A Small Congregation Advantage: From 'Children's Moment' to 'Each Child's Ministry'

Children bible study

By Teresa Stewart

“He actually parted and combed his hair,” Pastor Rebecca Stredney said with a smile, “and it was clear he had been practicing the lines.”

She was referring to a twelve-year-old boy in her small town. Everyone knew him. And depending on their patience level, people labeled the boy either as “trouble” or “troubled”—for good reasons.

He wasn’t a member or even a regular participant in her rural Kansas congregation. He showed up periodically. Pastor Rebecca recognized that “he didn’t seem to fit anywhere.” He avoided or derailed the “children’s moments” in worship.

Pastor Rebecca might have looked at her small congregation and sighed, “I guess we don’t have what he needs.” Instead, she made a different wager: “I bet we need what he has.”

So, she took a holy, unlikely leap. She asked him to play the role of Paul in a month-long worship series. Each week, the congregation needed him to present the words at the heart of the worship service. She asked him to participate in a big way. The boy who couldn’t sit for a “children’s moment” would take on a ministry—with his own gifts. And everyone’s worship would depend on it.

He showed up that first week with a crumpled script and tended hair. The congregation cheered him on. His interpretations cheered them on week after week. Something was happening.

That “something” was participation culture. It’s a powerful strength of small congregations. Participation culture is not about observing experts. It’s about messy creation with each person’s ordinary gifts. Pastor Rebecca had been practicing its holy unlikely leaps for years. Instead of starting with a finished picture of ministry, she wonders: “What if we start with all the gifts of all the people in our community?”

And here’s the grand secret. It works. The greater the participation, the greater the formation. For everyone. The more each person’s gifts, interests, and words just might affect something, the more deeply we value the new thing being created among us.

Participation culture is not about observing experts. It’s about messy creation with each person’s ordinary gifts.

In these transition times, it’s a crucial lesson. Leaders of children’s ministries have a pivotal role in teaching this lesson. Congregations are more open to experiencing new patterns with children. You and the children can lead the way.

So, go to your strengths—your advantages. Go beyond crafting a weekly children’s moment and imagine a ministry for each child. Don’t worry about designing a big program. Start by diagnosing deeper participation, one child at a time.

  • Could Ellie read the scripture for us?
  • Could Steve take pictures that show hope?
  • Could Madeline decorate the altar?
  • Could Joe make drawings of the worship themes for posting and delivery?
  • Could Helen stand on a stepstool beside the font and invite people to remember the gift of baptism?
  • Could Grant write and deliver his own psalm of lament?
  • Could Zora explain how remote learning works and what students need?
  • Could Don serenade homebound people?
  • Could Gina show how she tends her new lambs?
  • Could David act out the scripture story?

How could the love of dance, outer space, gardening, baseball, or entomology be a gift to this congregation?

We need what they have. Participation is not the right of the righteous and ready. It is the experience of grace for unlikely, uncombed, inexperienced folks. And small settings are the perfect places to practice this wonder. What if we started with all the gifts of all the people?

Now leap.

Teresa Stewart is the creative director of Paper Bag Cathedrals, which is devoted to resourcing small congregations. A lifelong United Methodist, she starts with this question: “What could we craft from the interests of each community and the advantages of small settings?” Most recently, Teresa has explored this question in curating worship for the Saint Paul School of Theology seminary, writing children’s worship resources and developing intensive workshops for clergy and laity ready to ask this question together.

She lives with her family in the Kansas City area, where she worships with Kuomba Pamoja, a United Methodist congregation of Congolese refugees, who continue to teach her about the mysteries of ministry.