The Sunday School movement began in the 1780s to provide education to children working in factories—children who were not receiving any other formal education. Teachers shared lessons on Christian religion, but also things like reading, sports, and drama. Today, more and more people are asking whether Sunday School is nearing the end of its life cycle, particularly in certain congregations and contexts.
Tiny Church’s practice in recent years has been to have Sunday School class during the worship hour, following the children’s time. For a small congregation, we have a good number of school-age children—this fall there will be nine, plus about seven middle and high schoolers and a handful of nursery-age.
That’s if they’re all there.
But they’re never all there… which is one of the problems with relying on Sunday School as a child’s primary Christian formation. “Regular church attendance” is different than it was even 5 years ago. Now, a couple times a month is considered regular. Around here, folks generally aren’t slacking off and sleeping in. They’re attending Girls on the Run, taking a weekend trip out of town, volunteering at the Kennedy Center, or helping a friend move. That means the adults who would teach weekly Sunday School are also out a lot, in addition to the kids.
Several of us at Tiny met this past Sunday to talk about Christian education in our congregation, and decided to see all of this as a creative challenge rather than a problem. We have the opportunity to think about Christian formation more holistically, rather than shuttling kids off to a separate room and trusting that they’ll get everything they need there.
Starting this summer, Tiny Church will no longer have Sunday School.
Instead, we will continue work in our Upper Room, which is the kid-friendly worship space in our balcony. School-age children go up after the children’s time and spend the rest of the service there. An adult leads them up and, before they go in, encourages them to “get ready to continue worshiping” by calming and centering, removing their shoes, and so forth.
There are always kinks to work out, but I’m happy to say that the Upper Room is working as well as I could have dreamed. Kids are able to wander, browse a children’s Bible or picture book in one of the comfy chairs, draw or do a simple craft at the table, use the Buddha Board, or mess around with the wooden Noah’s Ark or nativity set. And yet… they’re listening. They’ll walk over to the railing, peek over and watch what’s going on. I was preaching about Pope Francis’s recent remarks and a six year old walked up to Robert and whispered, “What’s an atheist?” I love it.
That said, we also see the value in building intentional relationships between adults and children (which is one of the primary benefits of Sunday School), so we’re thinking about planning a multi-week project maybe once a semester. At these times, children would have a “pull-out” during worship, perhaps to make a video about a Bible story, plan a puppet show, or prepare an anthem as an ad hoc children’s choir. But—and here’s the key—those activities would always connect to the life of the whole worshiping community. The video would be shown in worship, etc.
We also know we need to help equip parents. Like it or not, we are our children’s primary faith educators. I’ve heard of a church that sends home a packet each month with stories, activities, questions to discuss together, rituals, etc. I love this “homeschooling” approach. Sometimes (when I have time and inspiration) I will put together a GPS guide (Grow Pray Study) in the bulletin that helps people think further about the scripture and sermon, and I try to include something for families. That might be something we do more regularly.
We are also still considering how youth fit into this mix. We can see them as co-leaders of the special pullout activities. And we’re considering some mentoring, as well as partnering with another congregation for a mission trip.
Have you moved beyond Sunday School where you are? Would love to hear what you’re up to.
Our kids like to ask us, “Who invented ________?” Some of the answers are easy: Alexander Graham Bell. Thomas Edison. Percy Spencer. (OK, we had to look up the last one—he invented the microwave.)
But inventions are hard to pin down to a single person or moment. Who invented the Internet? You could come up with a single name, but really it’s the product of a lot of discoveries and advances. Even big names like Bell and Edison and Spencer stood on the shoulders of people who came before.
Some months ago I read an article about how creative people are called to innovate and imitate. The article is long gone, but it went something like this: if there’s an approach out there that works, use it, even if competitors are doing the same thing. Imitate without shame the good stuff going on out there. Where you distinguish yourself is in how you innovate—how you make changes and improve on an idea, product or service.
Innovation is vital, but not everything needs to be innovated.
The key is to find the right balance and configuration of imitation and innovation so that you provide something unique, yet don’t wear yourself out reinventing the wheel.
This has played out at Tiny Church in a number of different ways. For example, in worship. I love crafting liturgy—writing prayers, thinking up cool interactive elements, and so forth. I also love preaching and crafting a strong sermon. But I simply don’t have the creative energy to do both.
But for the sermon, I innovate. That’s the piece of worship that gets my best creative self, because that’s the piece that people respond to. It also happens to be the element of worship I’m most passionate about… and I’m sure those things are related.
I suspect many of you do this as well. I sometimes feel a little guilty, like I should be crafting everything from scratch. (I feel guilt easily, have you noticed that?) The innovate/imitate balance helps me get over myself.
Another element of the imitate/innovate dance comes when you start out imitating and end up innovating. Rocky Supinger wrote about this evolutionary process recently at the NEXT Church website, and we’re in the midst of this dance right now at Tiny. I wrote during Lent about our Journey to Jerusalem, in which we encouraged folks to walk, bike, run, swim, etc. and turn in their miles each week to see if we could make it from Falls Church to Jerusalem by Easter. I stole this idea, blatantly and unimaginatively, from someone at the Presbyterian CREDO Conference. I loved it because it connects the biblical story and our lives as pilgrimages with health and fitness.
Well, a funny thing happened. We got to Jerusalem and the next week people started asking, “I’ve got miles to turn in. Who do I give them to?” So when our transformation team met last week we decided to keep the journey going. We’re going to spend the rest of 2013 wandering around the world, plotting our paths using the big map in our fellowship hall. We have members who have lived all over the world so when we arrive at a place, we will experience something of life in that place. Our first stop will be the Democratic Republic of Congo where one of our members has traveled countless times with her job at USAID. We hope these stops will involve some kind of cultural experience, a learning about how Christians experience life and ministry in that place, and maybe even a mission opportunity that connects to that place. We have a general idea of where we’ll end up but we’re also going to be open to the Spirit.
(This idea came completely from the team and not from me, but I’m realizing now that these pilgrimage stops are akin to Conflict Kitchen, a Pittsburgh restaurant that features food from conflicted countries as a way of educating patrons about these places.)
Our series on the last week of Jesus’ life continued on March 3 with the Last Supper. I didn’t do much with the table since it was set for communion. The kids went to Sunday School that day (we do SS twice a month and the Upper Room twice a month) and they made chrysalises. They made tissue paper butterflies, which they put inside toilet paper tubes, wrapped them in purple tissue paper and tied them off on each end. They are currently hanging from the ceiling of our fellowship hall with the idea that the “new life” will emerge on Easter Sunday.
On March 10 we shared the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Here is the table:
The white candle I had burning the entire time. The three purple candles were lit at the beginning of the service, and each time Jesus returned to find the disciples sleeping, I extinguished one of the candles (I told the story from the chancel rather than the pulpit).
Since the story was about Jesus praying, I gave the kids some prayer-related items to do in the Upper Room: I gave them a page with instructions for praying in color (I call them ‘prayer doodles’), and a printout of this page on cardstock for them to make a prayer cube if they wished:
March 17 was a special day. I was away, recovering from the half marathon, and we had a completely elder-led service. We had a paperless order of worship, sermon, images on the projector, two guest musicians, luncheon afterwards, and the whole service was broadcast on Ustream. I eavesdropped from home and it was a wonderful sight to see.
March 24, Palm/Passion Sunday was heavy on the passion, since I told the entire story by heart—Mark 14 and 15. I kept the table simple: Black cloth spread flat, wooden cross in the middle, with a short white taper candle burning in front of it. We will extinguish several candles just like that one on Friday during the tenebrae service.
Now, Easter. None of this is formed yet, but I’m toying with a number of things:
First, I’m on the lookout for an Easter bulletin cover that doesn’t stink. So many bad fonts. So many cheesy Easter lilies. Luckily we have a color printer so I expect I’ll come up with my own image. I love this:
It’s so Johannine, eh? But a couple of friends said it was “creepy”. Whatever…
In terms of service: two years ago we started with a call to worship that wove in the song “He Lives In You” from The Lion King. While the song played, we stripped the black cloth from the table (leftover from Good Friday—the song starts tentatively which lends itself to a slow build), then gradually added elements: water for baptismal font, communion elements, candles etc.
Last year we did the call to worship from the fellowship hall, so that our Easter breakfast led immediately to the service. As the people flooded into the sanctuary, the choir sang a boisterous introit.
What to do to start the service this year? We seem to have more than our usual crop of people out of town, so I’m going with video images rather than something involving a lot of people. I’m thinking about the Ode to Joy flash mob—thanks Marci—you can google it if you want (though if you attend Tiny, don’t google it, be surprised!).
I will definitely be weaving this video (which has gone viral bigtime) into the sermon:
It is traditional for Tiny to have communion on Easter. I have mixed feelings about it, to be honest. I’m not sure how visitor friendly it is. Of course we welcome all to the table, but do visitors really feel welcomed if they’re not accustomed to the eucharist? In any case, I’m contemplating a slide show of evocative images as we come to receive the elements, perhaps while listening to David Wilcox’s song “Rise”:
Beloved, it is time for you to rise. Time for you to RISE UP..
With a sudden sense of wonder | Though the promise goes unspoken
As the joy comes to your eyes | When the joy comes to your eyes From the burden you’ve been under | For your soul was never broken
Beloved, it is time for you to rise, time for you to rise.
First of all: new author website! Woohoo! Thanks to the folks at Paraclete Web Design for their great work, prompt service, and good humor. There will be a number of kinks to work out in the days to come, but how fun to have some new digs!
He’s changed his position on kin selection as it relates to evolution, favoring group selection instead:
During the 1970s, I was one of the main proponents of kin selection theory. And at first the idea sounds very reasonable. So for example, if I favored you because you were my brother and therefore we share one half of our genes, then I could sacrifice a lot for you. I could give up my chance to have children in order to get you through college and have a big family. The problem is: If you think it through, kin selection doesn’t explain anything. Instead, I came to the conclusion that selection operates on multiple levels. On one hand, you have normal Darwinian selection going on all the time, where individuals compete with each other. In addition, however, these individuals now form groups. They are staying together, and consequently it is group versus group.
I’m no scientist, but the tribal thing makes sense. There are new studies out about how liberals and conservatives over-exaggerate the characteristics of the other.
And this phrase was new to me:
“Humans,” the saying goes, “have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology”.
She is sitting on the steps with the pastor who asks a question. She offers what seems like a perfectly sensible answer and the whole congregation laughs. In that moment one of two things happens, either a comedian is born or a child feels humiliated. When a comedian is born, he often uses the children’s time to practice his new-found vocation, generally with beginner comedian results. He may even compete with the pastor for the attention of the congregation – especially if mom or dad is the pastor. The results can embarrass everyone – except probably the young comedian. But if the child who drew laughter feels humiliated, she often decides the conversations on the steps are dangerous.
There is surely middle ground here between a fledgling comedian and abject humiliation. But laughing at children when they are being serious is a major issue with me. It’s fine to share delight with one another, regardless of age. But I felt disrespected as a child when I made an earnest comment and adults laughed. Some ideas in this article about how to handle this in worship.
During the Oscars, the Onion posted a vile tweet about child actress Quvenzhané Wallis. Bromleigh’s take on the incident is one of my favorites. She also has the best “About” page I think I’ve ever read in all my years of blogging.
This past weekend during book group at Tiny, we were discussing the Harry Potter series. I remarked that both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games portray institutions (such as government) as completely inept at best, and malevolent at worst. I wondered what it does to kids to receive such messages—that basic institutions are not worthy of our trust—at such a formative time in their lives. (I honestly don’t know; I mean, look at fairy tales!)
Many people piped up with variations on the idea that institutions should not be worthy of our trust, and certainly not blind trust (I agree with the latter). One person said “Kids needs to learn that they can trust their families, their friends. Not institutions.” Another brought up Watergate. I get that. But really, is it helpful and healthy to promote cynicism at such an early age?
I wish I’d had this article at the time:
In today’s society, we need to trust not only people, but institutions and systems. It’s not so much that I trusted the particular pilot who flew my plane this morning, but the airline that produces well-trained and well-rested pilots according to some schedule. And it’s not so much that I trusted the particular taxi driver, but instead the taxi licensing system and overall police system that produced him. Similarly, when I used an ATM this morning — another interesting exercise in trust — it’s less that I trusted that particular machine, bank, and service company — but instead that I trusted the national banking system to debit the proper amount from my bank account back home.
Can mission statements be pointless wastes of time? Yes, they can. But not necessarily. I’ll admit it, I love the idea. The author quotes the Covey family mission statement:
“The mission of our family is to create a nurturing place of faith, order, truth, love, happiness, and relaxation, and to provide opportunity for each individual to become responsibly independent, and effectively interdependent, in order to serve worthy purposes in society.”
I had a range of reactions on reading this. On the one hand, I found the whole thing a little corny. It seemed cumbersome, heavy-handed, and a tad humorless. On the other hand, I kinda loved the idea. I’m corny! I also thought Covey’s idea captured something inherently true: How can we ask our children to uphold our family’s values if we never articulate what those values are?
This calls to mind some of the discussion going on in the church about teaching kids the Christian faith. For decades, we have relied on Sunday School and mid-week programs to do the job. But it’s the parents’ job, first and foremost. (Especially since the trend now is for “regular” attendees to come only a few times a month—we just don’t have time and wherewithal to the do it all at church.)
Finally we voted on a single statement (taken from a remark I made when they were born): “May our first word be adventure and our last word love.” Finally we added a series of ten statements: “We are travelers not tourists;” “We don’t like dilemmas; we like solutions.”
Two from Brain Pickings, two from The Dish. This is a link to that amazing movie/slam poem about bullying that’s been making the rounds. But also check out this study:
Based on the findings, Copeland and his team divided their subjects into three groups: People who were victims as children, people who were bullies, and people who were both. The third group is known as bully-victims. These are the people who tend to have the most serious psychological problems as kids, and in the Duke study, they also showed up with higher levels of anxiety, depressive disorders, and suicidal thinking as adults. The people who had only experienced being victims were also at heightened risk for depression and anxiety. And the bullies were more likely to have an antisocial personality disorder.
Two from Brain Pickings this week! I guess this post is from a commencement speech Patchett did. I took note of it because I was recently back at Columbia Seminary for only the third time since graduating 10 years ago. It was a very deep, rich experience, to walk those halls and to emerge from the Harrington Center into the quad like I did some 13 years ago when I first visited the campus and thought, “I am home.”
So her remarks about going back to the pivotal spaces in our lives resonated with me:
Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours — long hallways and unforeseen stairwells — eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?
What now, indeed? May whatever it is be wonderful for you all.
Here at Tiny, our focus in worship this Lent has been the last week of Jesus’ life. Using Borg and Crossan’s book, we’ve been look at the stories leading up to the crucifixion. The sermon series is called Journey to the Cross.
The ‘journey’ bit ties into another initiative here at Tiny, the Journey to Jerusalem. We are encouraging folks in our church to walk, run, bike, etc., then submit their mileage each week. We’re trying to make it to Jerusalem before Easter!
So far so good. We set a modest goal of 100 miles a week, which when multiplied by 10, will hopefully get us there. But the initiative has been so popular we are using a factor of 5 instead… and we may still make it to Jerusalem and back. Check it out:
Just a small way we’re trying to encourage health and wholeness here at the church.
And yes… as the map indicates, we walk on water here.
I’m also making an effort to change up the look of worship each week, primarily on the communion table, but also through the kids’ activities in the Upper Room. Of course I haven’t thought to take pictures—sorry, I’ll do better!—but I’ll describe what I’ve done in case others want to adapt:
The first week, we looked at Jesus’ “cursing” of the fig tree (Peter’s word, not Jesus’, which I talk about in the sermon). For that Sunday, I had a black piece of fabric laying flat on the table with a vase with several nice branchy twigs sticking out of it, sort of on the left, with the communion elements towards the right. I had a long piece of purple fabric that I snaked around the table, with one side wrapping around the vase, then curved around the communion chalice/plate and hanging off the front. (By the way, you need to experiment with levels when you do focal point stuff. You can use books and things underneath the cloth to create some variations in height.)
We invited the kids to do this simple activity (sans leaves) in the Upper Room, which was meant to represent the withered fig tree:
The kids took these home to have on their dinner tables during Lent.
This past weekend was the anointing of Jesus. I used a different multi-colored cloth for the table and put a large glass bottle (actually a decanter) on the table, along with a copy of the St. John’s Bible (which I talked about in the sermon), propped open to the gospel of Mark. I also included this figure I got on a trip to Mexico during seminary:
We’re fortunate at Tiny that we’re, well, tiny, so people can see what’s on the table pretty well. Also, folks came forward during the prayers of the people and we did an anointing with oil, so they could see the table elements even better.
For the kids in the Upper Room, I gave them a bit of nard (the oil mentioned in the story), which is smelly stuff. They were invited to make cards for each person in the church service, using construction paper, markers, stickers, etc. I asked them to put a little smear of nard on each paper so people would have the scent as a reminder of this story of extravagant love.
The children did a wonderful job of this, and stood with me at the door following the service, handing them out. Most of the notes were small, but Caroline did do an oversized one for Robert and me: