Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Thoughts on Ramping Up Sunday School

The Reverend Mommy left a comment on my last VBS post asking for suggestions for "ramping up Sunday School." Since some of my bloggie pals in cyberspace may also be interested in that topic at this time of year, I thought I would respond with a post instead of through the comment thread. (Apologies to anyone who read this post earlier in the day when I erroneously attributed that comment to St. Cassarole. )

My approach to increasing interest and attendance in Sunday School for all ages has been to focus on development of adult classes. I was influenced in this direction by one of my all-time favorite pastors who always insisted that children follow the adults in Sunday School, not vice versa. So far that has worked for our church.

When I first became DCE here we had two adult Sunday School classes and very low attendance in the children and youth classes. We also had a worship service taking place at the same time as Sunday School. That is a very big NO-NO if you are serious about emphasizing the importance of Sunday School. With some time and lots of talking, the session was persuaded to change the worship schedule so there was a Sunday School period in between the two services.

Once that change was made, I focused first on adding an additional adult class to our offerings. The two original classes were a traditional Bible Study group using Cokesbury materials and a more free-wheeling group that chose different "contemporary Christian" topics for study and discussion. We first added a class that focused on other types of Bible topics: for example, a study of themes in the Bible, or the Ten Commandments, or Revelation vs. the Left Behind version etc. We have added a couple of other classes every year and last year had 7 classes.

As the number of adult classes grew, so did the attendance in the children and youth classes. After a couple of years we no longer had difficulty recruiting Sunday School teachers for these classes and we spent time researching and choosing curriculum that was "user friendly" for the teachers and the kids. We used the Christian Reformed Church's new Walk With Me curriculum last year and are keeping it because it was very well received.

Here are some of the principles that I think you need to keep in mind when creating adult Sunday School classes:

1. There's not enough time in a Sunday School period for an in-depth class. Choose your topics and curriculum accordingly.

2. Most (but not all) people want to show up in Sunday School, have material presented to them in an interesting understandable way, and then get a chance to discuss it. They don't like all-lecture style classes and shy away from classes that require a lot of reading outside the SS hour.

3. There are a lot of video and DVD curriculums available now. Stick to the ones where the video presentation is significantly shorter than the SS period (I recommend 15 to 20 minutes at most) so there is time for the group to respond and comment.

4. Sunday School attendance is sporadic. When someone misses a class they won't come back if they think they will be behind the rest of the group. We always have at least one class that we can promote as having "stand-alone" sessions. In other words, if you missed last week's class you can still come and participate this week.

5. People love to take a class taught by the Pastor. Sometimes I think that the Pastor could get up and recite The Little Engine That Could every Sunday in class and still keep a sizeable, consistent attendance.

6. Some specific suggestions of adult class topics that have been particularly successful here in the last couple of years are:

-- The Old Testament From Scratch and The New Testament From Scratch by Donald Griggs (never overestimate the biblical literacy of the congregation). (Abingdon Press)

-- Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours, by Dr. Kevin Leman (Sampson Resources)

-- Listening for God: Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith, a video series by Paula J. Carlson and Peter S. Hawkins (Augsburg Fortress)

-- Breaking the Code by Bruce Metzger. A video and discussion study of Revelation. (Westminster John Knox Press)

-- Making Room for Life by Randy Frazee (Zondervan)

-- The Jesus I Never Knew by Phillip Yancey. Video and book by the same name. (Zondervan Publishing House)

Good luck! I'm sure some of you will have some other good suggestions to add via comments, and I look forward to reading and learning from them.


SpookyRach said...

Sounds like some interesting classes. I think you are really on to something about kids following the adults and not vice versa. My kiddo deeply loves Sunday School, but if we weren't so enamored with our own class, we'd skip out about half the time.

Patti said...

We have a very vibrant "Church School" that meets on Monday evenings. Our inspiration was serving the kids of divorced families who were gone every other weekend. We ended up with a lot of kids from the community, too. This year we are adding a middle school,class, a high school class, and an adult class led by our new pastor.

will spotts said...

Thanks for the suggestions.

I'd be interested in how the class on Revelation vs Left Behind went.

I did a Bible Study class of Revelation a few years ago. It was an interesting topic which provoked a lot of discussion. I found I had difficulty in the time frame explaining the differences I see between Left Behind model and the book of Revelation.

(I really didn't want to unfairly misrepresent the beliefs of LaHaye and similar -- especially where I strongly disagreed.)

Many people interested in the topic came at it from a Left Behind perspective to start.

Quotidian Grace said...

Will --The "Breaking the Code" class ran for 3 months. I taught this class and in addition to the Metzger book, I used a parallel commentary that outlined the interpretations of the four major approaches to Revelation and highlighted that information in many of the classes. The commentary also had a section on the premillenial dispensationalist interpretation of Chapter 20 (the Left Behind folks) which I spent more time on. I found that by consistently showing the strengths and weaknesses of the different schools of interpretation almost everyone in the group found the traditional Reformed understanding of Revelation was the most persuasive.

St. Casserole said...

Great post. Helpful info. Thanks for specific book suggestions. I was flipping through a catalog this morning while the coffee brewed looking for teaching ideas.

Songbird said...

We have a great, solid lectionary study group on a weekday evening, but none of them are people with children. I was just telling someone that I hoped we would consider offering something for children at the same time, in order to encourage families to come out mid-week. Of course, in small church life, the people who come to the Bible Study are the same people I would look to for the children's program, generally speaking, so I run the risk of diminishing what is already going so well!

Quotidian Grace said...

We have a saying down here:"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." When you have a small membership you do risk "cannibalizing" your successful group by setting up a children's program that folks from that group will need to lead.
The PCUSA has a VBS program that is designed for an intergenerational group. You might want to look at that. It could be used as an evening VBS for a week, or spread out over 5 weeks once a week. Go to pcusa.org and check it out on the publications link if you are interested.

Quotidian Grace said...

Thanks, Patti, for sharing your program. That is a great approach to serving the needs of these kids and I'm glad it's working for you.

John said...

Here's what I do: select about 10-20 verses from Scripture. Copy and paste them on a Word document. Leave about 1/3-1/4 of the space at the bottom available for study notes. There, I put down life application questions and textual notes.

Making the whole thing up from scratch prepares me for the lesson because then I've thought through the text and potential answers to the questions.

You want them? I've got scores of them in .doc files.

will spotts said...

I agree with John about this.

I know there are a lot of great materials available. (And I really appreciate the list and suggestions.) But if I'm leading it, I know the material better if it is something I produce myself.

Quotidian Grace said...

John, I would love to have a couple of your lesson preps emailed to me as an example.

I agree with both you and Will that we know the material better if we produce it ourselves.

But when you recruit leaders for a number of different classes you can't do it all yourself! It's much easier to get people to agree to lead a class if you can provide them with a ready-made leader outline. Often once they get comfortable with that they will begin to bring their own ideas and materials into the class as well.

Some of us need all the help we can get!

Kathryn said...

Oh to be part of a church culture where exploring and growing in faith is seen to be a priority....it is really really hard to persuade many here that there is need for anything beyond a 10 min (15 mins and they complain) slot on a Sunday morning. I'm not saying that nobody grows and flourishes, but clearly it is more of a struggle than it might be.
Here, "Sunday School" is purely something that happens during the service to keep the children happy: too many adults seem to think they've "got it". Grrrrrr....
Rant over ;-(

the reverend mommy said...

Thanks for this.
I appreciate the time and energy.

We will continue having SS and service both at 9:39 and I hope to offer classes concurrent with the 11:00 service that are more video oriented to appeal to the contemporary crowd.