TOLEDO — After a tragedy at a house of worship, like the ones in Charleston, S.C., Sutherland Springs, Texas, Pittsburgh or, most recently, Christchurch, New Zealand, security inevitably enters the conversation.
But at many churches, one aspect of ensuring the safety of attendees is often a bit more quotidian — digital check-in stations for children heading off to age-appropriate ministries.
The generally kiosk-contained screens are often an unquestioned part of the landscape at churches that structure their services so that children worship apart from Mom and Dad, often in colorful wings like CedarVille at the multicampus CedarCreek Church, KidCity at First Apostolic Church of Toledo, or Kids Street at Crossroads Community Church in Ottawa Lake, Mich.
Check-in stations are a way to ensure the children’s ministry volunteers know of any allergies or health concerns a child might have, a way to ensure that a child goes home with the right set of parents and, significantly, a way to ensure that Mom and Dad can feel good about leaving their little ones to learn about faith in their own song-and-craft-focused ways.
“If churches aren’t [using digital check-in], they need to be,” Chad Charpie, pastor of children’s ministry at Crossroads Community Church, said. “It’s unfortunate, but in our world today, you need to have it.”
First Apostolic Pastor Kris Dillingham agrees.
“In this day and age,” he said. “I think it’s just something that’s necessary.”
The earliest adopters began to implement digital check-ins in the early 2000s, said Matt McMaster, a senior professional services consultant for FellowshipOne, a church-management software company that saw the system effectively pioneered at Fellowship Church in Dallas.
Today FellowshipOne is one of several companies across the country to handle check-in and other elements of day-to-day management and data analytics for churches.
Mr. McMaster saw the adoption of digital check-ins pick up through roughly 2008, when the landscape reached the point where “almost every church” seemed to have implemented one.
Check-in systems are pretty standard locally, including at CedarCreek, which came on board at least a dozen years ago, and at Crossroads Community Church, which switched from analog to digital about six years ago. Mr. McMaster said it’s been years since he’s seen a church with an attendance with more than 500 without a digital check-in system; he echoed pastors in suggesting that these days it would be more unusual to see a church of a certain size without one.
“But that’s in the United States,” he said. “Internationally, when I start talking about children’s check-in, they literally don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. I have to explain.”
In his role at FellowshipOne, Mr. McMaster is also observing — and encouraging — a modest trend toward check-in for an entire congregation. He sees it as a way for faith communities get to know each other better, as tends to happen when name-tags enter the mix. He also sees it as a way for churches to better keep in touch with their visitors and regulars: If a church works its data analytics right — reaching out to an attendee who hasn’t checked in for a few weeks, for example, or sending them a birthday shout-out — even a megachurch can feel small.
While he can point to at least a few churches nationally that have implemented check-in for the entire congregation, Mr. McMaster puts them in the minority: maybe 2 in 10 churches.
“It’s definitely more than I was seeing five years ago,” he said. “No church was doing it five years ago.”
In Toledo, CedarCreek checks in all attendees for some special events, but not for a typical weekend service. First Apostolic, on the other hand, has been asking everyone to check in at a kiosk since they digitized their system in 2016.
Pastor Dillingham and Jennifer Condon, an administrative assistant, said extending it to the entire community enables them to better engage with the congregation.
And it’s a whole lot easier than the attendance-by-hand efforts they used to do, they said.
“It was clipboards,” Ms. Condon said.
“Twenty-seven pages of names on an Excel spreadsheet,” Pastor Dillingham added.
While the specifics of a check-in system vary from church to church, the general model asks a parent to “check” a child into an age-appropriate classroom. Then the kiosk spits out stickers with the child’s name, as well as a subtle indication of any allergies or health concerns that a parent feels a children’s ministry volunteer should know about.
If there’s an issue during the service, the check-in system allows volunteers to contact parents, either with a text message or by flashing a unique code on a screen in the sanctuary. Pastors said it isn’t unusual to see numbers flashing onscreen during a service, but it’s unusual for the issue to be anything beyond a dirty diaper or a fussy youngster.
That unique code is also important when it’s time to head home. For a smooth pick-up after the worship service — or, at First Apostolic, after the Sunday school-style lessons that precede a family worship service — the code of the sticker that stays on the child has to match the code of the sticker that stays with Mom or Dad.
If it seems unlikely that someone would try to walk off with the wrong child, consider a custody dispute, said Eric Williams, senior director of experiences for CedarCreek Church. The sticker system is one way to ensure that a volunteer doesn’t unwittingly let a child leave with the noncustodial parent and a way to give peace of mind to the worried custodial one.
“It’s that lack of security and anxiety that doesn’t allow people to freely worship and have that time with God, because they’re thinking, and rightfully so, about the safety of their kids,” he said. “We try to step in and provide that fun, safe environment where they can connect without worry.”
Even if that’s not your situation, there’s a lot of comfort in knowing a security system is in place.
“You think about a first-time visitor coming to the church, and immediately, we say, ‘We have classes for your children. We’ll take them to class.’ That’s a little frightening sometimes,” Ms. Condon, of First Apostolic Church, said. “I think knowing that we have the ability to check in, and that … nobody is going to come collect their kid without this [check-out sticker], I think that gives them a sense of peace about allowing kids go to class.”