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Challenges of growing Churches today
By Rodney Rountree
Dwindling attendance by young families and children
This is a multipart societal based problem, difficult for any congregation to address but some steps can be made to improve at least one major component.
Solution Ė nontraditional services such as TV and radio, but they do not provide the important benefits of a Church family. Other ďout of the boxĒ efforts to increase access to families in non-traditional formats are needed.
Non-traditional weeknight services. Adding a service, in addition to a regular Sunday service, to other times during the weekend are not effective because of the high demands of weekend activities, and the need for families to have some ďdown-timeĒ together, which is often Friday and Sunday nights, and some Saturdays. Offering services on a week night may provide at least some families with access to the Church community that they might not otherwise have.
Provide home-schooling resources. One potential aid is for the local church to provide extensive home-schooling resources to families. What I'm suggesting is much more extensive than just providing a curriculum, many of which can readily found online, but providing full service support for "home-schooling" families. In effect, allowing families to become enrolled members of the Church and to receive as many of its benefits as possible, including Pastoral visits, committee membership, and participation in all Church social events and youth activities. Perhaps providing copies of the Pastor's sermon, or even audio of the sermon, to the families. Of course, it would mean providing reference materials and teacher resources such as home-schooling designed curricula, but would also mean providing training sessions for homeschooling parents. It might be easier for at least one parent to attend such a session than for the whole family to attend a service, they can then pass it along to their families.
Increasingly weak religious roots
A widespread problem is the loss of our religious roots brought about by a de-emphasis on Bible teachings, compounded by infrequent or irregular Church and Sunday School attendance. A high percentage of adults in the USA think of themselves as spiritual, and many identify as Christians, but far fewer even know what that means. Numerous times Iíve had the experience of parents arguing that learning Bible stories and Bible facts is not important, the only thing that is important is spiritual and moral teachings, and a Christian philosophy of life. That is partially true, instilling a Christian ďattitudeĒ is our most important job as Christian parents. One can be a wonderful Christian, pleasing to God, without knowing the first thing about the Bible. But, its so much easier if we have strong roots! Why did God give the Hebrews so many ethnic laws? Perhaps it is the adherence to dietary laws and a strict emphasis on teaching their history, that has helped the Jewish people to survive thousands of years despite dispersals and assimilation into many other cultures. We need to do a much better job at providing our congregations with strong religious roots.
Lack of learning requirements
Perhaps on of the biggest problem is that if you donít require children to learn something, their take home message is that itís not important. Attempts to require Sunday school kids to do even the simplest homework, or to do any memorization at all, are sometimes met with outright hostility by parents, and refusal by the kids. Kids take their cues from the parents, if the parents donít think its important, they certainly wonít. To be sure, parents and kids are beset with outrageous pressure from schools. Some parents rebel against Sunday School requirements because they feel overwhelmed themselves, and are worried that their kids are overwhelmed with school and all the extra-curricular activities that are demanded by todays society. Sunday school is often viewed as the straw that breaks the camelís back. Many are also under the misguided impression that secular school, and classes such as math and science, are more important to the childís future than a Christian education. When in fact, a good Christian education is more important and will serve them throughout their lives, while for most kids that A.P. math, science, or history class will be long forgotten and have little impact on their lifeís work. A surprisingly high proportion of college graduates never have a career in their field of study, or if they do, it is short-lived. I do not mean to suggest that secular education and science and math are not important, they are very important, but not to the exclusion of a sound Christian education. Of course, kids will grumble when asked to do any chore, but often, if done right, they thrive on that. How many times do kids actually like the toughest coaches, and the strictest teachers, if they grow from the experience? Grumbling often becomes a form of bragging (this is easiest to see in sports, but also happens in classes). The goal of any teacher is not to be strict, or tough in and of itself, but to give students challenges that they can overcome and feel pride in. The trick is to help them meet the challenges they are faced rather than overwhelm them. The goal is not to advance a few students that happen to be gifted in the class subject, but all students to the best of their abilities.
Poor curricula design and teaching emphasis
This is not because our teachers are not dedicated or that they are bad teachers, itís just because of a combination of problems that make it difficult for kids (and adults) to get a good foundation in Bible stories. Not the least of these is the limited exposure to the Bible that many kids get (Sunday school class alone just isnít enough time). Many Christian education curricula lack significant reference to actual Bible passages, but emphasize moral development and Christian philosophy. They choose to use their own examples, often from modern life scenarios, to attempt to teach these morals. While that is not wrong, and in some cases, can be effect, in most cases those morals could be taught just as well, or better, with direct references from the Bible. This accomplishes two things: 1) it effectively teaches the moral, and 2) it provides a strong foundation in the Bible and strengthens our roots. Ideally, if given enough time, the better approach is to teach the lesson based on the Bible example, and then draw parallels to modern situations. But often classes are too short.
Lack of context. Perhaps the biggest problem with many classes, even when firmly based on Bible studies, is that the kids are not taught the lessons in context. Lectionary curricula are particularly bad at this as they presume that kids are in the class every Sunday for a full year, if not the full multi-year cycle. In most cases kids have no idea what comes next or how one story relates to another. Bible stories should be given in chronological order (though perhaps alternating between Old and New Testament lessons) and should always place characters in relation to each other. Because so many kids attend irregularly, each class should begin with a recap of the timeline, where the current lesson is relative to that timeline, and where the next lesson will be. The position of characters relative to each other should also be reviewed in the same way. Without that kids have no context on which to build their memories and itís just a bunch of random classes. Most of todays curricula, even Bible based ones, only reference small pieces of Bible stories. They rarely tell the whole story and often provide too little context. In many ways, weíd be better off simplifying curricula to just telling the Bible stories!
Fantasy versus reality. It used to be very simple before the modern age. You just told the stories from the Bible, they are easy to remember if told as a story. Kids like stories, they remember them. But today there is a rich diversity of Christian themed stories, and fantasy versions of bible stories (think Veggietales). These are great in many ways, but how do our kids separate fantasy from reality? They are inundated with all kinds of cartoons and fiction in their lives (Why oh why do we lie to our kids about Santa Claus and then expect them to believe us about Jesus?), and then they occasionally go to church and more often than not they are taught a Bible lesson in some kind of fantasy format like Veggietales. No wonder they are confused. Cartoon formats are fine as long as they depict real people and real Bible stories. If kids had a firm footing in the real stories, then the fantasy ones would be great supplements, but thatís not what happens. Today, most of our kids, know almost nothing about the Bible, the only thing they remember about even major characters more often than not comes from Disney movies. Does that sound harsh? Try asking your Church kids about the Bible beyond Moses and Noah, see how much they know. Ask them about the teachings of Jesus, about the sermon on the mount, about the beatitudes, about the various parables. Ask who the disciples were? Few will answer well, and most of those learned it at home.
The Holy Bible. The Bible is still the best source to anchor our kids in our religious roots, why donít we use it more? It still teaches Christian values and demonstrates a history of faith by our people. Unfortunately, many kids today donít experience the Bible as a sacred text that is to be read, consulted, and learned from. Again, children take their cues from their parents and the Church leaders. Bible giving is to often an afterthought in Churches. Poor quality Bibles, often printed on paper little better than newsprint are often given to kids because they are cheaper, or come from a Church organization. Often the kids take their new Bible home, put it on a shelf and never look at it again. Afterall, why bring them to Church when they are not used in the service or Sunday school? All these things tell kids one thing: the Bible is not something we really use. It is a sacred thing that we put on a shelf, like a cross on the wall, but not something we actually use. It is too complicated, it does not have anything to offer modern kids because its just full of fantasy, the stories are not really relevant to todayís world, so we use modern stories to teach with instead. What a shame for a book filled with all kinds of exciting stories written over centuries. Full of romance, adventure, drama, and even comedy.
On the other hand, I, being of an older generation, still have the Bible I was given in 1st grade over 50 years ago. I did not understand it then, but did learn the 23rd psalms, John 3:16 and the ten commandments from it within a year. Today there are many wonderful Bibles that can help kids understand and read the stories. They have helpful explanations, suggestions, questions. Some are even comic book based for the kid that does not like to read. These are what should be given to our kids. Make it really special with a formal presentation and requirement that kids bring their Bible to Church each week. Let them write and draw in it. Have the Pastor encourage the kids to highlight the day's scripture readings each Sunday. Use the Bible in Sunday school. Even if most of the material comes from a separate curriculum, kids can still be shown where in THEIR Bible the lesson comes from. And if its not practical for the kids to highlight the scripture readings during service, have them do it in class. Just doing these simple things would go a long way towards helping our kids better understand the Bible and its importance in our spiritual and Church life.
Tell the stories - O.k., Sunday school is not rocket science. We are often caught up with too much stuff, too much emphasis on entertainment with arts and crafts. Just tell the stories, full stories, and provide the context. A simple time line posted in every classroom that is referenced in each class. Simple family trees to point to in each lesson. Make it fun to remember things. This worked for thousands of years; its only in recent decades that the story approach has been largely abandoned.
Adults need religious roots too Many of our adults, especially those with younger families, have little grounding in the Bible. They need basic Bible education too. They would also benefit from lesson on the history of the Christian faith. Who are the major characters, what are the major events? What did we do wrong (crusades, inquisitions, slavery)? What did we do right?
Solution: Sunday school for adults.
Attraction to young adults A high percentage of our teenagers drop out of Church, especially after confirmation, and few young adults without families attend. Why is that? There are two major reasons:
2) Church does not provide them with the challenges they need. In short, Church is boring. Young adults want to make their mark on the world, or even save it. This is why so many young people fall victim to extremism. Its why they donít fear danger, they are drawn to it. They make great missionaries for example. Itís not by accident that evangelical churches and churches embroiled in social conflicts tend to attract more young people. So how do local churches provide opportunities that meet the needs of youth without becoming controversial or inadvertently leading teens in the wrong direction? We need ways to show young people how they can benefit from church as an extension of their own families, how worship together elevates oneself. How can they make an impact on the world in our Church? This is what they need and many churches donít do the best job of offering that to youth and young adults, so they donít come.
Three goals in one
I suggest that one church activity might help to partially address three of the major challenges facing the Church today. That is a weeknight worship service that is a combination of a multigenerational ďSunday schoolĒ, worship service, and Bible study. Keep kids and adults together, and instead of a traditional sermon, teach a bible story each service followed by a group discussion. But include important aspects of a worship service such as prayers, hymns, communion, etc. Both kids and adults can learn of their roots, address faith issues, and experience a spiritual worship service. Stories should be told in a way that entertains both kids and adults. Both kids and adults should participate in group discussions. All can have a spiritual experience. Consider using modern visual aids to assist in story telling and fact presentations. In some cases a lecture format maybe useful for teaching the Bible to both kids and adults.
This page was last modified on February 15, 2019
Copyright © 2019 by Rodney Rountree. All rights reserved
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