JAM program connects kids with Jesus

By Fred Koenig, Special Contributor…

HOUSE SPRINGS, Mo.—The Rev. Barbara Phifer was responding to a direct need in her congregation when she started taking steps to implement a new program for children at Faith United Methodist Church.

“Parents were expressing a desire for their younger children to learn the Bible,” Ms. Phifer said.

Several of the parents didn’t grow up in church, and are working on their own biblical literacy as adults. They want better for their children. This led the church in eastern Missouri to develop JAM (Jesus And Me), a Wednesday program that involves Bible study, a meal and fun.

Danielle Adkins said she loves the program. She hasn’t been involved in a church at all since she was a child herself, when she attended a Catholic school.

“The kids are learning more about Jesus than I can teach them,” Ms. Adkins said. “This has improved the kids’ behavior, and bringing them here gives me some time to study.”

Ms. Adkins and her children, ages 10, 4 and 10 months, were baptized in the church in May. “The people here really make you feel welcome. They remember who you are,” she said.

The church decided to hire a part-time staff member to coordinate the program, and the Rev. Tom Sanders got the job. Mr. Sanders is Ms. Phifer’s husband, and is a recently retired elder and former director of Kingdom House, a ministry serving families in St. Louis.

JAM is Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. It begins with the children reciting a Bible verse they learned the week before. Then there’s a meal before the program begins. The church has been using a digital curriculum from Cokesbury called Exploring Life that they’ve adapted to their rotational structure.

Children at Faith United Methodist Church in House Springs, Mo., enjoy a light meal before their weekly JAM (Jesus And Me) Bible study. PHOTO BY FRED KOENIG

Creating friendships

The JAM program uses an incentive-based point system. The children have caps that they wear, and as they memorize Bible verses they earn points toward pins for the cap. Eventually those pins add up to prizes. You can also earn points for attendance, bringing a Bible, bringing a friend and other things.

Parents give a free-will offering to pay for the meal.

There are about 50 children involved in the program, with an average attendance of 34.

“About 60 percent are not part of our church, but they are part of our community,” Mr. Sanders said. “We got off to a good start by building on our Vacation Bible School program, which created a lot of friendships and affiliations.”

Three families have joined the church after becoming involved in the program, and several more have expressed an interest in joining.

“It’s been fun to see this creating a stream of people getting their feet wet in faith,” Ms. Phifer said. “I have been involved with a MOPS [Mothers Of Pre-School Children] here for five years, but it wasn’t successful at getting people into worship. But as people start coming to the Wednesday night program, they started wanting to come to church.”

Ms. Phifer is the Bible study leader at the program, and Mr. Sanders fills in needed gaps and troubleshoots.

The program runs in five-week intervals so people don’t have to commit to 30 weeks at a time.

Debbie Yates is excited to have her son, who is 10, learning about Jesus. She has joined a Bible study class herself that meets at the church on Tuesdays.

“The congregation is so supportive, they treat you like family,” Ms. Yates said. “They will help you when you’re down.”

Brook Elliott is a member of a small, non-denominational church, but attends JAM for what it offers to children, and likes the result.

“I started coming because my neighbor invited me. Now my son is running around the house singing Christian songs, and has learned more about moral values, and the difference between right and wrong,” Ms. Elliott said. “We don’t have anything like this in my church. I’ve started attending the Bible study here on Wednesdays, so we’re here a couple of times a week.”

The JAM program is led by Christen Hejlek, who has just been coming to the church a year and a half.

“It’s been challenging, but fun,” said Ms. Hejlek, who has three children, ages 3, 5 and 7.

Ms. Hejlek had been looking for a church for a long time when her family tried Faith UMC. She recognized some other children there who were her daughter’s friends, and she loved the music at the church.

“I don’t know the Bible well, so I love seeing the kids learning the Bible,” she said.

She said she’s seen a great carry-over at home from what the children are learning at church.

“They pray at night, and before meals,” she said. “They are telling their dad Bible stories.”

Merrie Miller recently moved to the area, and is glad she found the church.

“The kids really like this (JAM), and they have a hard time sitting through a traditional worship service,” she said. “This has them excited about coming to church.”

Erin Sullenger remembered coming to Faith UMC through her District Council on Youth Ministry program when she was young. She used to go to church in Fenton, Mo., but when they moved to House Springs she found it too easy to come up with excuses not to make the drive in to go.

“Now that we’re here, and it’s only two miles away, there are no excuses,” she said. “We’re teaching the high school Sunday school class now, which is good, because as a teacher you know you have to be here every Sunday. And the kids love JAM. They talk about this all week.”

Mr. Koenig is editor of the Missouri Conference Review, where this story first appeared.

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