A Word to “Super Pastor!”

First of all, let me say up front that I’m not a children’s pastor. In fact, I’m no pastor at all. I’m an artist. I design environments for kids. In doing so, I’ve gotten the opportunity to see a lot of children’s pastors in action and I’ll tell you right now I’ll take my job over yours any day. You people are amazing. You’re like, the veterinarians of ministers. Okay, that sounds weird, but what I mean is veterinarians have to know how to diagnose all problems with all animals. They rarely specialize. Turtles with a cold, wombats with broken legs, water buffalo with the mumps, they all have to be treated by a vet. That’s how I see children’s pastors. Not only is it your responsibility to teach little Brian the deep spiritual meaning of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, you also have to be prepared when he goes poo-poo in his church britches. What other profession can be heard uttering the words, “Caleb, stop hitting Taylor with Elmo, sit down on the squishy mushroom, use your inside voice, put on your serious face and I’m going to tell you about how Jonah was puked up by a big fish.” It’s mind boggling. Now, as good as children’s pastors are at doing almost everything, I’ve discovered that you are always open to gathering new hints and information that will make your job better. That’s excellent and that’s where I come in. I’m here to help you out in the decorating and designing areas of your facility. I’m going to start off by boldly saying that far too often you’re making a gigantic mistake. That’s right, I said it and I didn’t even use my inside voice! Stay with me here because the solution is far easier than a veterinarian has for treating water buffalo mumps.

Painting Your Veggies

I love brussels sprouts. You know, those mushy, miniature cabbage heads that look like they were harvested in a Kleenex? Love ’em! Could eat ’em every meal! I also love broccoli, spinach and tofu. Go ahead, say it: “Weirdo artist.” I’m used to it. I spent much of my early years eating glue. But that’s beside the point. Let’s suppose that I am invited to your church to plan a big meal for your kids and I get to choose the menu! I’m very excited about this so I do my best to put together the tastiest meal I can possibly cook. The kids come pouring out of the rooms (single file, no talking, hands to yourselves…) and take a seat in the banquet room in front of a big Chinet paper plate of… brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach and tofu. They stare. They wonder if it’s a joke. They remember from the “Kid’s Manual of Conduct” that they must instantly cry at the sight of green food. They obey. “Houston, we have a catastrophe!” Fortunately, this particular mess is easy to clean up because we were just imagining it but the reality is, the majority of the decisions in designing your kids church area are made the exact same way. You have good intentions of making something visually yummy to the little ones, you spend all day cooking up the designs and painting it and in the end you hand them a plate of brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach and tofu. What’s a children’s pastor to do? (Cue fanfare music…) Ta da! Weirdo artist to the rescue!

I’m going to cut to the chase here. I’ve been going round and round just to say this: the number one mistake in designing for kids is neglecting to include the kids in the designing of their own space. Sounds simple enough, albeit a little scary as well. However, not letting your kids have input into what they want in their own space is equivalent to cooking adult food and expecting them to enjoy it. Kids eat macaroni and cheese with hot dogs because that’s what they like and that’s what they ask for. At Imagination Atmospheres, we frequently have a meeting with the kids as early as possible in the design process. It isn’t always possible for us to meet the kids one-on-one but for you and your own kids it’s a daily thing. Get the kids together and tell them what you’re planning for their space. If you have a theme idea, tell them what it is and let them know you’d like for them to dream with you about what to put in the area. This is really where the fun part comes in. You’ll get suggestions of every animal imaginable, being ridden by pirates and dinosaurs, while on fire and shooting out pink fairy-sparkles. No matter, write it all down. If you have a wipe board in the room, write everything down as they give it to you. You may want to continue to guide their suggestions toward your theme but try not to edit anything. Take all their suggestions seriously and encourage them to share all their ideas. Another thing I like to do is ask them what colors they would like to see in their space. You can (and should) bring in multi-colored paint swatches and ask them which ones they like best. Ask them to draw their idea of what the space should look like. Give them every opportunity to put in as much input as they can into the space’s design.

When your design consultation with the kids is over, you will have accomplished several things. For one thing, you’ve gotten the children excited and involved in the designing of their own environment and that’s always a very important part of the process. Another thing you’ve accomplished, which you might find surprising, is you have a few good, workable ideas you never even thought of. When we have the brainstorm sessions with the kids we almost always get more than one “Now, why didn’t we think of that??” suggestion. Those are always wonderful gifts. You also have pages of unusable ideas from the kids… but wait! Are those ideas really unusable? Okay, so most churches don’t have purple dragons holding a teddy bear, but… well, maybe they should! If you can fit it in, give it a shot. It could turn out to be everyone’s favorite part of the room. The reality is you won’t be able to use all of the suggestions and that’s okay. For kids, the process is usually more fun than the end result and you’ve allowed them to be a part of the process. Good for you!

As you work on and develop your kids area, continue to look for every opportunity to get the children involved. We once created a theme for a church that allowed one area to be designed in a way that all of the children could put their hand in a paint color and put their hand print on the wall. It took some coordinating by all of the children’s ministry staff but the kids loved it and no one got paint on anything but one hand and the wall. Kind of amazing if you ask me. If you are working with a theming company in designing your children’s space (such as… ahem… Imagination Atmospheres) ask them to send you a black and white line rendering of your concept drawing for the kids to color. If you’ve designed your own space, you can create your own line drawing coloring page. Post all of the finished coloring pages out in public for the moms and dads to see. This gets the entire family excited about the space. This is also frequently an effective way to get people on board during fundraising for your project.

Designing for kids means thinking like a kid and sometimes the best way to do that is to let the kids to think for you. Murals painted of pastoral subjects with dull colors always carry the tag of “Grown-up Designed & Inspired.” They may garner “ooos” and “ahhs” from the adult members, they’ll rarely energize or inspire a child’s imagination. Make your kids the spirit of your design by bringing them into its formation, planning and execution. They will bring a life to your creativity that will amaze you and leave an impact on all who experience it. Save the brussels sprouts for me.