Gavin Calver, CEO of the Evangelical Alliance, formally of Youth for Christ is well-known for saying, ‘if you want to change the world, start a youth group, it’s what Jesus did.’
I don’t disagree with Gavin, I love youth groups, I’ve been around youth groups for longer than I can remember, but if I’m really honest, I want to go back even earlier than where Gavin starts; I want to say, if you want to change the world, start a toddler group.
Let me confess, I haven’t been involved in toddler ministry that long. Working with the under-5s was an area I managed to successfully avoid until I had my own children and discovered there was nowhere left to hide!
In spite of this, I have long seen, and long believed in the value of toddler groups. It is my hope and prayer that even those still on the run from toddler group duty, and those who may never be called to take up the playdough-making, coffee-serving, chair-stacking, train-track-laying responsibilities, will see the life-changing, ministry-shaping potential that our toddler groups hold.
In February 2020, just before the world stopped and we went into our first lockdown, Hope Together, The Evangelical Alliance and The Church of England commissioned a piece of research by Savanta ComRes, which found that 74% of all parents of under 5s had attended an activity run in or by a church in the last year. 33% had attended a church-run or church-hosted toddler group. Of course, this will include a number of privately organised baby signing, messy play, baby gym-type classes, but this number is not insignificant.
The full Talking Toddlers research, together with further input on how we can build on this can be found here:
Whether you hear that statistic and rejoice at the 33% or grieve for the 67%, our toddler groups, and ministry with under 5s offers huge potential. Why? Firstly, because we know that early intervention works;
“It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men,”
“Give me a child until he is 7, and I will show you the man,”
“The first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out.”
Early intervention works, if that is true for a child’s social, emotional and physical development, then it’s also true for a child’s spiritual development.
Imagine growing up never not-knowing the God who loves you. Imagine growing up never not-knowing a community of faith surrounding you. What a gift that is for the children in and out of our toddler groups, the children in our communities.
Why do I believe we can change the world with a toddler group? Because if we do this, we get to be involved in a child’s lifelong journey of faith from the earliest moments of their life and enable them to experience what it is to never not-know the God who loves them.
Do you know what else toddler groups do? They give us the opportunity to be involved in the life not just of those children, but also of their parents. All the research in the world concludes that the most influential element of a child’s or young person’s life is their parents. A 2016 Theos thinktank research project concluded: “Overall, despite the perceived strength of other social and cultural forces, ‘faith’s’ most effective ‘not-so-secret’ weapon in passing on beliefs and practices to the next generation remains parents.”
If you want to change the world, start a toddler group. Right now, as we continue this journey out of the trauma of the last two years, has there ever been a greater need?
Over the last few months, there has been a sense of inadequacy from some quarters in the churc, worrying about what we can’t do; “we can’t… because.”
“We can’t compete with the professionally run activities,” “We can’t provide all our families need,” “We can’t find the volunteers to run our activities,” “We can’t.”
Let’s be honest, we’re not the first to complain about what we can’t do: Moses, “I can’t speak to Pharoah”
In Acts 3:1-16, we find two of Jesus disciples who began their service to a man in the street; “We can’t..” but they didn’t stop there: “I don’t have any silver or gold, but I’ll give you what I do have and I have Jesus, He’s incredible and He’s going to change your life.”
As a child I never really understood this interaction. I couldn’t understand why Peter and John started by telling the man what they didn’t have instead of telling him about Jesus first, now I wonder if we’ve lost sight of the fact that the thing we do have is Jesus.
When my son was tiny, we went to try out a toddler group in a local church. It was a little intense because we were the only ones there, but we got to a point in the session where one of the leaders said, “we’re going to have a story now, it’s from the Bible, but it’ll be ok.”
We’re apologising for talking about the one thing we’ve got! I once heard someone refer to this as treating Jesus like the vegetables we hide in the Bolognese sauce.
And do you know what the crazy thing is? People don’t want us to hide Jesus! Pre-pandemic, the Talking Toddlers and the related Talking Jesus research found that 18-34 year olds were more open than any other age group to talking about Jesus. And now? People have never been more open to talking about issues of life and death, we’ve lived surrounded by it in a way we’ve never experienced before, so let’s not hide the treasure we have.
“I don’t have any silver or gold, but I’ll give you what I do have and I have Jesus, He’s incredible and He’s going to change your life.”
If you want to change the world, start a toddler group; journey with children from the beginning of their life, engage with the whole family and share Jesus, the treasure we have.