I originally wrote this article a few years ago for a conference presentation. You are welcome to glean from it. I've continued to write more articles about "change" in Christian Education over at my Sunday Resources Blog. For related articles, go www.sundaysoftware.com/sites/articles
Who am I? I'm a Presbyterian minister specializing in Christian education. For the past three decades I've been serving and teaching in congregations, using software and the Workshop Rotation Model in Sunday School, writing about these experiences, training teachers, developing Bible software for kids, and writing creative lesson plans for both sundaysoftware.com and rotation.org.
This is a "rough draft" or think piece.
I've been experimenting with various approaches and ideas to Christian education for 30 years. The ideas in this article are based on "what I know now" ...and in some cases, "wished I had known then!" These ideas also come from discussions with many of you out in the churches. There's a lot of collective wisdom, in part based on our failures, but also on our successes. I hope you find this article stimulating and challenging. <>< Neil
Many churches are struggling mightily with their Christian ed programs. But some churches appear to be doing a nice job in their children and youth ministry. I say "appear" because once upon a time churches used to PACK their classrooms and youth rooms, --but where are all those grown-up kids now? By 1970's attendance standards, MOST Christian education programs today don't look so hot. But I'm not harkening back to those days and ways, because had they worked, all those kids would now be attending our churches, but they aren't.
Common to both those doing well and those not doing well is a sense that they should be doing "better" and "different." Christian educators often have this nagging feeling. This article is about ideas that address that nagging feeling that there's something "more" or "better" ...because there is. Those of us who've been at it have seen parts of that Promised Land.
Some people want to blame the parents for not bringing their kids to Sunday School. I don't (much). I think we got exactly what we programmed them for. We bored them when they were kids, and then spent the next 20 years of their life SHIFTING ADULT EDUCATION AWAY FROM SUNDAY toward "small groups." We have cultivated expectations AWAY FROM Adult Sunday classes, but continue to try and CAJOLE their kids' attendance on Sunday morning. We cannot have it both ways.
And I don't want to suggest "one change fits all" because some churches have bigger fish to fry. I was in a church that had growing worship attendance, but at the same time experienced DECLINING Sunday School attendance. Why? Because even though the children's offerings were great, those in charge of adult Bible study couldn't generate a decent adult Bible class to save their lives, ...and kids can't drive themselves to church. (If they saw this linkage, and believe me we pointed it out to them, they never had the commitment or skills to address it. And eventually it became a self-fulfilling prophecy in that new members joined the church who didn't expect or want good adult education.)
So while I'm going to suggest ALTERNATIVES to Sunday School, and tweaks to Sunday School, I'm not suggesting that we GIVE UP on Sunday School.
Statistically speaking, Sunday School and fellowship groups are the future lifeblood of the church. Therefore it would be a HUGE MISTAKE to give up on it. And one of my problems with the "Sunday School is Dead" -Crowd, is that they are often those who didn't support it, or drove it into the ground with their lameness, and have no experience or desire to become part of the solution.
I write about and work at change because FAILURE is simply not an option.
PART I: Moving Beyond "Sunday" and Beyond "School"
Proposal #1: Move beyond "Sunday"
Is Sunday morning before 10 a.m. the BEST time in the 21st Century to conduct children's Bible education? In some churches and places in the country, the answer is no. It's only ONE time during the week where we can conduct children's Bible education. (Notice I'm not saying "get rid of Sunday School.") This should be no surprise as we LONG AGO made this conclusion and decision about Adult Bible study when we started offering alternative small groups to the traditional Sunday morning adult class, and didn't schedule them every week.
Proposal #2: Move beyond "School"
"No more one size and one time fits all" programming
If we didn't have our preconceived notions and schedules to hold us back, what would a program of events, classes, and experiences look like that encompassed all the content we deemed important for our children to learn over a period of years?
Based on some of our most successful efforts, it would look a lot LESS LIKE kids in folding chair at 9 am on Sunday every week. It would be VARIED and creative, not "one class or nothing." It might incorporate a blend of special limited-time studies on Sunday morning after worship, some special evenings, some special retreats, some family ministry events, some home groups, and some parent-led home teaching.
It would not offer key content in just one format, place and timeslot. So for example", a traditional "Sunday night Communion Instruction Class" would be offered TWICE a year, rather than once a year (no more "all or nothing"). And it would be offered at different times to accommodate schedules. And then perhaps only every two years, rather than every year. And it might look a whole lot more like a special Family Ministry Event.... bringing the parents into the mix.
"Beyond School" would offer additional opportunities for studies, resources, and experiences for those ready to go deeper. So for example, a youth leader might have several books that they give out to kids, and then invite those who read it to meet for hamburgers and discussion. (Where would you get this "extra" time? By reining-in the juggernauts. Paring back the Sunday school, fellowship and VBS schedules which suck so much time and talent.)
It would recognize that kids mature at different rates and are individuals, and thus, not every 9th grader is ready to join the church at the same time. "Beyond School" would find the pastor tailoring experiences to individual kids based on where they were in their spiritual & church membership journey. (Where would you find the time for this? By reducing mind-numbing meetings, and creating hiatus' in the youth schedule. I'm a proponent of NOT necessarily running Fellowship groups concurrent with the school year, but rather, carving out weeks and months during the year for "a different type of ministry."
"Beyond School" would include "cast your net" events designed to attract the children of "less than active" members, -those who are often ready to reconnect when the church offers something special or different, such as the "rite of passage" events described below.
"Beyond School" would include several "rite of passage" events to mark accomplishments and points of spiritual maturation. It would incorporate youth, confirmation, family and adult ministries in its design. It would view students as individuals with individual needs, individual schedules and individual preferences, not "take it or leave it." In my experience, even the POOR ATTENDING ADULTS want their children and youth to be part of "rite of passage" events. Such things are an untapped opportunity to "cast the net."
But Neil, they say, How Can We Do This in an ALREADY Packed Schedule?
Answer: Unpack your schedule! Rein-in the juggernaut calendars of Sunday School, VBS, fellowship groups and children's choir. There's a time and season for every purpose.
Proposal #3 Start "Bringing CE to the Kids," ...rather than only expecting the kids to come to CE
I propose that each church have a branch of its Christian education ministry charged with the responsibility of bringing CE to the kids, rather than bringing the kids to CE. Bringing CE to the kids where they are isn't just about showing up at their home, though that's not a bad thing to do if you're invited!
Ideas: -->> It's about training parents to be their children's primary Christian educators. Its could mean creating a Confirmation program that isn't all about classes in the pastor's office, but just maybe about the pastor meeting with the Confirmand in their home with their parents over dinner, and having some things to talk about. -->> It's about a youth leader and a couple of kids showing up at a student's soccer game, instead of whining about how it interferes with the youth group schedule. It's about creating Facebook group page for your church kids designed for the kids to stay in touch with each other and for you to provide weekly encouragements. It's about Twittering "thoughts of the week" to kids on their cellphones. It's about putting Christian music CDs and software into their hands so they can listen (and learn) on their own time. Such an approach would give away books, and not just Bibles. And the books might not come from 'the church' ...but instead, be passed down from a sibling or a teen in the church to a younger student with conversation about "why I liked this book" and "when you're done, let's get together for a hamburger and talk about it."
In fact, I would go so far as to say that any church which is not actively working on a plan to reach children through their homes, their parents, through their siblings, and reaching through their church peers in an "off-church-campus" way, is a program that is living in the past, and not addressing current and future needs.
And oddly enough, that would look a lot like the ministry of Jesus.
Jesus traveled the roads, visited the towns, and went into homes. I'm not suggesting we abandon Sunday School on Sunday. Rather, I'm suggesting we find new ways to enact what Sunday School is supposed to be doing. Christ himself gave us the model and the commission.... go out into the world, ...teach them all I have commanded you. He didn't say "stay here and set up folding tables." Sometimes his teaching did look more formal and localized. Take the Sermon on the Mount for example, or the times where he is described as teaching in the Temple. But also look at the varied locations Jesus went. Why? Because he was looking for the sinners not the saints. If your Sunday School is looking for the sinners and not just the saints, it has to get up and get moving too.
The "look, feel, and shape" of such an "off-campus" approach is uncharted territory for most of us. It's simply not the way we were brought up or trained. And there are few published resources to help -especially if you are of the Mainline Church persuasion. But it must be innovated --or we will become increasingly irrelevant due to the many factors mentioned in this article.
STATISTICS AND TRENDS ARE NOT DESTINY IF WE HAVE THE COURAGE TO INVENT SOLUTIONS.
In his article, "Innovating on the Fly," renown church growth consultant Bill Easum wrote one of the most true statements about the church that I have ever read. And here I am applying it to Christian education and Sunday School.
"For the next fifty years, the ability to constantly innovate "on the fly" will present one of the most important leadership issues facing any organization.
Not since the Reformation has the need to discover new ways to achieve old things been as important as it is today.
Those not secure enough to innovate on the fly will be unable to effectively lead a church through the next twenty years."
You can read the full article and many other excellent Easum articles at
PART II: Ideas for a new ministry to children:
1. Family ministry! It's the best children's ministry we can do.
Churches "have tried" and then seem to lose interest in family ministry, not realizing it's something you must build an expectation for --over many years. If you're not doing it now, the parents now didn't expect it when they joined. What happens over the years, however, is that you get families joining BECAUSE of your family ministry. (This article is not about Family Ministry, but there are many good programs and books on the subject.)
Do this: Take everything you do in "children's ministry" and try to imagine what it might look like if the family did it TOGETHER. I'm not saying "convert everything over". But take Communion Education and Confirmation, and Children's Choir, and the Christmas Play --for example, and REDEFINE them as family events. As my previous "stats" article noted, parents these days are looking for MORE things to do with their kids, not less.
Now that I've said "family ministry"...let me talk about children's ministry.
2. Do less "whole group" programming that is year-round and facility based.
This will open up time for other opportunities to go out and be where the kids are. New venues will create new opportunities for interaction and keep us from offering only a classroom based model. (Example: a children's group I know pledged to attend events in which each member was already involved. The group would show up at soccer games to watch individuals play, dances, school competitions, etc.)
Note: A 2009 study conducted by the Barna Research Group found that there is very little long term difference between a child attending church events "every week" versus "2 or 3 times a month" -when it comes to the hoped-for result of "life-long active participation."
3. Think beyond Sunday morning.
Organize opportunities to meet a variety of options and schedules. Provide opportunities that have defined start and end dates. Studies show that people find it easier to join newly forming groups, rather than break in to existing ones, and respond to defined lengths of commitment.
4. Create opportunities that include parents, rather than viewing parents as "the ride to and from the program."
Indeed, if I had to choose between Children's Ministry and Family Ministry, I'd choose Family Ministry every time. Start to bring parents into leadership and support roles early and often, and don't discontinue it just because the kids get older.
5. Have a one-on-one component where leaders go where kids live and play. See my article on "the Tribe13 Experiment" for how we implemented this idea in one church.
6. Seek to match each child with an opportunity to serve in the life of the church. Service builds disciples. It is spiritual education.
7. Expand the number of ritual/rites of passage which children/youth can pass through, rather than lumping it all into one Confirmation behemoth. Keep these "rites of passage" easy to participate in (no 10 week courses), but special enough to draw wide interest.
8. Individual churches will shape parts of their ministry to children in ways that capitalize on strengths and unique opportunities. A real strength in the church might be its tradition of camping, or service, or the presence of large numbers of college students, for example. Such strengths present unique opportunities to those churches. Yet some churches never look at what they might be uniquely able to be and do, rather, they 'import' their conceptions from other congregations.
Some churches have wonderful children's choirs. Such programs are often viewed as "competition" for Sunday School and Fellowship, and it's certainly true they compete for TIME. But rather than viewing the choir program as competition, re-imagine the choir program to INCLUDE elements of Sunday School, biblical education, service and rites of passage. And where a fellowship or education program competes for time with a choir program, REIN-IN the schedules of both competitors. No where is it written that children's fellowship HAS TO meet Sept-May. Or that the Sunday School can't be used to produce a children's choir program.
More about "Capitalizing on strengths". In one church where I served, we had a wonderful wooded area where we created a campsite. The campsite became a classroom, a retreat center, a VBS program, and a family camping area.
9. Use technology to "data-base" contact information about kids and their activity/interests. No more losing kids through the cracks.
10. Planning meetings should take time to focusing on the lives and needs of individuals in the groups, both kids and leaders. Planning meeting should not just focus on "plans." Leaders and teachers should be regularly discussing "what they know" about their kids. Too often such knowledge is haphazard.
11. Develop new standards for measuring success and failure. "Only 5 kids showed up" might mean, "those 5 kids got more personal attention than they ever had." "We had a big turnout" might sound great, but if no quality ministry or personal interaction took place, then it needs to be judged. Meeting two teens for hamburgers and discussion of a life issue, is probably worth more than a month of Sunday night meetings with them.
12. Recognize that some children/youth are ready for exceptional commitment and provide a track for them to follow. Have you identified your "Gifted Disciples" and challenged them? Or are they floating along with the others?
13. All children's ministry in the future must be equally focused on family ministry. In particular, we need to to more encouraging and TRAINING of parents to talk about faith in the home and in daily living. From my experience with young adult groups and young family groups, just the KNOWLEDGE that other families were also doing this at home, bolstered the parents commitment to this ideal and practice.
About this idea.... We gave them HANDS ON things to take home and DO, such as, Bible Dinner Grace Placemats, and Home Seder Kits, and passing along a "Bag of Videos" for families and teens to view together ---and one simple question: "why do you think the church wanted us to see this particular video together?" It was quite effective and much appreciated by the parents.
14. Your thoughts here.
In addition to my work with Sunday Software,
I write a Church Tech and "Church Change" Blog at www.SUNDAYRESOURCES.NET