Hear me out on this.
I’m not saying that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not saying that we should abandon the teaching office, or stop offering faith-forming activities for our children (and youth and adults), or stop paying attention to the growth in faith of our children.
I’m saying that the model of Sunday School has outlived its usefulness.
Think about it.
Are you having difficulty recruiting volunteers to teach? Are you struggling to find the right curriculum materials for your particular congregation? Do you have enough students to constitute a couple of classes or more? And if you do have all of these things in place, can you be sure that this model will be sustainable in the future?
I can hear you asking, “But if we abandon Sunday School, what do we do to pass on the faith to the next generations?”
The pandemic has caused us to adapt and try new things — things we may have never done before. And there is no room for perfection right now. No one alive has lived through a time like this, so there are no precedents. But this means that there are no mistakes! So let’s experiment. Let us even fail. And then let’s pick up the pieces and move forward with our new learnings.
I admit that it’s very difficult to try something new and take a risk when there are hardly any clues as to how we should be moving forward. So I’d like to share with you the gleanings I collected from a conversation with the pastor of a congregation that is trying something new. And yet, like most “new” things, it is based on a rather old concept — passing on the faith in community.
Rev. Cindy Bagley is the senior minister at the United Church of Christ in Keene, NH. Years ago, when she served as the pastor of small congregation in central New Hampshire, it became clear to her and to her church leadership that the Sunday School model was not going to work for them. But what would?
After much discernment, they decided to undergird their entire faith formation programming with the promises that the congregation takes when they welcome a new person into their faith community through baptism. In their letter to the congregation, Cindy and her faith formation lay leaders wrote, “Two thousand years ago, witnessing to Christ was not a separate and exclusive function, but the responsibility of every community member and friend.”
In the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ, the congregation is invited to make promises to the newly baptized by responding to the question, “Do you…promise your love, support, and care to the one…baptized as they live and grow in Christ?” In many of today’s congregations, the actual living out of this promise would read more like, “We promise, by delegating our love, support, and care to the committee responsible for the growth in faith of our congregation.”
With some gentle guidance, I believe that every single member of a congregation can fulfill these baptismal promises in some way. Of course there are those who are gifted teachers and those who love children and youth. But who could learn the name of at least one child they do not know and greet them by name the next time they meet? Who could build a manger for the pageant? Who could sit with a child and listen to their story/-ies? Who could show how God continues to create by sharing their gardening skills?
There is something to be done and shared by every congregant, no matter what kind of ability, gift, skill, or talent they have, because we are all relational children of God. Even a smile can pass on the love of Christ and a sense of hospitable welcome to someone who is feeling down or left out.
At Rev. Bagley’s church, every member of the congregation is encouraged to sign a Statement of Covenant and select one of the themed units within which to share their gift(s) during the program year. “You do not need experience to participate — just a good imagination and a love for God’s children!” The faith formation committee meets to create the theme and monthly/seasonal foci for the year. After they receive the list of gifts from the congregation, they are able to create a model that utilizes everyone’s gifts and skills, “as ideas bubble up like yeast working in warm dough… The world is [our] classroom! Imagination and creativity rule!”
Rev. Bagley states, “We are all ministers of the church, fully capable of interpreting Christ’s message to our children” in whatever way is authentic for each of us. No one person, or single committee, can do this as effectively as an ensemble of shared gifts and talents, assembled and disseminated in real-life ways. And this year, her congregation has over 30 volunteers!
Encouraged in this way to live out our faith together in community, we can pass on our faith through the stories, rituals, and relationships that make us all true members of the Body of Christ.
Debbie Gline Allen serves as a Minister of Faith Formation on the Conference’s Faith Formation Ministry Team. She also serves as the administrator of the SNEUCC Faith Formation Leadership Program. Her passion for ministry is with children and family...