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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Reinventing Sunday school

A reformation in faith formation

Amy Kippen tells visitors they can choose a church where they can drop off their children at Sunday school or they can make a commitment that will pay off in ways they could not even imagine. 

“It will literally change who your kids become when you are involved in their faith life,” the director of faith formation at Faith Lutheran Church, West Fargo, N.D., tells parents. 

More than 15 years ago, Faith replaced traditional Sunday school with GIFT Family Ministry, using Bible Song curriculum from Faith Inkubators. Parents attend each week with their children and practice Home Huddles (Faith Inkubators’ Faith5) each night at home with their children, sharing highs and lows, reading Scripture, talking, praying and blessing each other.

“Instead of faith being just another something we do for an hour every week, it becomes a shared experience,” Kippen said. “Parents come to see the church as their partner in raising faithful kids, and kids learn that church is not just what we do, but who we are.

“If parents choose another church to call home, we accept that. We are not the church for everyone. We are the church where families stay together.”

New models, approaches … realities

If you attended Sunday school, your parents likely brought you to a classroom where you spent an hour listening to a teacher present a Bible story, lead music or direct activities.

Today children and families prefer a more participatory style than the “expert model” of yesteryear, said Paul Lutz, adjunct professor in Christian education at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and a pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale, Pa.

“The success of Sunday school happened at a time when people were satisfied relegating religious things off to experts — pastors or Sunday school teachers,” he said. “The expert model doesn’t satisfy people the way it used to. Fortunately for us Lutherans we have this concept called the priesthood of all believers. We can help people identify their spiritual gifts and help them participate in ways they couldn’t before because [the experts] took over those responsibilities.”

Mary Hess, professor of educational leadership at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., said, “Right now we are living in a time of great experimentation. What is interesting to me is to watch churches try different approaches [in faith formation].”

These approaches include:

• Equipping families to carry out rituals at home.

• Combining Christian education with mission and service.

• Incorporating faith formation into the worship service. 

• Holding classes during the week, rather than on Sunday morning.

• Creating curriculum.

• Offering cross-generational programs.

These approaches come at a time when Sunday school attendance in ELCAcongregations has seen a 60 percent drop between 1990 and 2010, according to ELCA Research and Evaluation. Church leaders cite a variety of reasons for the decline:

• More competition, like travel and sports. “The culture no longer respects Sunday morning,” said Diane Hymans, professor of Christian education, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio. “It used to be Sunday mornings were for church. Now our kids are involved in all sorts of sports on Sunday mornings and oftentimes sports win.”

• Fewer children. The number of married couples with children in ELCA congregations dropped from 41 percent in 1988 to 26 percent in 2013. In addition, child baptisms in ELCA and predecessor congregations dropped 52 percent between 1970 and 2012, according to ELCA Research and Evaluation.

• Changes in the family. For example, children of divorced or separated parents may spend weekends with a parent who doesn’t attend church or who is a member of another congregation, Hymans said.

In addition, more mothers work full time today.  “After working all week, running errands and cleaning their houses, they are exhausted by Sunday morning,” said Diane Shallue, adjunct instructor at Luther Seminary and director of Christian education and small group ministries at University Lutheran Church of Hope, Minneapolis. “We have more exhausted mothers who struggle to get their children up and off to Sunday school or church.”

Despite the challenges, Shallue remains optimistic: “I am not dispirited about the statistics at all. We have great opportunities to start thinking about new ways to do faith formation, rather than trying to do the same old [programs] harder and better.”

‘Nurture faith at home’

“Sometime in the 1950s or ’60s, churches communicated to parents that they should let the church do all of the education and faith formation for their children,” Hymans said. “And parents were often happy to do that because they often didn’t feel well equipped to do it.”

But research shows that parents are the primary influence in their children’s faith, she said, “so more churches are equipping and empowering [them] to nurture faith at home.” 

For example, congregations can teach families to worship every Sunday, no matter where they are. “We need to find simple ways to engage parents who are exhausted,” Shallue said. “That could be small rituals like reading a Bible story, singing and praying. One of our young moms had been doing that at home because it was hard to get to church with her little ones.”

At Faith, Kippen tells parents that if they have to choose between attending GIFT on Sunday mornings or doing Home Huddles every night, “never come here.”

“That’s how powerful I think that connection at home is around your faith life,” she said. “When I think about the depth of faith our confirmation students have when they enter our program, it’s incredibly different than it was 10 years ago. I can’t help but think that has to do with parents living out and practicing faith with their children every night in their home.”

Forming faith by serving neighbors

Involving families in mission and service provides another way to do faith formation. “A lot of people are motivated to visit a nursing home or work in a community garden or homeless shelter because they are used as contexts for telling the stories and practices of the faith,” Hymans said. “Before you go, you can have a meal, read Scripture and talk together.”

Trinity provides such an opportunity through “Feed and be Fed,” which includes an intergenerational, participatory 30-minute worship service followed by a project in the community. For example, they assembled snack packs for a local charity. Before delivering them, they talked about caring for their neighbors. 

“It’s an experiment for those who don’t want to just sit in worship,” Lutz said. “We have 3-year-olds working with 80- or 90-year-olds assembling sandwiches or planting flowers and vegetables. That’s one way we do faith formation, and it doesn’t look like traditional Sunday school.”


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