Here Be Dragons: A Transformative Approach To Sunday School and Christian Learning

Here Be Dragons: A Transformative Approach To Sunday School and Christian Learning November 30, 2021

I’m a huge fan of learner-driven education. It’s one thing to evaluate the needs of learners and adapt the curriculum. It’s a whole other to host a culture where learners take active ownership.

For the winter and spring of this year, as a congregation we are going to experiment with a shift to learner-driven Sunday school and youth formation. An experimental collective. This approach is actually simple to describe, but perhaps complex because it is such a culture shift from “traditional Sunday school.”

Here’s how it will work. You as a learner (this could be a family group, a child, an adult, a small group, anyone) comes to church having asked yourself, “What do I want to learn? How do I want to learn? Who would I like to learn with?”

Instead of a pre-formatted Sunday school curriculum downloaded from the Internet and prepared by a set of volunteer teachers scheduled to meet weekly regardless of how many youth show up, in this format, learning events only take place if the learners initiate them.

In the Fellowship Hall there will be a giant map. On that map, there will be learning locations. This will be a playful part of our curriculum. Learning will be like exploring the map. When you look at the map, maybe there will be a castle with the title, “Revelation Tower.” There will be a name attached to that location, and that teacher will be prepared to teach a group or individuals about the book of Revelation.

Or maybe there’s a forest called “The Trees Are Letters” and this teacher will help those who attend their session learn how to draft compelling advocacy letters to send to elected officials on social justice issues our church or denomination advocates for.

Maybe there’s a playground that says “Preschool Meetup,” and it’s hosted by a parent who just wants to get a lot of preschoolers together Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. to play.

So we populate the map with learning opportunities, and then learners use the map to take initiative. If you want to explore the library in town on the map titled “Deconstruction Station,” and you want to do it with others, then you reach out to other members of GSLC, or your neighbors and friends, assemble the size of group you hope for, and then contact the Deconstruction Station Librarian to begin.

This brings me to the next part. In order for this to work, we’ll need a common space for people to meet, post their interests, and form groups. Ideally this space will also be where the teachers are, so you can contact them and coordinate your learning adventure.

This space will be our church Discord channel. As groups are formed, you can even create individual channels in Discord for your topics.

For the winter and spring, because we’ve heard from a lot of families that they’re interested in just being social more with others and truly seeing one another, we’ll ask that a lot of the teachers plan their offerings to take place Sunday mornings. That way, if there’s a farm on the map labeled “Baking With Jesus,” then maybe there’s a group in the kitchen exploring recipes from the Bible that they then place out for folks to snack on between services.

Meanwhile, there’s another group in the movie room watching and discussing religious documentaries, or in the craft room designing letters to send to our homebound members.

In this model, the teachers are put in a pleasant space, because they only prepare for a session (or sessions) with a group if they already know they have interested learners. Meanwhile, learners are put in a pleasant space, because they are learning about something they chose themselves.

Something missing from the map you really want to learn or do? No problem! Add your interest to the wilder areas of the map, the places where “dragons” reside, and if there are others who share that interest, a teacher may emerge, or your group might discover resources on your own for a self-navigating journey in the perilous areas of undiscovered country.

In this model, if there’s a group that wants to self-organize an elementary Sunday school hour weekly at the church, nothing at all is stopping them. Just add it to the map, and learners initiate that part of the map.

Our plan is to offer this format through the winter and spring. Then in the summer, we’ll evaluate how it went, and decide whether to continue it or transition to some other kind of “Sunday school” in the fall of 2022. This hopefully lowers the risk for those who hope for a return to the format of Sunday school we hosted pre-pandemic. We’ll be able to see what works, and what doesn’t, what we wish to retain, and what we decide was a worthwhile experiment that remains just that, an experiment.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a big fan of the learner-driven approach. It’s how I formatted the last youth class I hosted here in 2019-2020 before the pandemic. For those interested, I published a piece about it in The Christian Century. We learned the Lutheran catechism while playing Minecraft.

Almost all of the best and most profound learning I’ve undertaken happened when I was the driver. I bet if you think about it, you’ll agree that’s true for you also. Passive learning does happen, but it’s rarely as transformative.

There’s an old Latin adage, lex orendi lex credendi, that the rule of worship is the rule of belief. That we come to believe what we repeatedly do through liturgy. This is why I’m such a believer in children receiving communion as soon as they are able. They then learn by doing that Christ is for them. If they don’t receive communion early, and are asked to wait, then they learn through repetition that Christ is not FOR them, even when the words of the liturgy say the meal is for everyone.

Actions speak. As Christians, are we just passively letting Scripture, faith, history roll on past us as relatively disinterested observers? Or are we the kind of people who dig in, take things apart, mess around with them, geek out over them?

I want us to treat Christian faith the way we treat fandom. I want us to be so curious we’re digging down into those boxes of old comics at the bottom of the stacks, or watching the extras after the movie because we love it so. I want to cultivate that kind of excitement for learning with our children, and I want families to have fun doing it together.

Last thing: our youth director and I are going to team up to offer a brief 10 minute And Social Justice For All launch at the conclusion of each Sunday worship, utilizing Lisa Van Engen’s book of that title. Self-driven learners will have read through this blog post, and they’ll use that link to order a copy of the book, so they can start preparing now.

The launch we do each Sunday will be engaging and educational, and it will only be a foretaste of what you might do on your own that week. The deeper learning, the learner-driven portion, will be what you do with that launch the rest of the week.

P.s. Here’s a nerd note. I initially got the idea for this model of learning from a Dnd campaign called West Marches. You can read about it here:

Key dates: The first week of January, the map will go up on the Fellowship Hall wall. During the month of December, I welcome all potential learning event leaders to reach out to me with a brief description of an item they’d like to put on the map. Then, our first learning events will take place as soon as a group self-organizes and reaches out to a leader. And our first official Sunday morning hang-out connected to this model will happen Sunday January 16th.

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