Sunday schools and children’s ministry

Last Sunday I was sitting in with the primary Sunday school groups and it got me thinking again about one of my bugbears when it comes to working with young people. I see little evidence of ‘joined up thinking’ and perhaps even the sharing of best practice. It’s all very well following the same material, but it needs to be much broader than that. There needs to be a continuity of style and I don’t mean that it all has to be done the same way. There also has to be one eye on where it’s leading.

It’s probably easier to give an example, but it’s quite complex, so bear with me. There are a lot of factors which, small in themselves, all contribute to an overall lack of coherency. The younger primary group have quite a structured time together, but it’s done in a clever way. The general babble that always happens whenever a bunch of young kids get together is turned into a ‘news’ time – a chance to share with everyone what’s been happening. This news is used for prayer, to give thanks or to ask for help. It’s a good way of getting value out of something that will happen anyway. Compare this with the older group where there’s no opportunity to blether at the start and they are ‘told’ what news has come to the attention of the leader. Then, the younger ones get a story, the older ones get a Bible passage read to them. (There’s an activity before each, but not detailing it doesn’t mess up my example). Now, the difference here is obvious – story, reading. On Sunday it was a pretty lengthy reading from Genesis. It was read straight from the Bible. None of the young people had a Bible to read along and the reading was pretty dead-pan. Hardly any wonder there were glazed looks within a few minutes. And that’s probably enough to illustrate my point. Imagine someone moving from one group to the next at the start of the session. Complete change of style, complete change of ‘rules’. And similar problems at the other end as teenager hit that age when they ought to be moving into formal church membership (or should they? But that’s another argument) – church is something that is ‘done to you’ rather than something you engage with.

So, is it possible to maintain that enthusiasm we seem to reserve only for the very youngest age group? I think it is, but it needs some effort and ‘joined-up thinking’. It also needs a critical look at what we do and be ready to make changes if necessary – sometimes (and preferably) regularly.

To revisit my example: why not adopt the ‘news’ time the youngest group have? Why do the older group have to listen to the scripture passage – why can’t they read along with Bibles given to them? Better still, why not have the Bibles there, but the story ‘told’ not simply read? And why not encourage engagement with the teaching through role-play or even getting the young-people to read it?

The example and the suggestions are by no means exhaustive and there are plenty of other areas where it would be easy to nitpick. But, it’s not really my intention to be at ‘arm’s-length’ and take potshots. Rather, it’s to observe and reflect on what I see and, hopefully, remember it when I find myself in a position to directly affect what happens. It’s also the case that there is no universal solution and we’ll never get it right 100% of the time. Everybody is too different for there to be a one-size-fits-all answer. But if we’re serious about all ages being part of the church family, then I think it’s necessary to look at how we ‘do church’ across the age spectrum and make sure it’s coherent. The transitions from one ‘phase’ to another need to be managed carefully so that expectations, from all sides, are made known and continuity is maintained – that is, the purpose of community worship and church is understood and clearly communicated in a way that encourages growth and commitment.


5 responses to “Sunday schools and children’s ministry”

  1. Some interesting observations…
    Over the years I’ve noticed that there is a real dearth of good Sunday School material and even those that have a good spell frequently dip in quality. SU, for example, have been good at the ‘joined up thinking’ but have also been awful.
    I aim at having a link between the Sunday School material and the Lectionary, but ovet the last year or so that has gotten out of sync. May need looked at agin, I fear.
    The use of gathering time is interesting. It seems that the younger one’s energy is channelled better than the older ones through getting them to talk about their news, and that practice may well be transferred to the older ones. It’s very similiar to the ‘circle time’ practice in primary schools.
    I sense a bit of ‘hobby horse’ in this article, which makes the tone maybe harder than you really mean, I think.
    I also sense that there is much more dicsussion to be had on this one !!

  2. David,
    It is a bit of a ‘hobby horse’. Having been in and around youth and children’s work for nearly 10 years, and in that short time I’ve seen (and done) some pretty poor practice. The Sunday school definitely wasn’t one of them, but I do tend to focus on the bits that ‘jar’ with me. I also think it’s important to be quite hard on ourselves in this area. We (the church) lament the loss of young people from the church and yet we don’t often question the institution itself. Is it meeting needs? Is it being relevant? Is it engaging? None of these questions mean needing to lose sight of the church’s purpose of witnessing for God. They don’t mean wholeheartedly and unquestioningly embracing secular culture. But they do mean a constant questioning of what we do and how we do it. And I do mean constant questioning. Even when we do find ‘something’ that seems to be working well, we must always ask, “Is it still doing what it needs to?”
    It’s also part of a bigger picture hobby horse of mine – the whole idea of discipling and engaging and growing across an entire congregation. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and getting frustrated with. It’s not something that can be done overnight in a church. It requires a fairly major cultural shift and that takes a lot of time. It also takes a lot of energy and commitment from across the congregation, but it also starts with showing the upcoming generation that church is something relevant and important and that, in my view, needs engagement.
    Sorry, bit of a rant, but, yes, it’s something I feel quite passionately about. The Sunday school wasn’t doing anything wrong. There was obviously a love and concern for the young people in its care and a desire to teach as well. Perhaps the only real criticism that can be levelled at it is that it needs to be a little more imaginative. So, yes, the blog reads a lot more harshly than it needs to. It bears the brunt of my frustrations at certain aspects of youth and church work in general. Undoubtedly this is indeed a rich seam for discussion and probably one I need to tease out more before I possibly end up being inflicted on some poor unsuspecting congregation.

  3. Passion in the church !!!
    I can hear the passion in what you write and there is no doubting the questions you rightly ask. I do feel that occasionally imagination is not quite there with us, but we are also dealing with people whose confidence needs boosted if they are to be challenged to new heights.
    We do need to constantly analyse where we are and what we are doing and therefore maximise our impact and effectiveness for Christ. I’m not sure that I have reached that depth of analysis here yet. One of the joys of a placement is that issues like this arise and can be fully thought through and acted upon.
    The rant is understandable, and the answer is a real culture shift in the congregation, and it begins at Session level. They need to truly own the role of eldership. Quite a few are unaware of their actual responsibilities as elders and this has been a communcation/education failure over the whole of the ministries that we have had. I can sense more discussion coming !!

  4. we are also dealing with people whose confidence needs boosted if they are to be challenged to new heights

    Yes, I see that. I was chatting to someone the other day and they were saying that they were in vacancy, and had been for nearly 18 months. In that time the congregation has had a new lease of life – people have been using their gifts, everyone is contributing and people who had previously left were drifting back. I’m sure that whoever ends up in that charge will find a vigorous and confident church, ready for new challenges.
    I see similar problems in my home church. It had been led for many years by someone who actually led! The session suffered for it, in a sense. They’re not used to making decisions or setting direction. I think this also pervades the congregation in general. Yes, people need leadership and guidance, but they also need to be led to a place that allows them to realise their own gifts, otherwise they aren’t being fulfilled, both as individuals and as children of God.
    I guess I feel this way because of the sort of person I am. I’m a bit of (well, a lot of) a control freak, but only in the sense that I need to know what’s going on (that’s why I take a perverse pleasure in presbytery – it lets me nosy at what everyone else is up to). But thereafter, if someone can do a job, I’m happy to let them do – in fact, it annoys me if they won’t do it. False modesty, to the point of not using a gift, “because it would be seen as self-glorification”, is one of my pet hates.
    I guess the fundamental issue here is that we’re not starting up a new ‘venture’ where structure can be redesigned and the ‘correct people’ put in position. Change has to happen across many areas, almost simultaneously. But there does have to be a place it can be started and one obvious place is the Session. But I suspect there are others but they’ll depend on individual needs.
    Just had a thought pop into my head at your mention of communication/education – must dig out the communication strategy supplement in last month’s (or whenever) Life and Work and see if that addresses this issue.

  5. I read somewhere that good leaders do themselves out of a job because they enable others to do the work.
    I’m not toatlly convinced about the end logic of that statement, but I am convinced that there are one man bands, and they do tend to be men, who are so hands on that no one else gets a look in. No gifts are nurtured, no one is encouraged except the ministers out there whose sole objective is the praise they receive for being ministers. I probably don’t mean that to be quite so damning, but I look around and see so many clergy who are the stoppers in the Holy Spirit bottle. Everything has to go through them, and no one is really edified in the process.
    Control freakery can be dangerous (as you are aware) and knowing that to be a trait can mean that precuations are made and the danger is minimised.
    As clergy, I know that there have been times when I have fallen into this trap, but I also have to be aware that in most cases ministers are transient. They move on from place to place, while churches (mostly) remain. (Unless bought by Wetherspoons !) This reminder of transience is a humbling factor, a reminder that we are but human after all.

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