Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

5/30 2014

Why We’re Not Interested in Your Sunday School

AndreaYoung adults seek new forms of Christian education.

This article was originally published in the May 2014 special edition “Guide to Young Adult Ministry” of Presbyterians Today magazine. To
subscribe or read more articles from this issue, go to www.pcusa.org/today.

Battered by a constant torrent of news stories, online media, and social networking feeds, millennials have grown up with a “super highway” of information. They also are on track to be the most educated generation in history.

Millennials no longer need (or believe they need) experts—including those in the church—to pass information from on high. They can listen to a TED talk for cutting-edge information on a wide variety of topics. Christian education, therefore, has to offer something that no YouTube video can: whole-life transformation.

Regrettably, many congregations continue to employ the traditional Sunday school model—designed to transmit information that millennials no longer seek. Maybe it’s not incidental that many congregations are experiencing declining participation, especially among millennials and their children.

The Sunday school model may no longer be the most effective way to reach young people in the United States. Here’s why.

Yesterday vs. Today

In many congregations, Sunday school is the main opportunity, aside from worship, to share faith with adults and children. Congregations spend a great deal of time, money, and energy on that hour, with the hope that their curriculum, volunteers, and excitement will convey all that anyone needs to know to live as a Christian.

Decades ago, there was little need to learn how to apply faith in the surrounding culture, because everyone (at least outwardly) shared the faith. So, the church set aside a time for individuals to learn more about their tradition’s understanding of the Bible and doctrine.

Today, many different values, lifestyles, and beliefs visibly pervade our culture. Christians now face having to integrate their faith in work and social environments that often bear few signs of Christian influence. One hour of Sunday school does not transform their lives; it segments their lives. Millennials wonder, “If the gospel is true, shouldn’t it saturate every area of life and not occupy our minds for only an hour each week?”

Church vs. Home

It used to be that children learned about Jesus at home and in public schools. Slowly, teaching about Jesus became less common in school and, sadly, at home.

Many millennials would like to see that latter trend reversed. They seek training to be educators in their respective contexts. They don’t just want to be taught; they want to be taught to teach. Millennials want to be empowered to learn on their own and shepherd their children.

Hearing vs. Expriencing

“The Western church has more information about Jesus and the Bible and the church than we’ve ever had,” says BJ Woodworth, pastor of the Open Door, a missional Presbyterian worshiping community in Pittsburgh that consists largely of millennials and their children. “And yet we’re not seeing deep, soul-level transformation happening in people’s lives.” Millennials do not see the value in memorizing information that is available at their fingertips. Instead, they want to know why something matters and how it affects them and the world around them.

New Models

It might be difficult for churches to break their Sunday school habit. The following examples, while not blueprints, may spark ideas for more effective models for millennials and their children.

1. All-encompassing

Nathan Van Patter, 26, attends the Upper Room, a PC(USA) church plant in Pittsburgh. Recently, he led a weekly Bible study on Mark with 8 to 10 other young adults. To put what they learned into action, the group brainstormed ways to bring Mark’s Gospel to bear in their community.

Like many millennials, the group wanted to connect the study with their everyday lives in a truly meaningful way. They wanted the group to become a place where they could be Christians together and make an impact in their community. This shows that educational endeavors within the church must convey meaning or impact. Millennials have little interest in programs that seem to have no effect on God’s kingdom.

2. Focused on everyday practices

At the Open Door, all are encouraged to adopt rhythms and practices for their everyday lives. Woodworth says congregations need to create a situation where millennials, rather than being “dependent on the church for the program to feed them, to nurture them, to transform them, . . . become self-dependent, independent, interdependent.”

In addition to keeping the Sabbath, everyone is challenged to do the following each week: set aside one time of silence to listen to God; read Scripture at least once; eat with at least two people with whom they do not live; encourage two people through words, gifts, or actions; and look for ways to give time, money, and skills to others.

The community also is committed to being intergenerational in worship and does not emphasize specialized children’s programs. “The less program-dependent we are, the more moms and dads can raise their kids in the way of the Lord,” Woodworth says.

3. Multisensory

Millennials are accustomed to educational experiences that are interactive, and they expect similar spiritual experiences.

Rodger Nishioka, associate professor of Christian education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, says millennials connect their experiences of God with times when more than one sense is engaged.

In the past, he says, we knew God “by just having someone tell us about God. Well, I don’t think that’s how it works anymore. . . . Congregations have to be thinking about an experience.” Nishioka recalled a time when a student at Columbia preached on the potter and the clay. The student placed a pottery wheel in the chapel and threw a pot while she preached.

Congregations need not be so creative. A simple recovery of regular celebration of the sacraments may be all that millennials need to engage their senses in worship. But for those congregations looking to be creative, options abound: think about ways to incorporate tastes and scents into a lesson; invite questions after a sermon (either voiced publicly or tweeted); encourage movement in worship; incorporate ancient or cross-cultural contemplative practices or liturgies that include silence; or structure a class to be a conversation rather than a lecture.

It Shouldn’t All Change

Taking even small steps away from the traditional Sunday school model may be met with resistance. It might help to remind the congregation about what must never change.

“What shouldn’t change? Jesus Christ as the center. No question,” Nishioka says. “We are the church of Jesus Christ. That’s who we are. Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, thanks be to God.

“But that doesn’t mean that our teaching about Jesus Christ or our worship of Jesus Christ is going to be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” he adds. “It’s going to be different, because we are a people who are given imagination and who are given a call by God to lead into that. And so, things change, but Christ doesn’t change. And that is the good news for us all.”

Andrea Hall ’07 is a certified Christian educator in the PC(USA) who resides in Greenville, Pa. She is a member of the PTS Board of Directors and is an independent educational ministries consultant.http://andreahallconsulting.com/

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5/8 2014

Flickers of Hope

Hope is a peculiar thing.

The Christian life, I’m told, ought to be characterized and defined by hope. In many biblical passages, hope is given an exemplary status, described as something we retain. Christ’s work on the cross and the resurrection we are now celebrating means that we have hope in the authentic reality that God is “for us.” While this resurrection reality goes beyond strictly ourselves, we are privileged to participate in it. The Christian does not sit around wishing for something, but instead actively lives into hope, allowing it to transform his or her life. Hope must be a possession—something we hold onto, indeed cling to, and wield against life’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. As a possession, hope is not abstract and vague, but palpable and practical. It is something not to be studied or contemplated but embodied.

What, then, can be said of hope in the midst of sorrow?

If hope is a possession, why does it sometimes seem to abandon us when we most need it? When we experience suffering and grieving, hope can seem more absent than present. People who are generally hopeful may be surprised to find that in times of grief and despair, hope is nowhere to be found, like a warrior who has carried her sword in her belt all her life, yet is shocked to find her belt vacant suddenly as her enemies approach. When hope seems insipid, it begs the question: Does real hope never waiver? Is fair-weather hope a sign of a lack of faith? And when hope does flicker in the surrounding darkness of my soul, where does it come from? Is it real? And will it ever be here to stay?

I want to contend that hope is something that we can possess constantly, though the warm, fuzzy feeling it exudes is not constant. Life is finite, fragile, and, sometimes, quite difficult. There is far more to hope than feeling positive and happy. It is easy to depend too much on the extent to which we feel hope when we consider whether or not we possess hope. Sometimes, when darkness surrounds us, we realize how deep-seated the hope within us really is, a rooted assurance at work in our lives even when we do not feel elation. The temporary disappearance of positive feelings does not necessarily imply that we have no longer have hope. Over time, joy will return, and our hope will be easily recognizable again.

Yet in the meantime, we can still possess hope when it is beyond our conscious recognition. Hope keeps pushing us, often kicking and screaming, back to God. And once in a while, its light flickers in our souls, offering us a reminder that deep inside of us, beyond our present experience, hope is still at work deep within by the power of the Holy Spirit, making us whole and leading us onward toward the goal of life in Christ, which we celebrate in the light of the empty tomb.

Written by Brian Lays, middler MDiv student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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2/20 2014

No More Monologues

 

The Art of Spiritual Conversation:

We do ourselves a great disservice in the church when we do not teach the art of spiritual conversation. Talking about spiritual things cannot be something that is relegated to pastors. The language of Christianity cannot be something that is merely sung in worship songs and uttered in ancient liturgical sayings.

When people’s primary experience in the church is that of being passive recipients, then we have not prepared them to take Jesus seriously. When individuals are told to sit down and shut up or only use other people’s words to articulate what they believe, then we do not actually invite them into a place of authentic wrestling with what they believe. If the invitation into the messiness of the Christian journey is not extended at church, the necessary skills are not taught and celebrated, then it is no wonder that the people of God who are searching and seeking meaning and substance will walk away from the church finding it to be a dull and dry vessel with very little good news to share.

I am not advocating that we throw out the past by doing away with things like the Confessions and the Hymns. What I am saying is that they in themselves are not the end all. It is not enough to say and sing the “right” words. The words of those who have come before us and the words of pastors today preaching and teaching the Biblical text are not untouchable. They provide us with an opportunity to do what Christians have been doing for centuries now…

To figure out what in fact we do believe. They invite us to articulate our faith not in the words of others but in our own words. They invite us to be a part of a living faith right now in 21st Century America. Spiritual conversation refuses to settle for wrote memorization. Spiritual conversations move from consumerism to engagement. Spiritual conversations move us away from being isolated spiritual beings and force us into frustratingly human relationship. They require humility and vulnerability as we share our questions and our ideas.

By Simeon Harrar ’14, Director of Student Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, PA

Read more about Simeon at his website: http://www.simeonharrar.com/

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