Tag Archives: future

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;

Faith Formation in a Changing Church

About six months ago I was invited to the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia (western Washington state) to deliver a keynote address for their annual Better Together Christian formation event. I was asked to speak about where I saw the church heading in the future based on my 40+ years of experience in formation, drawing upon what I had seen and learned along the way. I entitled it Faith Formation in a Changing Church: Learning from the Past, Preparing for the Future. My intention was to share a little history of Christian education in the church through the lens of four generations of my family. I planned to talk about my perception of how the church needed to adapt to a new reality in the twenty-first century. How would my granddaughter (a fifth generation – the Alpha generation) be formed in faith?

Little did I know that much of my preparation in talking about the “future” would become the present. A week before I was scheduled to fly to Seattle, the area became a COVID-19 hotspot. Twenty-four hours in advance, Bishop Rickel made the decision to cancel all diocesan events where more than fifty people would be present. I cancelled my flight and said a prayer.

Continue reading Faith Formation in a Changing Church

Discerning a Way Forward

empty church pewsThere has been an uptick of inquiries in my inbox as well as voice mail, all essentially about the same question: “Can you help us figure out what to do with our (fill in the blank: children, youth, adult, formation, education, Church School) ministries program?” The difficulty in responding is that I don’t have an answer. Nothing that is a quick fix. Nothing that hiring a children’s minister, youth director, or Director of Christian Formation can solve (at least not on their own). It can only be addressed through community discernment – lay and clergy leaders with parents especially – working together.

Here’s an example of some of the statements raised, after the initial question:

  • Children aren’t coming to Church School.
  • Parents are disengaged with talking about faith at home and don’t support their attendance in class (or worship).
  • Our teachers don’t like the curriculum we are using (read between the lines . . . What curriculum can you recommend that volunteers like that is easy?)
  • Youth are bored.
  • We keep reading about putting things online – but who has the time to figure that out?

Continue reading Discerning a Way Forward

Christian Formation in a Changing Church: Part 1

Over the next several days and posts, I will share a presentation given at the 3rd Annual “Spring Training for God’s Mission” Day 2015 for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, March 21, 2015. 

THe-broken-Church-X2Part One:
How Did We Get Here?

The world around us is changing – is our church changing for the context in which we now find ourselves? However, we must remember that the gospel message has not changed at all – but how we share it and the methods we use to engage others in following The Way needs to meet people where they are – children, youth, and adults.  In order to understand where we need to go, we need to understand why we do what we do today and where we have come from.

A little history . . . since the time of Christ there have been times of transition that influenced and were influenced by theology and educational praxis (how we learn and practice) of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: (1) Apostolic Age – first four centuries – disciples went forth into communities to share the gospel in a world that did not know Christ; (2) Christendom – 4th→10th/11th centuries – Christianity became part of the “state”; (3) Middle Ages in which the Church, as an institution, held a monopoly on the gospel that left lay people “in the dark” → leading to the Reformation, a transitional time of being drawn back to the roots of Christianity for the people; (4) Modernity [the Age of Reason when answers were sought to all questions] – 17th→20th century; and Post-Modernity = Today. And we are in yet another transitional time. Read more: Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence. Continue reading Christian Formation in a Changing Church: Part 1

Resourcing for the Future

The last two decades have seen dramatic political, economic, social and cultural changes affecting virtually every dimension of American Christianity. This new environment has definitely had its impact on Resource Centers and will demand new thinking and new models, practices and technologies in order to support and address the needs of the congregations and judicatories we serve. Addressing the spiritual needs of all generations will continue to be a challenge as we have also been impacted by lower budgets, increase of the cost of goods and more dependence on digital technology.

Many of us have seen fewer visitors to our Resource Centers. We are called upon to be out and about with those we serve, bringing resources (and our expertise) to the local congregation. We are learning how to put our collections online, develop more comprehensive websites, and engage in social media. And more of the resources, especially curricula and faith formation materials are available digitally – either downloadable or totally online.

In September 2009, CNN published a story, “The Future of Libraries: With or Without Books”:

“Books are being pushed aside for digital learning centers and gaming areas. ‘Loud rooms’ that promote public discourse and group projects are taking over the bookish quiet. Hipster staffers who blog, chat on Twitter and care little about the Dewey Decimal System are edging out old-school librarians.”

The Digital World

The relevant Resource Center of the future will be a marketplace for ideas. Forward-looking directors (and their judicatories) will create a conversational loop with its clientele. Being active on Facebook, Digg and Twitter they will share the latest news, resources and trends in ministry. As digital books replace traditional printed publications, the role of a Resource Center Director will be one of discernment and vetting much more than in previous decades.

As Phyllis Tickle states, we are entering into a new Reformation[1]. The cultural changes brought about by the Gutenberg Press had an enormous impact on Christianity. That new way to interact with a surplus of content never before accessible to the common masses is not that different than what we are experiencing today. Today social interaction is a form of content itself. It is up to Resource Centers to take an active role in the creation and collaboration within this ethereal user generated content. Our role is to offer our expertise and guidance in how congregations and individuals interact with all that is now offered via the web (and more), much of which is not in keeping with our traditions and theological perspectives.

Many of us are digital immigrants (those of us born in the era of rotary telephones and manual typewriters) who are trying to catch up with “digital natives” (those who have always had desktop and palm-sized computers).[2] John Roberto of Lifelong Faith Associates has spent a great deal of time and energy in recent years imagining what faith formation would look like if our churches fully embraced using 21st century technology. One of the ways he has shown how this can be done is through “curating” resources via the Faith Formation Learning Exchange. I have also tried to build such a resource site through my work with Building Faith: An Online Community for Christian Formation Leaders. 

What does this mean for today’s Resource Centers?

Today’s Resource Center needs to be agile and collaborative. We need to be in partnership with our ecumenical brothers and sisters. We need to be in touch with the local congregation by building relationships and offering easy access to new ideas and materials that have been vetted by experts – us! And we need to keep abreast of what excites people, how they learn in today’s world and what the trends are in the world around us that has such an impact on our church.

One of the resolutions to come before the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church in Indianapolis this July will ask the church for funding to create such an “Online Resource Center” in order to “Build the Continuum.” During its work over the past triennium, The Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Education and Formation saw the increase of decreases – churches and dioceses cutting back on budgets and positions that help “resource” the church. The local congregation now depends on volunteers already strapped for time to search out curricula, best practices, training and ideas. If The Episcopal Church wanted to support folks in their ministries, providing an online clearing house of vetted links, resources and networking options would provide the vehicle for such collaboration.

What will the future hold? 


[1] Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008)

[2] These terms come from Julie Anne Lytle in her article, “Moving Online: Faith Formation in a Digital Age” (Lifelong Faith Journal, Spring 2020) and in her forthcoming book, Faith Formation 4.0: Cultivating an Ecology of Faith in a Digital Age (Morehouse, 2013).

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