Making Worship Space -- and Message -- Relevant to Children

Making Worship Space -- and Message -- Relevant to Children

MOBILE, Ala. -- Crests of cobalt-colored waves cover a corridor. A technicolored, tree-lined neighborhood is traced on walls of the worship center. Costumed adults mill about the stage, laughing and smiling.

They can't wait for the kids to come.

At 9 a.m. on a recent Sunday, Dayspring Baptist Church celebrated the grand opening of its new, 21,000-square-foot children's facility.

"The gospel is the most entertaining story in the world," said Garrett Hughes, production director for Dayspring. "We're making it relevant to who they are."

They, of course, are the 150 or so first- through sixth-graders who will gather on Sundays in a multipurpose room coated with a profusion of eye-popping pastels, two screens of videos and a cast of characters who can't wait to worship with them.

The man helping churches make their message meaningful is Bruce E. Barry, who painted E.T.'s home for the E.T. Adventure ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. His work can also be seen at the popular Rainforest Cafe restaurant chain and in sets at Busch Gardens.

Now, most days find Barry and his team at Wacky World Studios in Oldsmar, Fla., designing and creating props and murals, as well as full-blown worship and study areas for congregations nationwide.

"I made a lot more money in the amusement park industry," said Barry, whose father, Dick, worked as an animated cartoonist and background artist on Walt Disney classics including "The Three Little Pigs" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." But today, he said, "My goal is to reach every single kid and family."

It's a switch for Barry, who said he had only set foot in a church once before designing a children's worship area at First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., less than four years ago.

While working there, Barry, 43, said he became a Christian.

"My life as of that day turned around instantly," he said. He now spends virtually all his time designing worship space in churches across the country.

So far, Barry said, his work appears to be reaping big dividends among congregations' little people.

Some churches have noted a 45 percent increase in attendance after installing one of his creations, Barry said. "Every church that we have done so far has grown," he said.

Barry's tactics may be just the tip of the iceberg, according to Charles Arn, president of Church Growth Inc., a Monrovia, Calif.-based organization dedicated to researching how local churches grow.

"The fact that America, at least according to most sociologists and religious demographics, is no longer a `Christian nation' does change the modus operandi that most churches have to take if they're going to bring their message with a note of relevance," Arn said. "Like it or not, it tends to be those user-friendly, user-focused churches that are attracting people in significant numbers."

Offering opportunities for children is critical, Arn said.

"If a church is committed to reaching and ministering to families, they need to seriously consider their approach to providing for the children in that family," he said.

Mark Eiginger, children's ministry coordinator at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., opened its new children building -- designed by Barry --  last August.

"Some people call it `Six Flags Over Jesus' or `Disney Jacksonville,'" Eiginger said of the building that includes a video arcade, gym, theater, and a slide inspired by the biblical story of Jonah and the whale.

Attendance at children's activities has increased since the church opened its new facility, he said.

Jon Pahl, author of "Youth Ministry in Modern America: 1930s to the Present" and the forthcoming "Shopping Malls and Sacred Spaces: Clothing God in Place," said he's glad that congregations are working to make worship enjoyable for children.

"Thank God we're beyond the felt board," he said. "I'm all for fun in church, and I think church ought to be fun. It ought to be a life-giving experience for people."

But he wondered about what's left after all the fun and games.

"One of the things historically religions have done for people is provide a sense of the challenges of life, oriented people to the difficult tasks that adulthood entails," Pahl said. "Religions aren't an escape from the real world, they are an invitation to live more compassionately in, with and under the ordinary stuff of life.

"When you construct an artificial environment like this for children that's fun, does this then make young people bored with the ordinary places of life? With the ordinary beauty of another human face or a natural place? That, to me, is a real concern. At some point, the content of the community and the character of the people have to be what the church is all about."

Dayspring's Hughes seems to understand Pahl's concern.

"All the stuff is cool, but they better leave with something of substance," he said. "All these things, they're just things. It's a tool to communicate the gospel of Christ."

Likewise, Barry said he hopes his work helps kids recognize "that God is the most creative person in this world and God loves everybody no matter who you are and what you look like.

"I want God to be the coolest thing out there -- not movies or superheroes. I want God to be the coolest thing for kids."