All posts by Sharon Ely Pearson

About Sharon Ely Pearson

Wife, mom, grandmother; author, educator, consultant; trying to make a difference one action at a time. Christian formation has been my vocation for 40+ years - and counting!

Decision Time: The Future of Your Sunday School

For my entire life I’ve been a Christian educator. Whatever you may call it: Sunday School, Church School, Religious Education, Christian Education, Education or Formation Hour (the names have changed throughout the years depending on the understanding and purpose of what we are “doing” with/for children on Sunday mornings), I believe we have come to a turning point. For some this may be a reckoning moment that things may never be the same again in our churches – at least on Sunday mornings. Welcome to the future – it is today.

In the various denominational Christian formation Facebook groups I participate in, the big question that is being asked with a variety of responses are: How are you going to hold Church School (or whatever you happen to name it) when we go back to our buildings? How do we keep our classrooms clean? How will we get small children to wear masks? How much hand washing will be required? Fill in the blank with your most pressing question of bringing children (and youth) back to church when September rolls around and / or your church building opens for worship.

Yes, parents are overwhelmed with home-schooling and distance learning. Doing formation at home has added to that burden, even though many churches and educators have found creative ways to send materials to homes such as “lessons in a box” dropped off on the family front porch, using Zoom for telling Godly Play stories, or emailing a lesson with creative ideas to do together as a family using stuff easily found at home such as crayons, glue, scissors, markers, paper, or LEGO-bricks. But how are we engaging everyone in a household together that isn’t seen as another “thing that has to be done”? How are we helping form disciples to learn about and follow Jesus during this time?

Perhaps parents want to simply drop their kids off for Church School while they have some peace and quiet in the sanctuary. We want life back the way it was before COVID-19. I live in Connecticut about 50 miles northeast of New York City. We were part of that first “gigantic red circle” you saw on the nightly news in March and April. Thankfully, our state governments took things seriously and we have been social distancing, wearing masks, and washing out hands since March. We entered Phase 2 of our reopening in mid-June and will not be going to Phase 3 in mid-July as planned due to the rise across the rest of the country. For the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, our church buildings remain closed for worship with some doing socially distanced worship outside with families sitting far apart on blankets or their own lawn chairs while masked (12 feet apart). I don’t see us worship inside our buildings anytime soon – even with our “numbers down.” Oh how I wish the rest of the United States had learned from our hard experience this spring.

empty church pews

Let’s face it, we are now living in a new normal, which means Church School needs to reinvent itself now. And expect a resurgence this fall, if we ever get a handle on the ever-increasing rise in cases across our nation.

I’ve written about this plenty of times (see my 5-parts series Christian Formation in a Changing Church post five years ago, particularly Part 3 about a new ecosystem). In recent months on this site since we’ve been figuring out how to support one another while in quarantine I’ve suggested numerous resources. Looking back on what we’ve been doing and what we can be doing, I suggest this:

The Church and Christian Formation leaders are called to:

  • Focus on the spiritual nourishment of our congregations for all ages. For me, this means worship. Liturgy is formation. We hear God’s Story alongside (if the preaching is good) our own story. But worship needs to be accessible to all as family units sit spread out in the sanctuary, with chairs set at a distance or pew spaces roped off. Theresa Cho of Still Waters wrote an excellent article: Children in Worship: It’s More Than Coloring Sheets and has numerous pieces about creating intergenerational worship. We need to focus on how we can engage all ages safely in worship before planning how we will open up classrooms to small group learning. After all, segregated learning / formation is a relatively new phenomena in the Christian tradition (as well as Jewish and Muslim).
  • Support households (of all ages) in learning scripture and praying at home. That might mean making sure every household owns a Bible and prayer book (or has access to both via the internet – but let’s get away from our screens!). If someone else reading or praying is an access point to families, develop a calendar with links for them to hear scripture (such as The Bible Project’s Church at Home or Godly Play stories told on YouTube) and prayer (such as The Mission of St. Clare or Praying with Children. Create your own videos of instruction for families and individuals to guide them how to use (and read) their Bible as well as tools for prayer. The Church has failed in many ways to teach adults these skills and tools. Here is an opportunity.
  • Recognize that not all have the technology or time to engage. Those who need to put themselves at risk as they are front-line workers and those do not have the option to work at home (especially our siblings of color what are disproportionately sick and dying of this disease) need our support. How can we put our faith into action by helping food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and any number of services that are being overtaxed? It is easy for our (predominately white) congregations to want things back to normal when there are plenty of Black, Latinx, and Asian folks struggling to survive.

As a leader in your faith community, how will you set an example for re-envisioning the future?

Images: header by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash; top photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash; bottom image (Matthew 25) from cruzablanca.org – Hermanolean;

Blessed to Bless

For those looking for a youth (middle school or high school) resource that would be adaptable for “distance learning” for the coming program year, Blessed to Bless: An Introduction to the Bible by Tim Sean Youmans (Church Publishing, 2020) may be an answer. Paired with watching videos from The Bible Project, this 300+ page book offers enough content for 86 sessions, broken down into four sections of two units each. BVC (Bible Vocabulary Concepts) are scattered throughout, helping to build up competency and biblical literacy that was once part of a common core education. Learn the origins of phrases such as “the patience of Job,” “Am I my brothers keeper?” and having a “Damascus Road experience.” Understand how scripture can be read literally, symbolically, or a mixture of both.

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. 
    I will bless those who bless you,
    those who curse you I will curse;
        all the families of the earth
            will be blessed because of you.” ––Genesis 12:1-3

Each chapter begins with a reading assignment from the Bible, followed by Tim Sean’s commentary and a few questions to consider and/or discuss. If you read two chapters of Blessed to Bless alongside your Bible, you will complete this survey of the Bible in about one year’s time. It’s written at an eighth-grade level and was inspired by Tim Sean’s students at Casady (Episcopal) School in Oklahoma City who are between ten- and fifteen-years old.

Tim Sean offers the following:

If you are a Christian and want a basic introduction to the Bible, this book is for you. If you are not religious but you want to have a sense of what the Bible contains and what it means to Christians, this book is also for you. It can be read together as parent and child; it can be sues with a group of parents reading the Bible together with their children, and it can be used for a Sunday school class for teens or adults. It’s for all types of beginners as well as those who want a refresher of the scope of our salvation story.

I can see young people being mailed a copy of the book along with a Common English Bible, which is the translation used in the text. Assignments to read a portion of scripture and a chapter in the book followed by a Zoom-session to watch a video clip together followed by discussion could be a feasible model during these times of social distancing. Most likely formation classes will not resume “in person” across the U.S. this September as churches will be focused on making worship in person a priority first.

Christine Hides of Bless Each One offers the following comment on Blessed to Bless:

Just as a cry for justice arose in our nation and religious leaders encouraged us to turn to scripture, Blessed to Bless: #AnIntroductiontotheBible by Tim Sean Youmans appeared as a surprise in my mailbox. From time to time Church Publishing sends me preview copies of books to review. This one receives my recommendation for two reasons. First, I am regularly asked for resources to help make sense of the Bible, especially the Old Testament; this book offers a wide and deep guide to approaching sacred texts. The two page chapters are an excellent accompaniment for those who wish to read the text critically and constructively. Additionally, the author has a unique perspective, as an Episcopal priest who grew up in the evangelical tradition. He pitches a large and theologically sound tent that “cultivates the best of sacramental ritualistic Christianity with the heartfelt spirituality of the evangelical tradition.”

Header photo by James Coleman on Unsplash. “Jesus blessing” photo by Mauro Shared Pictures on Unsplash.

An Invitation to Transformation

In late 1999, the Office of Children’s Ministries of the Episcopal Church developed a process (Educational Inquiry) to help congregations fully live into lifelong Christian formation that included the voice of children. Built upon Called to Teach and Learn: A Catechetical Guide for the Episcopal Church (Un Llamado a Ensenar y Aprender) and Discovering Called to Teach and Learn (Descubriendo Uno Llamado) (by Joseph Russell) published in 1994, it involves a method of “educational inquiry” based on Appreciative Inquiry alongside the Children’s Charter of the Church and Authority of All Generations.

Continue reading An Invitation to Transformation

The Authority of Generations

In August of 1998, a resource developed by the Rev. Ernesto Medina (then in the Diocese of Los Angeles and now retired in the Diocese of Nebraska) made its debut on the church-wide level. Entitled The Authority of Generations, this process became the foundation for the National Episcopal Children’s Ministries Conference held at Camp Allen (Diocese of Texas) in September 1998. Hundreds came from across the Episcopal Church to further explore a Children’s Charter for the Church and how to implement it on the congregational and diocesan level. Each morning, small groups of 8-10 people gathered across the main campus to pray, read scripture, sing, and share stories. All of this was grounded in hearing everyone’s voice on an equal level.

Continue reading The Authority of Generations

A Children’s Charter for the Church

There was a time in the Episcopal Church (and Anglican Communion) that children could not receive communion unless they were confirmed (which at the time typically took place when one was twelve years old or older). That changed with the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that reaffirmed that through baptism, all are full members of the Church. Many churches still did not allow children to fully participate in the Eucharist. Children were still regulated to the “basement” and many adults, parents included, felt that children could not understand what Holy Communion was, so should not receive it. Many churches held “first communion” classes.

Continue reading A Children’s Charter for the Church