Children’s Ministry Inklings: Goldfish Swim School

why-goldfish-imgEver heard of Goldfish Swim School? I hadn’t until about two years ago, when I started noticing billboards, bus ads, and more for the two locations open in our area. Goldfish Swim School is a disruptive innovation in the area of children’s swim lessons. Now, organizations like YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers (JCC), and county recreational departments have been offering swim lessons for decades. [Fun fact: your humble blogger was a JCC swim instructor during my undergraduate years]. The basic concept is that the organization offers children’s swim lessons at a set interval, during a specific time of the year, in a facility designed for adults. Parents register in advance, pick from the times/days offered, and then show up.

Okay, so what could possibly be new or innovative in this market space? Goldfish Swim Schools differentiate themselves as operating from a parent’s perspective, “created by parents, for parents.” Concretely this means a facility that’s highly appealing for children and parents, “90 degree, shiver-free pools.” It also means the idea of perpetual lessons.

What are “Perpetual Lessons”?

Goldfish Swim School’s unique Perpetual Lessons model is the perfect solution for parents looking to balance a desire to keep their kids’ swim skills sharp with a busy schedule. Unlike typical swim lessons that lock you into a set day and time for a predetermined session, Goldfish Swim School lets you choose a lesson time that fits your family’s schedule. Then, if (okay, when) your schedule changes, just let us know and we’ll switch you to a different day or time. It’s that easy and convenient. There’s no wasted time or money and, most important, your child’s development stays on track with no interruptions.

Goldfish Swim Schools also offer “Family Swim” nights, where children taking lessons are encouraged to come with parents, to swim together in a fun, relaxed way. Because Goldfish Swim Schools focus specifically on children’s lessons (and families) they do not need to be co-located with a full adult lap pool or fitness center. The branches near me are both located in strip malls. There’s a cost savings for this company by maintaining comparatively lower facility costs.

Goldfish Swim Schools have been relatively successful (growth from 2,000 to 70,000 students in first decade), growing by a) enticing new families to take swim lessons, those who never fit into the traditional model, and/or b) pulling away families that previously took traditionally-scheduled lessons at larger pool facilities.

Children’s Ministry Connections

For me one of the most intriguing innovations from Goldfish Swim School is the demonstration that there are parents who prefer or need the schedule options Goldfish offers. The vast majority of parish catechesis for children is scheduled in a way that matches Goldfish’s competitors, “lock[ing] you into a set day and time for a predetermined session,” typically the academic school year. When we think of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunity, and Threats) for catechetical programs, I wonder if the “perpetual lesson” coupled with “family nights” concept from Goldfish is an opportunity to bring more families in touch with catechesis and family prayer in our parishes.

Another “opportunity” may be Goldfish’s example of “family swim nights.” How many of our parish catechetical programs teach children, but do not offer space, family-friendly spaces for parents to pray, listen, and learn from the Holy Spirit together. Offering a comfortable and encouraging place to do this could be just the right springboard a family might need to become comfortable talking about their walk with the Lord and praying together at home.

Should Goldfish Swim Schools be copied? No. There’s no one-size-fits-all or silver bullet when it comes to scheduling. But, their innovation can help spur us to think outside the box and in more family-friendly directions when it comes to making participation in children’s ministry or catechesis more appealing to more families. A local (to my home Diocese of Lansing) example is St. Gerard Catholic Church’s “Base Camp” schedule that offers families a summer or Sunday “Camp” for catechesis. What other innovative or creative strategies have you seen in scheduling and facilities to make catechesis more “family friendly”? 

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What Fitness Centers Can Teach Us About Parish Life

Fitness Classes
Flickr: Nottingham Trent Univ., CC by-ND-NC 2.0

From YMCAs to PlanetFitness to the latest CrossFit outpost in your local strip mall, gyms and fitness centers are an ubiquitous part of most American communities. The rise and fall of certain models can give us insight into factors we ought to consider when designing parish life experiences that foster moments pre-evangelization and evangelization.

Let’s first think about a large, full-service fitness center–like a YMCA.

Why do people go? Because it’s available nearly all the time and has nearly everything they’d want. A one-stop shop for their family. With group classes for both adults and children offered at the same time, as well as drop-in individual opportunities for fun, it’s designed for families to use together. While you may simply come for the pool, the hope is that someday you’ll see that sign for a yoga class and give it a try–because it’s there, because it’s accessible.

What can we in parish life learn?

  • Appealing to and serving entire families is a win. Whether of strong faith in Jesus Christ or no faith at all, almost all American families today desire to spend more time together. Places where adults and children can flourish, together, are sought after.
  • A mix of both structured/scheduled events and generous time to simply be and be around one another is a powerful combination.
  • A church large enough to be open nearly all the time, as a place to seek the spiritual–both as individuals and in groups–can reach a large number of people. Think of the beckoning of the bells on a campus with a religious community, people don’t need to dive into the deepest spiritual practices right away, but by simply being around, they’ll hear those “bells” and someday try it out.

What about an upstart, like Orangetheory Fitness?

Orangetheory Fitness takes a different approach from a large, full-service fitness center, instead offering a specific type of workout–interval training. The entire gym is setup to support this one method of fitness training. Yet, it’s a method suitable for everyone, at any level. The emphasis is on progress and immediate feedback, “relative to each user’s fitness level, making it accessible to a broad audience” (Tanya Hall, Inc.).

What can we learn?

  • Positive feedback isn’t just fluff–it plays a vital role in motivating and encouraging people, regardless of their “level” of expertise/experience. This means that both new and mature members of a church community need to be valued and encouraged to keep moving forward and deeper in the spiritual life. Putting out the “prayer equipment” is no more of a genuine encouragement than putting out the “fitness equipment”– a personal connection for positive reinforcement matters.
  • Having a clear plan to cultivate the spiritual life matters. When people see the pathway and become aware that they can participate right alongside those who’ve been living it for decades, they become part of the community–not merely onlookers to those “real” or “serious” Christians.

And, that entrepreneurial fitness guru down the street…

Yes, even the independent personal trainer model of a “fitness center” provides insights for parish life. An independent trainer, well he or she likely has a collection of clients and meets with each one at whatever regular intervals (i.e. twice a week, twice a month, etc.) works best for that person. The personal trainer will sometimes go to a big gym with a client, and other times work with them one-on-one with just a few pieces of equipment, at their own studio, miles away from the “pressure” of a gym. The trainer can take on the role of a coach, a consultant, or sometimes an accountability-partner. (h/t Catherine Caimano, “What if the church was more like a gym?”).

What can we learn?

  • Discipling relationships are powerful in the life of a Christian. No matter how great the YMCA or Orangetheory Fitness center, on-going personal connection plays a unique role in spiritual growth and transformation.
  • A personal (or small group) fitness trainer takes a lot of commitment, so it’s not right for every stage and season of life–but to reach certain goals, learn a new skill, or build a habit that requires accountability, it’s often the only way (and indeed a very Biblical model).
  • Many will inherently assume they’re “not ready” or “not right” for a discipling relationship, but the reality is that we can all benefit from these authentic and loving relationships.

Which model is best?

None. It’s about your parish community and setting for mission. It’s about the resources, natural strengths, and stories present in your parish life. The point is to have a vision. Know what you’ve got inklings of, take it, and run with it. Grow it. Think about the different touch points within your community, what would attract an unchurched person to join in–and even flourish in your parish? While the missionary task before us is ultimately more important than what goes on in any fitness center 🙂 we can strive to learn lessons about what keeps people coming (and coming back) to this common fixture in American life.

The Difference You Can Make Toward Being “Parent-Friendly”

Families run to raise awareness
Image Credit: SFC Jeff Troth (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Last month I painted a picture of what a parish designed for parents might look like, a truly parent-friendly experience. But, what can one person do–what can you do? what can I do? right now, to improve experiences for parents in my parish or ministry?

From Chris Wesley comes this great list of practical tips. Things we can take up on an individual level to personally encourage, empower, and share the fullness of life Jesus offers us more regularly and directly with parents.

For example:

  • Take time to invite a group of parents out for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. Talk to them about the programs but more importantly get to now them personally.
  • Host an open house where they are experiencing the program as a teenager. Here they get to see how you interact with their teens
  • Send out cards on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day

Read the rest here…

Visual Illustrations for Teaching, Preaching, Presenting, and Beyond

Over at the ever-useful CMS website, Emily Carlton observes:

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus used parables and simple stories to explain complex concepts. It was a brilliant move—Jesus’ crowds contained mostly illiterate people who lived in a culture with a strong oral tradition. That meant the crowds knew how to listen and re-tell stories.

Visuals can help people receive the good news of Jesus.

Today’s culture differs. Oral traditions are minimal. We’re flooded with ads, marketing, content, and images on a daily basis, so much so that we tend to tune it all out. We usually aren’t great listeners, either. But we are incredibly literate when it comes to visuals. In fact, a study conducted by MIT neuroscientists in 2014 found the brain could recognize and identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

The MIT numbers might seem shocking, but other surveys and reports support the findings.

  • 65% of the population describes themselves as visual learners.
  • When information is presented verbally and visually, the retention rate after three days is six times greater than if it were presented only verbally.
  • Visual content is three times more likely to get shared on social media than any other type of content.

If you manage social media at your church or study the affects of sermon-related visuals on church attendees, you probably have qualitative proof to support the above numbers. If not, the numbers should still demonstrate just how important good visuals are to human learning, understanding, and recall. As church communicators, we can’t overlook that fact. Visuals can help people receive the good news of Jesus.

What Can the Church Do?

Fixing a church’s visual learning problem isn’t as easy as slapping some pictures on the screens. Studies show that visuals aren’t well received when they clearly employ stock photos, aren’t directly related to the content being shared, or are stretched or pixelated in some way

Carlton is spot on. We indeed live in a visual culture. And this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily–it’s an opportunity. We can ask, as teachers, preachers, and communicators interested in forming missionary disciples, how do we ensure our ways of communicating resonate in our visual culture? 

bible-basics2-240
Bergsma illustration via marccardaronella.com

Earlier this year, at the Notre Dame Preaching Conference: Alyce McKenzie offered this lecture on the topic. And, I think one of the finest modern examples, is John Bergsma‘s use of stick-figures to unpack the Bible…check it out here and here. Bergsma’s illustrations are memorable, simple, and impactful–I’ve used them with preschoolers, elementary school children, and adult seminary students–all with great results! 🙂

Do you have any great examples or best practices in visual illustration? Share in the Comments!

Assessing Your Catechesis for Evangelization

Assessing (or “measuring”) how you’re doing when it comes to fostering initial and on-going conversion in a ministry is one of the toughest, yet most necessary, processes a leader must continually work through. It’s tough because it involves loving enough to speak the truth, being willing to change beloved techniques or programs that need to evolve, and it’s just plain hard to even develop good metrics or measures to use in assessment.

7-558-living-as-missionary-disciples-cover-150One of the hidden gems within the recently released Living as Missionary Disciples resource from the USCCB is this set of assessment worksheets  designed for use by individuals or small groups (they start around pg. 14 of the .pdf download, aka “pg. 1” of the internal numbering).

Unleashing all of these at once on a team of leaders would likely not be a good strategy. But the potential here is great! These tools could be used to assess existing programs or strategies over a multi-year period, coach and develop catechists, unite staff and key leaders around a vision, or design new initiatives.

They key is to actually use them as a tool, not an end. Assessment is a means to improve what you’re already doing, not an administrative burden that bears little fruit. Assessment without reflection, processing, personal coaching/development of leaders/catechists, and connection to implementation isn’t going to bear fruit. And, it might even be a waste of time. But 🙂 by making the commitment to leverage a great resource like this from the USCCB within your leadership development pipeline and continual planning processes? Now that’s a way to stay grounded and aligned to Jesus’ central mission for us, to go and make disciples (Mt 28:19).

 

Beyond Fans and Followers

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a popular sermon title

Are you a fan or a follower? Quite a few Christian preachers and teachers (including Catholic ones) have used these images as the basis for helping us move beyond merely liking Jesus, to actually following Him. And that’s a good thing. But one particular passage of Scripture gives us unique insight into precisely what kind of followers God desires us to be.

Coming back into Jewish territory after performing powerful deeds among the Gentiles, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd. So surrounded, he actually stays right by the sea, where he’d come across by boat (Mark 5:21). Jesus heads off to respond to the desperate pleas of Jairus, a synagogue official whose daughter is gravely ill. At this point, we see that this isn’t just a crowd of fans, they are followers (vs. 24). They follow Jesus and even press in upon him! Yet during this movement, a woman from within the band of followers makes her way up to Jesus–and touches his garment (vs. 27).

Just imagine the scene, how difficult it would have been for this one follower to push her way through an in-motion crowd of followers, to get to one person–Jesus–the person the entire group was following. Physically, it’d be tough to follow Jesus directly from among this moving crowd. But this woman also suffered from hemorrhaging bleeding. She wasn’t even physically well. On top of this, to the rest of the Jewish followers, she would have been considered ritually impure or unclean for having this medical condition. They would not want her near them at all, lest any of them be “infected” by her impurity. Imagine the disapproving looks, or even those who use their bags, cloaks, or walking sticks to keep her back. And yet, she makes it to Jesus!

None of us aims to be just a fan of Jesus. We want to be followers. But following is complex, why? Because we’re inevitably part of a crowd, part of a community–we have to interact with others, get close to them, and follow Jesus together. In church life, it’s possible to happily exist among the crowd of followers, but never make that decisive move to reach out to Jesus with the faith that He can heal, forgive, or transform whatever it is in our own life.

Why do we stay passive as followers? Maybe it’s our own pride, we struggle to admit that we can’t do it on our own, we can’t earn our way to heaven, we need Jesus to heal us personally. Or maybe it’s that we want to appear “normal”–not “too Christian” or “too holy” for a “regular parish” (whatever that is!). Maybe we’re comfortable as a follower, just moving along with the crowd, and don’t think Jesus would respond to us; we don’t want to “bother” Jesus by touching his cloak.

This woman is saved by her faith. She leaves in peace, cured, and called daughter by Jesus.

This is what awaits any one of us, any person who comes to Jesus in faith. God does not reject any one who comes to Him.

Don’t just follow. Be transformed by the power of Jesus.

a version of this post also appears at http://www.newevangelizers.com

Christian Unity: Mary, Our Blessed Sister

All too often the mention of Mary is perceived as a point of division among Christians. And this is a sadness.

Especially, for example, when it keeps Protestant Christians from preaching, reading, and proclaiming the great truths flowing from the life and witness or Mary (for fear of being called “too Catholic”).

Or, when it keeps Catholic Christians from speaking out against or changing examples of Marian devotion that are misleading or do not clearly show the essential difference “from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit,” (for fear of being called “too Protestant”) (CCC para. 971).

On this Saturday (a customary day for Marian devotion) of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, I offer this rich reflection from Prof. Matthew Milliner of Wheaton College.

As a new professor at Wheaton College, I proposed a course focusing on the Virgin Mary and braced for resistance, but intrigued approval was all that came my way. Nor was I alone. I learned that another course on the Virgin was being offered in a different department at Wheaton the same semester; rather than com­peting for student attention, both classes quickly filled.

And so I packed my syllabus with primary sources, supplemented with Tim Perry’s excellent Mary for Evangelicals, and off we went, twenty-five students and I, on a journey from Luke to Lourdes, from Matthew to Medjugorje. Read more…

Embraced by Grace
“Embraced By Grace” (Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.)