Becky May believes this ministry to parents, carers and young children could be the most undervalued aspect of your local church’s ministry.
Misunderstood and underutilised
I have become more and more convinced that the toddler group is the most misunderstood and underutilised activity in the life of the Church. It has immense value in transforming the lives of entire families and holds the potential to begin lifelong discipleship journeys. Gavin Calver, CEO of the Evangelical Alliance, formally of Youth for Christ, is well known for saying: “If you want to change the world, start a youth group, it’s what Jesus did.” I don’t disagree with Gavin, I love youth groups, I’ve been around youth groups for longer than I can remember. But if I’m really honest, I want to go back even earlier than where Gavin starts. I say, if you want to change the world, start a toddler group.
Quick confession, I haven’t always felt this way, in fact I went to extraordinary lengths to avoid any involvement with early years, not least opting to complete a teaching practice in a school placed in special measures, rather than accept a transfer to an early-year setting! There was something rather terrifying about the prospect of working with under-fives, perhaps best illustrated by Buzz and Woody and Co’s trip to Sunnyside Daycare in Toy Story 3. More worrying, perhaps, than misplaced anxiety about crowds of screaming infants, is the misunderstandings we hold about this age group and their God-connections – their ability to have a relationship with God.
This is illustrated in a conversation I once had with a church leader: “We don’t want a toddler group, we want a youth group; we want them to at least be old enough to understand and make a response to God.” This so utterly ignores what the Bible tells us about God’s relationship with the youngest members of our community: “Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies” (Psalm 8:2).
Are they old enough?
So many of our churches have children’s and youth ministries founded on the same understanding as this church leader – we need them to be old enough to decide! It is well worth giving some thought to our own churches and to ourselves: what is it we, and I, understand about the place of babies and toddlers in relation to God? When we unpick this, we begin to understand why we choose to put our emphasis. If we believe it’s all about waiting until they are old enough, we will choose not to get involved with the youngest children, and this can be why our toddler groups become sidelined from the rest of our children’s, youth and family ministry rather than recognised as a vitally important foundation stone or first step.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Much of our church-led youth work is about pulling teenagers out of a river, rescuing them from the world. When our work with children, youth and families is based on an understanding that we wait for them to be old enough to decide, we have already left them to fall in the river.
What if, instead, we went upstream and met them in their first steps of life? What if we recognised that a child’s relationship with God didn’t start when they were ‘old enough’ but it starts, as Psalm 139 celebrates, when God “knit me together in my mother’s womb”. How would this change the way we saw toddler ministry? How would it change the way we valued our toddler groups?
In February 2020, just before the world stopped and we went into our first lockdown, Hope Together, the Evangelical Alliance and the Church of England commissioned a piece of research by Savanta ComRes, which found that 74 percent of all parents of under-fives had attended an activity run in or by a church in the last year. A third had attended a toddler group. One third of all under-fives had attended a church-run or church-hosted toddler group. This Talking Toddlers research has elevated the conversation around the value of toddler ministry and birthed a series of webinars and online support materials, which are available here.
If we had not yet grasped the potential for toddler ministry, this research screams it out loud! While we have all learnt the ‘95 percent of children are not in our churches’ statistic, we have ignored or overlooked the fact that a third of all under-fives in the UK have been a part of a church-led or church-hosted toddler group! This does not include the plethora of activities which take place on church grounds – these are the groups led, run and organised by the local church, welcoming in a third of all infants in the first few years of life! This is something to celebrate, to get excited about, to share with our wider church family and to pray into together.
There must be more to life than this…
From my own experience, I have noticed that there is something really rather interesting that happens when a new member of a family arrives, either through birth or other pathways. In this season, families who have experienced for themselves the miracle of birth or the process of adoption get a glimpse of the bigger story of God: that there must be more to life than this. In this season, families often choose to find a connection to the local church.
- For some, this will be a conscious decision to discover more of God and of Christian faith, for others, it may be to seek out a supportive community, to find their village in which to raise their child.
- There will be some for whom stepping into a church-led toddler group will be a response to pain or difficulty, seeking out both physical and spiritual support in a testing season.
- I have seen in these groups, weeks-old infants, held in the laps of foster carers, screaming as they withdraw from substances they were exposed to in the womb.
- I have seen newly arrived migrant families sigh in relief as they discover another mother who shares their language and experience.
- I have seen first-time mums sob as, for the first time, they ask someone for help.
- I have seen bereaved parents share their anxieties over the health of their rainbow babies, parents of children not meeting their milestones discover others with similar experiences and pathways to support.
If you are involved in toddler ministry, you will have many of your own stories, and if you are not, you only need to walk down the corridor to speak to your toddler group leaders.
The toddler group is a precious place where all of life is held, where joy is celebrated and grief honoured, a safe place where people choose to make themselves vulnerable and seek support. It is also one of the first communities our infants will be members of, and here they can hear about the God who made them, who knows them and who loves them.
What do we do to make the most of the opportunity our toddler groups present? I want to suggest that there are four ways we can ensure our toddler groups are distinctly Christian. It may not be that you choose to do all of these, although I would argue that some are essential and including all of these is most beneficial:
- Hospitality: the way in which we welcome all into our groups should model the way God welcomes us all into his family.
- Teaching: many of us still choose to shy away from sharing a Bible story, forgetting that people have come into a church-led activity, expecting us to be church and do church stuff!
- Faith development: we should be the place where those who want to explore faith can have their questions answered, where we offer the opportunity to pray and where we invite people to explore further.
- Integration into the wider church family: this is not about getting bums on pews on a Sunday morning, although I am discovering more and more that for some, this is an important step in their journey. Rather, how often does the wider church pray for our toddler group? How do we encourage our toddler families to feel a part of our wider church?
At the start of this article, we acknowledged that for some, being present and even leading the weekly groups is an integral part of their role, while others are disconnected from these activities. I want to suggest that all of us have a vital role in celebrating the value of our toddler groups, of identifying their role in our wider ministry and understanding how and why they can form the precious first step on a child and family’s journey of faith.