Currently, there are many conversations taking place among members of Mennonite Church USA, MennoMedia and related groups about the purpose and place of Sunday school in today’s churches and families. Others have asked the question: Is Sunday school dying? With my particular interest in the education of children and youth, I hope to add my voice to the conversation happening in churches and denominational offices about the future of curriculum for these ages. Having a firm view of the changing context of the Sunday school, current secular educational theories and methods and past denominational curriculums, I look toward the future imagining what a curriculum that takes all of this into consideration might look like.

In order to dream about a new curriculum and create a successful one, we need to take into account the items listed above as well as the thoughts and opinions of current users of the denominational curriculum, who are also the potential users of the next denominational curriculum. I collected these thoughts and opinions through a survey of 20 churches in two area conferences of Mennonite Church USA, Western District and South Central.

Through my survey, I have concluded that, in general, individuals as well as congregations are satisfied with the Gather ’Round curriculum, but most list specific areas on which publishers could improve.1 Users would like to see increased flexibility and more creative response activities, while seeing the costs remain the same or decrease. I would also suggest making more training available on how to effectively use and take advantage of current flexibility factors, as well as providing more tools for teachers of students who have special needs. Even if significant improvements are not made in the next curriculum, it appears that many congregations will use the new denominational materials because they are a publication of Mennonite Church USA and because of the ease of transition and similarity to what they are currently using (provided that structure, format of lessons and/or other key elements are maintained in the new curriculum).

History and Background of the Sunday School and its Changing Context

Before looking at the future of Sunday school curriculum for the denomination, we must take into account the changing context in which the curriculum will be used. Sunday school in its present form was a product of the 1800s. This hour-long instructional setting, typically conducted before or after Sunday morning worship, is still the primary strategy most American churches use to teach children and youth fundamental truths about the Bible, God, Jesus and how to live as faithful Christians. The culture of the early 21st century calls for a different kind of instruction. According to C. Ellis Nelson, American society is much more secular, individualistic, commercial, competitive and more oriented to the power of science to make life interesting and enjoyable than ever before.2 We no longer live in a culture where everyone seems to believe the same things about God and morality.3 Christian educators, pastors and our curriculum writers must be aware of this fundamental reality. Gone is the day when information learned in Sunday school was rigorously and almost completely supported by the influence not only of the family, but also the community and school classroom as well.

Anthony B. Robinson refers to the reality of our parents’ or grandparents’ upbringing as an era of civic faith, where the church was to be the conscience of the community. In today’s reality, the church is no longer a great influence on society. Unlike the 1940s, 1950s and even into the 1960s, now many settings are suspicious or dismissive of those who would speak as Christians and, perhaps most importantly, in a secular and religiously pluralistic society, no one group or even one religion can lay claim to being the exclusive voice of conscience in the community.4

The Sunday school is no longer seen as an auxiliary to the religious formation that happens within the family. In fact, families have largely changed form, with many variations on the nuclear family. Churches are not as influential in the community and our civic leaders are not necessarily involved in local congregations. There is a sharp separation between church and state within the school system and children learn a set of civic morals and ethics rather than religious ones.

It is within this markedly different reality that Christian educators seek to use the same vehicle of Sunday school used 200 years ago for a different purpose. We now ask Sunday school teachers to teach in one hour a week what was formerly conveyed through daily interactions with parents, teachers and community members, as well as within our churches. The message that was continually reinforced from many directions is now taught in one hour a week, while still leaving time for snacks and a game. We can no longer operate with the same assumptions. If we compound this with declining and/or irregular attendance, it is no wonder we are continually asking our curriculum to do more and asking ourselves, Is Sunday school dying? In the 21st century, Sunday school is no longer effective in the same ways or for the same purpose.

What Public School Education Has to Offer

One way curriculum writers and publishers might consider increasing the Sunday school’s effectiveness is to turn to the realm of secular educational research. In a time when children’s academic performance on standardized tests dictates the worth of our teachers and shapes our children’s future in the realm of public school, continual research and breakthroughs expounding effective educational principles and theories have begun to shape the way our denominational curriculums are crafted. This section looks at some of the newest principles and theories currently emphasized in classrooms in the central Kansas area and how we can use them to help us teach our children in a holistic manner about our deeply held theological convictions and key biblical texts, thereby impacting their faith formation. I discuss the theories and methods as they relate to Mennonite Church USA’s denominational children’s Sunday school curriculum Jubilee: God’s Good News, published in the 1990s, as well as the current denominational curriculum, Gather ’Round: Hearing and Sharing God’s Good News, which was first used in the 2006-07 school year and ends with the 2013-14 school year.

Gather ’Round logo 2012. Courtesy of Faith & Life ResourcesGather ’Round logo 2012. Courtesy of Faith & Life Resources

The Jubilee curriculum started the good work of paying attention to various teaching approaches by looking at the way children learn and involving them in active learning. However, Jubilee was somewhat limited in its scope of the ways children learn. The curriculum guidebook explains how children learn by visual, auditory and kinesthetic means, but it does not explicitly pay attention to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. A staple of most teacher education programs, Gardner’s theory is based on the idea that as a species, we human beings are better described as having a set of relatively autonomous intelligences. It focuses on a combination of linguistic and logical intelligences and also takes into account spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences.5 Gardner’s theory also includes the idea that these intelligences are what make us human beings. Everyone has all of these intelligences; however, each individual is stronger in some areas than others. For children to actively engage in learning, they must have opportunities to use their particular intelligences and preferred learning styles. Each response activity in the teacher’s guides of the Gather ’Round curriculum includes a picture that indicates which of the multiple intelligences that particular activity utilizes. This feature allows teachers to select activities that best match the interests and learning styles of their students. However, an easy-to-use inventory tool to help teachers think reflectively on the way students respond to particular activities would be useful in determining the intelligences and learning styles of the children in their class, particularly for teachers with no formal educational training.

One of the most heavily emphasized educational principles in education right now is the idea of differentiated instruction. The concept behind differentiated instruction recognizes that all students are different in terms of background experience, culture, language, gender, interests, readiness to learn, modes of learning, speed of learning, support systems for learning, self-awareness as a learner, confidence as a learner, independence as a learner.6 These differences and others all affect how receptive students are to the message of faith Sunday school teachers are trying to convey. They also affect how well students are able to understand and learn the important faith concepts, stories and ideas teachers present in Sunday school.

Therefore, teachers have a responsibility to ensure that all students are understanding and learning and must make specific and continually evolving plans to connect each learner with key content.7 This does not mean that every student needs to participate in the same activities in response to the Bible story or requires the same length of time to memorize the quarter’s memory verse. A teacher should be encouraged to be flexible and to adjust times and activities to students in this manner. Curriculum guidebooks or Sunday school superintendents need to help teachers see how to adapt curriculum to the specific needs of their particular classes. If, on a particular Sunday, students or even one individual student has a difficult time understanding a key aspect of God taught through the story, the teacher should feel free to reiterate that theme and save some of the activities to use the following week, even along with a new story. If students are quickly understanding a concept, perhaps teachers should be prepared to begin introducing a story or idea that is used some other time in the curriculum rotation or is so complex the students will need several exposures to understand. Perhaps a teacher could be shown how to look back and repeat activities or lessons students did not understand, or missed because of absence, when current lessons go quickly or students already know the concepts. Teachers should feel free to have students working on a variety of activities from the current lesson and past lessons that address the particular faith needs of the individual student in his or her class. Teachers should continually ask themselves, What does this student need at this moment in order to be able to progress with this key content and what do I need to do to make that happen?8

Another new push in secular classrooms is that of Classroom Instruction that Works, popularized by Robert J. Marzano, Debra J. Pickering and Jane E. Pollock. Through their research, these three have identified the 10 most effective methods of classroom instruction. They are: identifying similarities and differences; summarizing and note taking; reinforcing effort and providing recognition; homework and practice; nonlinguistic representations; cooperative learning; setting objectives and providing feedback; generating and testing hypotheses; and cues, questions and advance organizers. This research was published and became popular in the educational world after Jubilee and still seems largely absent in Gather ’Round (although some of these methods can be found here and there throughout the curriculum in various forms). One would hope that the next curriculum would pay attention to more of this research in regards to methods of instruction, because the work of Marzano and others shows that these strategies have a high probability of enhancing student achievement for all students in all subject areas at all grade levels.9 If we as Christian educators truly desire to see our students successfully learning about God and how to develop faith and follow Christ, we should be interested in these instructional strategies and how they could be used in the next denominational curriculum.

Educational Theories and Principles in Jubilee and Gather ’Round

In the past, denominational curriculum publishers began to pay attention to some instructional strategies and theories. This section explores the educational theories and principles found in the Jubilee and Gather ’Round curriculums. A major educational technique of the Jubilee curriculum was storytelling. This method gives children freedom to respond to stories of God while working with story figures and varied responses to the story following its presentation.10 Jubilee also included children’s worship and Bible teaching as Godly play, an idea that comes largely from the work of Jerome W. Berryman and his books on the topic and that is also an emphasis in the Gather ’Round curriculum. Godly play, based on Montessori methods of teaching,11 invites and encourages children to seek and find answers to their questions of faith through wonder, art and engagement with the Bible story.12

Just as Jubilee had an emphasis on story, so does Gather ’Round. The Gather ’Round handbook talks about the Israelites educating their children through storytelling and remembering the story of who they were as God’s people. Stories function in several ways, including: form[ing] children’s identities and let[ting] them in on community secrets [...] and lead[ing] children out of their individual world into the larger world of faith.13 The story is also important because it helps us remember who we are.

Another key element in these materials is the idea of teaching from the prophetic perspective. In many ways this is more of theological emphasis. Both Jubilee and Gather ’Round follow the ideas Walter Brueggemann outlines in The Prophetic Imagination, which emphasizes the distinction between the royal perspective (characterized by the economics of abundance) and the prophetic perspective (the underside within the royal perspective, and a true alternative). The prophetic perspective is characterized by the economics of sufficiency. The prophets of the Old Testaments critiqued the dominant culture, and they empowered the people to live as a successful alternative community.14 Teaching from the prophetic perspective means a special way of viewing the world, including the stories of the Bible. It means believing not in securing wealth and abundance for oneself, but rather in making sure everyone has enough. It means recognizing that justice is giving people what they need and that righteousness comes through right relationship.

Mission, Goals and Key Biblical Texts of Jubilee and Gather ’Round

This section compares the Jubilee and Gather ’Round curriculums in terms of their mission and goals and key biblical texts used. It is important to be aware of these fundamental aspects that guide the writers as they create lessons that reflect the mission and goals of the curriculum within the framework of the chosen biblical texts. Knowing about and understanding these elements of the framework, one can begin to understand the Gather ’Round curriculum and teacher’s comments about the effectiveness and quality of the curriculum.

In looking at the mission statements of the two curriculums, it is interesting to note that Jubilee’s specifically mentions Jesus and the Holy Spirit.15 Gather ’Round’s statement 16 only names Jesus and God, completely leaving out an explicit emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. Both are concerned with the importance of the biblical story, while Gather ’Round seems to expand the ideas of Jubilee. Gather ’Round seeks not only to share God’s Good News with children (as did Jubilee) but also to encourage the children to share that Good News with others. Gather ’Round also focuses on the practice of interpreting God’s word, not just reading and learning Bible stories.

The main goals of Jubilee were to help children own Jesus Christ as Savior, know that the stories come from the Bible, understand baptism in terms of denominational practices, live as a disciple of Christ, practice peacemaking, enjoy a simple lifestyle, value all people, experience community and cooperation in the congregation, respond to God through worship and believe in and support worldwide mission and service. Gather ’Round simplified these goals to four: To nurture children and youth in their faith formation; to strengthen the connection between home and congregation; to explore what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in Christian community; and to be versatile and easy to use. Within these four goals, subpoints illustrate most of the goals present in the Jubilee curriculum as well. While there is less emphasis on understanding baptism and enjoying a simple lifestyle, those aspects are still very visible in the stated goals. Clearly, the connection between home and congregation, and providing a versatile curriculum that maximizes the responsiveness and flexibility of the curriculum, are much more important with Gather ’Round.

When it comes to key biblical texts used by the two curriculums, both were written using a cycle that repeats biblical texts. Jubilee had a three-year cycle, while Gather ’Round has a four-year cycle. The major difference (besides the length of the cycle) is that Gather ’Round has everyone from preschool to senior high youth studying the same Bible passage on the same Sunday. This helps facilitate conversation at home among families with children at different age levels and makes it possible to group students of various ages together in smaller churches. Both curriculums work to cover Genesis and the main Old Testament stories during the fall quarter and the Gospels during the winter quarter. Jubilee extends this study of the Gospels into the spring quarter while Gather ’Round moves into stories of the early church, with texts from Acts and Corinthians, and even spends some time with the book of Revelation. During the summer quarter, Jubilee covered Psalms, Acts and stories of faith. Due to the longer cycle, Gather ’Round is able to cover a broader range of subjects, including the following themes: parables of Jesus; peace topics; the early church; stories of God’s people; and creation.

A Current Trend: Family Ministry

This section focuses on the current trend of family ministry in children’s and youth ministry as well as possible suggestions about implementing that idea in the next curriculum itself. Part of this conversation is not only about the family ministry trend, but also about attendance, general busyness of families and involvement of parents in the religious education of children. This section also looks what implications this trend has in terms of faith formation, particularly as it pertains to Sunday school.

Reggie Joiner is the founder and CEO of the reThink Group, a nonprofit that works to help churches maximize their influence on the spiritual growth of the next generation. His revolutionary book, Think Orange: Imagine the Impact When Church and Family Collide, focuses on the necessity of the church and the family working together to impact the spiritual formation of children. In today’s fast-paced world, when attendance at church is hit or miss for most, churches try to maximize the hours they have children in Sunday school and midweek programs

. The reality is that in any given year, the average church has only 40 hours, while the average parent has 3,000, in which to influence the same child. Joiner seeks to help churches realize that in order to effectively impact children’s faith, they need to resource parents. Parents need to recognize their ability to impact the faith formation of their children and to take responsibility for mentoring, modeling and teaching. In order for parents to do this, they need resources and tools to equip them and teach them how to be effective as they help their children in this way. Joiner proposes that churches move to Think Orange, which means blending the light of faith (yellow) in our churches and the warmth of family (red) to impact children and youth. This means leaders should work to do the following:

  1. Synchronize leaders and parents to build an authentic faith in children and teenagers.
  2. Refine their message so it clearly communicates God’s story of restoration.
  3. Help parents be more intentional about nurturing an everyday faith in their kids’ lives.
  4. Give every child and teenager a spiritual coach or leader who can reinforce what a Christian parent would say.
  5. Fuel passion in the hearts of this next generation to be a demonstration of God’s love to a broken world.17

Others who focus on family-based youth ministry (like Mark DeVries and Diana R. Garland)18 point out the changing context and the incredible power of the family not only to nurture faith but also to help children and youth grow into successful faithful individuals who make a difference in the world. They also note that the power is not limited to the nuclear family. The extended Christian family (the congregation, etc.) can make a big difference in children’s lives. Coordinating the influence of the home and church is important.

Strengthening the connection between home and congregation is one of the goals set by the publishers of Gather ’Round, and they may be open to thinking more orange with the next curriculum. However, only 13 of the 29 respondents in the survey described below feel that options for parent/caregiver connections are important or very important, so at least in central Kansas, these resources may be undervalued and underused. When the Gather ’Round curriculum was first published, it included a parent/caregiver unit that had a guide for parents and others who care for children, for group or individual study. It included daily reflections and applications of the Scripture theme, so every member of the family could study the same Scripture passages at the same time. Unfortunately, this resource did not sell well enough to make it feasible for the publishers to continue developing and publishing. I believe more education must happen on a congregational level about the importance of the home/congregation connection before the average Western District/South Central Conference congregation will utilize such resources.

Almost a year ago, on 29 March 2011, some representatives from Mennonite Publishing House (an entity that merged with Third Way Media to form MennoMedia)19 came to Newton, Kan., to lead in a conversation about What’s Next for Sunday School. A large group of pastors, Sunday school teachers and laypeople (including the author) gathered at Shalom Mennonite Church to participate in the conversation. This group represented the same geographic area as did my survey. After some open discussion, a bulk of our time was spent writing down the three items we felt were the most important in terms of what is needed in Sunday school curriculum.

A sampling of these comments includes a few things that the Gather ’Round curriculum has already attempted to do in a variety of ways. This included several participants who called for a way to involve families and connections with the home. They also encouraged the publishers not to give up on providing materials that facilitate this connection. The significance of connecting the Sunday school classroom with families is a theme that has come up repeatedly in my research outside the survey but, as mentioned earlier, does not seem as important to a little over half of my survey respondents.

Rationale for the Research

Having a basic understanding of where the denomination has been with its last two children’s Sunday school curriculums, I wondered how these curriculums had been received and what individuals and congregations wanted to see in the next curriculum. I also wondered if users would comment positively or negatively on the mission, goals, biblical texts and other emphases stated by the publishers of the Gather ’Round curriculum. I decided to use a survey that would ask participants to rate the strength of the mission statement, goals and components of the curriculum. This would provide some data to work with and a way to identify trends in thought about these areas. The survey would also be a vehicle for collecting respondents’ ideas about which components will be important to include in the next curriculum.

Methodology

I knew that I wanted to collect a wide variety of responses about Gather ’Round, because Mennonite Church USA is so diverse and the next denominational curriculum must take that diversity into account. I also recognized that, due to my location and connections to a variety of local churches, collecting data in the greater Kansas area would my best option. I compiled a list of 65 English-speaking churches in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri and Arkansas from the Western District Conference directory and South Central Conference churches listed on the Mennonite Church USA website. Next, I divided these congregations into five categories based on their membership size: under 100; 100-199; 200-299; 300-399; and greater than 400. I then went through the list, picking each eighth church to contact until I had selected approximately one-third of the churches in each size category. This yielded a list of 20 churches for me to contact. I did make one switch at this point - rather than calling Tabor Mennonite in rural Newton, I selected Faith Mennonite in Newton since they were in the same category and I already had two rural congregations in this size category selected. As I contacted churches and had to eliminate congregations who did not use the curriculum, I took the next available congregation in that size category.20

When contacting congregations, I found eight congregations in the smallest size category that do not and have not used the Gather ’Round curriculum. One of them stated they don’t use Mennonite materials and three of them specifically stated they do not have any children. One congregation said they use David C. Cook materials and one uses materials published by Standard. Three larger congregations have not and do not use the curriculum at all but did not give a reason or state the curriculum they do use.

The final list of churches that received my survey included 19 congregations in Kansas and one in Oklahoma. Seventeen were Western District congregations and three were from South Central Conference. The list of these 20 congregations (Appendix C) includes two congregations that have chosen to discontinue using the curriculum.

After compiling the original list of 20 congregations, I proceeded to contact the pastor and/or the church office of each to inquire first, if they use the curriculum and second, if they would be willing to send out the link to my online survey to 3-5 individuals in their congregation who teach the curriculum, have taught the curriculum or are a part of the education committee or commission that makes decisions about curriculum for their congregation. If the congregation uses or used the curriculum and was willing to participate in the survey, I sent them an e-mail briefly explaining my project with a link to my survey hosted by Google Docs. Also attached to that e-mail was a letter (Appendix A) explaining my project.

My survey (Appendix B) is a tool designed to see how people rate the strengths of the curriculum in areas such as Anabaptist theology, lesson content and lesson flexibility. An early part of the survey asks respondents if they also had the opportunity to teach Gather ’Round’s predecessor, Jubilee. If so, they are asked to rate Jubilee in many of the same key areas and I used those responses to determine whether Gather ’Round continues to build on Jubilee’s strengths or has weakened. I was particularly interested in the reasons that congregations who have used the curriculum in the past might have decided to discontinue its use, so I included several questions relating to this issue. Finally, much of the survey was related to material from the Jubilee and Gather ’Round handbooks that highlight supposed emphases and concepts. I was interested in seeing whether these emphases and concepts were obvious to the average Sunday school teacher and whether the respondents supported them as necessary emphases.

Survey Results: General Information about Participants

This section includes general information regarding the range of participants who responded to my survey, as well as some general trends I discovered through the analysis of the survey results. Respondents of the survey included 29 individuals, of which 22 were female and seven male.

Gender resultsGender results

These responses represent at least 10 different congregations.21 Two of the respondents were under age 19; three between 20-29; four between 30-39; five between 40-49; 10 in the 50-59 range; and three over the age of 60. The average number of students in Sunday school in congregations represented is 27, with actual attendance ranging from two to 65. In regard to training in education, 19 of the 29 have no formal training or just classroom teaching experience; four have a 4-year degree in education. Twenty-seven of the 29 respondents currently teach or have taught the Gather ’Round curriculum.

Age resultsAge results

As a whole, the respondents rated Gather ’Round higher than or equal to Jubilee in the following areas: Anabaptist theology; lesson content; inclusiveness (in terms of including all children); ability to facilitate student growth; ability to invite students to follow Jesus; educational principles; lessons being taught through story; teacher instructions; ease of lesson planning; flexible grouping options; visibility of worship, community and mission in the curriculum; student materials; number of choices in activities; fun activities; engaging activities; age-appropriateness of stories; age-appropriateness of activities; and parent involvement.

Seventeen of the 29 survey respondents had also taught the Jubilee curriculum and, on average, respondents rated Anabaptist theology, lesson content, ability to invite students to follow Jesus, educational principles, lessons being taught through story, teacher instructions, ease of lesson planning and story figures as strong areas of the curriculum.

Survey Results: Story Cards and Wonder Questions

The Gather ’Round curriculum comes with story cards, each of which has an illustration on the front and instructions for interactive storytelling on the back. These pictures are the same for the groups from preschool through middler (ages 2-10), as well as for the multi-age unit. These story cards are similar to the spiral-bound picture cards used with the Jubilee curriculum.

An example of a story card. Courtesy of Faith & Life ResourcesAn example of a story card. Courtesy of Faith & Life Resources

The churches in this sampling use the story cards frequently. In the target audience of classes below the junior high level, only four teachers do not use the story cards when telling the Bible story, while eight responded that they use them weekly/always and another two use them more frequently.

There are also I wonder questions present in almost every lesson. All but three teachers in the target ages for the story cards also use the wonder questions. In addition, even most of the junior high classes use them. Teachers have embraced the use of both the story cards and wonder questions and would most likely continue to use them in a new curriculum.

Survey Results: Cost and Evaluations

Maintaining a similar pricing system or finding a way to cut costs even minimally for the new curriculum would be advantageous. Fourteen of the 29 surveys were returned with an average rating on the cost of the materials. One young pastor from a church in a small town rated the materials as cheap for the amount of materials and resources but most respondents rated the cost at 3, right in the middle on the cheap-to-expensive scale.

Out of the 29 respondents, only six (or 21 percent) have ever filled out the evaluation in the back of the teacher’s guide (this evaluation form is also available online). Every teacher’s guidebook for each quarter has an evaluation form that is submitted directly to the publisher. This feedback is used in the writing, editing and publishing process for future materials. Twenty-one respondents, or 72 percent, have never filled out an evaluation form. (The remaining two individuals are education committee members and not Sunday school teachers). It is a shame that teachers who readily provide many useful ideas for a survey have not taken the time to rate the current curriculum and to suggest some of these changes on their own. In the next curriculum, publishers should look for new ways to highlight this evaluation form as an important tool for continued curriculum improvement. This may take the form of e-mails sent to curriculum purchasers at the end of each quarter requesting input or another form such as a discount coupon for, or a free item with, the purchaser’s next order in return for the completed evaluation.

Survey Results: Churches No Longer Using Gather ’Round

Two of the 20 churches that responded to the survey used Gather ’Round at one point but no longer use it. I established this fact through the initial phone conversation with individuals in those congregations before surveys were sent to them. The main reasons cited by the urban congregation seemed to be that the curriculum was hard to teach and that it was too heady. In expanding on the latter comment, a member of this urban congregation wrote: The writers seem to [be] pulling thoughts out of obscure threads in the stories. Much of the time for the younger kids its [sic] over their heads, and the older kids its too immature. We had not been using the preschool or the middle school/high school curriculum since the get go. Other comments from that congregation include comments that it was too abstract, activities did not fill up the allotted time, the content was not exciting and often not age-appropriate& and it needed more of the good old Bible stories we all grew up with.

The other, rural congregation mentioned they no longer have consistent children attendance/numbers. However, agreeing with the urban congregation, this congregation indicated that the preschool curriculum seemed to be ’over their heads’ without the ’fun’ student papers to complete in class. This individual also commented: Overall it seemed inconsistent...some quarters were fantastic with plenty of fun activities to choose from and others I was going to the Internet for ideas. Another individual from the same congregation commented they didn’t feel that there was much for teachers.

In selecting a replacement curriculum, the rural church went back to the Foundation Series and some classes choose their own, like a book of the Bible, or a series of DVDs or a book.22 The urban church talked to other Mennonite churches we knew were not using Gather ’Round and decided to use their suggestion to replace the preschool. We then switched to that curriculum when we decided the Gather ’Round wasn’t for us. For preschool, they switched to Gospel Light curriculum, which has lots of ideas, great student activity pages and easy for anyone to teach. One teacher from the urban church also commented that this new curriculum is very play-based [and has] fun, concrete stories with practical teaching ideas.

The five individuals who responded from the two congregations who no longer use Gather ’Round all say they did not use the MennoLens tool as they selected new curriculum and most also commented they were not aware of it.23 Three other individuals (not from these congregations) also answered that question rather than skipping it as expected. All three of them indicated they were unaware of the tool as well. This concerns me because of the implications it has for the lack of awareness of the theology that may undergird the replacement curriculum that churches have chosen. This tool helps individuals critically evaluate the theology and particular brand of Christianity that will be taught in the classroom with that particular curriculum. This is a difficult task made somewhat easier with the MennoLens. I would conjecture that if congregations are unaware of or choose not to use the tool, they are probably not concerned with the theology, explicitly taught as well as implicit, in the curriculum.

In general, this survey revealed two main pitfalls of the curriculum that might cause churches to discontinue its use. First is the changing environment in which the curriculum is used. When numbers dwindle, attendance is inconsistent or there are vastly varying intellectual and social needs within one class, some users find this curriculum difficult to use. One way to combat this issue is to encourage more familiarity with the curriculum and how it can be modified and/or used flexibly. Obviously, if there are not enough children for a Sunday school class, different age groups may need to meet together, which creates challenges. The difficulty in planning for this group can be overcome, in part, by making sure teachers know that if a lesson is above (or below) the comprehension of their group, they can reference the lesson and/or activities in the teacher’s book for a different grade level to plan a lesson that is meaningful for their own students. Also, giving attention to making the curriculum as flexible as possible is a good idea for publishers.

The second main pitfall of the curriculum I see deals with the intellectual level of the curriculum. Personally, I find it interesting that one congregation emphasized the idea that the curriculum was too heady with abstract concepts. One other church said that it went over the youngest ones’ heads, but none of the other churches offered that as a criticism or as a suggestion to improve on with the next curriculum. The two churches that highlighted these negatives were the two who have discontinued Gather ’Round’s use. Certainly the authors and publishers need to pay attention to the developmental stages the lessons are directed toward to ensure that the curriculum does not include lessons that are too abstract or heady.

Survey Results: Importance of Specific Components in the New Curriculum

The researcher was interested in seeing how those in the sample group would rate the importance of the following items when selecting Sunday school curriculum for their congregation: Anabaptist theology; flexibility in age groupings; technology integration; strong educational principles; global perspective; multicultural appreciation; inclusive God-language; and options for parent/caregiver connections.

In general, the respondents indicated that they believe Anabaptist theology and flexibility in age groupings are important. I see these two items continuing to be significant for the congregations in this area. Based on the trends evident in Jubilee and Gather ’Round, I believe these will be two important areas for writers of the new curriculum anyway. Also important to these churches is a curriculum that has global perspective and is based on strong educational theories, which are areas that take considerably more work in order to remain current and up-to-date with the newest research.

Interestingly enough, technology integration and options for parent/caregiver connections were frequently given middling ratings. With the merger of Mennonite Publishing Network and Third Way Café, the options for technology integration have been expanding in some interesting and exciting new ways. However, it seems this is not important to the churches in this geographic area. This may be due to a lack of technology in churches or to some other unknown consideration. Age does not seem to be a factor in this regard. Of the 10 respondents who are under the age of 40, all but two rated the importance of technology integration as neither important nor unimportant. One of the remaining two rated it as very unimportant. MennoMedia may choose not to capitalize on their new opportunities in the area of technology and focus their energies elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, although technology integration was not rated as important, several people did mention technology in the free comment/suggestion section of the survey. One individual noted that the new curriculum may need more technology to compete with how kids are used to learning. For instance, one man suggested that Scripture could be presented in creative ways, such as using video sound, internet links and resources. Another proposed: Instead of student books for the older kids, have an online site with a couple handout paper options to print off that the teacher can choose to do in class. Perhaps unused activities could even be completed by children at home as extensions to the lesson. The same individual went on to suggest that the website might include a place for teachers to input ideas of activities that they have done relating to the story [...] for other teachers to see. Perhaps the key is in using technology as a supplemental aid, but not an integral part of the curriculum itself.

Survey Results: What Should Be a Part of the New Curriculum?

Perhaps most interesting are the responses to the open ended question: What would you most like to see in the next denominational curriculum and/or what would have to be in the next denominational curriculum for you to recommend its use in your congregation? Responses covered a variety of topics, from biblical content to types of activities to comments regarding global perspective and service.

There were some folks who had more critical comments. One came from an individual whose congregation no longer uses the curriculum. She stated that the curriculum needs to include the basic early childhood stories from the Bible (Noah and the flood, Advent and Christmas stories, Moses leading the Israelites, parting the Red Sea) in age -appropriate vocabulary and activities to enrich understanding. One wonders if this teacher has only taught bits and pieces of the curriculum, rather than having a broad understanding of the entire scope of the curriculum, as well as the limitation (in this area) of having all grades or age groupings studying the same Bible passage/story on the same Sunday. If so, it would benefit publishers to seek to explain the biblical sequence and cycle they are using to create the curriculum. Perhaps it would also be good to provide resources for teachers to explain the benefit of covering more of the biblical story and doing so in more of a narrative sequence rather than isolated stories.

When given the opportunity to comment freely, teachers frequently mention supporting activities and student materials. Individuals suggest more hands-on activities with better instructions, having a way for congregations to get the Jubilee story figures because students still love using them (they keep the kids’ attention) and providing student books that are more than just reading stories (have more to do in them). One individual highlighted the timeline used with the current quarter on Moses. She says that the little pictures to show the kids and the idea of putting the pictures in a timeline are so great! I can review with the kids what has happened in the Moses story so far. That helps the kids that have missed a few lessons. Sometimes we have completely different kids from one Sunday to the next so review is a necessity to keep the story in perspective. Another respondent commented on her class’s enjoyment of the building activity/craft from some Advent lessons where they made different characters each week and ended up with a Nativity scene. She wrote that the kids looked forward to what [they] were going to add each week. This highlights another way teachers could help students connect stories, lessons or learnings from week to week.

In a world where attendance fluctuates greatly, these types of connecting activities will continue to be important in the years to come. One male pastor felt that there need to be more creative options for activities other than drama or readers’ theatre and more ways to incorporate spiritual disciplines in the lessons. This is another great way to implement the idea of providing opportunities to use multiple intelligences as well as helping provide lessons that teachers can personalize to their group.

One respondent felt there needs to be improvement in the quality of activities for the older groups, specifically for male students. This individual, who has a degree in education, wrote that middle school kids, especially boys, are not going to be engaged by cute crafts or drawing pictures - the activities are just too childish for middle school students. Others would like more choices for activities, perhaps including some sports related activities or even some science experiments when applicable. A second individual specifically mentioned boys as well, noting that the activities such as acting out, drawing, coloring or games currently in Gather ’Round were not very boy friendly for the boys in our church.

Junior Youth curriculum. Courtesy of Faith & Life ResourcesJunior Youth curriculum. Courtesy of Faith & Life Resources

This concern about the activities shows that teachers are invested in what they do and would like to see the students in their classes get the most out of the lesson or certainly the most out of their time with the teacher. Providing a variety of activities that will appeal to and convey meaning to the greatest number of students should be the goal of any new curriculum. It would be interesting to look at how many of the curriculum writers are women versus men. It seems that there is a lack of traditionally male-oriented activities or interests. Certainly both genders would enjoy sports activities and analogies, science experiments and active-response activities. This is certainly an area for the curriculum to pay special attention to and in which to improve.

One area that respondents rated as important was that of global perspective. A few people highlighted the idea of global connections and our connectedness to Anabaptists around the country and world with their remarks. One wrote she would like to see more stories of service, perhaps including our own MVS or Service Adventure stories. Or stories from our overseas works and children they work with from other cultures. Overall try to work together with our own program agencies and include stories from all parts of Mennonite Church USA.24 Contrasting that, another individual wrote that perhaps there is too much global input for the younger children (K-2) and said, I find they are not as interested in global stories at this age although they are very connected to the Bolivian church and daycare our church connects to. So perhaps the new curriculum should continue to include the global perspective, while providing ways for individual congregations to personalize the lesson with specific missions, missionaries or service projects they are involved with. Comments in so many categories fit this idea of a flexible curriculum that is easy to personalize to one’s particular congregation and class.

Finally, the teachers’ materials seem to be important to the teachers. Several folks would like more adult teacher aids, particularly with ideas for reaching various learning styles, personalities and moods of children; background on special needs of children such as emotional needs (due to things like Asperberger’s syndrome and history of abuse in previous households, etc.); and good educational lesson planning that is easy to pick up and teach, especially for people who are not trained in education. These special challenges continue to be more prevalent in public schools and more frequently identified in our congregations. Public school employees receive special training and resources in order to best meet the students’ needs. Providing materials for teachers, such as books like Let All the Children Come to Me by MaLesa Breeding, et al., and informational notes in the handbook for the new curriculum would be a way to begin.25 Other options might be informational podcasts or videos on the curriculum website or included in teacher’s manuals. I believe as time passes, the sacred world will realize the importance of providing these resources as well.

Additional Insights from a Central Kansas Gathering

Some additional comments from the gathering in March included a desire for strong Anabaptist theology such as pacifism, Christocentrism and that Jesus meant what he said and he was talking to us, as well as a call for a way to involve families and connect with the home.

In this discussion, there was also a heavy emphasis on flexibility that allows teachers to select lesson activities that are right for the needs of their particular students, based on factors such as their interests and maturity levels as well as the size of the group. Individuals would like to see more spiritual practices included, such as prayer journaling, meditation and opportunities to experience significant relationships within the community and especially with adult mentors.

A number of individuals mentioned their desire for a continued emphasis on Bible memorization. There were also a great number of responses that related to 21st-century experiential learning, technology or tie-ins to issues in children’s lives, such as loneliness, bullying, eating disorders, single-parent/blended families and racism.

In general, these comments support my research through the survey and follow-up interviews, except in the area of connection to family/home and technology. It seems that the group present at this event felt those were higher priorities than did the individuals in my sample.

Survey Limitations

As in any study using self-reported data, there are serious limitations in this study. There is additional information that it would have been helpful to collect. For instance, it would be incredibly useful to know whether teachers had any introduction to the Gather ’Round curriculum before teaching it. Did they watch any of the introduction materials, attend a workshop or read the guidebook? How many Sunday school superintendents, education committee chairs and pastors have looked at the guidebook or attended some sort of training in order to understand the curriculum? I recognize it would have been extremely valuable to gather more input regarding this and other questions on the survey. Other questions I would like to ask at this point include: Are you aware of the four-year rotation of the Gather ’Round curriculum? Do you look for ideas and activities in the materials for the grade level above or below the one you teach to better meet the needs of your students? How involved are the parents of your students in their child’s faith formation? Do you use the Talkabout?26 Does your congregation use the Talkabout? If so, in what form? What kind of connections does your church make between the classroom and the home? Does your pastor know what Sunday school curriculum your congregation uses? Is your pastor familiar with the foundational documents of Gather ’Round? Does someone (such as a pastor, education committee member or Sunday school superintendent) meet with you to reflect on your Sunday school teaching and discuss what is working well or not going well? Do you personally reflect after each class session?

Talkabout graphic. Courtesy of Faith & Life ResourcesTalkabout graphic. Courtesy of Faith & Life Resources

These are just some of the issues I would like to have raised or clarified on the survey, in follow-up interviews or on a follow-up survey. There may also be some points and/or comments offered on the survey that seem significant but need clarification that was not possible with the anonymous survey. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not recognize the limitation of studying only churches within the Western District and South Central conferences, realizing the even greater diversity of Mennonite Church USA in terms of geographic location, church size and style, socio-economic status, racial/ethnic backgrounds and language.

Concluding Remarks

While there are limitations of this brief study, there are still some significant insights to be gleaned from this study. Because of the changing cultural context, shifting family priorities, inconsistent attendance and new educational research, publishers must be willing to listen to the voice of the teachers and church leaders who use their curriculum. The next denominational curriculum must take into account these factors and especially the input from curriculum users. This study provides some of that input.

Central Kansas congregations are satisfied with the Gather ’Round curriculum and would most likely continue using the denominational curriculum if the next one builds on the strengths of Gather ’Round outlined in this study. Publishers must be sure to continue looking for ways to increase the curriculum’s flexibility and more creative response activities. Additionally, publishers should look at current educational methods such as Marzano’s Classroom Instruction that Works for instructional methods to help students clarify and better understand important components of faith and the Bible.

One area that could be improved in the next curriculum is that of teacher training and resourcing. This might take the form of area trainings by representatives of MennoMedia or resourcing for training on the area conference level (providing training for area conference representatives at a centralized location or convention). It seems Sunday school teachers in this geographic area need more training in order to take full advantage of current flexibility factors in Gather ’Round and I would assume they would also benefit from similar training on the next curriculum. People are generally satisfied with the structure, format of lessons and other key elements of Gather ’Round and MennoMedia should continue with similar components.

Finally, I would suggest that MennoMedia continue looking for ways to connect classrooms and families/caregivers. Parents and families in general are essential to the faith formation of children and youth and curriculums that facilitate this connection will continue to be one of the most effective methods for promoting the spiritual growth of children.