reflections on running a church toddler group (1)

This post is long overdue. In September 2012, two friends and I set up a new toddler group at church. In July, I handed over leadership to one of these friends, having been expecting to be relocating, and intended to write some reflections on what I’d learned through its leadership. However, it’s taken me three months to eventually get round to it, and my friend Izzy is now well established as the new leader. (Is there any point apologising for my tardiness anymore? You’ve come to expect it, right?)

Tuesday Tots was set up because we wanted to bless families in York with a safe, joyful environment in which children could play and parents could connect. From the start, we were keen to make it a place where our faith could be talked about in an open way with those who wanted to know more. But here lies a delicate balance: how do we incorporate our faith without ramming it into people’s lives? Because, after all, families don’t come to these sorts of groups to discuss religion – they come so that their kids will learn how to socialise and get to play with different toys. Parents come to gain some adult company, make new friends, and receive support in their parenting endeavours. They come because to stay in the house all day with a small child can be unbearable.

But they don’t come to hear about Jesus. Why would they?

And yet if we believe anything as Christian parents, it’s that God is interested in our parenting, that He longs to refresh us after sleepless nights and comfort us when we feel sad about some aspect of our child’s development or attitude. He longs to wrap His Fatherly arms around us and tell us we’re doing a great job, that our children (and us) bring Him such immeasurable delight, that He knows the sacrifices we make daily for our children – and that He’s hugely glorified by them.

In other words, to try and encourage families using just our own resources can only go so far. Ultimate refreshment, peace – or whatever these families need – comes from God.

Through hearsay and experience, I know that some church toddler groups make those with no faith feel pressurized and isolated – whilst others tiptoe around their faith, assuming that those who come to their group couldn’t possibly ever want to know about something so stressful and disengaging as the gospel (you know, the one that tells us we’re unconditionally loved and forgiven by the grace of God…), and if they do want to know, well they’ll just work it out for themselves through us being nice to them.

No – from the very start, the Tuesday Tots leadership team was clear: we wanted the group to be an oasis for families in our city, somewhere they would find acceptance, value, encouragement, peace, joy, hope, love and coffee in unlimited quantities. And, because these things come from God (yep, even coffee), we wanted there to be opportunities for those who were interested in God to find out more.

Looking back over the last year-and-a-bit, it seems the initial vision has worked. Our families know we’re Christians. (For to be secretive about this would be deceptive, and deception to those we’re serving would be unthinkably disrespectful.) We start with a sensory/interactive Bible story, which seeks to engage the little ones whilst making our beliefs clear as crystal to the grown-ups. But those who aren’t interested just rock up later – no sweat. They don’t mind that we’re doing a Bible story, and we don’t mind that they don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to force our beliefs onto people: we don’t need to. God’s pretty good at changing lives.

There’s also a lending library for the grown-ups available throughout the morning. I think it’s an incredible resource. We parents often feel a bit brain-dead in these early years of parenthood. We may be off work (temporarily or permanently), and not feeling like our minds are being engaged by anything much. Free books are a great way to say “Look, we don’t think you’re stupid. We reckon you might be looking for something to get stuck into for you. Go on, take a book and carve out a few minutes of luxurious reading time for yourself. You deserve it!” Many of the books are to do with marriage and parenting. Some are novels. Quite a few are Christian books. Again, there’s an opportunity to explore faith. But unforced. Jesus didn’t force anyone to believe.

I currently have the privilege of running an Alpha course at Tuesday Tots. It’s something we were praying about for a while, and suddenly everything came together to be able to offer it to our grown-ups this term. Funnily enough, once we started to advertise, it seemed that quite a few of our grown-ups wanted to do it. What do you know – God actually has a decent sense of timing.

The delicate question of “How Christian do we make the group?” is one we are constantly thinking about, chatting through and praying over. I think we have it right, in that our regulars include Christians, Atheists, and everything i nbetween – but we’re always keen for feedback. Ultimately, our aim is to bless families – not to preach at them. But if we can be a forum in which those who are interested can learn more, then brilliant!

I have just added a ‘1’ to the title of this blog post. Oh dear. There will be more to come, but I’ve just spotted the word count. Over and out for now.

cheap spiritual tat

This year, for the first time, we allowed Mister to choose how he spent his £10 birthday money. Last week we trotted off to the shop and perused the toy section, looking at the options.

I was keen for Mister to spend his money on a small box of Lego, which I felt offered good value for money. He was keen for an overpriced plastic Monsters University toy with no useful features, as far as I could see, apart from hinged arms.

“Don’t you want some more Lego? I just think you’ll play with it for longer, it’ll last forever, and you might get bored of that monster… Think of all the new things you could create with the Lego!”

But no – Mister had made his mind up – and the monster was bought. He didn’t let it out of his sight all day – but, shortly before teatime, he let out a cry and ran up to me.

“Mum – I was just jumping him up and down, and the teeth fell out.”

Sure enough, there was a hollow space where Jonny’s teeth had been, and I could see them inside the toy, impossible to get out. The toy was nothing but overpriced tat, made from cheap materials and not designed to last.

This little incident made me wonder how often I reject what my heavenly Father offers me, opting instead for cheap, spiritual tat which won’t last and definitely won’t satisfy. He offers me an intimate, satisfying relationship – and I replace it with the rhythms of organised religion, going to church on autopilot and trying to hit a target with my personal devotional times, like it’s some sort of competition. As my Rock, God offers me total security – and, instead, I opt to put my faith in material possessions. He offers me grace – yet time and time again I replace it with my own works – the cheap, spiritual tat of trying to earn God’s favour through doing good things.

Of course, I could have insisted that Mister buy the Lego. It’s a good quality toy, designed to last, with infinite creative possibilities. I imagine Mister would get several years’ use out of it. But that wasn’t the point. We gave him the choice because we love him, and want him to learn about money. How else will he learn if he’s not allowed to make mistakes, and live by them?

God never insists that we spend our lives on Him. He loves us too much for that – and He wants us to make the choice ourselves. Each time I choose a cheaper god, I am ultimately dissatisfied. For every wrong choice I make, I’m learning to make better choices in the future.

We returned the broken toy and exchanged it – not for Lego (to my disappointment) but for Lightning McQueen and Mater. They’ve lasted nearly a week so far, so here’s hoping…

david and goliath – a song for preschoolers

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll be well aware of my slightly disturbing obsession with writing simple Bible songs for my kids. Many kids’ worship songs are too long and wordy for small children (of preschool age) to sing and/or understand. And I often find that when my kids are learning about a particular Bible story, it’s handy to have a song to go with it!

Now, it may be the blood or gore or whatever, but my 4 year old boy has been really into the story of David and Goliath recently. So I came up with this little ditty, sung to the tune of ‘Miss Polly has a dolly’. If you don’t know this tune (I didn’t, prior to having kids), give me a shout – and if enough of you shout, I may just post a little video of me singing it with my kids. Don’t get your hopes up.

 

Goliath was a soldier who was big, big, big

He could break several soldiers like a twig, twig, twig

He said, “Come and fight me if you dare, dare, dare”

But all of God’s soldiers were too scared, scared, scared.

 

David was a shepherd who was small, small, small,

But he knew that God could do it all, all, all.

He took five stones from the river bed, bed, bed –

And the first one made Goliath fall down dead, dead, dead!

 

Actions encouraged…I will leave them to your imagination!