Sunday school has evolved. Visual aids, electronics, and plentiful resources have opened doors into rooms that hold little resemblance to classrooms of old. Gone are the simpler days of flannelgraph, crafts, and a school-based style of teaching. Many classrooms today blend humour with challenges and biblical lessons that engage the entire family.
Are the changes simply cosmetic, or do they reflect a deeper change – a change in content? Have our children’s and youth ministries remained true to the message of Christ in their attempt to be relevant to today’s young population?
These are important questions with important answers. Let’s take a peek into the Sunday school “rooms” of three Mennonite Brethren churches to see what they’re up to…
Music pulsates up the stairwell. Laughter bounces upward, beckoning visitors to venture down. Excited children dart past, clutching their Bibles; others chatter, heads bent close as they find their places. A peek around the corner reveals a lively instructor leading energetic children through a modernized worship song. The children spin, twirl, and clap as part of their worship. The lyrics are recognizable but this is definitely not your grandparent’s melody. No, this is definitely not the Sunday school of yesteryear.
Forest Grove Community Church, Saskatoon
Forest Grove’s approach to Sunday school, which they’ve been following for five years, centres around the belief that healthy families worship together, serve together, and learn together. Associate pastor of children’s ministries Marilyn Muller partners with parents to assist them in being spiritual leaders for their children.
Children arrive, with parents in tow, for a large group program that utilizes drama, music, and humour to engage participants while upholding the integrity and truth of the Bible.
The program strives to be relevant and fun, but entertainment is not the filter, says Muller; striving to be biblical is. “Cultural relevancy can be the golden calf of the current church,” she says. “Biblical living is a priority. Transferring it to culture is a secondary mark.”
Following the exciting 45-minute program, the family worships together in the sanctuary. Then the children are dismissed into small age-appropriate groups and the adults remain in the sanctuary for the sermon.
In comparison to older models of Sunday school, modern curriculum generally has a “stronger emphasis on life application,” says Muller. In Muller’s youth, the teacher taught memorization and stories whereas now, teaching the same verses and stories, the emphasis is how they impact daily life and choices.
Forest Grove also creates many service opportunities for families to live out their faith: multi-generational mission trips, day trips to soup kitchens and nursing homes, and teaming parents or grandparents with their own off-spring to teach the younger generation about the love of God.
“When I see a transformation in the kids that have gone through the system and are now teaching and running the program, leading other kids to Christ and living passionately for Christ, I know it’s successful.”
North Langley (B.C.) Community Church
North Langley’s children’s pastor Gabrielle Wiebe doesn’t think Sunday school today is all that different than years ago, because “everything moves in cycles.” An emphasis on relationships moved to knowledge and information and now, she says, “we’re returning to connecting.”
Kids Connection uses a large group/small group format. Wiebe is moving her team from teaching simple memorization and regurgitating facts to assisting children develop an understanding of how these texts and facts apply to life right now. The church is in its third year of this particular Sunday school style. Wiebe considers it successful when she sees children grow into service roles and walking with the Lord as adults.
Changing teaching styles is not without its challenges, says Wiebe. But the work involved in searching for practical helps, employing a selective eye, insisting on depth, and focusing on teaching a biblical concept rather than simply entertaining children is worth the effort when she sees a child connect with the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.
Wiebe also believes that parents are the number one spiritual teachers. They need to understand that “what they model is what their kids learn,” she says. North Langley Community Church recently added family ministry as a high value and has changed its structure to add many mid-week groups, such as Divorce Care for Kids. They also host once-a-month parenting sessions.
Orchard Park Bible Church, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
KidZone is organized by volunteer children’s ministry coordinator Margret Wilson and overseen by family life pastor, Kevin Weeks. The mission of family ministry is “helping families follow hard after Jesus Christ,” and the driving force is strong relationships.
“Strong relationships make strong marriages,” says Weeks. Strong marriages make strong parents who in turn raise strong kids. Strong parents and kids make strong families which leads to a healthy church that makes a difference in the community.”
KidZone also uses a large group/small group format. All the children gather to participate in an activity and worship, then break off into smaller groups. “We have carefully chosen a Bible-based curriculum that is user-friendly for our teachers,” Wilson says. It’s not easy finding one that balances know-ledge, fun, and age-appropriate life application lessons, she continues, but it’s worth sifting through the mountains of options.
Wilson checks in with teachers and volunteers periodically, arranging a KidZone team meeting every six to eight weeks. She measures success in various ways. She considers the program successful when parents share stories of their children applying the lessons to their lives, or being witness to life changes in the children.
Weeks and Wilson use the analogy of a funnel to determine the direction of their ministry. “When a child enters the top of the funnel their understanding of God is wide open, much like the top of a funnel. They may know something about God, but their perspective of him and their own relationship to him are at critical stages of being defined. As a child progresses through our ministries and eventually leaves at age 18 through the bottom of the funnel, our goal is to have done all we can to help them know what it means to be a follower of Christ.”
Orchard Park has begun “Home Improvement” seminars to give parents a forum to talk to their kids about important faith questions. They also plan various children and family service opportunities such as Operation Shoebox, writing letters to missionary children, arranging a prayer partner for each child, and an annual Big Birthday Bash for Jesus.
Each church community is unique and made of individual children filled with energy, new ideas, and untapped passion. But all the teachers have a similar role: to discover the best way to direct that passion toward our Father in heaven.
In some churches this has required a fresh style of Sunday school. A proficient children’s ministry leader tailors the method, not the message.
The MB churches interviewed strive to deliver a children’s program that maintains the ageless message of the justice, mercy, and grace of our God. Conscientious and purposeful decisions help maintain high standards of doctrine and theology. God and his message are the same yesterday, today, and forever, though our methods of reaching each generation can change.