The discussion on RevGals is about Children and Church, and I’ve got so much to say about this that I went over the word limit, so I’m posting here.
Like many of you, I’ve been on both sides of the pulpit and can well remember the frustration of trying to get the kids to church on time and then keeping them amused during the service.
In my first few years after ordination I spent time studying areas such as the Spiritual Development of Children (based on the work of Maria Montesorri and Sophia Caveletti) and then trying to apply their approach in a parish setting. At one point, we tried the “no Sunday School” approach and that went over like the literal lead balloon and I still think was partly responsible for the ending of my position as Associate (but that’s another story).
For me, pastoral issues tend to trump theological correctness, so I come down pretty hard on my conclusion that (despite all the theological arguments to the contrary) children’s spiritual needs are not met in the typical church service. In small Sunday Schools, meeting the differing spiritual needs of differently aged children can be a challenge, but I believe there is a better chance there than in Adult Sunday Worship.
If we take meeting the spiritual needs of children seriously, then the spiritual formation and training of Sunday School teachers becomes very important. They need to not only be people who will help the kids with crafts and all the other things that Sunday School entails but be willing and able to help the children discover and experience wonder and awe that is the purview of spirituality. Of course, they need to have that awareness themselves; and have the language to describe it.
Also, this isn’t babysitting, and from my experience the typical purchased “just add a parent or willing teenager” curriculums simply don’t cut it. I spend a good chunk of time every quarter or oftener with my Sunday School teacher, figuring out theological themes, scope and sequence, and lesson plans. We use a combination of resources from Godly Play to some old curriculums we have collected over the years, and use a loose Rotation Workshop model,
Rather than trying to tightly follow the lections, we find an overarching theme and matching scripture and then find ways to retell the story many different ways, and help the children reflect on it using many different activities. We take the approach that rather than attempting to cover a lot of material, we’d rather focus on a few central themes and cover them in depth. (it also takes into account the reality that most kids only appear every two or three weeks or so) . We begin by having a gathering time with story (same story told many different ways) and then set up stations and have reflection questions at the stations that the children can think about as they work. Lots of “I wonder questions, rather than concrete ones like “Who said what” or “Who did what”. The kids seem to enjoy the repetition and often those who attend more regularly take great delight in knowing the story and being able to tell it to the others. We make sure we affirm this and ask questions, like “And what happened next?”
We try to keep the children integrated into the larger conversation by children’s time and they always come up for Eucharist. The children start right in the Sunday School, (a practical thing since many of our parents don’t seem to be able to arrive on time), and then have the children’s time right before Eucharist (after passing of the peace). (We’re Anglican/Episcopal, so have Eucharist every week).
We also have an Intergenerational Service at the end of each 6 week Unit.
For our really little ones, we’ve discovered that most of our parents aren’t interested in having a staffed nursery and prefer to have their children with them in church. We have a lot of 2 year olds who tend to cruise between Sunday School and parents, so we’ve set up a Soft Area at the back of the church. We removed a set of pews, put in carpets, comfy chairs for nursing Moms, and set up tables with soft toys, colouring materials, and a lovely little stuffed communion set. It isn’t uncommon to see one of the 2-3 year olds standing with the cup in the middle of the aisle mimicking my actions as I celebrate the Eucharist (which always makes me very happy). The older kids enjoy this area as well, and they often hang out there after they come back upstairs for Eucharist.
This seems to be working well, since our Sunday School has gone from 5 to 18 in the past two years. Although it takes a lot of time and effort, I think its well worth it.