11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4.11-13)
Whether it is a big church or a small church, Sunday School teachers are a hot commodity. When I first started at St. John’s, the Sunday School program was run by a handful of parents. I’m thankful for their commitment and dedication to provide a program that was needed in the church. However, they gladly handed over the reigns and were relieved when they didn’t have to bear the weight of the program themselves. I quickly learned how heavy that weight was. Finding people who were willing to teach Sunday School was literally like finding a needle in a haystack. Being a small congregation, I finally convinced the parents to take turns teaching. Interestingly enough, I discovered that it wasn’t that people weren’t willing, it was that they were intimidated to teach. The curriculum that we used involved a bible study, a craft, and some type of game or exercise to enforce the lesson. Teachers didn’t feel like they had enough knowledge let alone skills to execute the lesson. One parent warned me that her arts and craft skills were a little lacking. I thought it couldn’t be that bad until I saw the product of their craft activity. The lesson was on fruits of the spirit and they were to make a fruit basket. The parent’s idea of making a fruit basket was taking a styrofoam ball and sticking skewers in it with paper fruit taped on the ends of the skewers. It looked like a solar system science project gone bad . . . or should I say “fruity.” Now, I am not criticizing her artistic abilities. What I am criticizing is the effectiveness of the curriculum we were using. It was clear that the Sunday School program needed to be revamped.
So, I did a lot of reading, a lot of research, and a lot of internet surfing. I read books on how to attract Sunday School teachers; how to raise funds using clever fundraising ideas; and how to make the Bible stories come alive for kids today. What I didn’t find much of if any resources on was how to create an effective Sunday School program for a small church with limited resources. I also struggled to find curriculum that accommodated for a holistic approach to the spiritual development of children. I believe that children should be in worship; otherwise how will they know what it is like to worship in a faith community. And not just be in worship, but they should be able to participate in worship. Of course this may mean a revamping of how we do worship so that it is approachable for all generations, but that is another blog. I needed to find curriculum and develop a program that allowed for children to be in worship part of the time; accommodated a range of ages in one classroom; was user-friendly for teachers; was engaging and interactive for kids; and was doable on a limited budget.
Now to put my situation in context, let me describe my church and the city it resides in. My church is booming with babies. For a church with a membership of about 130 and worship attendance is between 70-80, we have 25 babies under the age of one. Six more were just born in the month of August. We have 30 children between the ages of two and four. Talk about crazy! Now compare that to how many children we have between the grades of Kindergarten and fifth grade, we have about twenty-eight. It is a huge drop in numbers. However, if anyone is familiar with the city of San Francisco, it isn’t too surprising. They say there are more dogs in San Francisco than children. Some of the contributing factors has to do with cost of living, but one of the major factors is the public school system. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say it feels like you are preparing to send your kid off to college except that it is Kindergarten. When families don’t get assigned the public school of their choice and private school isn’t a viable option, many choose to move across the bridge. whether it be Golden Gate or the Bay. Another thing about living in San Francisco is everything seems to happen on Sunday mornings – games, school picnics, birthday parties, marathons, festivals, etc. So although we have about twenty-eight elementary school-aged kids, we have at the most twelve kids in attendance at church.
Although these are some huge hurdles to jump over, this was a wonderful opportunity to get creative. Here are some of the changes that were implemented.
- the time – it used to be that the kids would begin worship with their parents for about ten minutes, then after the children’s sermon they would be escorted downstairs to Sunday School. This meant that they missed out on baptisms, communion, and any other important rituals. I changed the time so that they immediately started downstairs in Sunday School, had a 45-minute lesson, and then came back upstairs for children’s sermon and other rituals going on.
- worship participation – changing the time also gave us an opportunity to engage the children in worship. For example, on Communion Sundays, I often gather the kids around the table and we discuss the meaning of the bread and wine/juice. I, then, have them pray with me blessing the Lord’s Supper. Our choir director also moved the time of the anthem from the beginning of worship towards the end so that the kids would be able to participate. Every Sunday, she teaches them a song or hymn. By moving the anthem time, it will give the kids an opportunity to lead the congregation in a song. Also, on Sundays where interactive prayer stations are set up, we don’t have Sunday School because these Sundays are a wonderful opportunity for families to worship together. (I plan to write a more detailed blog about interactive prayer stations later.)
- curriculum – I discovered the workshop rotation model. I love the concept of teaching the same bible story for a few weeks using different teaching mediums. I love that the lesson plans are posted in an open source format and shared with others. What I struggled with is that in its original form, it seems geared towards bigger churches with a larger Christian Education budget. What I did was adapt the concept and the lessons so that it fit our needs and situation. For example, the rotation model has four set workshops where the children, according to grades, rotate to a different workshop each Sunday. My program splits the kids into two groups of K-2nd grade and 3rd-5th grade. Each Sunday, they learn the same Bible story for four weeks but through a different teaching medium, such as video, art, music, drama, science, cooking, games, and mission. For example, when they learn about Elijah and Elisha, they watch a video on Elisha, make “Elijah’s Chariot Wheels” cookies, weave potholders (mantle), and raise money for Heifer Project International’s Pass on the Gift project. (These lessons can all be found on their website.) Having workshops also allowed teachers to sign up for the teaching medium they felt most comfortable with. No more solar system fruit baskets.
- mission – I think it is important to start instilling the habit of mission and giving at an early age. Once a quarter, I have the kids do a mission project that correlates to a Bible story that they are learning. Last year, while learning about Samuel and Hannah, they threw a baby shower and collected new and slightly used baby items for a non-profit organization that served homeless families.
- supplies and resources – Because we weren’t buying expensive curriculum, I used that money to buy supplies and books. Also, since the workshop rotation model works off of a six year plan, meaning that every six years the lessons repeat, the supplies and books I bought were an investment. We are in our sixth year of this Sunday School program, which means next year when I repeat the lessons from year one, the money I spend will decrease drastically because I already have the books and resources and will only need to replenish some supplies. I also became a hoarder and developed a strong attachment to my label maker. I took over a supply closet at my church and began hoarding supplies that I would collect from the congregation: toilet paper rolls, cotton balls, egg cartons, plastic bottles, newspapers, etc. I also frequent SCRAP, a place that collects reusable items for art, and Amazon Marketplace for books and videos.
These changes are not huge changes, but they are enough to feel a positive difference by the kids and especially the teachers. In the six years of this newly revamped Sunday School program, the quantity of children hasn’t increased, but the quality of their spiritual development and comfort to explore their faith has drastically improved. The biggest change has been the parents and teachers. They are a hot commodity, not because they are so hard to find and acquire, but because they are highly valued. My Sunday School teachers would be the first to say that the kids themselves are great teachers. I truly believe that one of the most important jobs a Sunday School teacher has and that we as a faith community have is “to prepare God’s people for works of service.” (v. 12)