The children’s Sunday School at St. Bartholomew’s in Ely is my idea of important news. It isn’t overflowing like St. Mary’s, Nixon or Epiphany, Henderson – both wonderful too. But they definitely have something good going in Ely.
Of course they have had children’s Sunday School before but part of small church life is the demographic blips. Every few years, the Sunday School declines or even dies for want to children. It is as natural as the seasons. The rebirth of the Sunday School, however, does not happen so spontaneously. That takes initiative. Kim, a relatively new member of St. Bart’s, has taken the initiative.
Last Sunday, there were 4 children. Sometimes they have 5. Having no Sunday School room, they gather in a corner of the Fellowship Hall while the grownups are engrossed in the Liturgy of the Word upstairs. The kids sit on the floor for now, but Kim and Fr. Red are planning to get a rug or a carpet remnant for them to sit on. Such a thing makes a big difference. It welcomes the group into a defined space, holds them there and focuses attention – far less wandering off.
There is a board on which they have the words for their simple song – “Jesus in the morning” – one of my favorites. Then Kim converses with the children about one point from the Gospel lesson. Colored construction paper chains hang under each child’s name on the bulletin board. Every Sunday when the child attend Sunday School and learns a new lesson, they put a new link on their paper chain. The paper chains make visible their growth in spiritual intelligence. They also encourage and reward attendance, which judging by the paper chains is pretty good.
The point of this week’s Gospel lesson (Zacchaeus up the sycamore tree) was generosity. For their craft, the children created basketfuls of ghost treats. They hooded lollipops, with tissues, tied around the neck, and faces painted on the tissues with magic markers, thereby making ghosts. The kids then came upstairs to join their parents for the Liturgy of the Table. As people were leaving the nave, the children formed a receiving line giving away the ghostly lollipops to the grownups. After everyone else had left the nave, Kim gathered the children to make sure they got the connection between the Gospel lesson and their exercise of generosity in giving away the lollipops. The children also made large pin-on name tags for themselves and for the adults to wear – big help to the visiting bishop.
There are bigger, better-equipped Sunday Schools, but that isn’t an option for St. Bart’s. It may be just as well that it isn’t. As Professor Susannah Singer told us at Convention, Christian formation depends on context, context, context. I cannot imagine any Sunday School program working better in this context. They are doing what works for them – and from my conversation with the children, it is definitely working. They get it. What’s more, Kim is making the children and their activities visible to the adults, as with the ghost candy and the name tags. Children are mysteriously invisible to adults in church. The Rev. Kathy Hopner tells me she has talked with congregations who explain they do not have a Sunday School because they do not have children. She then points at children running about and says “What are those?” When the kids are the receiving line, they are harder to ignore.
Children’s ministry at St. Bart’s is not limited to the offspring of adult members. The Girl Scouts are reactivating in Ely as well, and guess where they meet? Most every Tuesday night, there’s a Girl Scout Meeting in our Fellowship Hall. That is an outreach ministry to the community and a soft evangelism in that it keeps us on the radar screen of Ely’s awareness.
But it isn’t all for children at St. Bart’s. They are soon revving up the new course using the Marcus Borg video on an Adult Faith, facilitated by MDIT (Ministry Developer In Training) Norma Engberg. The course used a workbook to structure people’s reflections on what they have seen and heard. This same program is being used at St. Martin’s, Pahrump and is, I think, available for Church Publishing Co. They are an alert, thinking congregation at St. Bart’s. I just did a sermon there that most preachers would not dare try – too theologically sophisticated. But the folks at St. Bart’s got it right off. Our people are plenty smart enough to deal with challenging material. They want to be challenged because that’s where the growth happens. I am very pleased that St. Bart’s, along with St. Martin’s, is undertaking this study.
Then there are softer spoken kinds of formation going on too. I noticed this year’s poster for Episcopal Relief and Development on a bulletin board too – a visible reminder of the world’s need and the Episcopal Church’s response. That too is soul shaping, consciousness raising, awareness instilling symbolism. I would be so glad to see that poser up in all our churches. Thank God and the people of St. Bart’s for remembering.