Reaching Hurting Kids Outside the Church (Sidewalk Sunday School)
One of the most significant obstacles we face in ministering to hurting kids and children from disrupted homes is that they don’t tend to come to our churches. Statistically, children from ANY type of family other than married biological parents are significantly less likely to attend church. So, if you’re serious about ministering to these hurting kids, and there are tons of them no matter where you live, you have to get outside the walls of your church and take your ministry to them. Fortunately, through my work with these kids and speaking at various conferences, I have been fortunate enough to meet a handful of people who are doing just that. Rachael Groll is the Children’s Ministry Director at Living Waters Church (http://www.livingwaterschurch.tv/) in Meadville, PA. She has started a program through her church that goes out and finds these kids where they live and ministers to them. Rachael was kind enough to answer some questions for us about the ministry she started, why it works and how it impacts the kids she is ministering to and the church.
Q: Hi Rachael. Why don’t you start by telling a little bit about yourself and your church?
A: HI Wayne. Thanks for the opportunity. I currently am the Children’s Director at Living Waters Church. I oversee all programming of children, from birth through age twelve. This includes our Bus Ministry, Sidewalk Ministry, Wednesday night programming, and Sunday morning services. Living Waters is unique in our area, in that our focus is really to seek out the lost and bring them Jesus. You see this throughout every area of our church. We have a mobile food pantry, evangelism teams that go out into the community, a foster and adoption ministry, and we host several community events throughout the year. One of the things we focus on as a staff is really getting outside the four walls, and ministering to the community.
Q: I want to focus on your efforts to take the message of Christ to the kids in your community. Let’s start with a more general discussion then will move into some of the nitty gritty of doing this type of ministry. First of all, what is the name of the ministry, and how would you describe it in a sentence or two?
A: We call it “Sidewalk Sunday School.” In a nutshell, we take the same program that we do on a Sunday morning, and we take it to the streets. We seek out the kids that don’t otherwise have an opportunity to attend church.
Q: When did you start that ministry?
A: We started doing Sidewalk Sunday School last June. So we have been doing it a little over a year.
Q: Why did you decide to start this type of ministry?
A: Most importantly because Christ commands it! The Bible talks about being salt and light. We strive to take the light into the darkness, instead of running from it. When we first started our sidewalk ministry, we targeted the roughest neighborhood in our area. Many people tried to discourage us because of the amount of drugs and violence there. However, that is where God called us, and that is why they need Jesus. Yes there have been challenges. But there has been amazing transformation in the community and the lives of the people that live there.
Secondly, some kids will otherwise NEVER hear the gospel. I never can quite comprehend this, but every site, every year, we find kids that have never heard the gospel before. These kids are growing up in situations where the enemy most certainly has his hands on them. It is our responsibility to share the truth with them. The first step to any kind of lasting change in their situations is Jesus.
Q: You mentioned challenges, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
A: Initially, our challenges were circumstantial. The logistics of figuring out how to rewrite our curriculum so it fit the mobile format. Figuring out how to get sound with no power. Getting volunteers on board with a vision when they had no idea what I was talking about. The temperamental Pennsylvania weather. However, once we got started, and were able to start sharing what God was doing, the church quickly jumped on board. We were almost finished with our summer semester when we got a phone call from the Housing Authority, telling us we were no longer allowed to come down to the project. There really was no explanation or warning. They basically told us that we were not allowed to have any “religious” programming in the neighborhood because it was Federal Property. We knew that wasn’t legal, so we geared up for a fight. The kids and families were too important to us. We couldn’t just walk away. We contacted Alliance Defending Freedom, and they helped us gain access back into the community.
Link to article about legal battle: http://christiannews.net/2015/05/03/church-regains-right-to-serve-housing-project-after-initially-booted-for-being-religious/
Q: How effective is this type of ministry?
A: It’s very effective. The bus that we send out on Sunday mornings to get kids for church will, at most, gather about 40 kids from the neighborhood. However, when we go into the community, we see close to 150 kids. Therefore, if we are taking the gospel to them, instead of bringing them to us, we can reach more kids. Now that we have been in the neighborhood for more than a year, we see life transformation in some of these families. It’s a direct result of an encounter with Jesus.
Q: How would you describe the kids you are reaching? I know all kids are different and each child is unique, but give us a feel for the type of kids you’re reaching out to. What types of homes do they come from? What is their background? What are their neighborhoods like?
A: This is a heartbreaking question to answer. In the church, we often support missions trips. Don’t get me wrong, because I myself go on them and they have been life changing. But we don’t realize that there are kids in need, right in our own backyards. The kids that we reach are lost. Many are unsupervised, even as young as toddlers. It’s normal to go down into a neighborhood and find kids all over the place, with no adults around. They often have no food to eat, and parents are either high or looking for the best way to achieve their next high. The kids have clothes and shoes that are in terrible condition or do not fit. Their teeth are rotting out of their mouth. They are lucky if they have a bed, and if they do, chances are they have to share it with at least one other person.
One night I stopped down to visit one of the neighborhoods, and there were about ten kids sharing a box of dry generic bisquick that they had gotten from our food pantry. That was their dinner. My daughter was with me, and we both quickly realized that it was worse than we thought. We went back to the car and just wept for them. That’s when we started taking sandwiches down to them. The reality is that many of these kids are hungry. They are thirsty. They need clothes. They need attention. They need Jesus.
A lot of times, people tell me that there are government organizations to take care of these kids. That there are programs already doing what we are doing. However, there is a disconnect with the way these organizations “should” be operating and what actually happens. The bottom line is that these kids are not getting their needs met by the government.
We were in one neighborhood just a couple weeks ago. The homes have broken windows, no steps, no furniture, and are filthy. One of our volunteers was going to skip over a house, because he thought there was no way anyone could be living there. I knocked on the door. There were 5 children inside. For many of these homes, they are one stop away from homelessness. It is heartbreaking. But you know what? Kids are Kids, and Jesus is Jesus.
Sometimes people think it is too hard to connect with these kids. But what we quickly realize is that they are starved for attention and affection. Once you start meeting those needs, as well as the physical needs, you can very easily meet the spiritual needs. I would say over 80% of the kids we have met have given their hearts to the Lord. In the past three weeks, we have seen about 150 kids respond to the gospel message. These are first time decisions for Christ, many of them hearing the gospel for the first time. To me, that is a mission field. No passport required.
Q: Let’s get more into the details of how it works now. What does a typical visit look like? How do you get the word out that you’re there?
A: A few weeks ago, we started a new site, and this is what we did. We downloaded the “ice cream truck” song from iTunes and played it from our truck. When kids came out to see the ice cream truck, we gave them FREE ice cream sandwiches. The news quickly spread, and kids were soon everywhere. Along with their ice cream, we handed out fliers that gave the time and some information about when and where we were meeting. We were in a trailer park and had gotten the park manager’s permission ahead of time to be there. We have a grassy area to meet in, and the kids were SO hungry for the Word.
Q: What does the basic program look like?
A: We separate the girls and boys and have them sit on a tarp on the ground, then we generally follow a schedule something like:
1. Pre-Service Game
5. Object lesson about the basic concept
6. Bible story
7. Game #1
8. Personal story or character story
9. Alter call/response/salvation prayer (This is SUPER important. It’s why you are there. Don’t skip this part.)
10. Closing, Game #2 (if you have time), reward giveaway.
At this point, we pass out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, juice boxes, and have a prayer time with any kids that want one on one prayer. That honestly is when the real ministry happens. We hear and see so much during this time. It is incredible what God does during these moments.
Q: That sounds like a lot. How long is a typical program?
A: We run about an hour. It is fast paced and quick, because that’s what kids need. We are competing with the “X-Box” generation, like I call it. You have to make the program exciting and fun. We do spend a little more time at each site after the program is over, just praying and talking with the kids. I would say, total, we are at each site about two hours.
Q: Let’s talk about some of the individual components of each program. What types of games work with a crowd like this? I imagine you have to find games for large groups that don’t require a whole lot of explanation?
A: Last week, we did a simple hula hoop tournament. Games are always Boys vs. Girls, it adds to the excitement. Round 1 was 3 girls against 3 boys, whoever Hula Hooped the longest won that round. Then we had the winning girl and winning boy go against each other for Round 2, but Round 2 required them to walk while hooping to another adult about 50 ft away. Whoever got there first won 1000 points. Round 3 we had them start hopping, and then unwrap and eat an ice cream sandwhich while hooping. Whoever finished first won 2000 points. We keep track of all the points throughout the games, as it adds an extra element of excitement for the kids, and motivates them to participate. The winner of the Hula Hoop games got a prize. Prizes are anything from candy to a can of pop, or puzzles and books. You can use pretty much any game for the program. We usually ask review questions from the week before, and only pick kids to participate that can correctly answer the questions. This is another added incentive to keep them engaged and paying attention. We use a lot of large group games, games that you would play at camp, etc. Some of the games have to be modified, depending on location. Some sites we have a grassy field to play in. Other sites, we are on a small section of concrete. So it requires some creative thinking. The key here is to keep the kids guessing and always have something different. One week it might be catching goldfish out of a tank, the next week it might be a watermelon eating contest, the next week it might be a pie in the face of a popular volunteer. It’s one of the things that keeps the kids coming back.
Q: You mentioned that you have some rules for the program. What are those rules?
A: Our rules are super simple:
#1 S: Stay in your seats
#2 O: Obey your leaders
#3 W: Whistle means quiet
We use the whistle to remind the kids to be quiet when necessary. We also have four balloons set up on each side (boys and girls). If the kids get too rowdy, or disruptive, we pop a balloon for their team. If at the end of the night, the balloons are still there, they get a prize. (Candy bar, pop, small toy, etc.) If all the balloons are popped, that team does not get a prize. The kids rarely get all four balloons popped, because they really want the prize.
Sometimes I have people criticize me for giving away prizes or candy. Here are my thoughts on that. If a blow pop or an ice cream cone can get a kid to come and stay with me for an hour, so I can give them the gospel, it allows me the opportunity to start to develop a relationship with them. Those things aren’t the focus, they are the tools that we use to draw them in. Once you have relationships, you can cut back on that stuff. But in the beginning, it’s hard to get the kids without it.
When first starting out, it is important to establish authority. Many of these kids have not had good boundaries established for them, and there has to be an element of respect. Without that, you can’t teach them. So, being consistent and following through is imperative.
Q: What do you do for worship? What works well in this setting?
A: Start small with this, doing something simple and high energy. A favorite is Hillsong Kids’ Song “Jesus is my Superhero.” It has motions you can teach the kids, and they love it. Gradually add another song or two. I like to use JUMPSTART3 because it is worship with scripture as the lyrics. It gets the Word into the hearts and minds of the kids in an upbeat fun way and also has motions they can do. We recently added the Yancy version of “How Great is Our God” with motions. It is easy for the kids to get, and gets the kids worshiping. We go right from that song into a prayer for the program, and it settles the kids down. It is amazing to look into a group of kids on the street, with their eyes closed, hands raised, singing about how great our God is. There’s nothing else like it.
Q: How many people does it take to do one program? How do you get volunteers?
A: If I have to, I can do it alone, especially if I know the kids in the neighborhood. But it works best when we have a team. Last year, it was more difficult because no one had any idea what I was talking about, there was nothing to compare it to. But after people start seeing and hearing about what God is doing, they want to get involved. Last year we only did two sites, this year we are at 8. So now we have teams. Each team is about 4 or 5 people, and we have teams for each site. It’s not hard to get volunteers once they start hearing and seeing the testimonies. People want to be involved where they know God is working.
Q: What types of volunteers do you look for? Are there specific roles on each team that you’re trying to fill?
A: Actually, being a good leader isn’t what I look for. A servant’s heart is what I look for. A teachable spirit, and a heart for kids are way more important than talent. Someone that is living a spirit led life will easily be touched by this ministry, as God will use them when they step out in obedience to the call. We see it happen all the time. 90% is showing up, and God just kind of does the rest. Right now, one of my most effective volunteers is an older retired man who only volunteered to drive the truck. But quickly, he started developing relationships with the kids. God is using him in a way he never imagined.
With regard to roles, I want people serving in an area that works for them. We teach a class in the church where we look at each individual’s personality, spiritual gifts, and passions. In the center of those three you can find your purpose. Once we examine that, we can easily see where that person might be the best fit. For some it might be worship or prayer. For others it might be games, serving food, or teaching. Our goal, even as a church, is to let people serve where God has uniquely equipped them. Then they are serving as an outpour of their heart. Our pastor often says that you don’t get burned out doing ALOT of thing…. You get burned out from doing the WRONG things. We don’t want anyone burned out. We want them serving in a way that they are not only being obedient to what God has called them to do, but in a way that ignites that fire inside of them. Once you find that sweet spot, you can’t stop them.
Q: How many sites do you visit and how often do you go out?
A: We have 8 sites this summer. Our semester runs June through October and we go out weekly to each site. The weather gets too bad in Pennsylvania to keep going after October, but we switch to a bus ministry for the winter.
We go back to the same place weekly, but also canvas the area and do a visitation once in between sessions. 90% is showing up consistently. The foundation of this ministry is relationships. That happens more in the visitation then it does the event. It’s an imperative part of the ministry.
Q: You mentioned visitations. How do those work? What else do you do to follow up with these kids?
A: We visit the homes of the kids that attended the program. (We have an attendance form that has the kids’ address on it). Once a month we blitz the whole neighborhood and go door to door with flyers, etc. We will also visit the neighborhood to just hang out with whoever is outside. (I will take down popsicles, apples, etc. and just play with them). That’s actually when a lot of ministry happens.
Q: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about starting this type of ministry?
A: First of all, start praying about locations where you can go in your community. Look for low income housing, apartment complexes, trailer parks, etc. Pray for open doors, open hearts, and favor with the Father.
Don’t get too intimidated to start. Just start small and go from there. The most important thing is to just get off the bench and do something. Each site is a little bit different, and that’s ok. Just start some sort of program for the kids. We have a truck now, but we started in my minivan.
This is one of the most rewarding ministries and will change your heart forever. I promise!
Q: If people want more information or have questions, how can they contact you?
This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on December 01, 2015.