Sunday School for Tweens and Teens

January 4th, 2011

You've probably heard the story of the churches in a small town that were all beset by nesting colonies of bats in their belfries. Attempts by the Lutherans to exterminate and by the Baptists to do extensive repairs to the exterior of their building both failed miserably to keep the bats away. But the Methodists (or fill in whatever denomination you're joking on) experienced the best results when they took a more theological approach. They decided to confirm all the bats--and they never came back.

The joke would be funnier if it weren't a) so well worn and b) so true. The fact is that retaining meaningful involvement by youth in the middle school and—particularly—the high school years continues to be an enormous challenge for most churches today. Nowhere is this more evident than in our Sunday School programs. Before I write another sentence, let me offer two disclaimers: I do not pretend for a moment to have discovered the magical elixir that will solve your Sunday School malaise. In the three settings where I have served over the last eighteen years (rural and suburban) we have had as many failures as successes in this area.

Secondly it's important to acknowledge at the outset that tweens and teens are in many ways the most difficult Sunday morning target demographic. This is to due to a host of developmental and sociological factors: with more freedom to choose, they are no longer a “captive” audience in the way that their younger siblings may be; with overbooked and hyper-competitive lives, they have greater demands on their Sunday morning schedules including sports, part-time jobs, homework, and (in all seriousness) sleep. Add to the mix that at school they are being challenged to develop critical thinking and analytical skills and is it any wonder that they check out or tune out if we offer only a slightly more sophisticated version of flannel graph faith?

And yet, you and I still happen to believe that spiritual formation in our youth is too important to give up on altogether. With severe humility and a hopeful heart, let me offer four approaches that have proven fruitful in the settings where I have served.

Invite Robin Williams to Your Teacher Training

In terms of sheer charisma, Bill Hedrick wasn't exactly Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society, but for our purposes he came close. A medical supplies salesman, who walked with a cane and a polio-induced limp, Bill is a plain-spoken man who loves his country music and golf. What he also made eminently clear was that he loved the senior high youth of our church and for that reason alone they came and they stayed and they listened. For a period of time, that Sunday School class would consistently win the attendance banner with over 30 youth present every week—probably 90+% of those who could come. I don't recall that we were doing anything all that special curriculum or content-wise during that time; he used a mix of things to engage the youth. His greatest tool was his heart and his speaking from it and this showed in the relationships that formed with those youth. The Bill Hedricks of the world aren't easy to find, but they are worth looking for and nurturing in their call to teach. Could be you are wasting one chairing some committee or sitting in a back pew?

Extend the Teenage Years

Some of the richest learning experiences with our youth have come in intergenerational settings. Our pastoral intern spent a month connecting our teens with our 80-year-olds, having them tell faith stories and ask questions of one another. A popular short-term class, “God at the Movies” involved youth and adults exploring theological themes in contemporary film and the kinds of insights that emerged were broader and more poignant than if either group had done it alone. I taught a six-week introduction to the Bible class as part of our Confirmation program this year that engaged youth, their parents, and mentors in conversation around sacred texts. Not only have all of these shared experiences helped us to “do” faith formation across generational lines—one and sometimes two or three—but they have cumulatively affirmed to youth that they really belong in the “adult” world of faith.

Get Creative

One year our congregational Lenten theme was “See the Art in Me,” an exploration of the Christian faith through the arts. In addition to focusing on different art forms in worship each week, we offered a range of learning options for the congregation: field trips to art museums, a congregational quilt with squares made by individuals and families, and a Sunday School class for adults. We also engaged our youth in this theme by designing sessions that allowed them to draw, sculpt, and write poetry and contemporary Psalms. The teens deeply connected with this chance to tap into their creative sides and it confirmed that integrating hands-on art and faith ought not be only for our younger children (as it too often is).

When Sunday Morning Becomes Tuesday Night

Getting creative with youth Sunday School in the broader sense of the phrase is something we shouldn't shy away from. What about asking youth to serve in mentoring young children in their Sunday School classes? Or training youth to design and operate multimedia presentations for worship during the Sunday School hour? One of the most effective discipling tools in our ministry right now isn't happening on Sunday morning in the church, but on Tuesday nights at Starbucks, where senior highs gather for Bible Study, prayer, and spiritual conversation. The more we are willing to think (and act) outside the box imagining fresh ways of “doing Sunday School” with youth, the more effective we will be in the task of adolescent spiritual formation.

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