“I don’t do Sunday School.”
It was a bold and perhaps foolish statement to offer while interviewing for the job of Children’s Pastor.
For more than 200 years, an undeniable force shaping children’s ministry has been the overarching metaphor of School. In her book Children Matter (2005), Scottie May observes that whether we are aware or not, in our ministries “metaphors tend to shape everything that is done.” Despite its wide acceptance, there are good reasons to challenge the status of the prevailing School metaphor, including a 70% drop out rate from church attendance among young people after they graduate (Lifeway Research, 2007).
Eight years after my job interview, with more than 15 years experience in Children’s ministry, I still stand by my original statement – I don’t do Sunday School. I do, however, recognize that such a position may warrant an explanation.
Why I don’t do Sunday School:
- School seeks to educate. I want kids to know about God, and, of course, Christian Education is a good thing. However, it is not the only thing. What I really desire is for kids to know God. As long as School is the primary metaphor in which we serve, the ultimate measure of our success will be gauged by our head knowledge. School asks “what do you know?” I desire the question to be “Who do you know?”
- School is divided into teachers and students. Teachers, in many situations, function as the de facto expert in the room. This creates a relational distance between teachers and students. The good news in Jesus is that God has come to be with us. Any model we adopt for children’s ministry needs to reflect the same relational practice of being with. My hope is that the Holy Spirit moves freely to teach in and amongst all our faith family members. We are all sojourners, learning from and supporting one another regardless or age, stage, or qualification.
- School produces graduates. The school metaphor conveys subtly, yet powerfully, that we are expected to finish our learning about God at graduation. In many churches, the end comes even sooner, with classes going no further than Grade 7. In either case, the notion communicated is that our faith begins, forms, and finishes on some predetermined time-line. My prayer is that all would become lifelong followers of Jesus. I envision a community wherein we encounter God in a manner that grows our faith to take the next step. And the step after that. And after that.
- School measures success. Pass or fail. School seeks to assess learning and evaluate learners. In a culture that constantly reminds kids that they are winners or losers, in or out, cool or geeky, athletic or not – the church of Jesus should be the one place where a child escapes this kind of binary grading. Jesus speaks a new name to us – Beloved. I beseech church leaders everywhere to be ruthless in ending the schoolyard system of division that is built upon the measures of this world. Instead, let our children know the joy of being chosen, blessed, loved, redeemed, holy, beloved of God. There is no score card for such gifts of grace.
If not school, then what?
As in many typical Children’s Programs, on any given Sunday morning you will witness us worship, pray, dialogue, play, wonder, discover, retell, connect, sing, eat, and create. To do so, however, outside the realm of a School metaphor is a truly bold experiment. Exploring what might replace the School legacy in our children’s ministries, and to harness effectively the power of a new metaphor for this generation is exciting and humbling work. Will this new metaphor be a Journey? A Farm? A Dance? I don’t know, but we are following through on some of our ideas, and I am encouraged so far by what I see. What I do know is this is an experiment worth conducting, for the work is important, and the results are eternally significant. Perhaps you are ready to experiment too. I would be the first to encourage you to take a risk. As for me, I know that whatever I am doing on Sunday, it won’t be School.