“The churches that focus on creating effective children’s worship spaces are the ones that seem to be growing. The ones who don’t spend any money in that area seem to be in decline.” This is the harsh truth as observed by John Rebry, account executive with Headrick, a Laurel, Miss.-based signage company that has expanded its reach to include themed children’s worship spaces. He clarifies: “If the kids like to go there, the parents will bring the kids, and that leads to overall growth for the church.”
More than creating a space where parents drop the kids off Sunday morning and pick them up in a few hours, churches today are striving to create a family gathering space that is inviting to all. Reagan Hillier, president of Worlds of Wow in Argyle, Texas, cites these spaces with family appeal as one of the biggest recent trends in children’s worship. “Local churches want to become more involved in their communities and create ‘family experiences,’” he says. “To reach more families, churches have realized the need to create environments that are fun and safe for kids not only on the weekends, but all week long.”
Hillier cites Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., as a good example. The church opened a new preschool building and included a dedicated playroom and a self-contained space for family birthday parties and other gatherings, where parents, extended family and friends can play with the kids on Saturdays.
Welcoming parents into the children’s worship area doesn’t have to begin inside—and it shouldn’t. Hillier says that churches can get the most mileage from their children’s ministry by starting the experience in the parking lot. “Start with some signage outside that’s helpful for adults and fun for kids,” he says. “You can place some signage at the kids’ eye-level to engage them, too. Something as unexpected as electric train-themed golf carts to pick up families in the parking is a lot of fun.”
Whatever you do to welcome guests and members to the space, Nicole Thompson, AIA, NCARB, principal with Station Nineteen Architects in Minneapolis gets back to basics by reminding church leaders to keep security and location in mind. “If families don’t feel secure leaving their children, they won’t leave them,” she says. “The second thing is location— it’s important to have the children’s worship space close to the main worship center in an easy-to-find location.”
Children’s themed spaces: Biblical or secular?
The play area, signage and other children’s ministry elements located outside serve as a billboard for the church. And it’s okay if these sign elements are not Bible-focused, Hillier says. “You want something kids don’t see five days a week at school. But that doesn’t mean you have to put Noah’s Ark outside. Sometimes it’s as easy as using large windows to reveal a fun kids’ play area just inside the building. The goal is to provide something engaging and inviting outside, and wow them on the inside so kids can’t wait to come to church.”
Inside, there are fun ways to incorporate spiritual messages into a themed environment while still keeping the theme largely secular. Hillier provides still more examples: “If it’s a city theme, maybe the coffee shop is His Brews, and [the] street signs are individualized to have a spiritual connotation. Or, if the hallways show scenes from around the world with a missions emphasis, we can add scripture passages between each vignette.”
Jonathan Martin, owner of Jonathan Martin Creative based in Tulsa, Okla., agrees that you can incorporate spiritual and secular elements in nearly any themed space. “My personal view is that we can see God at work in any time period, and therefore His message can be experienced through themes outside the ‘Biblical times.’ We also have to remind ourselves that the scenery we provide is to support the pastors and what they teach. Our hope is to make the surroundings engaging enough to ready the hearts and minds to the Word being taught. We’ve done our share of both Biblical and secular themes and, in our heart, both are correct.”
More important than whether the theme is Biblical or non-Biblical, secular or spiritual, is that it fits the church’s brand and DNA. “When we’re coming up with a new, original theme for a church, we want something that fits who the church is and how they do their ministry,” Hillier says.
Themed environments aren’t new in children’s worship spaces. But designers are taking them farther than ever before to capture (and keep) kids’ attention, the experts report. “I encourage children’s pastors to think outside the box,” Martin says. “We get calls to do a lot of what they’ve seen already done in other churches. What we see that was ground breaking and perhaps a bit shocking eight or nine years ago is common today.”
If Martin has one piece of advice for church leaders planning children’s worship space, it would be: “Break out of the box, we’ll dream right along with you. Think like a director of a movie, and your facility is the back lot studio. Kids will love that.”
Rebry says he’s seeing more three-dimensional elements in children’s worship environments. Headrick just completed a themed space at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Aurora, Ill., that showed the heritage of the African-American church in living color and 3D. “We found some real photos of African landscaping and blew them up into a 40-foot-long by 10-foot-tall photo, then enhanced that 2D custom wallpaper with 3D thatched huts and animals, carved from a hard-coated foam product.”
Headrick worked closely with the pastor to find out what he wanted to convey in the space. The pastor wanted to convey the heritage, in a realistic, visually stimulating way. “The 3D effects helped it come to life,” Rebry says. He also describes a three-dimensional Adam and Eve sculpture that recently found a home in a church at Immanuel Baptist Church in Benton, Ill. Sound expensive? Rebry says it doesn’t have to be if you work in phases. “You don’t have to go in with $50,000 or $100,000 to start. You can begin with 2D, customprinted wallpaper and, as money comes in, enhance it with signage or 3D additionals. When it’s done, it all flows together,” he says.
The goal, Thompson says, is to create a space that says to the community, “‘We value children and you are welcome to hang out here anytime.’” And she concludes, “Even more important than the spaces are the people serving on the ministry team and their passion for children. The building and the spaces are tools that reinforce the ministry.”