When school is closed for teachers’ professional activity days, students come to First Reformed Church for a day of fun and learning.

When school is closed for teachers’ professional activity days, students come to First Reformed Church for a day of fun and learning.

Four and a half years ago, First Reformed Church in Chatham, Ontario, took steps toward revitalizing its ministry. The church not only called a new pastor, but it also pulled together a new committee tasked with reaching those outside the church.

The events planning committee would meet regularly, brainstorming ideas as to how the congregation could “better become the body of Christ in their community,” says Margot Wynveen, whose husband, Barry, pastors the congregation. “And, we would ask, ‘What was the church’s God-given purpose in Chatham?’”

First Reformed began in the post-World War II era and provided a faith home for the influx of immigrant families coming to Chatham. Over the years, though, the church declined as young families left the area in search of better employment, leaving the congregation like many today—smaller and older.

The congregation looked around and noticed that the nearby Catholic church had a food pantry and the Presbyterian church offered community meals. What was First Reformed’s contribution to the community? Wynveen says the church wanted to identify its mission—one that would help children and parents. The committee had tried offering Bible school to neighborhood children, but, Wynveen says, “that just didn’t work out well” for the congregation of about 80.

During one committee brainstorming session, a member brought up the possibility of dovetailing with the professional activity (PA) days scheduled for teachers. On PA days, teachers report to school for their own continuing education but students have the day off, thus leaving working parents scrambling for temporary yet affordable childcare solutions.

“Not only is there the expense of childcare, but many parents don’t have family in the area to help look after the children,” Wynveen says.

So the committee decided to open the church to local school children on each PA day for a year. While Bible school might have been a lot to ask of the congregation, Wynveen says, “We thought committing to doing something for the children once a month for a school year was doable.”

It was doable. Four years later, First Reformed’s “PA Days” program is still going strong, welcoming as many as 40 children ages four to ten. The children who have aged out of PA Days may become youth volunteers for the program, Wynveen says.

Structured around a typical school day, the church opens its doors at 8:30 a.m. and provides breakfast for the students. After eating, children hear a Bible story and then participate in music time, crafts, games, and other activities. Lunch and snacks are also provided by the church. Between 16 and 20 members of the congregation help with PA Days, Wynveen says. In addition to church volunteers leading and teaching, Wynveen has recruited outside organizations to participate. For example, one time a noted Irish dancer spent the day teaching the children how to dance. Magicians, therapy dogs, and musicians have also shared their talents with the students.

Success, though, has its drawbacks. Currently, the church has had to cap the program to 40 children because of space constraints. Ideally, Wynveen would like to see PA Days become an ecumenical program; with more churches helping, there would be space to host more children.

For now, though, Wynveen says the program is a blessing, not just for the children but for First Reformed, allowing people in the church to “help the community and teach the faith.”

PA Days has also created another outreach opportunity. Last year, a mother mentioned her child’s need for tutoring. First Reformed listened and now tutors nine children weekly. Each child gets a half-hour session in the evening with a First Reformed volunteer.

“We have a woman in our congregation who is good at math, and she smiles to think how God is now using her gifts,” Wynveen says, adding that the ministry of presence is just as important as the educational instruction. Wynveen recalls how one student clearly did not want to attend the tutoring sessions, but after a few weeks, she developed a bond with her tutor. She now comes to tutoring with a smile on her face.

While PA Days has not resulted in families coming for Sunday worship, it is doing something just as important—it has given First Reformed a purpose, Wynveen says.

“We place so much on numbers to gauge our success. But we are being successful in that we are doing something for the community. We are providing a safe place for children. And we are giving them a day of fun,” she says. “We are planting seeds of faith.”