Picture this scene on a September Saturday at your local church: A girl band rocking out to Cyndi Lauper’s feisty song, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” A team of amateurs painting rock-star symbols on smiling faces before they step into a photo booth equipped with pink boas, Mardi Gras beads and inflatable pink guitars. An agenda for the day that includes singing Karaoke, learning dance moves, getting manicures, playing games, making a “Jesus Rocks” bottle-cap necklace, and enjoying a healthy lunch on the lawn.

The lure of fun and fellowship with other females brings in around 150 little-girl guests at the beginning of every fall season of GEMS (Girls Everywhere Meeting the Savior) at Rosewood Church in Bellflower, California. We call it our “Girls’ Day Out,” and invite girls in our community to attend via flyers distributed through the public elementary schools. It’s common that two-thirds of the girls will be new contacts whom we then invite to attend our midweek GEMS Club.

The creative assignment of our GEMS Leadership Team every summer is to come up with fun ideas for this annual fall outreach event. Our themes through the past decade have varied from “Country Girl for a Day” with live ponies in the parking lot to a “Girls Spa Day” in which we made bottles of bubble bath and learned Tai Chi. We have brought in cheerleaders, ventriloquists, Miss California Teen USA, Hawaiian hula dancers, ceramics coaches, professional face painters and manicurists, and a Bingo caller.

By this time one might wonder how the church elders have tolerated such outrageous events in the same building where we worship on Sundays. How can a cheerleading squad occupy the same stage on Saturday that the pastor and worship team do on Sunday?

Perhaps picturing this scene will explain the tolerance and generous financial support of our church leadership for the non-traditional outreach tactics of our team. A little girl who attends the “Girls Rock at Rosewood” event takes the next step and visits our GEMS Club on a Wednesday night and begins attending weekly. She invites her parents to come hear her sing and watch her dance to worship music at a Sunday morning GEMS service in November, and stay for a free barbecue lunch afterwards. Her parents witness the girls’ enthusiasm for God as she learns stories from the Bible and plans her entire week around Wednesday nights. Her excitement is contagious, and they follow her to church.

Many times throughout the years our church leaders have had the privilege of hearing the testimonies of moms, dads, grandparents, and siblings of GEMS girls who meet God and find a home among God’s people at Rosewood Church. Entire families are baptized and several generations make a commitment to Christ as a result of one little girl responding to a flyer inviting her to a Girls Day Out.

During the past year, more than 160 girls have attended the midweek GEMS Club at least once. Girls are bringing their friends. An entire class of fourth-grade girls from the public school up the street has participated in GEMS this season. We had 110 people attend our Rosewood GEMS & Moms Camp in the Spring, which served as a major turning point in the lives of many of the children and parents. They played together, went on hikes, did devotions at night, attended worship around a fire pit with the sound of peacocks in the background, and saw Scripture presented through a “Danielle in the Den of Lions” skit.

God has blessed the girls’ ministry at Rosewood, and we continue to be amazed at how each year brings so many new children and opportunities. Ten years ago the GEMS group topped out at around 30 girls, hailing mostly from the homes of church members. We made some key changes that set the stage for the ministry to grow and thrive, such as meeting for 37 weeks of the year, and we continue to learn through our mistakes and successes. For those who want to grow a group in your church, here is some advice from our team to yours:

  • Have fun! Find out what girls in the target age group enjoy, and incorporate that in to your outreach events and in to your program plans. We have Wacky Wednesdays where prizes are awarded to the girls who dress the craziest, a PJ & Movie Night, and a Pickle Night in which everyone wears green and we play pickle games. Think creatively, and search the Internet for ideas.
  • Loosen up! Communicate love and joy through your expressions — from the sign-in staff to the snacks team to the counselors and helpers. Worry less about the pedagogical and theological plan for your midweek ministry sessions, and more about connecting with and enjoying each child who walks through the door.
  • Involve Young People! Invite high-school and young adult leaders to join your team, not just as advisors, but as active and fully engaged leaders. Set strict criteria for how they will model their faith. Consider their ideas even when they seem outrageous, and encourage them to be the “face” of your ministry with children.
  • Enfold Families! Find ways to invite parents and grandparents to plug in as often as possible. We have two GEMS Sundays a year, a Dads and Daughters dinner, a Moms and Girls Christmas party and a Week-end Camp. We’ve had talent shows, fashion shows, spaghetti dinners, and fundraisers that involve the family so that this church starts to feel like their church.

Fun is more than a lure for ministry with children; fun is foundational. The joy we find in the Lord can radiate from our faces, into our ministry plans, and through the events that draw people to experience God for themselves. Through fun we build relationships that permit us to share the Gospel in ways that penetrate the lives of those whom God brings through our doors. They may “just wanna have fun” in the beginning, but they end up finding a deep and lasting joy that will take them through the ups and downs of the long life journey ahead.

Bonny Mulder-Behnia has served as family ministries pastor at Rosewood Christian Reformed Church in Bellflower, California, for nearly 11 years. She is an ordained minister who oversees the children’s, youth, and outreach ministries in their diverse church. She has written curriculum for Faith Alive Christian Resources including units for Walk With Me and WE. Bonny is married with two adult children and a fun-loving fourth-grade grandson.