A “Theory of Change” for “Sunday School” “Post”-Pandemic

A “Theory of Change” for “Sunday School” “Post”-Pandemic October 19, 2021

For quite a while now I’ve wondered whether the traditional “Sunday school” model was actually working for faith formation. I mean, I know that Sunday school in classrooms by age group is often fun for the kids, a learning experience for the teachers, and a brief weekend relief for the parents, so in that way there are clearly benefits.

But is it impactful in terms of actual faith formation?

A study of youth ministry that came out ages ago (by which I mean, a year or two after I graduated from seminary, so like 2003?) indicated that the likelihood of youth remaining involved in the church is not tied to their participation in Sunday school, and that there was a kind of inverse correlation between confirmation and church participation, but the one factor that totally correlated with continued church involvement was…

If they witnessed their parents reading their Bibles on their own at home.

I mean, this just makes sense. Children learn more from what they see us do than anything else. They certainly learn what to value by seeing what we value.

So this brings us to the Great Realignment that happened during the pandemic. Worship went livestream and at home. Sunday school did also. If replacements for Sunday school were on offer, it largely relied on creative parents who designed formats for Sunday school-like activities around the kitchen table. A bible story, a craft, some discussion.

In our congregation we experimented with resources for this kind of faith formation. We sent home materials (especially during two important seasons, Advent and Lent) for parents to use with their children for at-home devotions.

But if it’s hard to measure the impact of Sunday school in children’s lives, it’s even harder to measure the impact of Advent and Lent kits delivered in the mail or at curbside. Some parents send back anecdotes or photos. Most don’t. And that’s fine, because all parents and families are busy and we get to choose our priorities.

This summer our church embarked on one more pandemic faith formation experiment. We promoted Daniel Erlander’s Manna & Mercy as a graphic novel resource for learning Scripture. Families ordered the books, and then were invited to an outdoor service each Sunday that kept a very simple format: Open with a song, break out into small groups to read the chapter out loud from that week, share the Big Ideas or Big Questions that arose, then pray. 30 minutes tops.

At the beginning, we had a lot of families with “littles” participating. Over time, there was attrition. That’s not a total surprise, as many programs like this are easier to start than sustain. But I still wanted to learn from parents what they were experiencing. Some of the testimonials are instructive:

“Honestly, my daughter and I have been reading chapters (or pages) of the book periodically before bedtime. She really likes it (and it is a weeeeird effing book but I gotta say I like it too lol). It’s just I feel so overwhelmed by life I can barely get my kid to church once a month out of the two Sundays I have her, much less to anything else besides school.”

“Our kids weren’t really engaging in the small group format…no one was willing to share their thoughts with so many new grownups listening in. Instead we have been spending time together Sunday mornings reading each chapter and talking about it. The kids seem to be getting so much more out of just our family discussions that we decided to continue that way.“

“Our experience is similar to what the other mom described. It was hard for the kids to listen and hear in the small group format. In order for them to understand and engage, I needed to read it to them at home. That was our realization the last time we came. But also in the last few weeks, we have been out of town or busy on Sundays.”

Now, I’ll confess, this does blow one theory I have out of the water, which was that intergenerational small groups can be a great alternative space for children. I think I’ve learned from this that small groups with new adults works with older or middle grade youth, but less so with little ones. Or at the very least we need a different format for the gatherings so the intergenerational approach engages the little ones more effectively.

But it does show that taking Sunday school back home is highly effective. And perhaps our having modeled and launched it at church for a few weeks helped either inspire or equip or at least normalize the act of reading the chapters out loud to the families enough they were then able to continue them even more effectively at home. Which would be an argument for launching at-home Sunday school with some at-church events first.

I still wonder if we can get to a place where intergenerational can truly work. We’d probably need to design the learning environment with the littlest children especially in mind, and encourage all adults and older youth to center the littles.

As we head into this winter, our plan is to use the at-home Advent resources we used last year. December is a busy month, and no reason to add a ton of additional programs this year. We’ll host an Advent party, send great materials home, and maybe pair families up with each other for the season.

But in January (as long as the vaccine becomes available for the 5-12 year olds), we plan to launch back into Sunday morning Sunday school, making use of LIsa Van Engen’s And Social Justice For All as our curriculum and guide, and we’ll need to sort out by then whether we can bring some of what we learned from intergenerational faith formation and pandemic faith formation back into the “traditional” Sunday school format. I think that can bring some energy.

And then most important, I think we’re supposed to try things that actually facilitate children learning and growing, and we’re called to model the kind of Christianity we hope they’ll aim for as adults themselves. So that means what we do together in their presence means as much as any curriculum we use.

What I see emerging in our congregation is a vision for youth formation that centers who we hope our kids will become more than how fancy the programs are in which they participate.
So basically love Jesus, queer Christianity, and center reparations and joy because God loves you.

One last thing: a recurring theme from many parents is also about our collective busy-ness. We devote a lot of time to a lot of good things, from marching band to dance to horseback riding to soccer. One question before all of us may also be: is formation in Christian faith as important as formation in those other things? And if so, is the answer perhaps not that we need to make Sunday school simpler or shorter, but instead format it so we engage it many times per week or even daily because it matters to us and the world?

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