Fueling the Creative Spark in Children’s Ministries

By April 15, 2022

Dr. Tim Bruster noticed on his first Sunday as the pastor at First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth, that there was the glaring lack of a Children’s Moment during the services. As this was something he was accustomed to in other churches he served, he was curious as to why this part of the service was missing. No one really knew the answer to this question — except that the culture of this church had been more attuned to the idea that “grownups go to worship, children go to the children’s wing.”

So, one of the first things Tim did as senior pastor was to begin inviting the children down for a brief, kid-friendly mini message. The kids — and their parents — seemed to love this idea, so it continued, with the children then being excused to go to Sunday School or to return to sit with their parents during worship. “I started out doing the children’s moment because I wanted children in worship,” Tim remembers. “While I had done children’s sermons many times before, that wasn’t my strong suit.  However, it did provide an opportunity for the kids to get to know me in a more informal and playful way.”

Tim says that several on the ministerial staff rotated in this responsibility until one day, for a reason that neither of them remembers, Mark Burrows, then the director of Music and Fine Arts, popped out of the choir loft and invited the kids down to the front for the very first time. Mark’s ability and affinity for this work was immediately obvious. “Mark was not yet the children’s director,” Tim recounts, “but he was so good with the kids that I started asking him to do it.”

“This is just part of Dr. Bruster’s DNA, to be supportive of people who want to try things,” Mark reflects. “It probably seemed a little weird to people to have their adult choir director direct a Mozart anthem, then pop out of the choir loft and say “Kids! Come on Down!” . . . but it worked!”

As it turned out — and as Tim soon learned, Mark, who first joined the church as youth choir director, had a deep connection with choral music and working with children. Prior to coming to First Church, Mark was an elementary school choir teacher, so in his spare time starting around 2000 he helped the then Children’s Ministries Director, Cynthia McElrath (now Fischer), with children’s curriculum and music programming. His interest in Children’s ministries began to expand from there.

“Once I started doing the children’s message, I started to think about other ways to include children in worship — and what would be the next step,” Mark reflects. I still felt like there needed to be something more for children in worship.”

Soon after, the idea for Children First, a separate worship service just for families, emerged and Mark, with Tim’s wholehearted encouragement, developed and led Children First, in the chapel “In August of 2008 we did an experiment in the sanctuary,” Mark remembers. “We worked with the feedback from that experiment and on Sunday, November 8, we held our first Children First service in the chapel.” After that I led that service once a month in the Chapel —still as music director.

Dr. Tim Bruster noticed on his first Sunday as the pastor at First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth, that there was the glaring lack of a Children’s Moment during the services. As this was something he was accustomed to in other churches he served, he was curious as to why this part of the service was missing. No one really knew the answer to this question — except that the culture of this church had been more attuned to the idea that “grownups go to worship, children go to the children’s wing.”

So, one of the first things Tim did as senior pastor was to begin inviting the children down for a brief, kid-friendly mini message. The kids — and their parents — seemed to love this idea, so it continued, with the children then being excused to go to Sunday School or to return to sit with their parents during worship. “I started out doing the children’s moment because I wanted children in worship,” Tim remembers. “While I had done children’s sermons many times before, that wasn’t my strong suit.  However, it did provide an opportunity for the kids to get to know me in a more informal and playful way.”

Tim says that several on the ministerial staff rotated in this responsibility until one day, for a reason that neither of them remembers, Mark Burrows, then the director of Music and Fine Arts, popped out of the choir loft and invited the kids down to the front for the very first time. Mark’s ability and affinity for this work was immediately obvious. “Mark was not yet the children’s director,” Tim recounts, “but he was so good with the kids that I started asking him to do it.”

“This is just part of Dr. Bruster’s DNA, to be supportive of people who want to try things,” Mark reflects. “It probably seemed a little weird to people to have their adult choir director direct a Mozart anthem, then pop out of the choir loft and say “Kids! Come on Down!” . . . but it worked!”

As it turned out — and as Tim soon learned, Mark, who first joined the church as youth choir director, had a deep connection with choral music and working with children. Prior to coming to First Church, Mark was an elementary school choir teacher, so in his spare time starting around 2000 he helped the then Children’s Ministries Director, Cynthia McElrath (now Fischer), with children’s curriculum and music programming. His interest in Children’s ministries began to expand from there.

“Once I started doing the children’s message, I started to think about other ways to include children in worship — and what would be the next step,” Mark reflects. I still felt like there needed to be something more for children in worship.”

Soon after, the idea for Children First, a separate worship service just for families, emerged and Mark, with Tim’s wholehearted encouragement, developed and led Children First, in the chapel “In August of 2008 we did an experiment in the sanctuary,” Mark remembers. “We worked with the feedback from that experiment and on Sunday, November 8, we held our first Children First service in the chapel.” After that I led that service once a month in the Chapel —still as music director.

“Imagine how supportive a boss it is to say, ‘yeah, our choir director can miss the 9:30 service one Sunday a month to go do this thing in the chapel with the kids because he wants to,’” Mark adds, noting that he realized even then what a big culture shift he was being empowered to lead in our church. (Children First began in 2008 with 70 people in Leonard Memorial Chapel and continued until 2017 with an average attendance of 450 in the sanctuary.)

Then, in the spring (just before Lent) 2010, Cynthia expressed her hope that Mark would want to become the new Director of Children’s Ministries upon her 2011 retirement. “We talked about it and then brought in Dr. Mike Marshall, who was our immediate supervisor, and he liked the idea, so we all went to Dr B,” Mark relates. “His immediate reaction was “this makes sense – I totally get it.”

The rest, as they say, is (First Church) history. First Church accomplishments in Children’s ministries, have included:

The Academy model for Sunday school 

Launched in 2011 as a best of both worlds’ hybrid between traditional Sunday school and the existing “Quest” model, Academy Sunday school and its well-thought-out programming and curriculum (written entirely by Mark) that combines educational variety with community building. Today, after 11 years (including a pandemic that called for extremely creative solutions to keep kids engaged through technology) the Academy model of Sunday School is still going strong. “In most churches any model has a 10-year lifespan at most,” Mark explains, “but Academy is the kind of model where change and adjustments are baked in. When one class loses enrollment, you can replace it with new class.”

Family-Friendly Worship

With the decision to discontinue Children First came yet another innovation, creating a more family-friendly worship experience at the 11:00 am sanctuary service every week. Key to this experience is a special children’s bulletin and a “worship kit” filled with items designed to engage kids in the same worship experience adults were enjoying alongside them in a more kid-friendly way. (For more on this see the 2018 article, What’s in that Backpack, Mister Mark? )

Special Kid Friendly Services

This idea for a weekly family friendly worship experience grew out of the wild success of our Christmas Eve Family Service, begun in 2006, which combined parts of the Children First model with First Church’s traditional Christmas Eve candlelight service. Featuring a themed puppet show, shadow images that told the Christmas story, and all the key elements of the First Church Christmas Eve worship experience, this service so overpacked the Sanctuary that a second identical service was added in 2017.

Family Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday services 

In 2011, with a desire to put the somber Holy Week services on a level more accessible to kids and families, Mark and his team created special family Lenten services annually on Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday in the chapel and Wesley Hall. These services likewise grew to fill (and sometimes overfill) these spaces and attracted national media attention and feature articles.

First Church’s puppet ministry

The puppet ministry is one of Mark’s fondest dreams come true in this Children’s Ministry.  These special puppets, all designed and sewn by Mark himself and made entirely from found and recycled items, have earned permanent places in the hearts of children of all ages throughout our church family.

Children’s Choirs 

Mark’s many talents in ministry are obviously on display when he is seen leading children in choral arrangements. Three children’s choirs are now part of Academy Sunday school, at one point welcoming more than 100 children weekly; the choirs produced a CD in 2019.

Vacation Bible School

Even in cases of familiar concepts and programs like VBS, Mark and his team created unique programming and curriculum that brought in as many as 720 children (limited the following year to 600 and now capped at a post-pandemic 500) and went from walk up registration to filling all 500 slots this year (with 20 on the waiting list) in just eight days in early February. VBS Celebration set records of its own, turning a random Sunday in the dog days of summer into one of the highest attended Sundays of the year. “By turning it into an entire service rather than just a couple of songs in the regular services, we created another family worship service on par with all the other beloved family worship experiences,” Mark adds. “Even though we don’t do the once monthly family services anymore, we’re still known for how we include children in worship.”

Children’s Council 

Comprised completely of laity — mostly parents and grandparents — the Children’s Council is, by Mark’s own admission, one of the best things he has done.  “The Children’s council is a very empowered group at our church,” Mark elaborates. “I make the little decisions, but they make the big decisions—they’re like my board. I’ve learned that the things we’re the most successful at have the most involvement of kids and parents. That excites me for the future.”

Publishing  

Since that first Children’s Moment, Mark has not only led First United Methodist Church’s Children’s Ministry to places only his mind could create, but this innovative work in children’s ministry has shared with children everywhere via more than 101 different works published by top publishers ranging from original music compositions to children’s musicals to activity books to leader guides to children’s picture books. These works include several volumes of Mark’s Children’s Moment sermons, as well as a wide variety of Sunday School curriculum guides, music and percussion books, as well as Mark’s whole-hearted tackling of both serious and quirky, just-for-fun topics published by Abingdon Press and Heritage Music. His first children’s picture book, Little Things Aren’t Little When You’re Little, was released in 2013, followed in 2015 by I’ll Take My Chances, both by the award-winning Pelican Publishing.)

And beyond the numbers and strategic successes of all this imagination-rich programming, it is impossible to quantify the pure joy this ministry has brough to our entire faith community. “Our congregation has become one of the most playful congregations I’ve ever seen,” Mark observes. “This past Sunday, I taught them the choreography to “Wipeout,” and the whole congregation stood and jumped right in. That’s special. It kind of chokes me up when I think that a group can go from “no kids in here” to “we want to model what it means to have joy in worship. We can be serious do serious stuff — and we can play and smile and have joy and move because we love our children. We are their church and their faith community.”

Considering all of this, its hard to imagine children’s ministry at First Church if Dr. B hadn’t invited Mark out of the choir loft to do the Children’s Moment. Or if Tim had said “no” instead of a whole-hearted “YES!” to Mark’s repeated imaginative “what ifs.” The trajectory of Mark Burrows leadership of children’s ministries provides perfect a showcase for Tim Bruster’s particular brand of leadership that enables, empowers, and encourages limitless growth in all who are lucky enough to find themselves entrusted to his guidance.

Mark says that through all this growth and change and innovation and excitement, his feeling of appreciation for Tim continued to grow right alongside it. “It’s crazy when you start talking about some of the things we’ve done,” Mark says, laughing. “I’ve changed careers but stayed under the same roof the whole time. It takes a kind of grace to allow that kind of change to go on. It’s not a willy nilly, “yeah sure go do that” thing, either. What we have enjoyed in Tim’s leadership is very thoughtful support for people as they try to discern and live into their gifts. It is a wonderful leadership characteristic — and I am so deeply appreciative of that.”

The Man, The Ministry, The Music

Retirement Celebration Honoring Dr. Tim Bruster

Friday, May 6, 2022
6:30 pm | Check In
7:00 pm | Dinner and Program
The Worthington Renaissance Fort Worth Hotel
learn more
SUBSCRIBE TO NEWS

Subscribe to E-News

Subscribe to Newsletter Footer