Next Sunday thousands of children in the UK will attend church. Most of them will sit through part of an all-age worship service, then leave to join a group of their peers for activities and teaching in a small group. Described variously as Sunday School, Junior Church and a host of other names – the numbers of British children attending these groups may have declined sharply over the past 50 years – but the numbers are still significant.
So what are we teaching our children in Sunday School in 2004? Is the style and content stuck in the past or sharply contemporary? This article talks to Sunday School teachers about the syllabuses and programmes their church is using in Sunday School. We also explore Church Holiday Clubs - another old favourite which still attracts large numbers of children, including many who are unchurched.
Forty years ago children were offered a diet of choruses and Bible knowledge quizzes, then told to ‘sit up straight while the teacher tells you a Bible story’. If they were lucky this story was illustrated by felt figures, which were placed on, and usually then fell off from, flannelgraph backgrounds.
Attendance was rewarded with gummed stamps, but these weren’t ‘Green Shield’; instead they featured pictures of Bible stories and a text from the King James Bible. For example a benign blue eyed, blond haired Jesus in a Daz-white tunic was pictured with several plump happy children perched on his knee with the caption; ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’. Fill up the attendance card with these stamps and a prize and a book of Bible stories, was yours. Yippee!
So how far have we come? Do we still give our kids ‘chalk and talk’ type teaching Bible lessons, or do the style and methods of Sunday Schools reflect recent educational changes?
Kay Newton is a salaried children’s worker at Altrincham Baptist Church. She heads up a team of volunteers who work in their Children’s Church and summer Holiday Club. A qualified teacher, she and her team write the week-by-week children’s curriculum. Although the church has used several of the widely available children’s teaching curriculum in the past, they currently have the resources to tailor their own programme – even though Kay admits this takes up significant time and effort. She is fond of quoting Francis Bridger from his book ‘Children Finding Faith’ (Scripture Union) who maintains; ‘Children take in about 10% of what they hear, 50% of what they see, 60% of what they say and 90% of what they do.’ Therefore a key emphasis in the Children’s Church, which numbers 160 under-12s at Altrincham Baptist, is ‘doing’, not passive listening. This requires flexibility and creativity.
The Sunday School at Myton Church, Warwick, is smaller than Altrincham at around 50 and probably more typical of an average church – if there is such a thing. John Holmes, an elder at the church, heads up the Sunday School work.
“We use the Children’s Ministry curriculum produced by Kingsway and have done for the past three years,” says John. “It helpfully includes more activities than you need so you have various options. It also includes a music CD which, for the less musical, is helpful to encourage singing.”
John is also positive about the children’s leaflet and puzzle sheet that accompany each week’s material. “That’s particularly useful if the preacher in the main meeting goes on a bit and you need to be flexible and keep the children out longer than the planned time,” says John.
He regards using published curriculum helpful to avoid the teacher overdosing the children on favourite stories or themes. However, like all the children’s workers we spoke to, John was keen to emphasise the need to adapt the material so it is a better fit with the particular group of children in each group. “I like the Children’s Ministry material because it is up to date and relevant,” adds John.
The most widely used Sunday School curriculum in the UK is Scripture Union’s Salt syllabus. Scripture Union (SU) claim that around 250,000 children and young people are taught Salt curriculum each week. Salt was launched in 1984, but in recognition that the way people learn and handle information has changed, SU are launching Light to succeed the Salt material, when the syllabus concludes in September (see the Salt into Light box over for further information).
Christ Church, Southport, used Salt until very recently, when they too, like Altrincham Baptist decided to write their own material. Although they do sometimes use ideas published from curriculum, their decision to move away from a traditional style of Sunday School into more of a kids church style, was a factor in their decision to create their own programme. Children spend some time with adults before leaving for a 3s to 11s meeting consisting of an all-together time with their own worship band and upfront teaching, often including puppets. Then the children break up into smaller groups with children their own age for discussion. The children’s theme links into the adult teaching – so families can go away and discuss the same stories and message.
“I’m aware that it’s lots more work to write your own curriculum,” says David Hirst, the Youth Pastor and Outreach Coordinator at Christ Church, Southport, “but it allows us to go with the gifts of the people we’ve got rather than take a prepackaged solution.”
Like nearby Altrincham Baptist, Christ Church, Southport, has a committed team of volunteers to teach the children. But in many churches getting enough teachers is a real headache.
The days when one person commits to teach Sunday School every week have long gone in many churches. Most have a rota with volunteer teachers opting to work with a children’s group just one week in four, or even eight. If a church only holds one main church worship/teaching service each week, serving in the Junior Church every Sunday or fortnight is a huge sacrifice. One Sunday School co-ordinator I spoke to, who preferred to remain anonymous, despaired of recruiting ‘regular’ teachers. “People only want to teach Sunday School once every six to eight weeks, which means continuity is lacking. How can you get to know the children if you only spend time with them for 45 minutes eight times a year.”
Kay from Altrincham Baptist thinks having a regular team is vital. “Otherwise the danger is that children feel you are just popping in to babysit them, instead of it being a positive learning environment.”
Another more longstanding problem is the lack of male Sunday School teachers. Typically Sunday School teachers are female, even more noticeably so if the church disallows women from preaching or main leadership roles in the church. The boys need male role models – so they can see that being a Christian isn’t an exclusive perogitive of women. With a similar problem in infant/ junior mainstream education where most teachers are female, this means boys can grow up thinking learning is not macho.
Outside of Sundays, the other big focus for children’s ministry in many churches is holiday club. Run during the daytime for a week during school holidays, many a parent has been relieved to pack off their little darling for a few hours during a long hot, or worse, wet, summer.
Most of the churches I spoke to have capped the numbers that attend their holiday clubs. Demand outstrips supply it seems. However many churches are hazy about the reasons why they run Holiday Clubs when pressed. One children’s worker I interviewed struggled to articulate their aims. Others regard Holiday Clubs as a way to recruit new members into the Sunday School. However, in reality, most churches struggle to translate attendance at a Holiday Club into attendance at Sunday School.
Between 2-300 children attend the annual Holiday Club at Myton Church, Warwick. John Holmes is understandably pleased with these figures bearing in mind the Sunday School is less than a quarter this size. Most of the Holiday Club attenders come from unchurched families.
“We use Scripture Union material at our Holiday Club – it’s ideal,” says John. Other curriculum providers who got the thumbs up from people we asked were Barnabus/BRF and CPAS.
“Over the years we have only seen one or two families saved through contact made at the Holiday Club and occasionally a couple of kids come along to the Sunday School for a few weeks afterwards,” says John. “Obviously we would like to see more people converted and attend church – but I can’t say there have been lots.”
At Altrincham Baptist the emphasis is different. “We want to build self esteem Christianity Renewal + and confidence in the children and help create a positive community, alongside sharing the gospel story,” says Kay Newton. “Although we have quite a few children from our Junior Church attend, most are unchurched – they get an invite through school or are invited along by a Junior Church member. We want them to mix in a fun environment. We don’t teach, we share positive values - kingdom values. Our Holiday Club emphasis is not standing up and saying ‘the Bible says…’ in a formalised teaching style. Rather the focus is on learning together through drama, craft, small group, time to chat.”
The Altrincham Baptist style mirrors changes in education away from a chalk and talk emphasis. “We have knowledge that we want the children to discover,” says Kay, “but we use many different ways to help them make that selfdiscovery. We want children to grasp that Jesus can be their friend and for kingdom values to permeate their lives.”
Kay fondly recalls a “very spiritual moment” from last summer... “All the children were in a circle, we were talking about how Jesus understands our pain. Each child was given paper to write down a situation they were finding difficult. Then they placed their papers down together on the floor in the shape of cross. As this took place there was a phenomenal and very poignant silence.”
Kay accepts that it is very hard to write material for Holiday Clubs that work across the age groups. “We have learned to give lots of responsibility to children in year five and six,” she explains. “They work well together and operate the puppets. Also the young teens get involved by writing dramas.
This means they have a greater sense of ownership of the programme content which is vital. It means older children are tolerant of moments when the content might seem too babyish – because they are committed to the success of the club. They love having the extra responsibility.”
Christ Church, Southport, use a mixture of their own ideas at their Holiday Club and Scripture Union material, which is “always helpful” according to David Hirst.
“Bridge building to local families with unchurched kids” is the focus, says David. “We don’t hold any huge ambitious aims; we want families to feel familiar and comfortable in a church environment. If we were measuring results in terms of ‘numbers in church on a Sunday morning’ it wouldn’t be worthwhile, but we don’t justify it that way.”
David has also found ‘Fusion’ and ‘Impact’ – books by Mark Griffiths (Monarch) to be helpful when working with unchurched young people in Holiday Clubs and midweek kids clubs.
Challenges and changes
Clearly ministry to children isn’t easy. Changes in the way children are taught in mainstream education and new and everincreasing leisure options, means old models of children’s work fail to cut it with most media-savvy kids. Increasingly larger and well-resourced churches are mixing and matching published curriculum with their own ideas, which are educationally and culturally sensitive. Smaller churches rely more heavily on Scripture Union, Children’s Ministry, CPAS, Church of Scotland or a host of other curriculum providers. These materials are also evolving and becoming more sophisticated and not before time. The alternative to change is to moulder on the shelf.
Churches too need to be flexible and face the new challenges of communicating the gospel relevantly to a new generation.
That said, even with the best materials it takes flesh and blood – people who are gifted, but above all care about children, to lift ministry to children from mediocre to the levels children deserve and God requires.
Salt into Light
For nearly 60 years, Scripture Union (SU) has been publishing weekly materials for Sunday schools and church-based children’s groups. Their Salt curriculum is the market leader – but is being totally revamped this summer.
SU did a lot of research before launching Light – their new curriculum; this included a questionnaire to over 6,500 churches, from which they received 1,800 responses. Most churches told SU they still see all-age services as a key ministry expression (not just services) and wanted more resources to meet their needs in this area, especially creative visual aid presentations that are downloadable from a website or CD-ROM.
“Churches struggle with this but don’t have time to spend hours and hours on this,” says Terry Clutterham, SU’s Head of Resource Development.
Having developed their new curriculum SU ran focus groups last autumn of leaders and young people to check it out. Now SU are promoting Light with taster samples.
“Children’s lives are nothing like ours used to be,” says Terry. “They know so much about the world, and they can do so much that we can’t – like set the video to record a TV show! They’re growing up in a world where responsibility for learning is increasingly placed in their own hands.”
Aware that the church has changed, too – with more and more churches trying new ways of ministry, such as small groups, multiple congregations, or every-member ministry – SU recognise the need for models of children’s ministry to change to fit the changing church. Their research among leaders showed that they rely more than ever before on extra help from published materials, so Light comes with a strong supporting website and, for some age groups, audio-visual resources on accompanying CD-ROMs. Greater flexibility has been built into Light, with specific help for time-pressed leaders, more options for tailoring material to different length sessions, and for use in a variety of settings.
So what’s new? The new material, called Bubbles for 5s and under, Splash for 5s to 8s, Xstream for 8s to 11s, theGRID for 11s to 14s, and Light Years for all-age worship, begins in September with a special four-month starter issue. From January 2005, it’s published every quarter. An accompanying CD-ROM for 11-14 and all-age worship material features support materials. Additional resources also include a children’s song CD, Bible cards and a Bible Timeline, showing the big story of God’s salvation plan.
One of the major shifts in emphasis has been in the 11s to 14s age group. theGRID treats them as ‘new youth’ – young teenagers, rather than older children. Research shows this age group is seen as ‘youth’ in the wider Christian context and, importantly, by the young people themselves. theGRID has been designed for use in a wide range of settings – youth cell groups, traditional Sunday groups, celebrations and events, and in open groups where non- Christians may be present. The accompanying youth Lifestyle magazine adds ‘street cred’ for young people, and the CD-ROM brings additional resources to the fingertips of leaders.
Also, CD-ROM resources feature in the Light Years package for all-age worship, in response to requests by leaders for audio-visual support.
SU claim the whole package means greater flexibility and a bolder, brighter programme for the whole church, while retaining a strong biblical emphasis.