Amy Kippen tells visitors they can choose a church where they can drop off their children at Sunday school or they can make a commitment that will pay off in ways they could not even imagine.

“It will literally change who your kids become when you are involved in their faith life,” the director of faith formation at Faith Lutheran Church, West Fargo, N.D., tells parents.

More than 15 years ago, Faith replaced traditional Sunday school with GIFT Family Ministry, using Bible Song curriculum from Faith Inkubators. Parents attend each week with their children and practice Home Huddles (Faith Inkubators’ Faith5) each night at home with their children, sharing highs and lows, reading Scripture, talking, praying and blessing each other.

To help teach faith at home, Terry and Suzi Hansen do “Home Huddles” each night with Sofia, 14 (left); Emily, 12; and Joseph, 4. Faith Lutheran Church in West Fargo, N.D., encourages the Hansens and other families to use the huddles to share their highs and lows, read Scripture, talk, pray and bless each other.  

To help teach faith at home, Terry and Suzi Hansen do “Home Huddles” each night with Sofia, 14 (left); Emily, 12; and Joseph, 4. Faith Lutheran Church in West Fargo, N.D., encourages the Hansens and other families to use the huddles to share their highs and lows, read Scripture, talk, pray and bless each other.

“Instead of faith being just another something we do for an hour every week, it becomes a shared experience,” Kippen said. “Parents come to see the church as their partner in raising faithful kids, and kids learn that church is not just what we do, but who we are.

“If parents choose another church to call home, we accept that. We are not the church for everyone. We are the church where families stay together.”

New models, approaches … realities

If you attended Sunday school, your parents likely brought you to a classroom where you spent an hour listening to a teacher present a Bible story, lead music or direct activities.

Today children and families prefer a more participatory style than the “expert model” of yesteryear, said Paul Lutz, adjunct professor in Christian education at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and a pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale, Pa.

“The success of Sunday school happened at a time when people were satisfied relegating religious things off to experts — pastors or Sunday school teachers,” he said. “The expert model doesn’t satisfy people the way it used to. Fortunately for us Lutherans we have this concept called the priesthood of all believers. We can help people identify their spiritual gifts and help them participate in ways they couldn’t before because [the experts] took over those responsibilities.”

Mary Hess, professor of educational leadership at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., said, “Right now we are living in a time of great experimentation. What is interesting to me is to watch churches try different approaches [in faith formation].”

These approaches include:

  • Equipping families to carry out rituals at home.
  • Combining Christian education with mission and service.
  • Incorporating faith formation into the worship service.
  • Holding classes during the week, rather than on Sunday morning.
  • Creating curriculum.
  • Offering cross-generational programs.
Justin Coleman, 6, and Nancy Tuttle listen to a children’s version of the creation story, read by Karen Rodriguez (not pictured), deacon of Bridge of Peace Community Lutheran Church in Camden, N.J.  

Justin Coleman, 6, and Nancy Tuttle listen to a children’s version of the creation story, read by Karen Rodriguez (not pictured), deacon of Bridge of Peace Community Lutheran Church in Camden, N.J.

These approaches come at a time when Sunday school attendance in ELCA congregations has seen a 60 percent drop between 1990 and 2010, according to ELCA Research and Evaluation. Church leaders cite a variety of reasons for the decline:

More competition, like travel and sports. “The culture no longer respects Sunday morning,” said Diane Hymans, professor of Christian education, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio. “It used to be Sunday mornings were for church. Now our kids are involved in all sorts of sports on Sunday mornings and oftentimes sports win.”

Fewer children. The number of married couples with children in ELCA congregations dropped from 41 percent in 1988 to 26 percent in 2013. In addition, child baptisms in ELCA and predecessor congregations dropped 52 percent between 1970 and 2012, according to ELCA Research and Evaluation.

Changes in the family. For example, children of divorced or separated parents may spend weekends with a parent who doesn’t attend church or who is a member of another congregation, Hymans said.

In addition, more mothers work full time today.  “After working all week, running errands and cleaning their houses, they are exhausted by Sunday morning,” said Diane Shallue, adjunct instructor at Luther Seminary and director of Christian education and small group ministries at University Lutheran Church of Hope, Minneapolis. “We have more exhausted mothers who struggle to get their children up and off to Sunday school or church.”

Despite the challenges, Shallue remains optimistic: “I am not dispirited about the statistics at all. We have great opportunities to start thinking about new ways to do faith formation, rather than trying to do the same old [programs] harder and better.”

‘Nurture faith at home’

“Sometime in the 1950s or ’60s, churches communicated to parents that they should let the church do all of the education and faith formation for their children,” Hymans said. “And parents were often happy to do that because they often didn’t feel well equipped to do it.”

But research shows that parents are the primary influence in their children’s faith, she said, “so more churches are equipping and empowering [them] to nurture faith at home.”

Aniya Coleman gets something to drink at a free dinner before Bridge of Peace’s Tuesday night “Family Bible School.” Giselle Coutinho, pastor, and other members create their own curriculum and connect it with living in Camden, N.J., one of the most impoverished and violent communities in the U.S. 

Aniya Coleman gets something to drink at a free dinner before Bridge of Peace’s Tuesday night “Family Bible School.” Giselle Coutinho, pastor, and other members create their own curriculum and connect it with living in Camden, N.J., one of the most impoverished and violent communities in the U.S.

For example, congregations can teach families to worship every Sunday, no matter where they are. “We need to find simple ways to engage parents who are exhausted,” Shallue said. “That could be small rituals like reading a Bible story, singing and praying. One of our young moms had been doing that at home because it was hard to get to church with her little ones.”

At Faith, Kippen tells parents that if they have to choose between attending GIFT on Sunday mornings or doing Home Huddles every night, “never come here.”

“That’s how powerful I think that connection at home is around your faith life,” she said. “When I think about the depth of faith our confirmation students have when they enter our program, it’s incredibly different than it was 10 years ago. I can’t help but think that has to do with parents living out and practicing faith with their children every night in their home.”

Forming faith by serving neighbors

Involving families in mission and service provides another way to do faith formation. “A lot of people are motivated to visit a nursing home or work in a community garden or homeless shelter because they are used as contexts for telling the stories and practices of the faith,” Hymans said. “Before you go, you can have a meal, read Scripture and talk together.”

Trinity provides such an opportunity through “Feed and be Fed,” which includes an intergenerational, participatory 30-minute worship service followed by a project in the community. For example, they assembled snack packs for a local charity. Before delivering them, they talked about caring for their neighbors.

“It’s an experiment for those who don’t want to just sit in worship,” Lutz said. “We have 3-year-olds working with 80- or 90-year-olds assembling sandwiches or planting flowers and vegetables. That’s one way we do faith formation, and it doesn’t look like traditional Sunday school.”

Sirah Coleman (left), Hannah Watkis, Benjamin Watkis, Dinah Coleman and Carlos Ortiz practice a “Genesis Rap” to be performed during Sunday worship at Bridge of Peace.

Sirah Coleman (left), Hannah Watkis, Benjamin Watkis, Dinah Coleman and Carlos Ortiz practice a “Genesis Rap” to be performed during Sunday worship at Bridge of Peace.

Faith formation in worship

In the ELCA there has been a disconnect between worship and faith formation, Shallue said. “That’s a huge challenge and a huge opportunity for pastors and worship leaders,” she added. “Yes, we are praising God and proclaiming the word, but we also are shaping people’s faith in really significant ways.”

Shallue cited some ways to engage children in worship: have them place hand-drawn pictures in the offering plate, include them in processionals, allow children to lay offerings or artwork on the altar, and let them help pass offering plates.

“Worship might be one of the only times when everyone is together,” Hess said.

“One week congregations might introduce the creed—what it is and how it functions. The next week they might preface the intercessory prayers with basic information to help people understand things they might not have known before.”

Creating curriculum

As faith formation has seen changes, so has curriculum.  Today educators can download a “remarkable” amount of resources, Hess said.

Through its 5-year-old “sparkhouse” arm (http://wearesparkhouse.org), Augsburg Fortress, the ELCA’s publishing ministry, works with leaders from a variety of denominations to offer Christian faith formation print resources, videos, Web-based subscription content and downloadable single lessons.

“We meet people where they are: using technology, language and active learning concepts that match our 21st-century lifestyles,” said CEO and President Beth Lewis.

More and more congregations are creating their own materials. “Congregations aren’t purchasing as much as they used to,” Hess said. “People are writing their own materials to gear it to their situation.”

Giselle Coutinho, pastor of Bridge of Peace Community, Camden, N.J., and members create curriculum for the congregation’s “Family Bible School,” which meets on Tuesday nights preceded by a dinner for the 25 to 45 children who attend.

Children serve communion to each other after serving worshipers at Trinity Lutheran Church, Pembroke Pines, Fla., during a weekly intergenerational worship service that doubles as Sunday school. 

Children serve communion to each other after serving worshipers at Trinity Lutheran Church, Pembroke Pines, Fla., during a weekly intergenerational worship service that doubles as Sunday school.

For example, after a young person was shot and killed near the church, they talked about how afraid the disciples were while in the upper room. The discussion allowed children to voice their fears of living in one of the most impoverished and violent communities in the country.

“How do we speak to that and proclaim the resurrection in the middle of scary stuff?” Coutinho asked. “So we are always creating curriculum, which is exhausting. It requires pulling from many resources. You need very creative people to do that. There are no materials that really address what it means to be in a setting like this.”

Faith formation also takes place during worship. “There are probably just as many or more children in worship than adults sometimes,” she said. “There are a lot of kids who come to church alone. For me it’s about being present, giving them boundaries and letting them know God loves them and Jesus is their Savior.

“I don’t always like the phrase this church is a family, but that’s what members say. They consider themselves a faith community, the body of Christ.”

‘Flips Sunday school on its head’

Two years ago, Trinity Lutheran Church, Pembroke Pines, Fla., replaced traditional Sunday school with “Worship Together,” a participatory blend of intergenerational worship, family faith formation and Sunday school for children, youth and adults.

“Parents can’t afford three hours [to attend church and Sunday school],” said Keith Spencer, pastor. “[Our congregation] absorbs Sunday school into worship and wraps up in one hour.”

They put on puppet shows, re-enact radio-theater, create artwork, and write haikus and lyrics as ways to learn Bible stories. Eighty-year-olds share highs and lows with teens. Parents do skits with their children. And 11-year-olds train 5-year-olds on how to distribute communion.

“It’s a relational experience, unlike traditional worship, which can be passive and unengaging,” Spencer said.

Like Faith, Trinity uses Faith Inkubators’ Bible Song curriculum.

“It has revitalized the congregation,” Spencer said. “Instead of three or four kids in Sunday school, we average 15 to 25 people per Sunday. It flips Sunday school on its head. It has empowered our lay and young people. It has been exciting to see them take ownership of the service.”

Christina Gray and her daughter Sarah, 4, put their heads together at Trinity to create a wind chime during an intergenerational, highly interactive worship service that provides faith formation. The chime’s components were selected to symbolize Christian beliefs. 

Christina Gray and her daughter Sarah, 4, put their heads together at Trinity to create a wind chime during an intergenerational, highly interactive worship service that provides faith formation. The chime’s components were selected to symbolize Christian beliefs.

Congregation conversations

Congregations facing decline in Sunday school attendance can explore new approaches rather than hold out for success of the Sunday school of bygone days. “I always tell my students there is nothing sacred about Sunday school,” Hymans said. “It has been in existence since the 1780s, and we have been passing on faith from one generation to the next for much longer than that.”

Talking with other congregations can help, said Karen Matthias-Long, associate of the bishop for youth and family ministry, and curator of synodical resources for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod.

“You can share resources and ideas,” she said. “But be careful not to replicate what is working in another congregation. People will be different and the situation will be different. Rather, look at how you can use resources in a new way and in a new context.”

Hess added: “What works in one congregation is not guaranteed to work in another. People often ask me what curriculum they should be using, and I tell them, ‘I can’t answer that because each congregation is different.’ ”

Listening to children can provide valuable insights, as well. “Don’t be afraid of letting young people in your congregation share their faith in new ways, like using digital portfolios, stories or music videos,” Hess said. “Young people can be incredibly powerful missionaries for the rest of the congregation.”

God doesn’t differentiate between a child’s baptism and an adult’s, Spencer said. “We are all equal under God’s eyes. We can learn from each other,” he said. “It isn’t just about adults passing on faith. It provides a sense of humility that kids have things to teach us.”

Cindy Novak

Novak is a freelance writer and a member of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill.

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