By Sophie Maness
Twenty-five years of working in the church is a mere “drop in the bucket” to the length of time that many of the education models of the church have been in existence. Studies and personal experiences regarding current trends verify that a large percentage of individuals and families come for only one hour on Sunday mornings, and inconsistently at that. Many who are paid to work in the church, as well as volunteers, know the old models have lost much of their effectiveness due to changing rhythms in our culture.
I have worked with amazing volunteers, who have done – and continue to do – great work on Sunday mornings. Still, if a child comes to Sunday / Church school every Sunday, never missing, even on vacation, from pre-school age through senior year in high school, that child in the number of hours of Christian Education from Church School, will have received the equivalent of a first grade education. We are falling short and we know it.
I, for one, have been frustrated along with many of my colleagues. We have likened it to the dry bones of Ezekiel. It is time to let the Spirit move and put a new flesh on our education practices in the life of the church.
I hope we can dream about what will bring families together for learning and fellowship, rather than to separate them due to scheduling that limits participation. Hearing the stories of our faith with and from our families and neighbors is an involvement that promotes greater understanding. This environment tends to open up better conversation, more opportunities for service, more creative expressions of joy and added room for the spirit to move.
Where can we find that common ground of learning the stories of our faith and living out those stories in partnership with all our neighbors? I think the ground is fertile, and with a little exploring we can and will come up with new models.
Noted writer, G.K. Chesterton gave us, “The gigantic advantage of the Christian is joy.” For me, part of that joy plays out by living in a fellowship of believers willing to dream about possibilities and new ways of living into our rich Presbyterian identity. So how we do we begin to move from the comfortable and familiar to the bold dream?
For me that joy came when we were planning the children’s piece of a day of service for our church. We put several children on our committee. They ranged in age from 5 to 12. We had several adults as well. Having children on the committee meant we needed to be organized and clear. My hope is we are that way anyway, but this was a new and healthy push. The children asked honest questions, had great ideas and loved being included! The joy was experienced by all!! The children felt like valued members of the planning. The adults had a ball getting to know the kids. Our planning was richer and our hospitality was wider. We kept our meetings short and to the point. We had a little snack and lots of laughter. ALL the adults said, “I wish all church committees, could be like this.”
Yes, it was not a hard task, but the inclusion of all ages, and the cross generational connections were giving voice to a deeper hunger of being a part of the faith community.
This small experience has helped me feel a little more bold in tackling bigger pieces, so one thing at a time. First up for us is VBS.
Although there are some churches who have moved away from it, the basic model for Vacation Bible School for us has been the nine to noon, Monday through Friday model. It is comfortable and familiar. We know how to do it, and it has gone really well in the past.
What I see now is that it is getting harder and harder to pull off every year. The children have a ball, but the adult volunteers are worn to a frazzle. When we are frazzled, even the most dedicated find it challenging to love children into the faith. The reality is that getting enough volunteers, when more and more women are going back to work, makes pulling off the traditional daytime VBS almost impossible. Surviving VBS is not nearly as appealing as thriving in VBS.
My hope is to soon pull together a group from our church who will dream with me about our priorities: (1) nurturing children in their faith development, (2) connecting with our community, (3) planning creatively to move toward rhythms that make room for the spirit to have its way with us, not the frazzle of moving from one thing to another of our culture.
What I hope for our church and others is permission to play with possibilities. When we play well there is common ground and lots of grace. It does not have to be perfect to glorify God.
It is time to be bold in our exploration of new models. We are in the midst of change and our tradition is about reforming, so let’s reform what is no longer working very well.
I am grateful to be in a place willing to dream. One model at a time, we will watch for God’s leading how to put new flesh on dry bones.
Sophie Maness is a life-long Presbyterian and a certified Christian Educator in the Presbyterian Church USA and serves as Director of Children’s Ministry at Westminster Presbyterian in Nashville, TN. Her calling is to educational ministry because she loves the ah-ha moment when people of any age connect their faith and their life, especially children.
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