"We process out before the readings begin, and head upstairs for Children’s Chapel. This is definitely a work in progress, but we’re enjoying figuring it out together."
Among Christian educators, the conversation on when Sunday School is held (before, during or after) worship is always full of energy. And the consensus is that Sunday School taking place at the same time as worship is our least favorite model.
So what if you’re stuck with it?
This is the case in my congregation, and it will not be changing anytime soon. We have a serious ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ segregation going on, with children sequestered upstairs from before service starts to just in time for communion every week.
But rather than complain, it’s up to me to find ways to deal with it, make Sunday School as valuable as possible to the children in the program, and incorporate aspects of worship as often as possible.
We all know that flexibility is the key to success when working with children and youth. It comes in handy with adults, too. So when I ran out of Sunday School volunteers this year, I decided to look at it as an opportunity rather than a disaster. Starting in Lent, we moved to a ‘real’ Children’s Chapel model with all of our elementary school-aged kids – the classes for whom I have no teachers. What does this look like? Well it will certainly be a fluid process, but for now here’s what we’re doing:
Instead of coming straight upstairs Sunday morning without ever stepping foot in the sanctuary, children will start the service with their families. They become a part of our communal worship, see their youth group heroes process in with the clergy, are included in the opening prayers and the lighting of the Lenten candles, observe the how’s and what’s of worship by watching the congregation.
We process out before the readings begin, and head upstairs for Children’s Chapel. This is definitely a work in progress, but we’re enjoying figuring it out together. Children spend so much of their time being told what to do and how to do it; when adults ask them for their input they become deeply invested in not only the process but also the results.
We start with silence, cued by the chime of a singing bowl. Not all of the children manage real silence yet, but they’re getting there. And more importantly they’re learning that silencing their thoughts is a powerful tool for self-control. As for adults, children’s worship should include a refocus on how to go out into the world with an outlook that brings us closer to God. Self control is a huge part of that for youngsters.
We use story bibles for some readings, NRSV youth bibles for others, and story telling for still others. We get loud. We climb around the room while telling the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Puppet Goliath roars and laughs at puppet David before puppet David knocks the Giant’s lights out with a clay stone launched from a popsicle stick slingshot.
And the sermon? Well that’s the hardest part for me. Not because I can’t figure out what to say, but because I have to learn to be quiet and listen. The sermon becomes a group effort, led by the kids. We sit together and ask wondering questions about the readings, and if I can silence myself and let them take over, they have so much to teach me. They help each other problem solve issues they have at home or at school. They are more capable than I of connecting 2,000-year-old stories to their very real lives in 2013.
The Holy Spirit is active and close to the surface in these young people, and when we return to the main service at The Exchange of the Peace they bring an energy that is close to miraculous. Thanks be to God.
Christina Clark serves as the Family Minister and Youth Leader at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Denver, CO. She has previously written for Adoptive Families Magazine and Mothering.com and is the author of the novel "Little Gods on Earth."
Image: Children's Chapel at Liverpool Cathedral in the United Kingdom