What's The Point?

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Being a Sunday school teacher involves many skills. You need to know the lesson, you need to know the kids and fit all this in whatever time you are given. Sometimes the lesson ideas work very well. Other times, they don’t. In the last two weeks here is what teachers in our church did:

Last week in our three and four year old class, two children talked all the time. The teacher worked at telling the story and the kids responded to every sentence. She could hardly get a word in. So this week the teacher was ready – she prepared a lesson with movement and games with many places for her class to respond. But this week was different. Only one of the talky children was there and the one who was left is a lot quieter on his own. A new parent joined the class and sat with her child. The dynamics were completely different and none of the children talked this week. The teacher’s plans wouldn’t work with this group at all. So she had to improvise – she told the story, read a book and did quiet activities.

The 9th and 10th grade teacher had 6 teens who weren’t talking. For 15 minutes she was getting only yes and no answers. So she got out large pieces of paper and markers and asked each kid to represent sin, salvation and service on a poster. The group started talking about how to represent these concepts on paper. One student represented sin with a crumpled up paper, salvation with a white clean paper and service with an origami crane. These posters are now hanging in their classroom.

Sunday School teacher need to know when the lesson is working and when they’re not. But even knowing that isn’t enough. You need to have a clear grasp of what your objectives are for the lesson. You need to know what it is that you want your students to be able to do after the lesson. Do you, for example, want them to be able to tell where Abraham went when he left his home in Ur? Do you want them to be able to explain the outline of the Heidelberg Catechism? Having a clear idea of the point of your lesson, knowing what you want to accomplish allows to you be creative in you planning and also it lets you improvise when things don’t go as planned.

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Oh, isn't that so true!! You plan for that one or two kids that you know will need extra engagement and then they aren't there. And it's so disappointing because you want to know if your strategy would have worked! Flexibility is key, thanks for these thoughts Laura!

Participant

Here's a thought,

what if this kind of education was done in the home by the parents rather than at Sunday School?  That way each child could be trained in keeping with who they are as their parents know that better than any one else. 

And if anyone thinks that parents aren't qualified ... most Sunday School teachers are volunteers who are not teachers by trade either.  

Google "D6" or [email protected] and such sites. 

We have great intentions to teach these children, but I wonder why we think this is the job of the church and not the home (I think it stems from secular educational philosophy which has the state as the one to teach the children ... not a biblical view at all). 

So what if instead of Sunday School, we resourced and supported parents in their discipling and training up of their own children?  Just an idea ... one that is impacting denominations all over the continent ... just not ours that much yet.

Colin – you’re right – this is a trend that is popping up in many places and I, for one, think it is a dangerous one.  I’m not suggesting that parents should not train their children in the Lord but the task of the church is to do MUCH more than just train parents.  The church is a community of faith and I have a responsibility to know and to teach the children in my church too.  The trend you point to is that churches do little more than give parents the tools they need to do the job – in fact in many of those churches they have gotten rid of Sunday School and replaced it with parent training.  I think that is a shirking of the vows we make at baptism and misses the point of what it means to be in community together.  I would suggest that this is in conflict with a reformed perspective of who we are as a faith community and our understanding of the covenant.

We certainly should be a resource to parents but that is only part of it.  I very much think that children need to see the faith of people other than their parents too.  In fact, this matches up with what we know about faith development theory – that the circle of influence gets bigger as children grow.  This trend of throwing everything to the home also basically eliminates children from church life.  That damages the church as well as the children. We need to be all God's people together and Sunday School is one of the places that happens best, especially when adults get to share their faith with the kids as they share the nuts and bolts of the lesson.

I know that this D6 movement  has taken root in some places – I just hope it fades quickly.

Participant

Thanks Robert for your reply.  I agree more with John Z's comments however.  I attended a D6 conference a month ago to listen in on the Faith at Home movement.  They were not saying that the task of the church is only to train parents, but that the church has often failed to train parents and thus the renewed focus on our covenantal responsibility (promised in a parents' baptismal vows) based on passages like Deuteronomy 6:1-9.  I love the reality of other adults speaking into children's lives, however, as studies about youth ministry and the North American church's retention of youth after highschool are showing, if the parents are not speaking and discipling their own children in the home, then all the programs in the world at the church are not amounting to much.  It is fulfilling our baptismal vows to help parents to raise their own children to know Jesus, hardly shirking them.  The vows are made by the parents to "instruct these (your) children in the Christian faith" among other things and "with the help of the Chrisitan community."  The church helps but does not do this in place of parents.  In fact the church cannot disciple children in place of their Christian parents as it simply fails.  It is quite something to have hundreds of youth pastors and childrens pastors at a conference all affirm the same problem, they have vastly diminishing impact on the kids they lead when the those kids homes do not have maturing Christian parents. 

Though this home focus can go overboard in other directions, I hardly find the renewed emphasis (I believe a biblical and reformed emphasis) on faith at home dangerous.  This is not heresy.  This is godly parenting and reformed covenant promise keeping.  Regardless of programs and full involvement in the congregational life, the number one influence on the faith life of a teenager remains their parents.  Youth pastors and church education teachers are down around 12th (from a major study on the faith lives of teens release recently; Bibby?).  In the Christian Reformed tradition we have the added reality of Christian Schools.  There has been a steady slide toward handing our children to church and school to be discipled in the faith.  We hired a youth pastor to disciple our youth.  In the meantime, he and I have found few homes where faith training is present even in the most rudimentary ways (family bible reading and prayer at a meal time for example).  Now I am of course speaking from my particular context so that may not be true in yours.  Our youth pastor finds himself working uphill trying to get parents on board about their kids living godly lives. 

Don't misunderstand me, I am all for great church education and Christian schools, but without faith at home growing and expanding, our programs are not very effective.  They never have been.  Just research the young adult retention rate in churches in North America.  We just have trouble being honest about it.  And add to this, the reality that even if you do great home training and programs or whatever, if the marriages in the homes are not flourishing and growing as well, the impact is still minimal.  If the parents are spiritually lethargic, then no matter what goes on at church, school or home, the result will most often be spiritually lethargic kids coming out of those homes.  And statistics are bearing this out. 

This doesn't mean there is no place for a Sunday School.  Sunday School was originally started as an outreach tool for neighborhood kids who had no faith at home at all.  It can be a good tool for augmenting what is being taught at home.  But because most parents (in my context again) are both working outside the home, the family cohesion at home is fast disappearing and the church (and Christian school) is trying to fill in the gap.  I think if we do not listen carefully to what the faith at home movement is pointing out, we will continue to be unable to stem the flow of our young adults out of the church.  For a child to grow up with a weak home faith context, the life of the church remains so much religion done by their parents who don't really take it seriously, because, when they are at home, this Jesus stuff is no where to be seen.  That, in my opinion, is one of the top crises of our community of faith.   Thanks for taking the time to read this.  Colin.

This is not an either/or situation.   However, we should realize what is primary, and what has the most impact.   It is a good thing for the church to have sunday school, girls clubs, boys clubs, catechism classes.   But we should realize that the time that children spend in these activities is quite small compared to the time they spend with their family and parents during the week, whether at meal times, or driving places, or watching tv, or playing games, and just plain talking.   What the church does in Sunday school is equivalent to only about one-tenth of what the children are learning in total, about the faith of their parents.   The children learn what they see their parents doing, and the priorities their parents have, and what the parents teach them about God, and life, and their relationship to God.  It would probably be good if the church learned to train parents to teach their children, because whether parents realize it or not, they are indeed teaching them something.   And this something will have a greater impact than sunday school lessons. 

Colin, you raise an interesting point! You’re right—the primary place for faith nurture is the home.  And if Sunday school was seen as a replacement for that, we’d have a problem! Let me cast a different vision of Sunday school for you.

I believe that the whole church community has a role to play in shaping the faith of every member, from the newborn baby to person who is 100 +. We live in community so that as iron sharpens iron we can sharpen one another. I am about to become a parent, so this is something I'm thinking a lot about lately. I want my kids to have other adults in their lives who are sharing faith stories with them, who are modeling what it means to belong to Jesus, and who are echoing the things that I teach them at home. I want my kids to be able to draw on my wisdom and experience with God and also the wisdom of others when they have questions and when they face challenges. That can only happen when I immerse them in a nurturing, learning community where they can build relationships and hear God's story.

You might be surprised how many resources our denomination does offer for parents to use at home for passing on faith to their children! Here are some examples: the Kid Connection curriculum offers a section at the back of each lesson that is called "one-on-one-fun" that shows a person how to use that lesson with just one or a few children. That was included specifically so that Kid Connection could be used in smaller churches or at home. It also includes a family magazine that goes home each month with kids that is full of Bible activities to do as a family, and devotional ideas. Another resource called God Loves Me is a set of 52 Bible stories for 2 and 3 year olds. It’s perfect for home. Families can spend each week focusing on one Bible story and using the learning through play activities included with each book. The new Dwell curriculum includes a component called God's Big Story Cards which invites families to explore 165 stories from the Old and New Testament in fun and creative ways. In both theDwell curriculum and the Walk With Me curriculum there are at home devotional books for middle schoolers that invite the participation of families through questions that are geared for discussion. The Synod Faith Formation Committee has also endorsed a resource called Home Grown which is a handbook for Christian parenting. It includes a study guide and video to be used for small group study by parents to talk about how they nurture faith at home and to share best practices. In the next few years other resources will also be coming based on the work of that committee. Other voices in the CRC, like  Robert Keeley (who posted above) have also contributed works like the books, Helping Our Children Grow in Faith and Shaped by Godt hat are aimed at encouraging parents in their role as the primary faith nurturers. 

As Mark Holmen points out in the book Faith Begins at Home, there is a problem when parents outsource the faith nurture of their kids to the church. But that doesn’t mean we should throw away Sunday school! Our role as Sunday school teachers is to walk along side parents as we support and encourage them in the faith nurture of their children. That’s the vision—and with all the resources the CRC offers to help churches in this role, it’s an exciting reality!