Invigorating the adult Sunday school program at your church

WilliamsburgMCSSClassHow are your adult Sunday school classes doing?

One of my MennoMedia responsibilities at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Phoenix in July was to lead several workshops—one was on adult Sunday school. It was called “Sunday school or Starbucks?” I had no idea how many people would show up but knew that my own experiences with adult Sunday school have not always been ideal. As I watched the room fill with people, I realized that I was not alone in this.

As you look ahead to fall church school season and focus on getting ready for children’s Sunday school experiences, it’s also wise to pay attention to the adult Sunday school program. Are your adult Sunday school spaces welcoming and accommodating? Are the classes invigorating and challenging? (Coffee/tea helps.)

SSClassDiscussionI was pretty certain that the excellent panel members for our workshop at Phoenix would have good input. The three of them, Marlene Bogard, Barbara Ewey, and Shanna Peachey Boshart, did not disappoint. All are resource advocates for their conference or district. Resource advocates work or volunteer with the churches in their conference to let them know about the many helpful resources put out by the Mennonite Church USA agencies. Resource advocates also have their pulse on the types of resources and programing helpful to the churches in the conferences, and they pass that information along to the MC USA agencies. (In Canada, see Mennonite Church Canada Resource Centre for resource help.)

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Some Mennonite Church USA resource advocates

In the seminar, Marlene challenged us to take a good look at our Sunday school spaces. Are they inviting? Are they spaces in which people want to spend time? Shanna mentioned that though gathering for Bible study and fellowship can happen at any time, people are already together Sunday mornings and therefore it is one of the best times to have Sunday school. Barbara shared several excellent study resources so that adults will want to gather and study (see partial list below).

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Mary Ann Weber talks with a convention goer at the Mennonite Church USA
gathering in Phoenix about ideas for church school classes.

Following the panel discussion, we divided into small groups to ponder two questions. Participants jotted down responses which I then collected, collated, and emailed to those who requested them.

Here are just a few ideas that came from the workshop participants that you can use in analyzing and improving your own program:

1. How do you support Sunday school leaders?

  • Make the teacher’s guides available
  • Have a half-day prayer retreat to re-energize leaders
  • Offer prayers and send cards
  • Good teachers need to mentor others
  • Early Sunday morning meetings for the purpose of training, discussing topic, etc.

2. What are Sunday school ideas that work at your church?

  • Teaching styles that invite conversation without judgment
  • Find teachers with passion about the subject
  • Coffee, doughnuts, and fellowship are important
  • Fall quarter includes elective and intergenerational classes based on the passion of the leaders
  • Sunday school class outings to build relationships outside of Sunday school
  • Support groups for real-life issues that may not be traditional Bible or Sunday school topics (ex.: parents struggling with parenting, divorce, addictions, women’s group, etc.)
  • Provide opportunities to share stories

Many people have observed a decline in Sunday school attendance in recent years, but the amount of people who showed up for this workshop tells me that there is value in having a Sunday school program, and that people recognize the distractions that pull us away from opportunities to engage in serious Christian education. There is always room for conversations regarding how to update it and make it relevant for daily lives. May the conversations challenge and inspire us.

What has worked well in your congregation or conference for adult classes? Comment, please!

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Here are just a few of the many resources available through MennoMedia for adult classes (click on each one to find out more):

Also, find out who the resource advocate is for your conference and make connections with him or her. Contact your local conference office if you do not know who your resource advocate is, or check this list. Or join the Facebook page group with occasional links from Resource Advocates.

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Mary Ann Weber
MennoMedia Managing editor

You have to be there

By Byron Rempel-Burkholder, book editor

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” I sang that song three times on Easter weekend, and each time I was moved by its power to take me into the gospel story. More than the traditional Caucasian-written hymns of the season—this African American spiritual got me in the gut.

There’s much more going on in the song than mere words. There is personal testimony and passion: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.” There is a dialogue between the “you” and the “me” that begs participation. And there is an overlapping of past and present: obviously I wasn’t physically at the foot of the cross or at the empty tomb, but by asking if I was there, the song forces me to know that that story is still running in my life.

I hope this is what is happening in the Bible study materials we at MennoMedia produce. One book that is soon to go to press is Creating a Scene in Corinth—A Simulation by Reta Halteman Finger and George D. McClain.

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Like Reta’s earlier book, Paul and the Roman House Churches, this book takes us back to the first century of the church. Through solid historical research and images, it shows what life must have been like for the Corinthian believers, and it helps us play-act the drama of the original readers as they heard the words of the Apostle Paul being read to them. By participating in the simulation, we begin to recognize the uncanny parallels between Corinth and our own church and society. And we begin to grapple with how the gospel challenges us in our community life.

Tom Boomershine, in his foreword, notes that Creating a Scene rides a wave of biblical scholarship known as “performance criticism”—a way of reading the Bible by entering the dramatic and sometimes raucous situation that surrounded the early text and its readers. In contrast, traditional Bible study has been much more “silent,” and focused on the face-value of the text’s words and grammar. The latter alone have their important place, but they are not enough to engage contemporary people. As readers, we have to “be there.”

Our new Dig In curriculum (see last Wednesday’s post by Amy Gingerich) also tries to catch this wave as it seeks to support Mennonite denominational efforts to revive our passion for Bible study. Dig In uses video clips of Mennonites across the continent reflecting on their experience of the text. Everything from the opening sharing of each session, through the discussion questions and closing prayer, has us personalizing the text, finding ourselves and our faith community inside the story.

In various ways, “being there” is at the heart of other learning tools for all ages. The quarterly Adult Bible Study uses a “life-to-Bible-to-life” movement in each session. Our Believers Church Bible Commentary series is unique in its inclusion of a section entitled, “The Text in the Life of the Church” in each chapter. And, of course, our children’s curriculum often has students acting out the story as if they were there.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Anabaptist Christians lean toward studying the Bible in this way. We’re not content with abstract theology and belief as the main products of our study. Our concrete lives as Jesus’ faithful disciples are what preoccupied the writers, readers, and characters of the biblical stories themselves. And that’s ultimately what matters for us, today, too.

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Byron Rempel-Burkholder, book editor