From the trenches: Reaching parents with toddlers in Southampton

Jane Watkins | July 14th 2016

Jane Watkins is Head of Children’s Work at Above Bar Church, Southampton. Here she explains how they used Wonderfully Made to reach parents with the gospel at their toddler group.

We run a parent and toddler group called Poppin at our city-centre church on Monday and Tuesday mornings. We have over 100 families over the two days. Many of the parents, grandparents and carers would not come into the church apart from Poppin. People are extremely positive about it: the lovely helpers, decent coffee, a new church lounge, and good toys.

Poppin is one of our key weekly activities for unchurched people to come in to the building. We always pray for the people coming in—that there will be opportunities in conversations to share the gospel. At the group we celebrate Easter, Christmas, harvest, and the end of the academic year by sharing Bible stories, praying, and giving books to the children with a clear gospel message. We have good Bible story books in the book corner.

We also run Poppin Church twice a term as a "next step activity". This is a service specifically for pre-schoolers and their parents, grandparents, and older siblings. It includes craft activities related to the Bible story and a meal together afterwards. We are always encouraged by the number of families coming who have nothing to do with the church, other than Poppin. We pray that, as we teach the Bible simply and faithfully, what seems like insignificant seeds will produce fruit. It’s great to see church families getting alongside others and building relationships with them.

Meaningful conversations

With so many people at Poppin, it often feels busy and chaotic, so it’s difficult to have meaningful conversations, as parents are chasing after their children. Poppin Church is an easy next step, but parents may simply see it as being for their children, and not engage with the Bible story themselves. And it’s still a big step from that to a normal Sunday service.

We were very attracted to the idea of the Wonderfully Made course: with its simplicity and short videos, it sounded very user-friendly for a toddler group context. It scratches where parents itch. Parents always want help and support in parenting, and this course provides a place to give that support. But it goes much further than just practical parenting tips. It very gently introduces biblical ideas—that we’re made in God’s image, made for rest, made for relationship, made but spoilt.

We publicised the course with invitations before Easter. We asked people to sign up as we were going to provide lunch and run a crèche during the session, which would be immediately after a Poppin morning. The invitations made clear that it would be a course to help each other in parenting, but that we would also be looking at bigger questions of God and life.

I was thrilled when people began to sign up. We ended up with seven parents; just one of them was a church member. The course was led by two mothers and a grandmother from the church, and another church mum came to support it and help with discussions.

The timings worked brilliantly for the parents. They loved having some space without their children so that they could chat and think in a quiet environment. Miraculously, the children stayed in crèche, which was key in helping the parents feel positive towards us, as we were loving and caring for their children. The video was great and did lots of the hard work, introducing ideas about God. We then worked in two groups, chatting and thinking through the questions. We were amazed at the parents’ openness and willingness to ask questions about the Bible.

Positive feedback

At the end of the course, we invited the parents to Poppin Church and to one of our missional communities which was having a service in a home and picnic on the following Sunday. Two of them came!

We also asked them to complete a feedback form. I was nervous that the course had been much more overtly Christian than they were expecting, but they were all extremely positive and all filled in the box saying they would be interested in doing another course looking at Christianity, or trying a Sunday service. We gave each of them a copy of a short book that very clearly explains the gospel.

We would definitely run it again at Poppin—probably once a year. I’m also encouraging church parents to use this resource in their homes around the city as they can easily play the short DVD and chat about the questions while the children play in a home.

I don’t know of anything else like this course. I was amazed at how open the parents were to Christianity. I would definitely encourage others to try it.

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Jane Watkins

Jane is Head of Children’s Work at Above Bar Church in Southampton.

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