Year after year we see that Vacation Bible School is the most effective tool most churches have for leading children to Christ. But how effective is your follow up?
In a Sunday morning conference at Ridgecrest a couple of years ago, a minister of education sitting next to me shared that she was trying something different after VBS. Every year she had faithfully assigned new prospect families from VBS to appropriate Sunday School classes, and each class was to follow up. In addition, each family received a phone call from a phone bank of volunteers who genuinely cared about reaching out to them. I nodded positively as she described the process, since it was exactly what I did for years.
This minister continued, recalling how earlier that year she had asked herself, "How have we really done at bringing these new families into our church?" So she ran the numbers over the past several years. Exactly zero of the VBS prospect families had stuck for any length of time. That's where I stopped nodding and began wondering. How had we done with our process? I knew we did more than lots of other churches. Our Sunday School leaders seemed enthusiastic about their new prospects every year. And I knew some calls were made. But I couldn't say whether our success rate had been much better than this lady's. I was ready to hear what she was doing differently this year.
Instead of assigning new VBS prospects to existing adult classes this summer, she had started a totally new Sunday School class just for the parents in those newly discovered families. It was a six-week class on biblical parenting, and only open to these new folks. Throughout VBS the new parenting class was announced in promotional materials leading up to the week, through the daily take-home sheet given to kids, and at Thursday's VBS Family Night event (where the class teachers were introduced). Parents were informed about the class (which met at the regular Sunday School time), and told about the children's classes which met at the same time.
The minister of education admitted some nervousness about the new approach. But week one of the experiment (the previous Sunday) had been a great success. The new class was packed with parents who had never attended Sunday School at her church before. (At this point everyone in our Sunday morning conference began writing notes--what a great idea! It was one of those V8 moments--"I coulda had a class like that!") As we moved on to another discussion in the conference, the minister's phone buzzed. She pulled it from her purse, read the text, and started giggling quietly. I leaned over to ask about her smile. She whispered that it was a message from the person in charge of the new class back at her church that morning. The week two crowd was even bigger than week one! A larger room was needed for week three.
Why did this new idea work? Probably for a variety of reasons, including focused planning, early communication, an interesting biblical topic, and selection of good leaders. But I'll suggest another reason, which applies to any new class regardless of when it's started: space for new people. No, not just the physical space. We know we need an area with some chairs. I'm referring to social space. An environment where outsiders know they will have a place. As friendly as we may be, our existing classes quickly develop relational networks, communication patterns (verbal and nonverbal), traditions (even a nontraditional group), and methods of operating that can leave an outsider feeling very uncertain about their place in the group. Yes, there are things we can and should do to help our class members lower these barriers for newcomers year-round, but there's nothing quite like a brand new group for helping an outsider get to the inside. And quite possibly from curious about Christ to knowing and following him.
How will you do VBS follow up this summer? How will you provide new (social) space for outsiders when school begins at the end of summer? After your fall kids carnival? The Sunday after Easter next year? These may be good times to start a new group! Never done that before? Here are some suggestions to get you started. Let us know how it goes, or if you need some help along the way.
Steps for Starting New Groups
- Identify the target group and begin praying for them
- Build awareness and support for new groups in your church
- Enlist and prepare a leadership team for the new group
- Build the ministry list--prospects and members you will invite and include
- Provide space, equipment, and resources
- Promote start date and location to target group
- Plan and conduct the first session
- Provide ongoing support
Need help starting a new group, designing your strategy, or training group leaders? The Texas Baptist Bible Study/Discipleship team is available:
Phil Miller, Director - email@example.com Keith Lowry, Adult//Families/Seniors/Singles Specialist - firstname.lastname@example.org Jane Wilson, Youth Ministry Specialist - email@example.com Diane Lane, Preschool/Children's Specialist - firstname.lastname@example.org David Adams, Discipleship Specialist - email@example.com