CPR for Sunday School
group magazine: May-June, 1998
GROUP MAGAZINE - May-June 1998
CPR for Sunday School
How innovative youth ministers are breathing new life into a lumbering dinosaur
If kids aren’t environmentally comfortable, they're not theologically aware.
Young people use two important criteria to gauge their experience in Sunday school: (1) Am I welcome here? (2) Is there anything here to get excited about?
The challenge is to motivate kids to take personal responsibility for their own faith—not their parents’ faith.
What would a church without Sunday school look like?
That’s what Illinois Christian education director Melissa Armstrong-Hansche asked herself. She came up with a post-apocalyptic list of what was likely to happen if her church killed off Sunday school:
•Confirmation classes would become crash-courses in the Bible and Christian life;
•Kids would drop out of church;
•Teachers and volunteers would go into hiding;
•Church leaders would have a harder time taking youth or children’s ministry seriously;
•Seeker families would go elsewhere, and member families would leave;
•Parents wouldn’t get the vital help they need to raise their kids in today’s complex world; and
•The church’s future would look bleak as the number of churchgoers dwindled and those who did come exhibited lower faith maturity.
Not a happy "collateral damage" report.
There’s no doubt that Sunday school, though often maligned as a claustrophobic exercise in religious boot-camp survival, is critical to the church’s faith development calling. The good news is that there are plenty of churches working to transform Sunday school into something creative and meaningful rather than ditch it altogether. We searched North America for examples. For a sampling of the gems we unearthed, read on...
Kids who don’t connect with other kids in a teen-friendly, upbeat environment don’t learn. So says Mark Riddle, youth leader at Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not long ago Riddle moved his church’s high-energy Sunday night "Breakaway" gathering to Sunday mornings—creating B.A.M. (Breakaway A.M.). B.A.M.’s target is non-Christian or unchurched kids, and it has four guiding objectives:
•That kids connect with other kids.
•That kids enjoy what’s going on.
•That kids learn something.
•That kids move to the next level of commitment (including leadership).
"If kids aren’t environmentally comfortable, they're not theologically aware," says Riddle, quoting youth ministry veteran Doug Fields. That’s why Riddle’s ministry team pours a lot of energy into making Sunday morning a place kids want to be.
Kids are encouraged to "own" the group. Group members are constantly connecting with other teenagers—especially visitors. They staff the visitor’s table in the church lobby and hand out bulletins and announcements before new kids even set foot in the youth room.
Once inside, there’s a 10-minute food-and-fellowship time that gives kids time to connect. A few young people pass out doughnuts and make sure every person feels welcomed. Then Riddle greets the group and tosses CDs or other treats to the visitors, a la David Letterman. Once he sets the theme for the morning, kids break into age-level teams or gender-based subgroups for discussion and more connecting time (both kid to kid and adult to kid). Adult leaders shepherd the groups, facilitating discussion and focusing the kids’ attention on just one learning point.
Riddle says, "If a new family visits, the parents are going to ask their kids three things in the van driving to lunch: (1) Did you enjoy it? (2) Did you meet anyone new? (3) Did you learn anything? If we've done a positive job with those things, we’ve hooked a family into the church."
According to Melissa Armstrong-Hansche, young people use two important criteria to gauge their experience in Sunday school: (1) Am I welcome here? (2) Is there anything here to get excited about? That’s why leaders at her Presbyterian church in Barrington, Illinois, created a workshop-rotation model for Sunday school.
This model is based on how kids learn in real life—through "multiple intelligences." Simply, kids learn best when they’re exposed to a variety of teaching strategies. The young people at Armstrong-Hansche’s church spend five weeks on one Bible lesson, traveling to different "workshops" each week. Each workshop focuses on the same Bible story, but teaches it using a different strategy. Some do it with drama, others use arts and crafts, still others use learning games, computers, or music. Each workshop has a teacher/facilitator—an adult or teen leader—who’s skilled in a particular learning style.
This model offers creative solutions to chronic frustrations about teacher preparation and recruitment, kids’ enthusiasm, unsatisfactory curriculum, and lackluster facilities. And it recognizes that most kids don’t attend every Sunday, so they’ll still learn the lesson even if they don’t attend every week. Teachers make a short-term, five-week commitment, and they learn to teach only one lesson. And better yet, they teach out of their strength. Armstrong-Hansche says she recruits more male volunteers using this model.
Finally, the rooms are well decorated with images of the current learning theme. The environment is warm, inviting, and exciting. And as kids get older, they don't question whether they belong at a church because it’s such a natural, growing experience for them.
The solution to Sunday school apathy is releasing kids into high-level involvement, according to youth leader Ken Elben of Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, California. "We say to kids, ‘Hey, look, you don’t have to wait to be involved for God,’ " says Elben. " ‘You can be involved right now at your school. If the Lord were to come back today, you wouldn’t be the church of tomorrow, you’d be the church of today.’ We let them know what they can do for God today and what God has done for them today."
Elben reserves the first 15 minutes of Sunday school for interaction time. His kids come from eight different public and Christian schools in the area, so it’s important they have time to connect. Then kids from the leadership team take over. There’s a youth-led announcement time followed by a youth-led worship service that gives kids an opportunity to sing and tell stories about God’s impact in their lives and in their schools. Elben works with a different teenager every month to prepare him or her to give a 20-minute teaching or inspirational message during the service.
Elben says, "I used to move right into the worship band, but now we have more kids who first want to share about their campus ministries—what God is doing through them. And it’s amazing how many kids are willing to sing now—I think it’s because they’re seeing their peers up there leading it."
The kids needed to have a place they could call their own for Sunday school, so they renovated the youth room into a ’50s-style diner. They put in a soda fountain, painted a diner mural on one wall, and made the floor a back-and-white checkerboard. It’s called The Crew Diner, in honor of the group’s name. You can check out The Crew’s ministry at www.inetworld.net/thecrew
A Focus on Responsibility
"I’d rather kids not be here and know why, than be here and not know why," says Mark DeYmaz, youth leader at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. He’s talking about Xtra Mile, his church’s Sunday school program that combines junior and senior highers in an intensive learning time. "We’re promoting a mind-set, not a model," says DeYmaz. "The challenge is to motivate kids to take personal responsibility for their own faith—not their parents’ faith."
Beginning in the sixth grade, kids are expected—not required—to be in the adult worship service (the first service) on Sunday morning. DeYmaz teaches kids that membership in Xtra Mile involves a commitment to the church as a whole, including accountability to its four guiding values: worship, community, growth, and service.
From September through May, Xtra Mile meets for 90 minutes during the second service. DeYmaz says, "It’s where Christian kids come to get educated. There are no guests, no visitors, no seekers—although some may come, and they’re welcome. There’s no music. Kids get that in the first service." For the first 20 minutes of Xtra Mile, all seventh- through 12th-graders meet together. The leaders use this time to cast a vision for Christian living, motivate, or deliver a specific challenge to kids. Then they break up the group into age-based smaller groups.
They use a curriculum in the small groups that was developed by the church. It defines what each age level should know and follows the four seasons of the year.
During the fall, one of the six Core Curriculum classes is led by a master teacher who starts or ends the class with a big learning idea. Small group leaders, who are equipped and managed by the master teacher, take over from there.
In the winter, kids who have completed the core curriculum classes can choose Elective Workshops—six-week sessions on topics ranging from morality, evangelism, and questions of faith to creative dating and cliques. Kids tell the leaders what they want to study.
The spring electives are geared to preparing for mission trips that are scheduled for the summer quarter.
In the last half hour of Xtra Mile, kids meet in cell groups led by "personal trainers" who help them process the curriculum, address related questions, and hold kids accountable to the program’s values and expectations. The church files transcripts from the classes and signed commitments from each teenager agreeing to be held accountable for the year. At the end of each fall session, teachers, trainers, and teenagers are asked to give a written evaluation of the program.
DeYmaz says, "Some kids choose not to go to Xtra Mile but to worship with their families. We think that’s good! It shows they’ve made their own choice. We need to be oriented to equip them, forcing the responsibility on to the individual. We tell our kids, ‘Set your own alarm clock. You’re too old for your parents to wake you up for church.’"
For more information on Fellowship Student Ministry or a copy of DeYmaz’s book Fourth Cycle Student Ministry, contact Allison Ferguson at (501) 224-7171.
Tested strategies for breathing new life into Sunday school, from youth leaders across the country:
1. Make the old, new. Kathi Jo DeYoung at Brookside Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, makes sure her kids know how they can apply the truths they’re learning to everyday life. For example, when kids are learning about idol worship from the Ten Commandments, they talk about things teenagers "worship," such as athletic logos and rock stars. Or when they’re learning about giftedness, kids pick a gift or talent they feel they have, then commit to spend two hours in the next month learning about it and using it.
2. Connect kids to church leaders. Jeff Bennett at Judson Baptist Church in Oak Park, Illinois, says, "It's important for our kids to feel a connection to our church leadership because, in an African-American community, the pastor is the community leader; the pastor is really revered. So our senior pastor is doing a month of classes with our junior high students. He’s basically talking about his life and what he was like as a kid. He’s African-American and about 80 percent of our kids are. So that’s been a real good role-modeling kind of contact time for him."
3. Get off site. Once a quarter, Bennett also has Sunday school teachers get kids out of the church for quality relationship building at a restaurant or doughnut shop.
4. Ask older teenagers to teach once a month. Bennett suggests recruiting older kids in your leadership group to teach. This helps the younger kids connect to older role models and helps them see there are other kids who are living their faith in similar circumstances.
5. Challenge kids to go deeper. Brad Bender at Trinity Baptist Church in Kelowna, British Columbia, calls his Sunday school Extreme Faith. He uses Sunday morning to equip and encourage core youth group kids who want to go deeper.
6. Offer service opportunities. Betsy Rowland at Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Loveland, Colorado, says, "We try to do one service project a month to show people that God loves them in practical ways. We look at the fact that Jesus was a servant and that’s what he calls us to be for each other. You can talk all you want, but it’s different to actually do something." Kids make cookie dough at church, then bake cookies at home and give them to their neighbors. They also rake leaves and hand out light bulbs in their neighborhoods.
7. Encourage good questions. Once a month, Brian Morris, junior high youth pastor at Life Center in Tacoma, Washington, has kids write questions they have about any subject. He has adult volunteers help him answer kids’ queries. The questions also help him plan topics for future meetings.
8. Adopt an elderly neighbor or church member. Youth leader Pat Harrison at Peninsula Bible Church in Cupertino, California, says his kids adopted Eugene, an elderly neighbor of the church. Once a month, kids do yardwork and other tasks for Eugene.
9. Turn your youth room into a coffee house. Siv Ricketts at Oxnard First Baptist Church in Oxnard, California, helped turn the church’s youth room into a bona fide coffee shop complete with youth-friendly couches, Christian music, and an espresso maker. The Jehovah Java room offers her kids a fresh and comfortable place to hang out on Sunday mornings and learn about God.
10. Take a prayer walk. Once a month, Ricketts takes her kids on a prayer walk around the church grounds. They even interrupt adult Sunday school classes on occasion to pray for the adults!
How to Infect Change
Youth leaders Mark Riddle of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Curt Vanderstelt of Muskegon, Michigan, suggest these tips when you’re contemplating a change in your Sunday morning format.
1. Take a look at what you’re doing. Is your current Sunday school program meeting your goal for that time slot? For example, though lots of visitors came to Riddle’s program, he realized it wasn’t focused for non-Christians or unchurched kids.
2. Know your group’s needs. Most kids today are biblically illiterate—they need a program that concentrates on the basics.
3. Talk with other youth leaders for ideas. Ask them what’s working, what’s not, and why.
4. Get your leader’s support before you make a change. Vanderstelt wrote a proposal and gave it to his church’s elders and deacons. He outlined the Sunday school program’s problems, set new goals, and recommended changes.
5. Ask your leadership kids for input. Ask how they think things are going, how to improve the program, and where they’d like to see the ministry headed. Make sure you have an idea where you want to go before you talk to the kids. Through this process, Riddle’s kids gained ownership of the ministry and found they liked and wanted to lead. If you don't have a leadership team, consider forming one.