas train.

The Children’s Ministry team worked with the Mission Outreach team, pastoral staff, and Youth Ministry team to move the FUMC hospitality to the park. The community tradition of the Christmas train is a strong community filled event. It is open seven days a week and typically accepts free will donations from families to ride through the park and gaze in Christmas wonder at the Creekmore light displays. However, on a Tuesday evening in December of 2017, Fort Smith Mission Outreach donated the funds to sponsor an evening’s worth of train rides for $200.

Sally and her Children’s Ministry team purchased cookies, prepared Igloo filled hot chocolate and gathered candy canes. They made sure to promote this event to their church families and encouraged them to invite friends or neighbors. The Youth Ministry team had students tie a candy cane poem with worship times to each candy cane. The pastoral staff strategically hung a church logo sign on the cookie and hot chocolate table that was along the path of where up to 75 people at a time waited in line to ride the train.

Christmas carols were playing while the staff from Fort Smith FUMC greeted the eager children and their families with cookies, cocoa, and conversation. Many of the families tried to offer the traditional donation to ride the train, but they were denied by the loving words of a church member saying, “We have it covered for you tonight. Just enjoy the lights with your family.”

Sally shared that through the church’s service of hospitality they were able to have wonderful conversations with the parents about communion and what worship options they offered. Their curious guests asked all questions without a church member having to promote it. Children are invited to a Sunday School special event the following Sunday that included pictures with Santa and worship time. Many young families took them up on the invitation for the coming Sunday. FUMC’s discipleship goals were to make people feel known, create a culture of connection, and build trust with those who have never stepped in their church.

Last year was their first year to sponsor the Christmas Train but because it met so many of the discipleship goals, the Outreach team — along with Children’s Ministry — is currently busy planning the 2018 Christmas Train sponsorship. They have already reserved the date and refined what worked and what did not work. They found that the kids wanted to play on playground equipment last year, but it was too dark. This year, volunteers from FUMC will be lighting up the playground so that it is safe for children to play and for parents to mingle a little longer in the park.

Sally estimated that 30 percent of the Christmas Train participants were their church members and 70 percent were from the community. Fort Smith FUMC has found a way to reach those young families who may be off the rails when it comes to sharing their faith with their children. The church has gone out into the community with love and hospitality to offer their church resources as a way to give families opportunities to get their faith formation back on track.