Dispatches from the Tiny Church Upper Room


The Spirit descended from heaven like a dove... or from the balcony like a piece of paper.

The Spirit descended from heaven like a dove… or from the balcony like a piece of paper.

I wrote several months ago that Tiny Church has done away with Sunday School as we know it. Many of you were interested in our Upper Room ministry, so much so that the post went viral… as much as a post about churchy stuff can go viral.

So how’s it been going? I wanted to check in about this, since I know others (especially those in small congregations) are considering alternatives to Sunday School. As we think about “what’s next” in our churches, we need to share not only the ideas, but the successes and failures of those ideas, and they ways they get tweaked. Tangent: check out the Paracletos Project through NEXT Church, in which two congregations engaged in revitalization will work with a coach and share their learnings.

Well, it’s been mixed. Regarding the Upper Room: We are very fortunate to have a member of the church who’s offered to come up with a simple craft option most Sundays, but coordinating that is a challenge—ideally the activity would tie in to the sermon or theme for worship. And it also has to be as silent as possible! (Check out my Upper Room Pinterest board.)

The Upper Room is also a victim of its own success: a few Sundays ago we had 11 children up there. Wow! How wonderful… but that’s really too many with only one adult, especially considering that some of them are on the young side. We need a backup adult there too.

We also have a few new extroverts in the mix. What to do with them? We’re trying to educate parents and kids that this is not communal time—that children are there to listen to the Spirit through the worship and through “their own work”—but it’s not easy.

My original post also mentioned a few other ideas. We’re trying to figure out how to equip parents as faith educators. I’ve been previewing the Vibrant Faith materials; I get the weekly email and wonder whether it would be something we could share with families. I absolutely love the stuff at the Practicing Families website.

My time with the children during Sunday worship has been more thematic. In September I was guiding the kids through the different parts of the sanctuary and what they mean. Next I think I will try a stewardship theme (including stewardship of creation and the body), then it’s time for Advent and Christmas.

In our meeting with the parents last spring, we talked about having “pullouts” from time to time. Instead of Sunday School every week, which has been hard for a church our size to sustain, we’re looking at, say, four to six weeks in the fall and again in the spring for a specific purpose. Our choir director has offered to prepare a choir piece with any children who are interested. I’d like to give that a look in November and/or early December, so the kids can present something in worship during Advent. This also gives children a break from the Upper Room, which keeps it from getting stale.

We’re still feeling our way. The day we had 11 kids in the Upper Room was a little rowdy. As I preached I would would hear these random sounds and shushes from up there and think, Maybe this is a crazy idea. 

I wondered again during the sharing of joys and concerns, when one of our folks who works at the Navy Yard was sharing a prayer request about that situation. As he spoke I saw one of the younger children come to the balcony rail and drop a piece of paper over the side. I watched as it fluttered down and landed directly behind the man, in the lap of a quiet older woman whose husband we’d just buried a few weeks before. The horror.

I’m sure my facial expressions were a complete non-sequitur to this poor guy, who had no clue what kind of “death from above” antics were going on behind him. I braced myself for a backlash after worship along the lines of kids today need to learn how to behave.

Instead, later in the service the woman raised her hand, held up the paper and said, “I just have to tell you all. This landed in my lap a moment ago. It’s a picture of Jonah and the whale, and here’s what that means to me today.” She concluded, “‘A child shall lead them’ after all!”

Well I’ll be. I guess that’s right.


photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc

8 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Tiny Church Upper Room

  1. Jan Edmiston

    This is really helpful & thought provoking. I have a mom question though. As a parent of three of those children (been there) how are you feeling about their Christian Education in particular? I remember hearing about the education other kids were receiving from Big Church Down the Street with multiple professional educators, choirs, and spiritual road trips and wondering if I was doing my kids wrong. Actually they picked up A Lot from living with me and HH at home, informally, but I’ve wondered. . . The great part of small church spiritual development was twofold 1) everyone knows all the kids in a small church and pays attention to them & 2) it seems easier to have intergenerational relationships. (exhibit A: Jonah lady). What’s your take, Rev Mother?

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      I’m actually less worried about my own children’s faith formation than I am other children in the congregation. I try to be intentional about helping them talk about faith and biblical stories and connect them to their own lives. And I regularly ask them what they heard in the sermon. But seminary helped me learn how to do this, and it’s also somehow “expected” of me as a pastor. We have to both equip and expect the same from families in the church.

  2. Wendy

    Thanks for the update, MaryAnn. I think I will send this to our Nurture Committee (of which I am chair). I hope they will see that other churches are re-thinking things too, and that it’s okay to have wrinkles in what we’re doing,

  3. Laura Hudson

    My husband and I are co-pastors out in a small Presbyterian church in Oregon, and we are struggling with all the same issues with Sunday school. I’ve really appreciated your writings about your experimentation in your congregation, and thanks for all the links to great resources. As a side note, we are attempting to lead our “younger families” in reading Sabbath in the Suburbs, which we personally loved and have been using as a resource for our family’s attempts at Sabbath practice. We’ll keep you posted on how it goes with our small group! Just wanted to tell you thanks!

  4. Bob Braxton

    After going for three years to theological seminary, I personally took a different route. Computer technology is certainly a lot easier (for me) than this pastoring / parenting combo. Pastor spousing, a different matter – that I could (for these many years) almost handle.


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