Almost a year ago we began a reconsidering the traditional approaches to Sunday morning Christian education with youth. Some in the youth ministry blogosphere have recently called for the end of Sunday school as we know it. While it might seem easiest to simply jettison Sunday morning classes for youth (after all, what teen wants to get up early on Sunday morning?), I'm not ready yet to give up one of the few weekly hours we have with our teens. So rather than just telling our youth to sleep in, I'd suggest rethinking the current model.
Most churches are likely still using a variation of the Sunday school model developed in the late 1700's in England. At that time, church schools grew up as a way to educate the poor in the basics of reading and writing. They also served to provide underprivileged children, who worked the other six days of the week, a place to go on Sundays where they could be supervised and get a basic education while receiving religious instruction. They were, literally, schools. And we've held onto that concept right up to today, with children still sitting around tables, still doing fill-in-the-blank worksheets and still memorizing scripture verses.
In short, many churches have failed to adapt to the changes in culture over the past century. It's time to rethink the purpose of religious education for youth. If our primary goal is not to simply pour dogma into their heads but rather to be companions with them on their journey of faith, "Sunday school" might look quite different. A few suggestions:
1) Get rid of the curriculum - Our task is to mentor teens -- not to teach lessons. Youth go to school five days a week and don't need one more day of school on Sunday. So let's stop focusing on getting through the prescribed lesson plans and focus instead on the individuals. Throw away the workbooks and worksheets. Allow the "curriculum" to grow organically from current issues and themes that are important to your particular students. Tie biblical study to newspaper articles, current movies, tv shows, stories or problems your teens are facing in their daily lives. Generate a list of moral/ethical/what if questions and get your youth talking. Out of these discussions can grow all sorts of clues as to what they need the most in the way of theological guidance.
2) Create a relaxed setting - No more sitting around tables or in rows of chairs facing a speaker/teacher. Use your youth room or any space with comfortable seating arranged in a circle. I'm not advocating the notion of a youth room crammed with distractions like video games and loud music. Rather, what youth need is a comfortable space where they feel free to share and talk.
3) Get out of the building - Why does Christian education have to take place in the church? Why not make use of a nearby coffee or donut shop, a park or the church lawn?
4) Turn your teens into teachers - Some youth, who will never set foot in a Sunday school class, will more than happily teach younger children. Partner interested youth with adult mentors and allow them to help with your children's classes. They will likely learn more as teachers than they ever did as students.
5) Make it intergenerational - Youth ministry is moving away from a teen-centered model to a church-centered model. It's time we stop isolating teens so much from the wider church fellowship. Look for ways to connect your youth with the adults and vice versa. Working from an idea of Jacob's and connecting it to another interesting idea from this blog, we've spent this past school year inviting various adults from the church to come to the youth class and be interviewed about their faith. The teens came up with five basic questions about God, Jesus, scripture, and the Church and invited each interviewee to talk for about 20 minutes. At the end of the time, the guest leaves and we spend the rest of the hour debriefing what they shared. Not only have our youth been exposed to a variety of understandings of faith, but they've had a chance to deepen their relationships with many adults in the church. We need to continue to look for ways, such as this, to bring our adults and youth together for education. How about semi-regular Sunday morning forums for all ages, focused on social justice/cultural/theological topics of interest to adults and teens?
6) Offer a variety of experiences - Familiar with the workshop rotation model of Christian education? Typically used with children, this approach invites the learner to focus on a single biblical text for several weeks in a row, each time experiencing the story in a different way such as drama, cooking, mission projects, movies, science, writing, art, and so on. There is no reason this same approach would not work with teens, allowing you to tap into their different intelligences and learning styles. One side benefit of this model is that it works best the more adults you involve as leaders of different workshops. Tap the artists, the musicians, the scientists, and the chefs in your congregation to come work with the youth.
7) Partner with Parents - I imagine that many of us who have trouble getting teens to come to Sunday school are also dealing with parents who don't come to Sunday school. Why not provide an opportunity for the two groups to come together? Offer a short term "family group" and see what happens. Get youth and parents sharing about their faith, their values, and their views of the needs of the world. Work your way toward a family retreat weekend. Take turns having parents and youth help you lead the discussion and study. (And don't worry too much if your youth say "We don't want our parents in our class!" After all, our call is to offer youth what they need -- not necessarily what they want.)
8) Practice spiritual disciplines - Just like anything else, spiritual disciplines take practice. Consider offering opportunities each week for youth to experience prayer stations, or to try lectio divina, or simply to observe the Sabbath through rest (I have one student who would love to spend Sunday school time each week just laying on a couch in the youth room napping or reading a book!). The excellent site Way To Live provides a host of resources for introducing youth to a variety of spiritual practices.
9) Team up with other churches - My church reaches a critical mass in Sunday school by partnering with the Presbyterian church across the street. Make the ecumenical move and see if there are other neighborhood churches who would like to join you in developing a cooperative Sunday morning program.
10) Create short-term experiences - Keep youth interested by regularly reforming the Sunday morning experience. You might spend time in the fall focused on planning and carrying out mission projects. In Advent, turn the group into a drama team and prepare a series of skits to augment the worship services. In the winter, transform into a film series and tie your discussion to movies selected by the youth. When spring rolls around, study other faiths and denominations and arranging visits to other churches and places of worship. Int the summer, morph into a photography club, inviting youth to create a group photo show based on "images of God" that they find in the neighborhood around the church or throughout your city.
Bonus Idea: Still can't get youth to come to church on Sunday morning no matter how creative your approach. Well, who says Sunday school has to happen on Sunday morning. Let your teens sleep in! Gather after worship for lunch and study, or the hour before or after your regular evening youth meeting. For those youth willing to make the commitment, the extra time and attention from their youth leaders and friends will be a plus.
Of course, this is just a sampling of creative approaches to Sunday morning Christian education for teens. To know what is right for your youth and your church, gather together a small group of those who can help you rethink what you are doing and why. Once you have a clear sense of what you want to offer teens and what you help to accomplish, begin brainstorming how to get there.