Christian Education in Smaller Churches

Memorial InstallationInstalling memorial remembering the 205 people killed by gun violence in Metro DC in 2016

How do we create the space and develop the resources for learning and growing together in a smaller church? The traditional Christian educational model has been Sunday school either before or after the worship service. In many ways, this model has served us well. Yet it has had its weaknesses and it’s especially hard to do well in smaller churches.

Sunday school programs were started in our country at the end of the 19th century. They were modeled after our public education system with graded materials for each age group. Christian publishing houses put lots of energy into the development and marketing of these materials. As our schedules get more demanding, many families find it difficult to regularly participate in Sunday school in addition to the worship service. It’s hard to keep Sunday School functioning with sporadic attendance.

Such Sunday School programs take more energy than many smaller churches have. This forces us to consider alternative Christian education models. We will especially want to provide ways for children to participate in our worship service by singing, playing percussion instruments, having a children’s story, reading scriptures, helping collect the offering, etc. Our church recently decided to put more resources into learning activities for younger children apart from the main worship service during the worship hour. Young parents should not need to carry the brunt of the responsibility for this. We, therefore, committed staff time to developing this ministry with age appropriate learning activities as well as a policy that assures child safety.

So much of our understanding of education is oriented to formal curriculum in classroom settings. There’s a place for that but it will be good to think more broadly. Karen Tye, who has devoted her life to Christian education in smaller churches, writes, “In the small membership church, one of the most vital approaches to Christian education is what I would call a community model. It draws on the reality that everything a church does is educating, and it seeks to integrate all aspects of the church’s life in ways that consistently move people deeper into their identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.”[1]

This greatly expands the scope of how we understand our educational ministry. For example, those of us who joined the interfaith friendship walk in our city this summer were being educated. Education in smaller churches needs to be experiential. That means getting our whole selves involved, seeing, speaking, listening, moving, smelling, touching, and tasting. It also means being rooted in the stuff of our lives and our community.

For youth, this may involve monthly gatherings that involve fun activities, some biblical content, and service projects such as assembling school kits for refugee children. Adults may want to do occasional evening book studies or lecture series on pertinent topics. It can even include eating out together or watching a movie and then discussing it. This past Sunday our church assembled a “Memorial to the Lost” on our church lawn, remembering those killed by gun violence in the Washington DC area in the last year. Those of us putting up the memorial spanned ages from 90 to 2 years old.

We will also want to be reflective. We can only take in so much before we need to reflect and integrate what we’re absorbing. Such learning is relational and inclusive. We don’t need classrooms with teachers but we do need to be committed to learning and growing together as followers of Jesus.

[1] Karen B. Tye, Christian Education in the Small Membership Church (Nashville: Abington Press, 2008), 56.

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