What do you mean ‘it’s just a Toddler Group’?
Minister Peter Spence reflects on why toddler groups are vital to the life and growth of the Kingdom of God
I am the minister at Warley Baptist Church in Oldbury (West Midlands) and we have a toddler group; it’s called Little Fish, and I want to share my thoughts about it. I also want to speak to my colleagues in ministry about why toddler groups, understood and run properly are vital to the life and growth of the Kingdom of God.
So firstly some details on Little Fish. This group runs four sessions a week, a Bumps & Babies session on a Wednesday, two Baby & Toddler sessions on a Thursday and a Rhythm & Rhyme time on a Friday. We are currently averaging around 160 kids and 140 adults per week and we have a volunteer team of 21 dedicated, passionate enthusiastic people who help create a loving, caring, compassionate, safe space every week.
I have been reflecting recently about Little Fish, because I have been asked a few times about it, and read a few things about Bible strategies and evangelism methods for toddlers, and it has got me thinking; so here are my thoughts about Little Fish. (A disclaimer at the start, these thoughts relate to Little Fish @ Warley Baptist Church and our community context. There may be principles which are transferable to other contexts, but this is not ‘strategy for a guaranteed successful toddler group’!)
My reflections starts with a question. Who are we really trying to serve with Little Fish? Immediately those who are far more creative, and curriculum minded than me are saying, well obviously the toddlers, and we need a plan to share the main stories of the life of Jesus plus other Bible stories across a three year programme.
For us at Little Fish that is not where we started – Little Fish is about creating a safe sanctuary space. The kids have a large space to play and plenty of good quality toys and crafts to amuse and entertain them. We have healthy snacks, good safeguarding practices, policies and procedures so the children are catered for in every way.
This is all obvious, but we wanted to do more. We thought about who brings the children each week – the adults; be that parents, grandparents or other carers. This brought us to a place where we knew that for us we had to be proactive about creating a space where the kids could play and develop interpersonal skills and socialise, but also where the adults knew they were loved and cared for. The reality in our society is that loneliness and isolation are huge issues that blight our communities. Jesus said that whatever we do for those who are ignored and marginalised in our society we do for Him (The Messageparaphrase).
For us that meant that we needed to be aware of the adults and more than aware; we had to care about them. This means that we put a lot of effort into welcoming the adults and getting to know them. Our team know and see the adult who comes in quietly and sits on their own and does not engage in eye contact, let alone talk to others: they are the person one of the team will go and sit next to and introduce themselves. Our volunteers are a group of compassionate empathetic people who care hugely about the adults in the room.
What we came to realise is that the people at Little Fish are not targets for conversion they are broken people who need to discover the love of God from people who are meant to already have discovered it. St Francis of Assisi is allegedly meant to have said, ‘preach the gospel at all times and only when absolutely necessary use words.’ The fact as we have seen it is that people will rarely change their mind about things based on words and convincing arguments. However, they will change their minds when they see your love for them in action. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not dismissing the use of the Bible, what I am merely saying is that it is not our primary means of building a relationship with the adults in the room.
The other major conclusion I came to around my reflections on Little Fish is this. We do not look at the question of ‘how do we get these people connected to our church community?’ The reason we don’t do that is because they already are. We as a church operate a community hub and that means we operate seven days a week and we view everything we do as church. As we all know, or at least say we know the church is the people not the building. So the activity that goes on in a room on a Sunday is not any more church than the activity that goes on in the same room on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. For me the answer to the person who asks, ‘when will we see these people in church’, is maybe slightly cheeky but important because the answer is, ‘when will they see you at their church?’
As has been pointed our many times before, including by Richard Hardy, the adults who come along to Little Fish feel they are coming to church, that is their church. The thing we have to do is simply acknowledge that and function as if that is the case. The result of this ethos and approach is a group where adults come in to a setting with toddlers and feel safe and loved. And where they feel able to discuss the struggles of their lives. It is a huge honour to be in that place where a another human being feels safe and secure enough about us that they are willing to share some of the trauma of their lives, and in many case we are the first person they tell.
So you may read all this and say that’s all well and good, but how on earth do I ever recruit enough volunteers to do that? When Little Fish started about three and half years ago we a team of about six people all of them regular members of the Sunday congregation. Now we have a team of at least 21 people, some of whom are Sunday congregation people, some come from other community programs we run and some are ex Little Fish mums, dads and even grandparents. All of whom have seen it in action, have experienced the loving supportive Christ likeness of the group and a) want to be part of giving some of that back and b) want to learn more.
What we have is a method of sharing and discovering faith that is similar to what Jesus and other rabbis did. They gathered a group of people around them and they didn’t learn to quote verses, they discovered about the love and acceptance of the Kingdom by doing the work of the Kingdom. Jesus' disciples copied what they saw Him do. And in a smaller way we show our volunteers how they are loved and accepted by God by allowing them to do that for others.
So I suppose I would say, if pressed, that the strategy and the big picture for Little Fish is simply this Mark 12:31 - Love others as much as you love yourself. (Contemporary English Version). When we as His church in our communities can set aside our wants and comforts and create a genuinely open, accepting and loving space for those whom life is complex; when we can love without condition or expectation of response, then we are bringing Heaven here and now.
For me, that is what Little Fish is about.