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?

‘God truly blessed our day at Quest!”: Inaugural Quest event a fun, faith-filled success

Sept. 15 was our first Quest ever, and it won’t be our last, so don’t be sad if you missed it! Just be sure to mark your calendar and share pictures with your students for next year. We have no doubt that word of mouth will do most of the publicity for next year’s event and will surely double this year’s attendance of 150.

St. James Christian Life Center was the perfect host church for this event under the leadership of their Children’s Minister Sean Dunbar who made sure we had everything we needed to make the event run smoothly. Michelle Wilkins, Sadie Wohlfahrt, Peaches Smith, and Tiffany Jones helped with all the registration, set up and take down throughout the day.

The lessons were written by Karen Swales who spent countless hours planning and writing appropriate third through sixth-grade lessons. We were blessed to have the Rev. Zach Roberts, the Rev. Jonathon Bevil, Pam Snider, and Melinda Shunk to teach each group of about 30 children.

Sure we had bounce houses, an amazing playground, nine square, photo booths, and box lunches, but what touched children’s lives the most was bagging rice for the food pantry, worship with students serving Communion, and hands-on fun rotational lessons that taught kids that our God Loves Us, our God Chooses Us, our God Gives Spiritual Gifts, and God Calls each of us.

“Wow! We had a great time! Kids showed up Sunday to church with their crosses on from the Lesson from Pastor Zach,” said Anne Stocks, Children’s Minister at Trinity United Methodist Church. “They seemed so much more plugged in and invested in each other. I think we will be reaping the benefits from Quest for some time yet. The kids want to know when we will be doing something like that again. They are all in.”

Bishop Mueller was able to Skype into the morning worship to share with the students his call for the larger church, and the Rev. Jim Polk led the student-assisted Communion. Craig Williams used his gift of music to get everyone rocking and out of their seats for praise while calming us back down as we learned that we can even offer prayer in song!

We also worked hard on the Quest Connector’s Challenge! Students were challenged during the opening to connect with and remember the names of at least five or more people outside of their home church. Twelve students were awarded a Cross Quest necklace and candy for standing up on stage at closing and naming at least seven new people that they met by the end of the day.

The goal of this event was to give the tween students something that was a statewide event tailored just for them. Quest was an Arkansas Conference event that brought them outside of the walls of their hometown church to show them we are called to be one church. God truly blessed our day at Quest!