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Reinventing Sunday School for the 21st Century

April 12, 2006 jill Blog
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This article first appeared in the April 2006 issue.

By Roger Theimer and Mike Heinz

Dr. Roger Theimer is the author of Kingdom Quest, a children’s ministry curriculum available over the Internet,  Mike Heinz is the director of family ministries at King of Kings Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska. 

When you hear Sunday school, what comes to mind? Is it something like school, only it happens in church on Sundays? Is it a place where parents have to drag their kids and force them to attend?

Or do you see Sunday school as a place so engaging and fun for kids that they drag their parents along? Can it be the best hour of a child’s week?

If you haven’t visited a growing 21st century Sunday school recently, be prepared for a surprise. Children’s ministry is reaching a new level of importance in Christian churches across the country, and today’s kids are growing up in Sunday schools that are quite different from their parents’ Sunday school.

The first noticeable change is the variety of programming in the local Sunday school.  The question isn’t just what curriculum a church will use, but also what format of delivery. Traditional Sunday school was, and still is, primarily one teacher in charge of each self-contained classroom. The emphasis is on teaching information, and the methodology is mostly lecture and reading and questions/answers about the Bible. While this is still the most widely used model in America, many rapidly growing Sunday schools have switched to new formats that have an entirely different feel.

Kids Church

One new format is the children’s church model. This is primarily a large-group experience of age-appropriate worship and presentation of the Bible. The emphasis is on high-energy singing and creative presentations of the Bible truth, incorporating drama, puppets, object lessons, costumed characters and/or high-energy video. The audience interacts with the presenters and even the video at times.

Some churches are creating these experiences with the goal of involving the whole family. Here’s how it works: Mom and Dad attend an “adult service” while their child attends Sunday school. They then participate together in “Family Church,” which addresses kids’ issues in such a way as to “grab” adults. A challenge, to be sure, but it’s one that numerous churches are doing with excellence and effectiveness.

The advantages of this delivery system are:

  • It’s age-appropriate – kids are fully engaged, and life application is made directly to their level of understanding and experience.
  • It requires fewer volunteers and attracts those with talents in large group presentation.
  • When done well, kids church can draw new families to your church.

One challenge to this model is that the kids still largely remain the audience. Also, since relationships can’t go as deep in an only-large-group experience, some churches have the children meet for part of the hour in small groups with an adult leader.

Kids church is not without opposition among children’s ministry experts. Some believe that to separate children from their parents during the worship hour is a mistake, that the Sunday family worship experience is essential to the faith formation of the child. They argue that even if kids are not fully engaged in the worship experience, they are catching the value of worship by seeing Mom/Dad worship. They also posit that kids who are brought up in a child-oriented worship environment often struggle to make the transition to the “adult” worship service.

While these are valid concerns, we would counter that too often children are barely engaged (if at all) in the main worship service. And not every parent is an excellent worship model for their child to emulate. It would be a mistake to assume that the best (or only) time for kids to see their parents worshiping is at church.

In response to these concerns, many churches have begun to challenge parents to be more intentionally spiritual at home and are giving families tools to help them do it. We see this as the best of both worlds – kids engaged in worship at church at their developmental level, then worshiping and learning and praying with parents at home.

Learning Centers

A second alternative design is the learning center model (rotation model), which breaks a Bible lesson into several learning centers or stations. One week, kids might learn about the Bible event as they make a craft, play a learning game, or eat a theme-related snack.  The next week, they might make a video or perform a drama or create a puppet show. A third week, they might investigate a creative writing station or complete an art project.

The strengths of this format are:

  • Not everyone learns in the same way. Learning centers allow kids to engage the content of the Scripture teaching using their best learning style.
  • It is very creative and attractive for kids to become involved.

Small Group/Large Group/Small Group

A third format is the small group/large group/small group design. Many have found this design to be very effective in helping to forge strong relationships between adult leaders (shepherds) and children, while letting others with unique performance or teaching gifts specialize in teaching. Children are grouped in small groups with others their same age or grade; then several grades may come together for the large-group teaching experience.

Consider a typical schedule for children in grades one through four.

They begin in small groups of five to eight students for a 15-minute warm-up. This warm-up time directs their attention to the topic of the day as they share some aspect of their life.  During this small-group time, children become closely connected to their adult shepherd and one another.

Groups then meet together in a common area for a large-group presentation where the Bible is taught in creative fashion. Adults who specialize in drama or storytelling follow scripts that help the children become part of the learning process. Costumed characters, Bible video clips and puppets often provide a lively and engaging alternative, helping children identify with the main point of the lesson.

After the large-group time, kids return to their small groups for the final 25 minutes or so.  Now they further investigate what the Bible says and apply everything they’ve experienced throughout the lesson to their lives. Children may complete a simple craft project or work with a learning object that helps them remember the lesson.

The group closes with prayer, but not just spoken by the adult shepherd–students pray for one another and whatever is on their heart.

Impact on Facility Design

Churches using these new formats are less likely to design solid-wall classrooms that hold 15 to 20 children–the “traditional” self-contained classroom. Today, churches are creating open spaces that can be easily and quickly converted from large-group space into an area serving several small groups.

The money that used to be invested in walls is now spent on sound, lighting and stage sets for the large-group experience and in portable furniture to help create small-group space. Children gather behind easily moveable partitions and sit on the floor, on bean-bags, or in a circle of chairs around a table. Décor has reached a new level of importance, with walls and ceilings decorated to compete with the artistic design of a popular children’s recreation center or pizza house.

Keeping Them Safe

Churches that have incorporated these changes into their Sunday morning experience have seen dramatic increases in numbers of children in attendance. This brings to the surface a significant new issue: safety and security.

Churches with growing children’s ministries need to make sure every parent can be confident that their child will not be abducted or abused in any way while in the care of the children’s ministry. Children wear nametags, and only parents with proper identification for their child are allowed to pick them up. Volunteer workers are screened, and background checks are performed before volunteers are allowed to work with children. Hallways are monitored to make sure every adult belongs there.

The Bottom Line

George Barna of the Barna Institute, one of the authoritative voices for understanding the landscape of the American church, says it this way: “The research reinforces one simple but profound truth, over and over again–if you want to have a lasting influence upon the world, you must invest in people’s lives, and if you want to maximize that investment, then you must invest in those people while they are young.”

The fact is that these new ministry designs are not cheaper than traditional Sunday school. In fact, they often cost more in money, time and energy. But church after church is discovering that the extra cost is in every way an investment

And the dividends are out of this world!



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