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KIDS AND CHRIST: Changing culture calls for new Sunday model James Harnish, Apr 27, 2010
By James A. Harnish Special Contributor
The congregation I serve has set “leading a new generation to Christ through our vision for Children’s Ministries” as one of our priorities for 2010. We are analyzing every part of our ministry in relationship to the way we engage children and their families in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Along the way, we are responding to three challenges over which we seem to have little control.
The challenge of a changing culture. Methodists who gave birth to the Sunday school knew how to raise children in the faith when the culture gave a measure of recognition to the Sabbath. Particularly in the South, Sunday morning was basically reserved for church activities, even after “blue laws” were rescinded. As a child, I proudly wore a string of pins that celebrated perfect attendance in Sunday school.
This traditional vision of Christian education is being challenged by the way in which children’s and youth sports teams have taken ownership of Sunday. If a boy or girl becomes a member of a sports team, the odds are very good that they will be expected to participate in practice or traveling to games on Sundays.
One response is to challenge families to place first priority on their faith in Christ and refuse to participate in Sunday sports activities. While some families are making that choice, the majority will not. As a result, we are exploring opportunities to form children as disciples that are not dependent on Sunday morning Sunday school.
The challenge of the changing family. A fundamental change in family life that challenges children’s ministry is what I call “the influence of affluence.” When people can afford to travel, they do. They go to the mountains to ski in the winter, to beachside condos or lakeside cabins in the summer and to their favorite university football games in the fall.
Families who a few years ago would have apologized for not being in worship and Sunday school every Sunday now assume that equally faithful membership means being present two or three times a month.
Another change is what we call “one-hour-on-Sunday.” At one time, it was assumed that being a Christian family meant participating in both worship and Sunday school. Today a majority of families are only willing to give one hour on Sunday morning. This is particularly true of unchurched people who are uncomfortable enough when they try to come to worship for the first time. Keeping their children with them in worship is often enough to prevent them from trying the church at all.
Because we believe that Bible study in community with others is an essential practice of discipleship for adults and that worship is an essential practice for children, we are exploring ways to engage adults in small groups and to create kid-friendly opportunities for worship.
The challenge of changing children. One of the results of a media-addicted culture is that kids (particularly upper elementary-age children) have changed in the way they learn. The flannel graph that held my attention may not be the most effective way of communicating with children who spend far too many hours a day in front of a television or computer screen.
Responding to this challenge does not necessarily mean throwing out older teaching methods or showing a video in every class, but it does mean that Christian formation needs to be more interactive using a variety of teaching styles to meet the needs of different children.
One of the most important questions is: How will we connect with the boys?
The grim statistics reveal the way we tend to lose boys by the time they reach upper elementary age. The church in general and Sunday school in particular tend to be predominately led by women. Many of our activities connect most effectively with girls. To reach the next generation, we need to engage more men in children’s ministries and design learning experiences that focus on the spiritual development of boys.
The diagnosis is simple enough. The way we respond to these challenges is hard work, but it will be critically important in forming Christian disciples in the next generation.
The Rev. Harnish is senior pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fl.