What will Sunday school look like this fall?
Churches are beginning to talk about restarting in-person Sunday school after a two and a half year hiatus from offering regular children’s programming. Leaning into the hope that our churches will be able to gather safely and with a deep desire to get children back to Sunday school before our youngest generation misses out completely on a Sunday school experience, churches are anxious to do the best they can to restart well this fall.
In the past few weeks I’ve begun to receive calls from church leaders who wonder how they should to go about restoring their children’s programmes, asking me to advise them on curriculum choices, classroom sizes, and new learning coming out of the pandemic. Before answering their questions, I ask leaders how their young families are doing. Do they know how many children have been involved in the opportunities for faith formation they’ve been offering? Do they know if their families have been reading bible story books and talking about faith at home? Have their children been participating along with their parents and grandparents in their church’s online worship services? But more important than these questions do they know the answer to, “How are your families doing?”
After a bit of a pause I too often hear, “I don’t really know.”
Churches need to prioritize discovering each of their families’ answer to, “How are you doing?” before even contemplating setting plans in place for the fall. The answers you hear may help you to shape Sunday school or alternative options for September, but more importantly these conversations offer an opportunity to rebuild relationships that were perhaps lost or let wither over the past few years.
As I’ve talk with church families with school-aged children I’ve heard over and over again that they have felt forgotten and/or assumed to be ‘just fine’ by their church over the course of this pandemic. When Covid hit, churches had to pivot quickly to figure out how to deliver worship virtually, and this took a lot of time and a great deal energy. As online worship was more or less being figured out, their church also focused its attention on its older members who reside in nursing homes, live alone or were in need of regular pastoral care. The families I spoke with understand all of this and believe their church made wise choices with the limited resources of time and energy that were available to them. But still, many feel forgotten.
Some state that the only time the church called in the last few years was when they wanted something from them. Could they teach a Zoom class, or drop off something the mission committee needed? If there was a significant family crisis their church was there, but otherwise over the course of home schooling, work closures, and family worries they’ve felt more or less on their own.
We need to ask before it’s too late, “How are you doing?”
And, if we want the best answers we can get to this question, I believe we need to phone or visit our families and not simply send out an impersonal survey.
A phone call might begin with that very question, “How are you doing?” Take time to catch up on the all that has happened to them and their kids over these years. Offer congratulations on recent graduations, driver’s licenses earned, significant birthdays and new jobs found. Listen sympathetically to losses experienced of extended family members, with work or for difficult times their family has gone through. Discover who’s had Covid and how they are doing now. Take notes if you discover that the church missed something they ought to follow up on and with their permission pass this information on to the minister or pastoral care committee.
While assuring each family that your purpose is not to guilt them into coming back to your church if they’ve moved on, ask how they’ve felt about church these last couple of years. Did they participate in online worship and how was it for each member of their family? Do they have any ideas that might have made it better? Have their children been participating in Sunday school activities with your or another church? Have they been engaging with the materials sent home, reading bible story books at bedtime, and/or talking about faithful things as a family? Are there things that might have helped, or things they’d like to receive or participate in now?
Ask what would be best for their family as children’s and youth ministries resume this fall. Are they wanting to participate in Sunday school, mid-week activities, and seasonal events? What concerns do they have about returning to church and what are they most looking forward to? What do they and their children enjoy doing with their church?
Listen with care to the answers you receive. Don’t jump to explain things if you hear criticism of programmes or about the quality of your online worship experience. Assure each family that you appreciate hearing all that they have to say and want to use this information to consider future ministries more carefully. Don’t use this call or visit to ask for anything. No matter how amazing someone might be as a Sunday school teacher – this is not the time for calling people into leadership positions. This is a time to extend care, offer an apology if needed, and to reconnect and build deeper quality relationships with your church families.
Once you have listened to all that your families have to say, take time to reflect, pray and consider what you have heard. You may discover that some themes jump out at you clear as day. Families might like to have all ages remain in worship longer each Sunday, have more hymns appropriate for children, want to get back into their Sunday class asap, want to continue to receive at home resources, and/or know how to better talk about faith as a family. All of this will help you shape Sunday school and other programmes for the fall. You may hear things that are a bit more complicated or difficult to respond well to. Even so, working to shape faith formation activities with your families’ active participation in the decision making process is a crucial first step in deciding what things will look like come September.
And, more important than all of this, building and rebuilding strong relationships with your families matters most of all.