Lately, I’ve been dissatisfied with Sunday school. The kids are great, the content is great. But the time together is too short. It's April and I'm finally beginning to really know them, recognize their gifts, build on their strengths, and knit us all together as a group. But between spring break, Easter, and other special events I only have four more sessions with them before the end of the season. Then they’ll be off to summer break and I’ll have a whole new group of kids to figure out next year.
It’s not that I don’t welcome the chance to get to know more kids in my church; it’s that I want to journey on with these kids in a meaningful way that will lead to spiritual growth and encouragement over years, not just months. The school model of teachers assigned to a grade level works in a context where imparting knowledge is the primary function. But in church, it’s not all about content. Relationships are the major mechanism for passing on faith. Shared experiences, knowing one another and being known, feeling comfortable and confident in asking questions and expressing wonders and doubts—all of these things require time. More time than a year can offer.
I know most churches have trouble just finding enough teachers to split part of the Sunday school season with someone else for a particular grade. But I wonder if our structure hinders commitment. We have too small a vision of what the discipleship of children looks like, and expectations that are so limited they are unappealing. Instead saying, “These are the kids we want you to disciple. Get to know them, love them, share the gospel with them, and stories from your faith journey too. Listen to their stories, questions, and prayers. Become part of their lives so that your faith can inspire their faith and their faith can inspire yours.” Our structure says, “This is the class you are teaching. These are the dates you are assigned. Use this material. Find a substitute when necessary.”
It’s hard to express this discontent without sounding critical. I don’t want to do away with Sunday school, I simply want to see it transformed (reformed!) into a vehicle that can facilitate deeper relationships with kids and their families over time. The book Stickyfaith: Everyday Ideas for Building Lasting Faith in Your Kids by Chap Clark and Kara Powell talks about every child needing five consistent adults in their lives who are pouring into them and expressing unconditional love for them. If we hope to draw on our church family for those faith-building, nurturing relationships then we have to structure our programs in a way that provides opportunities for these relationships to form.
I’m not sure what this reinvention of Sunday school would look like, but I’m eager to hear from churches that are trying different things. One of them is Madison Square, a large Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. I visited there recently and spoke with Kristi Buurma, the Children’s Discipleship Director. For their children’s program they groups kids into mixed age-level small groups. The kids gather as a large group to hear the story and sing together, and then they split into groups that include kids from K-5th grade. While adapting or developing materials for groups that include such a broad age span takes a little extra work, the benefits include the potential for a pair of leaders to be connected with the same children for several years, and for older children in the group to act as big brothers and sisters to the younger ones. Building relationships over time, and building leadership within the group. This kind of creative thinking is inspiring.
I’m eager to hear what other churches are doing to maximize the relationships that foster spiritual growth in children. Please share your ideas!