For one congregation in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the three-man-weave drill in basketball has taken on greater meaning. Elementary-age players at Abiding Presence Lutheran incorporate Jesus’ parables into their practices, part of the congregation’s innovative approach to Sunday school.

Basketball and other outdoor games—as well as art and dance—comprise the curriculum that Abiding Presence launched in fall 2021.

The congregation has reimagined Sunday school as an outdoor program, active and built around subject areas students are passionate about. The approach follows Jesus’ example to “come and meet people where they are,” said Meredith Lovell Keseley, a pastor of the Burke, Va., congregation.

“Pre-COVID, we were already struggling a bit with the traditional Sunday school model,” she said. “We were finding the classroom model—where you sit at desks, go through a learner leaflet, eat a snack and do a craft project—was geared toward a smaller and smaller number of our kiddos.”

“Why not have kids learn about Scripture through things they already loved doing?”

When the pandemic forced congregations to suspend their regular gatherings, Abiding Presence used the pause to think of ways to better attract and engage young worshipers.

“We knew we needed an outdoor option for Sunday school, so we came up with the idea of throwing the traditional model out and doing something completely new,” Keseley said. “And we knew that, coming out of the pandemic, this is a time where we can experiment, so we thought: Why not create a workshop-based model of Sunday school? Why not have kids learn about Scripture through things they already loved doing?”

Abiding Presence forged ahead, settling on the parables of Jesus as a beginning point.

“We decided to start with the parables because that was Jesus’ model,” Keseley said. “To tell stories that are super-relatable to everyday life and to use those super-relatable stories to teach people about the vastness of the kingdom of heaven, God’s love and what God is doing on Earth and in heaven.”

Endless possibilities

Abiding Presence hired a curriculum writer to mold its new vision for Sunday school into five workshops, each with an early elementary and older elementary version. Workshops were divided into eight weekly sessions.

“The workshops are Minecraft, LEGO Masters, art and dance,” Keseley said. “The older elementary kids could choose basketball, and the younger kids could choose outdoor games. The kiddos sign up for one workshop for the whole eight weeks and engage with Scripture in really hands-on ways.”

In one session focused on Minecraft—a critically acclaimed video game based on creative goal achievement—students learned about the parable of the lost sheep through their search for a rainbow-colored sheep. And in a session of LEGO Masters, modeled after the TV competition series, they created pearl-hunting contraptions as they learned the parable of the “pearl of great value” (Matthew 13:45-46).

Students in basketball sessions are “learning strategies and weaving parables into their drills,” Keseley said. “We’re meeting kids where they’re already excited, and that helps them to be excited about faith too. We’re hearing from parents that, suddenly, kids who would never darken the door of a Sunday school classroom pre-COVID, or would fight tooth and nail, now can’t wait to get up and go to church.”

Jennifer Johnson, an Abiding Presence member, agrees. “I love this new Sunday school model,” she said. “Not all my kids thrive in a traditional classroom setting, so this is a welcome change.”

“We’re meeting kids where they’re already excited, and that helps them to be excited about faith too.”

Johnson’s daughter Audrey leads an arts-and-crafts workshop in the new program. “I don’t think she would have wanted to lead a traditional Sunday school class,” Keseley said, “but she is enjoying this leadership role.”

Abiding Presence is “filled with families,” Keseley said. “We’re an intentionally intergenerational church, putting high schoolers in the position of being role models, and we want to be a gathering place in our community.”

As autumn marched into November, Abiding Presence temporarily brought its Sunday school program back inside, with a new five-week session devoted to characters in the nativity story. But they plan to return outside when they can.

“Our outdoor program, we called it a pandemic pivot, but it’s not all about COVID,” Keseley said. “We all love the outdoors so much, we’re planning to go back outside in the spring. We’re not confined, and families are far more excited to come on a nice morning and be outside, where everyone is moving around and happy. And people are leaving church with energy and excitement and ready for what comes next.

“I’m really excited. It’s a hard time to be the church, but it’s also a time filled with endless possibilities. Here at Abiding Presence we’re throwing the doors wide open and seeing what that might look like.”

Steve Lundeberg
Lundeberg is a writer for Oregon State University News and Research Communications in Corvallis.

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