I'm sitting in the middle of the stage at the front of my church, while nearly 200 children point at me and howl with laughter. I'm wearing a spectacularly unflattering orange t-shirt, not that you can see much of it, since gloopy blue gunge is currently running down my face and all over my clothes. There's mess everywhere; I and the rest of the team behind this debacle are in a constant state of near-chaos, and yet everyone in that packed room is having a profound – and perhaps even spiritual – experience.
Alright, maybe not at that exact moment. I'm fairly sure though, that the kids who have attended our summer holiday club over the previous few days have had their ideas about church, and perhaps also God, completely rearranged. Those who have served on the team – nearly 100 volunteers – have also enjoyed a very different experience of what it means to be a church community. And the parents, standing at the back of the building at the end of the day with a look of quiet incredulity, are perhaps having their preconceptions about Christians radically challenged. It's a remarkable thing.
For the uninitiated, holiday clubs take place over a few days, usually during the summer and invite children from the local area to take part in a mix of fun activities. Ours is a particularly ambitious event, running six different workshops on a complicated rotation system that takes kids on a high-octane journey from science to sport, from cooking and craft to creative prayer. At the start and end of each day we meet together to sing songs, hear a bit about God and of course, cover another victim in luminous gloopy liquid. It doesn't need to be quite that complicated though: many churches run great clubs with a fraction of that complexity, which still enthral children and draw the local community together. I know of some that don't even use a building, instead gathering on a stretch of local common; other great clubs run locally to me with a maximum capacity of 30. Ours is a big church, so the scale is just a bit different.
As I've reflected on this year's club – only the second we've run – I've become convinced that this is an absolutely brilliant and vital mission tool for every church that has the capacity to use it. While it might look very different to the massive, complicated monster in which I've just been involved, I think many churches should consider embracing (or like us, rediscovering) the messy, chaotic and marvellous power of the holiday club. Here are just a few reasons why:
It makes your church accessible to the local community
If you're looking for an outreach opportunity that's easy for people to say 'yes' to, look no further. Aside from the fact that you're potentially meeting parents' all-consuming summer childcare needs, you're also putting on a really fun event which kids will want to attend. There aren't many places they can sing, dance, play, experience a range of activities and potentially watch an adult being ritually humiliated – you're offering it a bargain price (actually, price is up to you; we charge a nominal amount which contributes to costs but doesn't come close to covering them, others price it in order to break even). A holiday club gets families inside your church who might never otherwise darken your their doors, and once they're there, you have a chance to rearrange their perception of who you are.
It brings your existing church family together
For us, the most revelatory experience of running a holiday club by far has been watching the team come together. We were surprised by the unprecedented response of volunteers prepared to give up several days of their precious summer holiday, but even more amazed by the sense of community and purpose shared between us all during the club. Adult volunteers absolutely love the opportunity to serve in this way, to be part of something bigger, to see a slightly madcap vision realised around them and because of them. Though it does involve a few days of long hours and hard work, working together on a project like this gives a whole church a huge boost – the after-effects of which are felt for months afterwards.
It gives young people a chance to serve
Teenagers often detach from and eventually leave church because they're treated like children for far too long. They relish opportunities to serve, take responsibility and even experience leadership, and a holiday club creates a perfect context for that. Our adult volunteer team was supplemented by a large youth contingent, with teenagers placed alongside older leaders as helpers who then learn on the job. We also put on a separate celebration for them at the end of the week by way of thanks for their responsible behaviour, but we were also aware that at times, they quietly enjoyed the opportunity to laugh and run around like kids again.
It presents a great opportunity to tell local children about Jesus
Finally, we get to the most important reason of all: holiday clubs create a perfect context to tell children that they're loved by God, and that he has a role for them to play in his church. They don't just get to see that church can be a fun thing to be part of, but they also have a chance to hear the good news which it so often struggles to proclaim. Not only that, but in the midst of exploring prayer and experiencing all those action songs, we've found that they often find themselves understanding the truth of that message for themselves, perhaps for the first time. We don't run an 'altar call' (although some other clubs do), but we know for certain that a number of children realise the reality of God during the week.
It might seem daunting, but having seen our own club built from scratch, Ihonestly believe that most churches are set up to run something similar if they really wanted to. The scale might be very different, but even small churches can run fabulous community events – the only real obstacle is finding a committed volunteer team to take on the task. Once you've decided you're going to jump on board the holiday club train, that's your first challenge. But it, just like the exhilarating, slightly mad world of a holiday club, is well worth undertaking.
If you looking for themes, scripts and activities for a holiday club, Scripture Union is a great place to start. Check out its dedicated resources, here.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO ofYouthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.