On Sunday I watched with a smile as two-year-old Oliver wriggled out of his dad’s arms to run into the waiting arms of his favorite nursery volunteer. I’m not sure who was more excited to see whom. I watched as the volunteer swept him into her arms and called his name. Little Oliver felt known and loved, and this volunteer felt the same way. They have a connection, and that connection helps Oliver feel safe at church. That same bond helps volunteers understand their calling to help connect kids to God and His church.
Gifts of Connection
Our connections determine who we spend time with, where we go, and what we invest in. We desire connections because they make us feel a sense of belonging. We sometimes communicate to kids that the reason to enter a relationship with Jesus is for the gift of eternal life, which is of course a wonderful, incomparable gift.
But what about the other gifts in the bag? Things like a connection and relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd who knows you and who desires a relationship with you? Things like connection to a family, the church, where belonging feels tangible?
Luke 2:52 says “Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and with men.” Jesus grew physically and in His wisdom and knowledge. He also grew in His connection and relationship with God and His relationships and connections with other humans. Over the lifespan of a child, we see connections to God and others are shaped in partnership with their parents and home life.
Earliest Connections for Kids
The first “baby steps” in our nursery areas are where kids feel a connection to people from the church who love and care for them. This encompasses being outside of their parent’s care. It includes a connection to the church, which hopefully becomes a familiar place to them as they grow. It may be the first place outside of theirs home where everyone knows their name and shows delight in them.
There are simple ways volunteers can model Jesus’ love how God delights in them and knows their names. Greet every child with awe and wonder at who God has made them to be. Pray out loud for them as you rock and play. Early moments in the nursery will lead to those connections to God only being strengthened and reinforced throughout their time at church.
The Wonder of Preschoolers
Preschoolers’ desire to connect with God is evidenced in tiny hands clasped tightly in prayer, with eyes closed so tight, as if to use their own will to get God to answer their prayers. Preschoolers experience wonder in the stories in the Bible, and they can imagine themselves in the story. They hear about the Good Shepherd who knows their names and pursues relationship with them. They “baaa” like little lambs as they listen.
This age group can imagine a lunch of fish and bread, and they don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t multiply to feed thousands. They want to be Samuel, with God whispering their name so they can hear it. As ministry leaders and volunteers, we can wonder with them. We can ask questions that’s don’t come with perfect answers but create lots of space to wonder. Leaders get to model the openness of living a life ready for God to work beyond what we could ask or imagine.
A Special Encounter: Connecting to God
A mentor of mine once received a phone call from a mom. She said her 4-year-old had been talking about hearing God’s voice ever since he had come to church on Sunday. She said all he wanted was to hear the voice of God. He had been sad all week because he hadn’t heard it yet, so the mom asked if someone could just talk to him.
My mentor got on the phone. They had a conversation with this little boy about what it means to hear God’s voice. The following weekend the little boy came bounding into his class, wide-eyed, and called out “Guess what?!? I heard God’s voice!” We asked him, “What did it sound like?” Lowering his voice, with hints of tears welling in his eyes, his serious reply was, “It started as a whisper across my heart, and then it went up to my head.”
This little boy felt a connection with God. It stemmed from his connection with an adult who loved Jesus and desired to lead him well. He was given time and space to encounter God. As he prayed, just as he had heard about in God’s Big Story, he found a deep and real connection with God. And because this connection was validated by people around him who encouraged him that hearing God’s voice was indeed a real connection with God, this little boy continued to trust in his relationship with God and to be led by Him as he grew.
Elementary-age kids are ready to explore God’s Word and look for connections to their own world. They can connect the parables and see how “this is like that” fits into their own world. They can truly understand singing in worship, connecting their hearts to the God who created them.
Creating intentional times for worship, utilizing different styles of worship, and even worship in different languages to help kids who speak a different primary language will help kids experience belonging and connection. This is the age when they can truly understand the connection to God and to others, and they see how God has related to His people since the very beginning and continues to desire a relationship with us.
Allow prayer times that embrace silence and space, teaching kids to be comfortable in their connection with God. Connect them with other kids and with caring adults who love Jesus and can model why connection with God is so desirable and important.
It is worth it to help kids not only understand the gift of eternal life and the great sacrifice Jesus made so we could have that gift, but also to understand that living a life with Jesus is one of connection and belonging. To know they are known, loved, and led by God here on this earth and for eternity is a gift that will transform their lives from a very young age.