Upward and Onward

Upward and Onward

Ten years ago, when St. James was expanding their church to add a gymnasium they wanted it to be used for more than just youth group games and evening parishioner athletics. They wanted something that would bring the community together in fellowship inside the gym walls. A search committee set out to see what they could find that had already seen success and they found Upward Youth Basketball program. They went to Dallas, Texas to learn how the program worked and how they could build the same outreach program at St. James First United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

Upward Youth Basketball program has at least one church that houses the program. The basketball program is for K-6th graders who want to learn basketball and play against other teams. The parents register their child’s age and gender with the online Upward link which is provided by the program free of charge as a simple tool. The parents are requested to pay $85 for their child to participate in eight weeks’ worth of practices and games. The money charged pays for the Upward uniform and curriculum which is how the brand makes money, and the church does not have any investment other than the gym and the balls.

A group of young girls huddle during a timeout at an Upward basketball game.

They build in late fees on registrations that in turn pay for scholarships for students who may not be able to afford to play. Upward Youth Basketball provides weekly coaching skills curriculum and scripture devotion for each practice and halftime of each game, so no volunteer has to be an expert at either. They just have to feel called to serve children and their families.

Upward Basketball does not keep score and has a system in place that if you attend all games, each player will have equal playing time. The games played are about team building, basketball skill development, learning God loves them, and most importantly fellowship of players and parents.

The young boys groups wait to start their game.

Sean Dunbar came on staff at St. James six years ago and added his love of soccer to the program to get even more families to walk into the St. James gym. Dunbar introduced futsal – a variation of soccer that is played on an inside court instead of outside – because it offered soccer kids some inside soccer skill competition in their offseason. He runs basketball all day Saturday and futsal Friday nights and Saturday nights.

The Friday night futsal games just “happen” to overlap with Youth Group Live going on in the free space next to the gym, so many of the teens from futsal venture over to the St. James youth group fun while waiting for their next game. Dunbar is communities.

Two volunteer referees for Upward smile for the camera.

Here are some hard numbers that Dunbar was able to share about those who take part in the Upward Athletics program at St. James. There are currently 279 children enrolled in St. James Upward program. He had to turn 100 away because they didn’t have enough practice space to add more than the 32 teams they already practice. Forty-one percent of those kids are unaffiliated with a church. Twenty-six percent are affiliated with a UMC church. Thirteen percent of the participating Upward players are from St. James. I will end by sharing a quote from a father who is not a member but wrote an article about the work being done at St. James under the leadership of Sean Dunbar and the St. James Mission team.

“Thank you, St. James, for opening your doors to serve the youths of central Arkansas – even those who are not church members. It has allowed kids to become better athletes in the right kind of environment, gives kids an opportunity to play basketball and soccer in ways otherwise unavailable, and opens the doors of the church to do it all with the presence of God in the background.” – Matt Dishongh

Beyond 2019 reaches beyond expectations

Matthew 18:20 was the overall theme for this year’s Beyond conference. Children’s Ministers came together, to worship, learn, be inspired, and most of all feel God’s hand working in Children’s ministry. Opening worship modeled how we can make our worship services cross-generational so that all ages feel part of the service instead of a spectator with a busy bag or sent off to another space.

Marilyn Sharpe, the author of For Heaven’s Sake, taught us how to connect with our parents, by giving the space to talk and a listening ear. She shared how important it is to train our volunteers to lean in and look for opportunities to share faith formations techniques. She gave us simple traditions to share with parents and why they are essential. Parents are scared when we say “devotions” but embrace when we teach them how everyday objects can be used to teach children they are a beloved child of God. Most of all, she echoed loud and clear two important points for our church: children are more than the future church they are the NOW, as well as helping everyone understand that if children and youth are not leading in the church, they are leaving the church!

Sadie Stratton from Downtown Bentonville First Church introduced to everyone the new Wonderfully Made human sexuality curriculum as well as wowing all with the progress she and her team have made with Children’s First Church the first Sunday of every month; this is a service where children lead the adults in worship from the beginning to the end of worship.

Karen Reeves refreshed our souls teaching us how to use Yoga breathing to center our souls and hear God’s whispers. She also gave us the gift of movement paired with the Lord’s Prayer to teach our youngest preschool age children all the way to our youth how to fully engage the whole body in prayer.

Seventy Children’s Ministers, pastors, youth workers, and volunteers took every opportunity to learn from one another and help make disciples who make disciples at this year’s Beyond Conference. You will surely hear from one of the attendees that Beyond 2020 needs to be on your calendar.

Bright Nights at Searcy FUMC

Bright Nights at Searcy FUMC

In early November, I attended the Northeast District small group Children’s Ministry. They try to meet at least six times a year for lunch, praying and sharing. I met Catherine Vest, who had only been on staff as a Children’s Minister for two years but has more than seven years experience in ministry if you count all her years of volunteering. She was so excited to share her newly revamped Wednesday night program with her small group. Catherine shares her new program, in her own words, this month.

Melinda Shunk
Conference Children’s Ministry Coordinator

Sept. 5, Searcy First United Methodist Church began a new Wednesday night children’s program called Bright Night. This brand new program is for children entering Kindergarten – 5th grades.

Each Wednesday from 6 – 7:15 p.m. children hear God’s word, actively use the Bible and know what it means to give God glory! The focus for the fall semester was Matthew 5:14-16; God made us be lights in the world.

Wednesday evenings at Searcy First are the highlight of a lot of children’s week. This fun-filled experience on Wednesdays forms faith we hope children will carry with them throughout their lives.

The idea for Bright Night came out of a ministry planning session in the spring of 2018. Our ministry team wanted to provide an opportunity for everyone in our congregation for mid-week discipleship and study. Whether you are nine months old or 99 years old, we wanted there to be something that would grow faith and fellowship in the middle of the week.

In working with children through Sunday School and our other programming, I noticed an overall lack of empathy among children and a need for children to be encouraged. After meditation, prayer, and study, Mathew 5:14 – 16 stuck with me as a means to teach young children who God intends them to be to others in the world.

Each Bright Night of the fall semester, the lesson plan revolved around this verse. We studied it together and talked about ways we could live out this verse.

We looked at ways to live it in our own lives, and how others are lights in the community to us. We also looked at ways we could be lights to others.
This was accomplished through art, music, drama, science and even some mission field trips! Our schedule began each night with singing and prayer request time, then moved on to a large group lesson. Small groups followed for various age groups and then we all gathered back together to play large group games.

To emphasize the Bright Night theme, every week our group meeting room was decorated with colored twinkle lights and each child was given a flashlight to write prayer requests by and a glow stick bracelet to wear during game time.

We celebrated our end of the semester by taking healthy goody baskets to thank some “bright nights” in our community at the Searcy Fire and Police Departments. We are looking forward to continuing this program in 2019!

All aboard the FUMC Christmas Train!

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.

Lakewood UMC children participate in Children’s Sabbath Sunday

Lisa Bryant, back, sings with the children on Children’s Sabbath Sunday at Lakewood UMC. Bryant sings with the preschoolers each Sunday during the Sunday School hour. || Photo provided by Melinda Shunk

Lakewood United Methodist Church in North Little Rock is a mid-sized church that worships about 450 congregates every Sunday. Lakewood sees such value in ministering to children that they have a created a team!

Most importantly, this dynamic duo has recognized each other’s spiritual gifts, and they know exactly the role each has as they minister to the children and their families at Lakewood UMC.

Rochelle Gray previously worked as a public school teacher but started working part-time in Children’s ministry 10 years ago. Her senior pastor really wanted her to go full-time five years ago, but she tried to keep a work/home balance that was right for her family.

Rochelle noticed Jill Dillman as a new member taking on more volunteer roles in Children’s Ministry. Jill approached Rochelle about her leading a children’s musical production. Jill was a high school drama and speech teacher, so she was drawn to creatively sharing God’s love in a musical production by children. Rochelle thought her over-eager volunteer was on to an excellent thing for the kids, so they began working on the musical.

Throughout the process of rehearsals, planning, and teaching the children, God blessed them with a beautiful working friendship. It was evident to Rochelle that God had called Jill into ministry as well. Rochelle encouraged Jill to apply for the second part-time position for Children’s Ministry that had been posted. Rochelle and Jill soon became co-ministers for children and families.

For the last four years, Rochelle and Jill have collaborated to plan their six-week Wednesday night programming that is designed to conclude with a Children’s Sabbath. They start by choosing specific scripture that focuses on a theme or big idea that they teach the 60 children that come to their Wednesday evening program. This year’s theme happened to be “Act Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly.”

Two children act out a scene from one of two dramas performed on Children’s Sabbath Sunday. || Photo provided by Melinda Shunk

Rochelle found Bible lessons that focused on the theme and worked on creating the artistic, hands-on aspects like the bulletin covers, offering bowls, paper floral arrangements and alter art that the children could work on each night. Jill wrote the service and assigned the dramatic skit parts. Jill teaches the children all aspect of worship: welcome, the passing of the peace, affirmation of faith, morning prayer, offering prayer, and the benediction.

The other part of their creative team is Gigi Parkhill who helps with the kids and the songs they learn on Wednesday nights. The Kindergarten through fifth-grade students rotates through Wednesday evening classes. Lisa Bryant works with the pre-kindergarten kids on Sunday morning so that they can be prepared to be part of the Children’s Sabbath.

At the end of the six weeks, parents were asked to have their children at church on Oct. 14 to lead two worship services for the congregation. More than 90 percent of the children and families who participated in classes on Wednesday night had their child there to lead worship that morning.

Members donated money so that all the children could have a uniformed worship T-shirt to wear. Music selections were a beautiful blend of traditional and contemporary choices. The third-graders received their Bibles during the Children’s moment and what usually would be the sermon time was something all ages would understand. For the sermon, the pastors were asked to come up while the students asked previously prepared questions they wanted to know about God. All were thoughtfully asked and answered questions by child and pastor.

God brought these two talented Children’s Ministers together to help minister and lead children and their families to worship. It is evident in more than just the once-a-year Children’s Sabbath Sunday.

Rochelle said that once they spend the fall learning worship, children take part in all jobs during any worship on any given Sunday. They feel equipped and want to serve their church and their God through worship.

Children’s Sabbath is just the beginning for the children at Lakewood UMC. Children are part of every worship, but one day a year they get to do it all. We are all children of God, so isn’t every Sunday Children’s Sabbath?