The Power of the School Calendar

September 28th, 2011
Image © Eric Rice | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

As kids and teachers have gotten back in the swing of a new school year, Christian educators have been launching a new year of Sunday school, Bible studies, and programming themselves. In many churches, fall is the season of Sunday school promotions, youth group kick-offs, and advertising new Bible study offerings.

But why do churches start their education and programming years in August and September? Because that’s when schools start. Most of the children and youth in our congregations spend about 35 hours each week in school; many adults are parents or teachers of school children. Some of our congregations worship in schools or operate schools. Each week, when I greet my junior high Sunday school class, I ask, “How was school this week?” or “Did anything interesting happen at school this week?”

School is a big deal. And it makes sense that school would have an impact on the life of our congregations. But should we allow school to influence our programming as much as it does? Should our Christian education calendar follow the school year, even though the church already has a calendar of its own?

The Christian Year

Our Christian year begins with Advent. (That’s just after Thanksgiving break in school-year talk.) And the church calendar lends itself to Christian education, because it tells our story. It starts with the promise of a Messiah who will redeem our broken world then celebrates the birth of this Savior in a manger in Bethlehem. The Season After Epiphany tells us of Jesus’ royalty (gold), divinity (frankincense), and sacrifice (myrrh), culminating in a celebration of Jesus’ transfiguration.

During Lent, we journey with Jesus into the wilderness and travel with him toward Jerusalem and the cross. On Maundy Thursday we gather around the table for the Lord’s Supper and on Good Friday we stand at the foot of the cross. On Easter morning we visit the tomb and discover that the stone has been rolled away and that Christ has risen. For several weeks we proclaim the good news of the Resurrection until the day of Christ’s ascension and (10 days later) Pentecost, the birthday of the church and a celebration of the Holy Spirit.

We mark the seasons of the Christian year with colors and music and paraments. We read seasonally appropriate Scriptures and preach seasonally appropriate sermons. We post Advent devotional readings on the church Facebook page and set up Stations of the Cross in the sanctuary during Lent. Out of respect for the Magi, we leave our nativity scenes on the altar until January 6; and we have our red shirts ironed and ready to go for Pentecost Sunday.

The Christian calendar is one of the most effective teaching tools we have at our disposal. It tells our story; it engages the senses; it appeals to different intelligences and learning styles; it invites us to participate. But often when it comes to Christian education—especially with children and youth—we don’t follow the Christian year. We follow the school year.

We promote children and youth into the next age level at the beginning of the school year. We give children Bibles when they start the third grade. We have youth kick-offs in late August or early September. We divide our evening programming into semesters, taking a break in the middle of December and picking up again in early January.

An Otherworldly Schedule

The church, though it is not of the world, must function in the world, and within particular cultures. The culture of the industrialized world in the twenty-first century is one in which the vast majority of people between the ages of 6 and 18 (children and youth) spend 180 days per year at school. School is the reason why youth groups do mission trips during the summer and retreats on weekends. School is the reason why vacation Bible school is in July, not February. School is the reason why the senior high Bible study isn’t scheduled for 10:30 on Thursday morning.

We have to account for school when we’re planning and scheduling our Christian education and youth and children’s programming. But have we let the school year control us? Have we given it too much power? Have our efforts to schedule around students’ academic calendars kept us from embracing our own calendar?

What would it look like if we scheduled our programming around the liturgical calendar? If we planned our kick-offs and Sunday school promotions for the first Sunday in Advent? If we told the story of our faith from Advent through Pentecost and used the season after Pentecost—Ordinary Time—as a time to focus on spiritual growth, both as individuals and as a community of faith? (The color green—the color of growth—is the liturgical color for Ordinary Time for this reason.)

I have no idea whether scheduling our programming according to the liturgical calendar would have a substantial impact on those who come through our Sunday schools, Bible studies, and youth groups. But it would affirm that we are different, a people set apart for God. It would also reinforce the story of our faith.

Starting in August or September works for elementary schools and high schools, but Sunday schools (and youth groups, Bible studies, and so forth) shouldn’t be bound by the two-semester, Labor Day-to-Memorial Day paradigm. We have a story to tell. 

Josh Tinley is a curriculum editor for Abingdon Press and the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports.

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