(An abridged version of this article originally appeared in the WEBA supplement to the Baptist Times in November 2011.)
Small children are everywhere: upstairs, downstairs and playing happily on the carpet in the sanctuary itself. They’re gluing and painting, colouring and stencilling, moulding play dough and making models. Later on, there’ll be refreshments for everyone followed by story time and a sing-song.With so many youngsters around, you wouldn’t ever say it was peaceful, but the bustle is purposeful and contented. The children are enjoying themselves and the parents milling around are conspicuously at their ease.
Welcome to Friday Under Fives (FUFs), Cirencester Baptist Church’s open-house for the town’s pre-school children and their guardians running from 9.15 to 10.45 every Friday morning during term.
But wait a minute, that’s just the first shift.
“We had so many people wanting to come that we used to have turn some away,” says FUFs leader Steff Kingsley. “Our upper limit was 50 children plus adults, but there were many more than that. Those who couldn’t get in would be bitterly disappointed and some would even be in tears.” Friday was the day when people wanted to come, so the solution was to introduce a second session of FUFs.
“We now get about 45 children at the first session plus around 35 adults,” says Steff. “We get half an hour’s break and then the second session starts at 11.15 and runs till 12.30. About 35 children come to that, with 25 adults, so our total intake has increased to somewhere around 80 children each week.”
Such an operation takes a lot of planning. Work starts the night before when the youth group leaders put the church straight after their group has met. As well as putting their own equipment away, they put out the tables and chairs for FUFs and make sure that all the toy boxes are in the correct rooms ready for the morning. The next day, Steff and three of her team arrive at 8 o’clock to set out the games and activities and get the church ready for the toddlers to arrive. They always make sure that they’ve finished by 8.45 so that the team can spend a quarter of an hour praying for the morning’s activities. Parents know that they can join them if they like.
Prayer is a vital part of what goes on at FUFs and it’s mentioned every week that there are confidential prayer cards available for anyone to fill in and post in the shoebox provided. A team of volunteers from the church faithfully pray for the group and all those mentioned on the cards. “We’ve had some fantastic answers to our prayers,” says Steff.
There are twelve other people in the FUFs team, including the church’s youth and children’s minister Bob Morris and recently appointed youth and children’s worker Naomi Shrubsole. It takes eight of the team to run FUFs each Friday, with some helping Steff at the early session and others working with her at the later. Once a month, there’s a Bible-based activity and story to coincide with the theme of the coming Sunday’s Messy Church. Naomi tells the story to the first group and Bob to the second. Steff is clear about the importance of FUFs both to the church and the families who attend. And she says that love is the key to FUFs’ success.
“Parents know that they are going to be loved. They come back and bring their friends because FUFs is loving and friendly. People have been to other groups where they’ve been ignored or judged. That doesn’t happen here. Whether they’re mums or dads, they can come and be accepted. Bob’s here, and we’ve got other men on the team too, which makes it much easier for the dads. And we are church to those who come to FUFs. Often people won’t go through church doors, but they will go to a toddler group. We’ve tried to be as open about our faith as we possibly can and over the years I’ve certainly become more up-front about what I believe. We pray for all these people and support them as best we can.
“It’s very exciting – one of the mums has just come to faith! In addition, about six or seven FUFs families have come to Messy Church and two more are now coming regularly to church on Sunday morning.”
Bob Morris is also convinced of the value of FUFs to his own ministry. “As a youth minister, if I want to get a 13 year old to talk to me, I have to get to know them when they’re three. It’s about building relationships. I’m always there on the door at FUFs, so it’s the same face every week. I just say hello and direct new people to Steff but gradually I get to know everyone. Doing a Bible story once a month is great too. I always involve the kids as much as I can. Last week I was doing an assembly at a local school and the whole front row were FUFs graduates, all trying to wave to me without the teachers seeing! They know me, and that makes all the difference, then and when they’re older.”