by Lt. Jason Bigelow
1. Know Your Neighborhood
We all know it’s important to get to know your community and its needs, but it’s also vital to simply know the people in the neighborhood your corps belongs to. Who lives in the blocks around you? What are the needs for their children? Why should they come to The Salvation Army other than for financial assistance? When we (my wife Lt. Dana and I) asked those questions, we found there were a lot of children hanging around the neighborhood with little to do, no transportation to other kids’ programs and not much positive leadership in their lives. They have found a place at The Salvation Army where they can learn and serve, not just receive handouts, and they’re excited about it! Although, it does help to serve them dinner!
2. Creative Communication
New kids and their families often have no idea what our “Army” is all about. We know the value of our ministry programs, and we know the development potential for kids involved, but to them – we’re strange. Don’t just tell families and the community you offer character-building, junior soldiers, corps cadets, etc. – what’s that mean? Tell them you provide a positive Christian atmosphere for kids to learn skills and abilities, knowledge to help them become better equipped for life in today’s world. Tell them you want to be an asset for their kid’s future, and most of all communicate to parents/guardians you LOVE their kids and want to see them succeed. After all, that’s what we do, right? Communicate this over and over again, through invitations to programs (door-hangers, fliers in the mail, phone calls if possible), follow-up information on how programs are going, social networking updates and more! You really can’t over-communicate with the kids and their families.
3. Meet the Family
Sadly, many of the kids in our programs and services these days aren’t joined by their parents/guardians. We certainly desire to minister to the whole family, but since we often see their children first, it’s still important to get to know the family as much as possible. We’ve found that even though many of the parents aren’t yet willing to be a part of the programs and services, when they realize how much their children enjoy them, and how much we enjoy and love their children, at the very least, they’re supportive. Parents/guardians tend to help their kids commit to programs, and even show up to support special events, much more when they’ve gotten to know who we are, as leaders, over time. And of course we pray they will be impacted for Christ through the process.
4. Don’t Underestimate Your Kids
Kids are awesome evangelists! Sometimes we adults can overcomplicate things, when in fact kids are great at inviting friends, or spreading the word about the programs they are enjoying. Also, the kids we’re working with want to be involved right away. They want to participate in leadership and are willing to be developed as helpers and leaders. When we had an influx of new kids, it was a bit chaotic at first, but these kids quickly wanted to help in worship services and other programs, which we gladly welcomed (especially when getting some adults to help was like pulling teeth!). Our kids learned best about how to behave in church, etc., when they learned the work and meaning behind preparing for and being part of the services. Don’t underestimate their ability – they want to be used!
5. Create Programs to Fit the Kids, not Kids to Fit your Programs
Finally, we all have a picture of what we’d like the kids in our programs to act like and end up like – which is a good vision. But then we get the real kids, and we can tend to try to make them fit into our “mold.” Instead of trying to get kids to fit into what your corps expects or needs, be flexible in your programming to offer programs and activities that meet the needs and desires of the kids you have. Of course, we know what’s best, and we make the rules, but if you have a group of kids who are desperate to learn puppetry – make it happen! Or, if they want to sing and dance – teach them! You don’t have to fit them all into band (even though it’s a great skill), just because that’s all your corps has done. It might not happen overnight, but simply ask yourself – what do the kids we’re meeting want to learn? What will make them excited to be at The Salvation Army?