Leading a Program on a Bus

by MBG

I had always been nominally involved in the bus ministry before I went to college.  However, most of my experience had been in the visiting and not in the program.  Whenever I rode a bus or van, I was more of a bouncer or a "bump on a log".  This all changed when I went to college.  After a couple of months of being in the Spanish ministry (that is a whole different story), I found myself helping start a bus route with a friend of mine.  Those days weren't too bad for me.  Kevin was the bus captain and I was the "second banana", a strange combination of comic relief, bouncer, runner, candy eater, and janitor.  There were a few times that Kevin was out of town and (gasp!) I was the acting bus captain for the week.

Those were my first experiences at leading a program on a bus.  They were very, very, very, rough and the kids had more control of things than I did.  However, they did give me valuable experience into running an effective and entertaining bus program.

My junior year of college, I was asked to be a bus captain on one of three new routes that were going to be started by college kids.  I was not a great bus captain, but fortunately I had some of the best workers there were in the college.  The bus started slowly to grow until it was running around 40 riders each week when I graduated.  The one thing that I did learn to do very well was lead a program heading into the church.

This took some time.  It took me almost a year of standing up there getting bounced around before I didn't get so car sick that I was worthless the rest of the day.  It also took sometime to develop a repertoire of songs and games that worked for me.  What I'd like to with this article, and perhaps more to follow, is pass on some of the tips and tricks that I learned by observing some of the greatest bus captains I have ever seen and those I had to be taught in the school of hard knocks.

I.  Why Lead a Program?

If you don't run the show, than the kids will.  Believe me, you don't want a twelve-year-old boy spouting off adult jokes that he just learned from an older brother.  I've been there.   You want to control the environment for many reasons:

First, you do it to maintain discipline.  If you don't have a program, the kids will.  Keeping them distracted with songs and games does not give them much time to fight, talk, or otherwise cause problems.

Next, you do it to teach and train the riders.  You've got a captive audience from the first rider you pick up to the last rider you drop off.  Use this time to teach them something good like Bible songs or verses.  Don't just leave it up to the Sunday School teachers to make an impact in those young kids' lives.

Also, you run a program to build and maintain excitement.  I'm growing weary of seeing so-called "children's ministries" that feature the "Quiet and Still Game".  If you want your route to grow, build a fire under it by pumping it up with enthusiasm.  Make it fun and the kids will be much more excited about coming.

II.  What Do You Need to Run a Program?

Not much.  In fact, you can do it completely by yourself with no props, candy, etc.  However, there are some things that will help you run an effective bus program.

Start off by getting some candy.  I'd like to print a t-shirt that says something like "The Bus Ministry: Saving Souls and Rotting Teeth Since [Insert Appropriate Date]".  Don't just throw it out indiscriminately, but use it as a reward or a bribe.  Kids like candy, and they like "grown ups" who pass it out.

One very important rule to follow with candy: ABSOLUTELY DO NOT PASS OUT GUM ON THE WAY TO CHURCH!!!  It will end up on top of pews, under chairs, in hair, and hundreds of other places.  This is avoided by simply not passing it out.

Next to candy, have a song list until you get comfortable.  You want to avoid "dead time" in your program at all costs, and trying to think of a song will lead to way too much free time for young wandering minds and hands.  You don't necessarily need to have a new list each week, just a list to glance at when you draw a blank on a song to sing.

A good idea is to "rate" these songs by tempo and "spirit".  In our recent VBS, I was leading the "early show" for buses that dropped off kids early.  I had a list of 15 or 20 songs that I was very familiar with.  I then put stars by them: one for slow songs, two for moderate songs, three for wild and crazy songs.  It really helps when you are trying to think of a slow song to be able to immediately spot an appropriate song.

It is also a good idea to have some items to play games with.  It doesn't take much, such as a small ball and a bucket to "shoot baskets" into.  You can keep it simple and inexpensive.  I've used disc shooters, footballs and hula hoops, and chocolate pudding cups to name a few.  

Last, you may want props and posters for your songs.  I personally do not use posters, but they can be great to teach new songs.  Don't fall into the trap of only singing songs you have a poster for.  You and the kids need variety.

III.  The Plan of a Program

Believe it or not, there is an art to managing a bus program.  You have got to keep the kids' attention with a purpose.  Here's a few ideas to help:

Start with fast, upbeat songs.  You want to get their attention quick.  I found that the military cadence type of songs works well, such as "Oh, Soldier" or "Down by the River".

End with slow songs.  You want to slowly and purposely slow things down before you get to the church so that your kids don't go running into the church like a high school football team at Homecoming.  I usually end with songs like "Jesus Loves Me" and "God is so Good"

Use consistency.  I usually start with and end with the same songs because I want the kids to know that it is time to get started or to slow down.  Routine is big with small children, and it will do wonders after they catch on that it is time to settle down because of the songs that are being sung.

Don't give big speeches.  You'll lose a kid's attention on a noisy bus if you try to talk too much.  Split up announcements and things so that you are not yelling to ears that aren't listening.

Don't get bogged down with questions from kids.  Let workers deal with raised hands and talkative kids.  You need to stay focused on the group or you will lose them.  

Be proactive and not reactive.  You'll do better to prevent talking kids than to scold them when they do talk.  Keep them distracted with a good program and you will cut into your discipline problems.  Also, be on the watch to see if you are starting to lose the kids.  If you are, go into a favorite, lively song to pull them back.

Above all, keep it fun.  You are there for the kids.  You need to get on their level.  Don't fall into a boring rut where its the same monotonous songs at the same time as they were twenty years ago.  I honestly have more fun that the kids do when I'm leading a program.  Check your dignity and have some fun.  

Also, don't be afraid to sing songs that are just fun.  Not every song has to be "Amazing Grace" or "Jesus Loves Me".  Have a little fun with a something like "The Little Birdie with a Funny Name" song.  This makes you more real to your kids, builds excitement, and us just plain ol' fun for the kids and you!  Let's call it the "Mary Poppins Rule", because this is a little "sugar" to help the good and important stuff sink in.

Be animated and move around.  Walk up and down the aisle.  Wave your hands.  Over exaggerate motions.  It works.

IV.  Time Stretching Tactics

Let me give you a few of tricks I use to prolong songs and liven up things if the going gets a little rough.

First, change the speed of the songs.   You can overdo this very easily, but is a very effective and attention grabbing tool.  Sing a song in super, duper slow motion.  Then sing it a little faster.  Then a little fast.  End up singing it so fast you jumble up all the words. This works great on songs that have hand motions, like "Twelve Men Went to Spy on Canaan" or "Tony Chestnut".

Second, use quick games for prizes.  I do one all the time where I say, "I'm looking for the very first person who is sitting in there seat, hands in their laps, not talking, and smiling who can..." do whatever.  Things like, "be the first person to show me a penny' or "raise their hand and answer this question".  You can get crazy with it, like giving candy to the kid who can make the best "monkey face".

Third, sing songs different ways.  This one is really silly, but works absolutely great.  I do it with "Deep and Wide".  Sing it though normal, and then say, "Now let's sing it like..." and let your imagination or kids' requests be your guide.  Some of my favorites are doing it like opera singers, dogs (just bark the notes), mice (high pitched tone with small motions), pigs (snorting the notes, but only do with a clear sinuses!), and monsters (you've really got to see it, but its a combination of growls, howls, faces, etc. that I stumbled on that the kids love)  You can over use this one, but it is quite fun if used right.

V.  Things Other than Songs and Games

I have to admit that I don't do a lot of other things, but here's a few I've heard of:

Do skits.  Have somebody put on a dopey costume and have some fun.  I've heard of this being done with "Special Guests" that will ride the bus on a certain week.  Having a clown show up and perform is also along these lines.

Preach a sermon or teach a lesson.  This is one I never really got the hang of.  It's hard to yell over the noise of a bus and its riders.  It can be and is done quite often.

VI.  What I Can't Do For You

With all the the tips, tricks, books, tapes, and web sites out there, there is only so much I or they can do for you.  It really depends on you.

First, adapt your program to yourself.  If you are better "off the cuff", then don't use a song list and let her fly!  If you need structure and stability, make a song list for each week.  There is not really a right or wrong way to run a bus program.  Just keep it scriptural, moral, entertaining, spiritual (to some extent), etc.  You've got to figure out your own style and stick with it.

Learn some new songs.  Break out a brand new song every now and then.  I grew up in a Children's Church ministry that featured probably the same fifteen or so songs (if that many) for years.  Get out of your rut with some new song from camp or that you picked up off the internet.  Trust me, the church won't burn down just because you sang a song nobody had heard before.

Get excited.  Kids can tell if you are a fake.  They can also tell if you just don't really care.  If you are having fun, they probably will be too.

I hope this gives you some ideas or is a help to you in some way.  Leading a program is an art, which I have had to learn with little help.  I learned a much from watching other bus captains and song leaders in Sunday School classes, but there are just so many things you pick up that you have got to pay attention to.  I've stumbled across some of the things I've discussed, and other I picked up from children's shows and CDs.  

There is really so much more that I love to show you.  I'm hoping to put together a video or two on this topic in the future, so you may want to check back here sometime.  I'm setting my goal for late summer or early fall for that, if it works out.