Have you noticed that it has become increasingly difficult to recruit volunteers to teach Sunday School and lead youth ministry programs? Have you noticed that the number of children and youth in your congregation is not the same as you had even just a few years ago? Have you noticed that your congregation is not the only one to be noticing this? It seems the Church is noticing that the pot of water sitting on the stovetop is now boiling.
Yet this metaphorical pot of water has been heating up for quite some time, and a number of factors have been contributing to this change in temperature:
- the number of choices currently available to families on a typical Sunday morning,
- the desire of working parents to spend focussed time with their children on the weekend,
- the appeal of the digital culture that many churches have not assimilated,
- the shift in belief that spirituality need not involve church attendance,
just to name a few.
Another shift that is having a substantial impact on faith formation ministries is the dwindling number of trained Christian educators. The pot of water began heating up back when congregations chose to reduce full-time Christian educator positions to part-time or volunteer. Over time this shift has caused seminaries and colleges to discontinue their Christian education courses due to the low demand, and this has left us with relatively few trained and qualified church educators.
So how can we continue to bring up our children and youth in the Christian faith when it’s beginning to feel as if there are few left to support this ministry? How do we find the faith formation volunteers we need when the members of the most qualified generation of teachers and mentors are too tired or “too retired”? How do we run effective Christian education programs when there aren’t enough participants to maintain them?
While our goals for forming the faith of children and youth must remain the same, I believe that we need to shift our objectives away from Sunday School and youth group models toward methods and strategies that rely on the resources currently available in our congregations. These resources lie within the relationships already occurring naturally in the life of our Christian communities.
I encourage you to look at what you do successfully and joyfully as a congregation. Then ask yourselves how can you make this an activity or ministry that can be enjoyed by all ages engaging in it together. How can it be modified to provide educational and/or spiritual elements in ways that people of all ages may take away something meaningful, each in their own way? And how can intentional and nurturing relationships be fostered between generations so that children and youth can be formed in their faith with these positive role models?
We need to stop believing that teaching the Bible in an educational setting will bring today’s children and youth to a life of faith. (This fallacy is affirmed with every teen we confirm who does not return to church.) The children and youth who are welcomed into the entire life of a congregation will learn from every adult present as they engage together in the practices of our Christian faith (prayer, worship, scripture, mission, stewardship, etc.) And the relationships that are formed through these Christian practices will form faith within their hearts in ways that classroom learning can not.
Step out in faith. Take the boiling pot off of the stove. Untether yourselves from methods of education and formation that are no longer producing the results you desire. Be bold and try something new! (You can always try something else if it fails.) And contact your conference faith formation/education/youth staff members for support, encouragement, and resources. Your children’s children’s children will thank you.
Many Voices, One Mission is a regular series highlighting the ministries of the
CT, MA, and RI Conference of the United Church of Christ.
Debbie Gline Allen is the Minister of Faith Formation, Youth and Families for the Southern New England Conference.