“Hi I’m the Sunday school superintendent at Knox Church and I’m wondering if you can help us. We only have six children in our church, and we’re struggling to make the Sunday school work. Could you please recommend a curriculum that would work for a Sunday school with just a handful of children?”

I am asked this question on a weekly basis as the regional minister for faith formation with the Synod of Central, Northeastern Ontario and Bermuda. It’s a good question and I’m happy to answer it, but I often wish I was being asked the deeper and more concerning question that lies behind the query about curriculum. I’d rather be working with churches considering the question, “What is the best we could be doing for the lifelong faith formation of our children given our circumstances?” This question invites a much different answer.

In this synod, 50 per cent of our congregations have 10 or fewer children and, as these congregations are discovering, doing Sunday school the way we’ve always done it is neither working nor viable. Maintaining a Sunday school is expensive, labour intensive, and most importantly it’s not changing the decades-long pattern of children leaving the church when their Sunday school days are done. Yet we persist in believing that having a traditional Sunday school is critical in the overall plan for the faith formation of our children; we’re certain that the Sunday school is the singular indicator of good Christian education practice, as well as congregational health and vitality.

If not the Sunday school, then what? I believe our present circumstances offer us an opportunity to rediscover more biblically-based, intergenerational practices for the faith formation of our children that involve the whole community. Our faith is communally constructed, and as such it takes the whole community of faith, in meaningful relationship with one another, to pass faith on from one generation to the next.

In working with the congregations of my synod I’ve come to identify a number of best practices for churches to consider as they seek to provide the best they can for the faith formation of their youngest members. Each of these practices maximizes the opportunity for congregational members to establish long-term, trusted relationships with the children of their church as they experience Jesus through worship, ritual, and participation in the life and ministry of the church. These practices are as true for congregations with large numbers of children as they are for congregations with few children, but for congregations with just a handful of children they refocus their energy and resources into practices that are better suited to their circumstances.

1. Provide meaningful participation in intergenerational worship

As a church we believe that worship is the most central practice that we engage in as a community of faith. If our children are to truly participate in the life of the Christian community, they must also be a vital part of this central practice. When we welcome our children fully into worship, our community of faith is complete. Together in worship all ages learn of and experience God through each other, as we embrace the joy and openness of younger participants while benefiting from the lifelong experience of those who have been worshipping over the decades.

The church has worked for the last 50 years or so under the assumption that a degree of cognitive learning is necessary as a prerequisite to participation in worship for children. But it’s not knowledge that qualifies us for meaningful participation in worship; it’s our openness to our experience of God that defines us as a worshipping community. Recent neuropsychological research has determined children are innately spiritual beings and experience the transcendent in their lives from early infancy. Children have an incredible capacity to experience the mystery and wonder of God and it’s in worship that this mystery unfolds through the rituals of the sacraments and sharing of the stories of God’s activity through scripture and our world. By delaying children’s participation in worship until “the time is right,” we prevent children from experiencing the wonder of God right now through worship.

Worship does not need to be dumbed down in order to include children or become carnival-like, featuring balloons and shallow platitudes. Nor should adult-focused worship simply be tweaked a little bit here and there in the hope of making it slightly more child-friendly for younger participants. Intergenerational worship needs to be prepared with all ages in mind. Each aspect of the worship liturgy must include words and concepts applicable for all ages, and all ages have a need for worship to become more experiential and participatory, appealing to all of the senses at the same time, enabling the family of God to touch, see, smell, hear and taste that the Lord is good.

2. Consider new models for church school

As churches invite all ages to be present in worship each Sunday, or increase the length of time or the number of days per year children are present in worship, the question of how they then might continue to provide age-appropriate, cognitive teaching for children is being answered through a broad variety of new and exciting programs. Some interesting and successful models for alternative forms of children’s education I’ve experienced include:

1. Switching to broadly graded or intergenerational curriculum.
2. Offering additional materials and instruction for children to use in worship to further engage with the service.
3. Dedicated space reserved at the front of the church for young children to quietly work on activities related to the sermon and then offer their work as their response to the message that day.
4. Online Sunday schools that encourage parents and children to learn together at home at a time of their choosing.
5. Mid-week children’s and intergenerational programming that replaces the traditional Sunday school hour and has the added bonus of attracting children who do not regularly attend your church on Sundays.
6. Seasonal children’s educational events on Saturdays that entail the same number of teaching hours in one day that their Sunday school used over a number of Sundays.
7. Family-based educational events that encourage all ages to learn together over seasons of the church year or themes.
8. Intergenerational small groups that replace gender and age-segregated small group ministry.
9. Some churches are now offering a grandparent-led Sunday school for their adult children and grandchildren on Sunday evenings.

None of these models of education is the perfect one for every church. Each was developed as the best that that church could offer to meet the specific needs and availabilities of their membership, and each is open to revision and/or replacement as their families’ needs change.

3. Support and equip parents for the unique role they have in the faith formation of their children

For churches with few children, helping parents embrace their role as the primary nurturer of their children’s faith is perhaps the most significant practice they can take on. Parents are the first and primary face of God that children experience and parents continue to be the ones that their children look to for faith answers. Parents understand this, but often feel lost trying to figure out how to do it.

As churches polished and perfected the Sunday school model through the 1950s and ‘60s, they inadvertently let parents know that the church could take on the primary role of their children’s spiritual development. Over time our parents have lost the art of sharing their faith at home with their children through the stories, rituals, conversations and modelling of Christian living that children learned from in previous generations. Churches need to re-teach parents how to pass along their faith at home. Through parenting courses, workshops, intergenerational events, preaching and mentoring opportunities the church can help our parents reclaim their role as the primary spiritual nurturers of their children.

There are other practices our churches might want to consider as they seek to share their faith with children in the church. Programs and lessons on issues of justice and social action offer the opportunity for all ages to live out and practice their faith together. Learning how to tell our own stories of faith as a part of God’s big story helps children hear and know God through those they love and adopt their own faith through the experiences of those they love.

Being “intentionally intergenerational” is the ideological thread that runs through all of the practices. Intergenerational ministry calls everyone in the church to live out being the body of Christ with each other and the community in which we live. Being intergenerational is more aligned with the scriptures and the early church, and capitalizes on the natural multi-generational quality of a congregation. Faith is not formed in a bubble, but through our interactions and practice of our faith with one another in worship, study, social action, casual conversation and as we wonder together about God and our relationship with God and with the world. If churches choose age-segregation over intergenerational activities, then the opportunity for children and youth to rub shoulders with the many ages present in their community of faith is greatly reduced and the opportunity to learn from each other is lost. Children need sustained relationships with adults whom they trust and with whom they share similar beliefs and values as they consider their faith together; with this knowledge, congregations must create ample opportunities for such relationships to flourish.

(Response provided by Tori Smit. Tori is a Diaconal Minister with the Presbyterian Church in Canada and, as of April 2019, is serving as the Regional Minister for Faith Formation for the Synod of Central, Northeastern Ontario and Bermuda (CNOB).)