Louise Stewart, Killamarsh, England
– A DESCRIPTION OF THE WORK OF AN ASSEMBLY AMONG THE YOUNG
Each Wednesday at 1.15 p.m. during term time, about twenty mums wipe the crumbs from their kiddies’ mouths, don their coats and turn the wheels of their cars or pushchairs towards the Gospel Hall in Killamarsh, near Sheffield, England. They are going to ‘Toddler Group’. Some have been making the journey for several years, as each of their children is born, renewing their contact with the group and showing off their latest offspring. For others it may be the first time, not only to the toddler group, but also to set foot inside a ‘church’ at all.
There is a social need to be met
Toddler Groups are one of the few areas of community need that are almost solely met by volunteers. However, the sheer effort involved in serving the public, often a thankless task, means that few stand the test of time, since those running them often move on to other things once their own children pass toddler age. Many Gospel Halls, up and down the country have responded to this opportunity, opening up their doors and hearts, motivated to serve their community out of a desire to win souls for Christ. We are endeavouring to do the same at the Toddler Group in Killamarsh, drawing alongside parents and sharing the trials and triumphs of family life whilst endeavouring to counteract the widely held belief that the complicated, demanding offspring of humanity ‘don’t come with an instruction manual’. They do – it is the word of God, but, ‘How shall they hear without a preacher?’ Rom. 10. 14.
There is a spiritual challenge to take up Whilst Toddler Group is not the forum to preach to people, we do have our ‘feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace’, Eph. 6. 15, ready to give an answer to any who ask the ‘reason of the hope that is within us’, 1 Pet. 3. 15. Inviting the general public into the hall, and ministering to their needs, enables the initial barriers of unfamiliarity and the preconceptions to be removed. People are often surprised by the relaxed and informal dècor of the hall. The walls and notice boards speak out the activities of the ‘living church’ within it, listing forthcoming events, rotas for hospitality, photos of trips and outings, and notices of special events. Around the walls are texts, all dwarfed by the large lettering of John chapter 3 verse 16 above the platform. Thus, the whole environment tells out the ‘Good News’ message that we hope to share. Should people only come into the hall for just one Toddler Group session, they would leave having read divinely inspired scripture and having experienced, we hope, the warmth and generosity of Christian friendship.
Forging the links and building the bridges
We have tried to structure each session to maximize the likelihood of people coming back. Each person is greeted individually, their attendance registered, and drinks chosen, alongside enquiring how things are going generally. This ritual enables us, eventually, to put names to faces, and gain some understanding of their situation and general outlook on life. We share the joy of weddings, pregnancies and new-birth alongside the worries of family life, or the trauma of illness and accident. Thus we hope that sometimes conversation can be guided imperceptibly on to spiritual issues. We have always maintained that talking to the parents is critically important and we should never apologise to one another for ‘wasting time’ in such a way. These conversations enable us to pray more intelligently for individuals, interceding for them before the Lord even though they may be ignorant of it. Prayer is the life-blood of Toddler Group, the hidden power that drives its commitment and creativity, with parents and families lifted up before the Lord.
Presenting the word of God
As well as fostering individual contacts with each, we also endeavour to structure the afternoon to include more formal biblical content too. This can of course be a tricky task to achieve, since the kiddies are so very young, and the expectation of the parents is for a Toddler Group and not a ‘preaching session’. However, the children love any chance to do ‘sticking’ or listen to a story out of a ‘story sack’, and so the vast wealth of Bible stories can be tapped into, providing entertaining story times, creative pictures and ‘take homes’. Other toddler groups do a ‘thought for the week’ for parents, putting up a poster to prompt thinking, and then directly facilitating discussion about biblical concepts after the story time for the kiddies has ended. Whatever the style of delivery, the value of incorporating biblical concepts is indisputable, and has certainly become one of the distinguishing characteristics of Gospel Hall Toddler Groups.
Taking advantage of events on the Calendar
We also build in biblical content during special events such as cards and gifts for Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Easter and Christmas. Birthdays are celebrated with a small gift, and the traditional ‘happy birthday’ song - although sometimes our singing and the sudden spotlight of attention can be overwhelming for a first birthday treat! Christmas and summer parties are a huge success, with guest speakers sometimes invited to tell a relevant Bible story. Careful planning and generous Bible book gifts are much appreciated and again build memories to be reflected upon when recalling toddler years. Opportunity to capture more formal memories is given every year when the Under Fives Photographer visits. Her pictures are a treasure to keep, and it is wonderful to think that those family heirlooms will always be associated with the Gospel Hall.
Providing the atmosphere of a Christian perspective is a major input
Generosity, a reflection of God’s grace in our lives, is woven throughout Toddler Group. The fact that there is no charge for teas or coffees each week, no fund raising events and yet a wide range of well kept toys is always remarked upon. In addition, there are liberal supplies of biscuits, homemade cakes and drinks to enjoy. Beyond those physical things though, generosity of spirit is noted. People have remarked upon the ‘peaceful’ atmosphere – a surprising triumph considering the chaos that reigns! They notice the time spent conversing with each parent, and enjoy the personal welcome. Many have observed that there are no cliques and that disagreements between children are managed with tolerance and sensitivity. Gratitude on the part of parents is a bonus, and helps by way of appreciation for our labours. However, these incidents are rare, and the overall reflections are of labour well spent and satisfaction that the Gospel Hall is being used as a centre from which to reach out to the local community. During the twelve years of our Toddler Group over 300 parents have enrolled, the majority staying for many months or years. We no longer need to advertise at all, relying on recommendation through health visitors, midwives, neighbours and friends.
Sowing turned to reaping
Whilst a good reputation is greatly valued, we long for spiritual fruit too. There have been many who have come to family services, carol services and prize-givings, but there the interest has stayed. A few, though, do express interest in Sunday School and it was with great joy that we restarted our Sunday School class for under fives, following specific requests from the mums. Attendance does wax and wane as the children are so young, but their tender years means that parents need to stay with them, and thus there is opportunity to share the gospel with them too. As a result, one of the mums commented that it would be good to have a ‘Sunday School for grown ups’. She was so persistent in her request that we eventually formed a women’s Bible study group at home. It has grown and blossomed over the two years we have facilitated it, and both the lady who requested it and an elderly friend have been saved as a result. We have proved the power of prayer, and the reality of wrestling with the Lord for blessing, but it is also true that the ‘the harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few’, Matt. 9. 37. There is so much more that could be done - in visitation or hospitality towards the mums throughout the week, or perhaps the provision of a coffee morning, or another Bible-study based approach, fellowship meals or family fun days.
Thus, Toddler Group plays a vital role in the spectrum of our outreach, bridging the gap between assembly and community, laying foundational witness that can be built upon through prayerful development of evangelistic activity. It is impossible to fully quantify its impact from our own perspective, for the work is the Lord’s and the harvest of souls belongs to Him. We hope only to fulfil our responsibility of being vessels, ‘sanctified, and meet for the master’s use’, 2 Tim. 2. 21, through whom the Holy Spirit can call lost souls to Christ.