When my first child was born, I discovered new extremes of emotion: I swung between feeling overwhelmed with love for this tiny scrap of humanity one minute, to finding myself sobbing with frustration half an hour later when he wouldn’t sleep. Becoming a parent is a transformative experience but can quickly lead to a sense of isolation as we realise that our eagerly anticipated baby refuses to simply slot into our previous routines.
For exhausted new mums and dads, parent and toddler groups can be a real life-saver, and there is a fantastic opportunity here for churches to reach out to their local community.
For exhausted new mums and dads, parent and toddler groups can be a real life-saver, and there is a fantastic opportunity here for churches to reach out to their local community. Providing a safe and stimulating environment where parents can meet with others in a similar situation offers valuable respite for those who are struggling and can attract people who would not dream of attending a normal church service. The thought of your toddler bursting into tears because someone else is playing with his favourite toy is somehow much less alarming if you know that you’re likely to receive sympathetic glances rather than condemnatory tutting.
The format of such groups clearly needs to take account of the demographic of the surrounding area and also the availability of church members to staff it. However, even a relatively simple approach – offering a safe space with tea / squash and biscuits – can be a brilliant way for congregations to serve their local community. And having a team of committed prayer warriors for such ventures means that churches are open to God developing the work in new ways as it grows.
For over 20 years, my home church has been running an increasingly popular parent and toddler group. What was initially a one-morning-a-week venture now runs for three mornings each week during term-time (and there’s usually a waiting-list). The sessions have slightly more structure than other groups I’ve attended, but the emphasis is still very much on welcome and inclusivity. Each morning features a short singing time based around Christian themes. There are also toddler-friendly craft activities – often related to the singing topics – as well as plenty of time for playing, chatting and drinking cups of tea.
It’s a safe space for little ones to let off steam, as well as giving parents the chance to engage with other adults, and ask questions about faith and meaning during such a turbulent stage of life.
In evangelistic terms, the most obvious benefit to this provision is that it demonstrates God’s love by offering a caring, supportive environment: a place where all can feel accepted, regardless of whether their children are having a good or a bad day. It’s a safe space for little ones to let off steam, as well as giving parents the chance to engage with other adults, and ask questions about faith and meaning during such a turbulent stage of life.
The group also introduces children to the gospel message, at a level that they can understand. For many, this will be their only contact with Christian beliefs – but it’s a seed that may well bear fruit in due season. This is a long-term project, and one that needs patient prayer, but over the years, several of the parents / carers have developed an interest in spiritual matters as a result, with some taking part in Alpha courses and – eventually – joining the church fellowship.
By creating space, welcoming people into the church, and being open about faith, we are providing parents and toddlers with more than just a quick fix to the turmoil of today’s tantrums – we are inviting them to experience lasting joy, peace and love in Jesus.
Organising (and running) a parent and toddler group requires lots of energy and enthusiasm, and there are plenty of ways to get involved if you’re not sure where to start: praying, making tea / coffee, setting up and clearing away, befriending new parents, and being ready to offer the love of Jesus whenever possible. Why not ask God how you could support such a group in your church?