Having children can raise spiritual and moral questions for non-Christians. So how are churches reaching them?

If someone had told me a couple of years ago that in the near future i’d be running an outreach ministry to parents of newborn babies i’d have fallen off my chair in disbelief. These days I barely get time to sit on a chair (I’m permanently chasing a toddler) and if I do fall off one, it’s because I’m pregnant again, and no longer have a sense of balance.

God has used my becoming a mother – and the many life-altering challenges that new parenthood brings – to give me fresh compassion for parents of young children. I am now experiencing the roller coaster that it is to bring a child into the world: the months of sleepless nights, the toddler tantrums, the new pressures on your marriage. I am learning that this is a unique life stage in which support is much needed. We new parents are vulnerable, searching for advice and in desperate need of God. If there’s a people group that’s ready for harvest by the local church, this is it.

Not long after my husband Will and I arrived at St Peter’s West Harrow, where Will is the incumbent, one of the other mums shared her dream with me: to see the church run a group in association with our local GP surgery to support parents and carers of young babies. One of the unique facets of our church is that St Peter’s Medical Centre – a GP practice staffed entirely by Christians – is located inside our building. The church has always had a strong passion to see God heal, both spiritually and physically.

‘The Baby Way’ was launched in April 2009, and we now see between ten and 50 parents and babies arrive each week to have their babies weighed, seek advice from the health visitor or breast-feeding supporter and meet other parents. A team of church volunteers runs the service, serving drinks and homemade cakes and chatting to those who attend. We aim to create an environment in which new parents can build friendships and enjoy community. We are also a physical and relational gateway into church.

While our model for reaching parents of young children in West Harrow is an unusual one, UK churches have long since seen the need and opportunity to engage with this people group. Jenny Peters, head of children and families work at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square, London, says that the two parent and toddler groups she has run there for eight years are one of the most effective means of bringing new people into church. ‘Toddler groups…build community, and the by-product is that people might well come to your church,’ she says. ‘At least 40 families from the groups have joined the church since we began them.’

So can a parent and toddler group be run as a purely missional activity? Peters believes this isn’t the best approach, and could lead to disappointment if there isn’t significant crossover between the group and the church. ‘A parent and toddler group is worth running even if you never saw anyone from the group come to church,’ she says. ‘The church should be an obvious force for good. As a new parent you go from working full-time to having a baby to look after – you don’t know what you are doing and it can be intensely lonely. A group where parents can meet is invaluable. But then you form a relationship with those who come, and often this provides an opportunity to invite them to church.’

Reaching the Dads

Traditionally, parent and toddler groups have been well accessed by mothers and female carers of young children, but haven’t reached fathers. Mark Chester sought to engage with dads in his local community when he started a monthly Saturday morning gathering for fathers and male carers of toddlers at his church’s community building, Hoole Lighthouse Centre. Who Let the Dads Out looked a little different to a regular parent and toddler group session, incorporating bacon butties, newspapers and books on fatherhood.

There are now 28 Who Let the Dads Out groups meeting in churches across the UK. Development officer Dirk Uitterdijk explains the importance of reaching dads and supporting them in their parenting. ‘The most common time for a couple to break up is before their first child is two,’ he says. ‘A lot of families buckle under the pressures of new parenthood. Forty per cent of dads who are divorced or separated lose contact with their kids. We feel passionate about the church having early engagement with families, so that we help them over this hurdle and they stay together.

‘We also feel it is important for dads to make memories with their kids – for a dad to take his child to a group on his own is still really unusual,’ Uitterdijk adds. ‘We also try to gear the dads toward Christianity.’

The organisation encourages churches to offer follow-on activities to the dads who attend, such as their short parenting course for fathers, ‘Daddy Cool’. ‘The last session of the course is about passing on values and beliefs to your children and that’s where fathers get a chance to express what they believe, and think about what they want their children to believe,’ explains Mark Chester, chairman of the organisation. He found that so many of the dads wanted to take this discussion further that he launched ‘Soul Man’, a simple get-together over a takeaway where men can further explore basic spiritual questions.

So has he seen God work in the dads’ lives? ‘I’ve never seen a spectacular conversion,’ he says, ‘but over the years we have seen men slowly developing a stronger faith. Some have gone on to do Alpha courses; some start to attend church. I recently shared with a group about how I pray with my children before they go to sleep at night. One of the dads, who didn’t know if he believed in God or not, told me a few weeks later that he had started doing the same, because it sounded like a lovely way to end the day. So you get little encouraging signs.’

New Approaches

It’s not only fathers who are readily attending Christianrun parenting courses around the UK. The Family Time – Parenting Children Course, written by Mark and Lindsay Melluish from St Paul’s, Ealing, London, which is aimed at parents of pre-teenage children, is run in 200 churches across the UK. Nicky Lee, founder of The Parenting Course, run at Holy Trinity Brompton, London, says, ‘Many parents are open to attending a course, whether or not they are churchgoers. Parents want help and support, and value talking to others in the same situation. They find it a great relief when they discover they are not the only ones who are struggling.’ Anywhere between 20 and 90% of the parents on each course that Nicky and his wife Sila lead are not regular churchgoers.

Families across the UK who would not normally attend church are also starting to do so because of another fresh idea: Messy Church. Founder Lucy Moore set up the first Messy Church in 2004 from the church her husband leads in Cowplain, Portsmouth, where few families with children were attending on a Sunday. Her vision was to create a style of church that suited people of all ages for which traditional church wasn’t working.

‘We decided that we wanted to put on something for the whole family to come to, rather than just trying to reach the children,’ she says. Messy Church meetings usually take place monthly on a Saturday afternoon, and include creative activities, a child-friendly meal, worship and prayer. The meetings don’t tend to bring families into Sunday services however. ‘We didn’t set out with that aim,’ Moore explains. ‘What we wanted to do was start something that would be church, on the grounds that if people were available on Sundays and they liked that style of worship, they would probably be coming already. The whole point was to start something at a time and in a style that would suit them, not us.’ The Messy Church formula is clearly working: there are now 381 Messy Churches in the UK.

‘Messy Churches have a ministry of “being there” patiently…sowing seeds and being ready to respond to signs of growth,’ Moore says. ‘If any form of church reflects the act of being a parent, it is this – nurturing, waiting, not expecting miracles overnight, rejoicing in what appear to outsiders to be tiny marks of progress, building relationships, giving sacrificially and trying to create a wholesome, fun, meaningful childhood.’

Parenting Before Birth

Since writing a book on pregnancy and new parenthood, I have come across churches that are beginning to see the need to reach and support parents even from before their child is born. This past term, Christine and Paul Perkin at St Mark’s, Battersea Rise, London, trialled a new venture: a series of three Sunday lunches with speakers, for first time parents who were either pregnant or had just had their baby. ‘The aim was to build up friendships between the couples, as well as the marriages of those who came,’ says Christine. ‘Many of the couples said that becoming parents is a bigger adjustment than marriage. NCT [National Childbirth Trust] courses and hospital classes focus on the practicalities of having a baby, but what we felt was missing was teaching on how having a child affects your relationship – at the end of the day, that’s what counts.’

As a result of the meetings, several of the mums plan to continue to meet, babies in tow, for informal Bible study, and the dads hope to get together for curries. Christine is also considering inviting people who don’t usually attend church to future meetings. ‘You catch people at a very key stage in their life; they are very open, and willing to learn,’ she says.

At Burlington Baptist Church in Ipswich, Suffolk, Sally Sago, an ex-midwife, leads Women of Wonder – a group of pregnant mums-to-be (including mums expecting a second or third baby) who meet to pray and support one another through pregnancy. ‘If you are praying right from conception, the child in the womb will know that there is a spiritual aspect to life,’ she says. ‘Later on, if that child moves away from God, there will be an emptiness, because there was a spiritual link right from the word go.

‘Some church leaders feel that because they pray in a general way every now and again for a woman in their church who is pregnant, they are already doing enough. But you can take it much further,’ she adds. So could other churches set up something similar? ‘Churches need to join together, as in many UK churches there may only be one or two pregnant mums at any one time – and the mums are not going to get effective support in isolation,’ she says. ‘This really is an opportunity for churches to work together. But it has to be done carefully as people need training and some expertise to run something like this.’

Window of Opportunity

So what can your church do to reach local parents of young children? I believe that we need to seize the window of opportunity that presents itself when a couple begins a family. Parents of young children – whether or not they have an established faith – are thinking about how to teach morals to their children, or bring them up within a loving community. Is your church ready and willing to engage? In order to do so, we need to think strategically about the specific needs and demographics of our community, as well as the ‘costs’ – in people, time and finances – that our church is able to sustain in order to run a successful, long-term ministry. Lucy Moore advises churches to provide ‘…a place where children are welcome, whether that’s a toddler group… a storytelling session or holiday club’.

‘It’s having somewhere where children can be children,’ she says. ‘Churches can do a lot on Sundays to ensure children are welcome, and think outside the box rather than just stick them in a crèche in a dark vestry somewhere. Think in terms of having children in the body of the church...That requires sacrifice on the part of the church, of course.’

Perhaps the final word on the subject should go to Bill Hybels, founder of the US mega-church Willow Creek, who has often urged senior pastors to invest in their children’s ministry. In an interview published on todayschildrensministry.com he said: ‘Today I believe the single remaining…entrance point for non-churched people into the life of the church is children. No matter how lost a guy is, he still usually loves his son. And no matter how off track a woman is, she still has a soft place in her heart for her kids. This means we have a wide open door to almost every family in every community worldwide when we love and serve their kids. If a kid comes home from a children’s ministry and says, “I met some kids, I had fun and loved it, and I want to go back,” most of the time a parent will say “Ok” and then return to that church.’