Bruce Barry knows how to get kids' attention. He was the talented creator of environments at Rainforest Cafes; Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida; and the E.T. ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. But he didn't know what a children's minister was--and had never heard the story of Jonah and the whale.
Five years later, Bruce is in high demand from churches wanting to build kid-friendly children's ministry centers. And he recently created Don't Miss the Boat, a zany take on the story of Noah's ark and the first installment of The Roach Approach, a computer-animated children's video series starring--of all things--a cuddly cockroach named Squiggz.
Bruce grew up in New Jersey, with a father who was a cartoonist for Disney and a mom who worked in fashion design. Bruce was a self-taught artist, inheriting his father's gift for drawing and learned color and texture from his mom.
After high school, Bruce joined his family in Florida, decorating windows and moving up to drawing murals for bars and restaurants. His reputation as a talented artist began to grow, and he did his first big job for Marc Rutenberg Homes, designing children's bedrooms.
He took a position with a company in Jacksonville, Florida, designing sets for theme parks and creating themed environments of all different kinds. He then went into business for himself, opening Wacky World Studios, currently based near Tampa, Florida. Then a phone call came that would change his life--from a children's pastor in Arkansas.
"He said, 'Hi, my name is Dale Hudson, and I'm a children's pastor in Springdale, Arkansas,'" Bruce recalls. "I said, 'You're a what?' I had never heard of one before in my life."
Hudson saw Bruce's work on the Internet and wanted him to design the children's rooms at First Baptist Church of Springdale. Bruce turned him down. Hudson called again, this time offering Bruce and his wife plane tickets to come see the space he had in mind. Bruce didn't want to, but the thought of doing something for kids did intrigue him.
As Bruce and his wife, Vivian, flew to Arkansas to build a children's ministry center in a church they'd never seen, the artist recalls thinking, "What have I gotten us into?"
That was until he saw the church. First Baptist sits in a warehouse-sized building in the heart of the area that houses the Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods headquarters. It was one of the new megachurches cropping up around the country, and Hudson wanted a "Toon Town" (think Disney's Who Framed Roger Rabbit movie and you get the idea) to "wow" the kids.
"I drew the design, and they loved it," Bruce says. "It took about seven months to build it here in Florida, then we put the whole thing on two eighteen-wheelers and went to Springdale."
Bruce and his team assembled 26-foot-tall buildings and cars with illuminated headlights and special effects designed to go off during children's church (like bells and buzzers). He also designed Space Place/Planet 45 for older kids, with huge video screens and nonviolent video games along the walls.
The real miracle, however, was what happened to Bruce while he was working in Springdale. He had only been to church a few times in his life. A neighbor had taken him to a Catholic service once when he was 8 or 9 years old, and it embarrassed him that he was told he could not take part in communion. He never went back.
"When we went to assemble the kids' rooms at Springdale, I expected the Christians to try to work on me. I was ready for them, too," Bruce recalls. "But not one person in the church ever said anything to me, asked me if I was a Christian or tried to get me to come to church. They were just really kind and caring."
Then in 2000, on the night before Halloween, he was working in the church when a young girl asked him if he would draw a whale for the story of Jonah for a Halloween alternative party the church was hosting.
"I started drawing, but the girl told me I was doing it wrong," Bruce says. "She told me I had to draw the whale with its mouth open. I asked her why. I was 40 years old, and I had never heard the story of Jonah."
The story so fascinated him that he asked the girl to tell him the other stories represented around the gym.
"The stories blew me away," he says. "I thought they were better than any Disney movie ever made."
The next day, Pastor Ronnie Floyd prayed with Bruce to receive Christ.
"I knelt on the floor, and all of these businessmen and pastors came around me and prayed over me as I prayed," Bruce recalls. "I came up from that six inches off the ground."
Bruce went back to the hotel and called his wife, nervous about her reaction. She told him that if he was going to heaven someday, he wasn't going without her. She flew out to Springdale and also accepted Christ. They were baptized at First Baptist of Springdale and returned home to changed lives.
Come to find out, some of Bruce's employees back in Florida were Christians and they had been praying for him. "It was unbelievable. God knew in my heart that I was ready to turn away any adult who approached me," Bruce says. "So how did He bring me into His kingdom? Through the eyes of a child."
From the Springdale job, he began to receive inquiries from other churches, and he changed the focus of his business to churches in order to design more children's areas. Bruce's business grew from just a few men to more than 60 employees.
Still, he had the idea for reaching even more children than the ones in the churches whose space he transformed into Toon Towns, Power Stations, even ocean-themed areas with a whale at the entryway (complete with an open mouth and a tongue kids have to slide down in order to enter).
One day, Bruce stood in line at a convenience store and watched children eating candy designed to look like pierced tongues and brain matter. He remembered how fun it is to kids to be "grossed out."
"I had just gotten done praying, saying to the Lord that I knew He had not brought me into His kingdom at 40 years old just to do churches," Bruce says. "I told him that I thought there was something else I was supposed to be doing to reach kids. I realized when I saw those kids' excitement at those candies that I had really forgotten what it was like to be a kid. Those candies were exactly what I would have picked."
As he went back to work, he almost stepped on a huge roach. As Bruce remembers it, the large palmetto bug (a bug very similar to a cockroach) actually seemed to turn around and look at him for a moment before scurrying away. Suddenly, the idea was born for a cartoon series based around roaches telling Bible stories.
Don't Miss the Boat, the first episode of Bruce's new Roach Approach series, debuted last fall, complete with spinoff products that range from plush "roaches" (that thankfully are bright tropical colors and bear little resemblance to their real-life counterparts) to coloring books and a soundtrack featuring artists such as Natalie Grant and the Grammy-winning Michael McDonald.
The main characters are the lovable Squiggz and his grandparents Lou and Nana. The animation and script are designed and written to catch the attention of kids and adults.
New episodes are scheduled to release in the late spring (The Mane Event, the story of Daniel in the lion's den) and fall (the story of David and Goliath, where David meets "The Exterminator") of 2005.
In addition to the children's video series, Bruce keeps busy with the churches that make up the majority of Wacky World's business. He is designing projects for Joel Osteen and has worked in churches across the United States. He wants children to get so excited that they can't wait to come to church, and his enthusiasm for his work shows. So do the results.
"I had a whole family thank me for Toon Town, because the daughter had gone to church with a friend and liked it so much that she went home and told everyone," Bruce says. "They came to check it out, and the entire family eventually got saved. That's what it's all about."The Fun Factor
Bruce Barry's five tips for capturing kids' imaginations
1. Excitement served year-round: Bruce suggests examining the big events that get attention and bringing what makes them fun into the weekly routine of children's ministry.
"If you want your church to grow you have to put kids first," he says. "Think of the fun of vacation Bible school--but do that every Sunday."
2. 'X' marks the spot: Churches are not automatically family-friendly zones. Make the children's ministry setting a place where kids are naturally drawn because of the energy, music and brightness of the room.
"Clearly mark the entryway of the kids church so that kids know immediately where to go," Bruce suggests. "If you create something visible and fun right up front that the kids recognize is for them, they will make a beeline for it."
3. Start big, start small, start somewhere!: Churches don't have to wait until they have thousands of dollars at their disposal and can build a children's ministry room that rivals Disney.
"You can do a lot with paint," Bruce notes. "Get someone from the church who can draw to make some murals, design something on the walls. Just do something that looks inviting to the kids."
4. Communicate importance.: Bruce contends that designing a kids space is important--maybe the most important thing a church can do. Ultimately, only a church that places a high value on children will attract families.
"If kids run right to it, parents will follow," he says. "McDonald's PlayPlaces are there on the highway so kids can see them and beg their parents to pull over."
5. Bait the hook.: Don't worry that you are diluting the message by adding bells and whistles, Bruce says.
"We are all supposed to be fishers of men, right? So think of this as a way of putting out the bait," he contends. "If you take a kid into an office environment versus taking him to 'Toon Town,' it's a night-and-day difference. His face lights up, and he gets excited. And when kids are excited, they spread the word."
After being told that our black people would not go to church and listen to someone teach the Word, I stepped out on faith and relocated my family to Rocky Mount, NC. In 1989, I began Showers of Blessing Christian Center with only 15 members at the YMCA.
The next year I joined FICWFM because I heard and saw the principles of Faith being taught and operating in the lives of Drs. Fred and Betty Price. I believe that a congregation cannot grow any higher than the level of leadership over it. Therefore, I can say with assurance that being under the anointing, guidance and leadership of Dr. Price has played a major role in the growth of my ministry which has grown from 15 members in the last 15 years to over 1100 members. Our Headquarter is housed in a state of the art 30,000sqft. building which includes our Sanctuary, Administrative Offices, Bookstore and K-12 Christian Academy. Our NuGen, (youth ages 12-18) have their own building which consist of the Sanctuary, Café, Game and Fellowship Area. We are one church with three locations in Rocky Mount, Goldsboro and Raleigh North Carolina. We are impacting lives nationally and internationally through our radio and television broadcast; it is a ministry that is changing lives everyday for the glory of God because we believe that "The Word Works When You Work the Word". Thank you Dr. Price for a ministry of excellence and continuing to challenge me to go to a higher level in Christ!
If your ministry is to the inner city God wants you to know He's there for you. He wants you to grow, prosper, and learn how to apply the biblical principles of excellence and moral living. The Fellowship Of Inner City Word of Faith Ministries (FICWFM) is a multicultural, international and nondenominational organization open to all those in one or more of the five-fold ministries. FICWFM offers support, encouragement, and fellowship.
Natalie Nichols Gillespie has written for Spirit Led Woman, Charisma and Christianity Today. She is the author of several books, including The Stepfamily Survival Guide (Revell) and lives with her husband, Adam, and five children in Weeki Wachee, Florida.