Does the term 'Sunday school' have negative
connotations? Is your curriculum relevant? If there's a change in
name only, children can see right past it. Here's how to make sure
your ministry's image isn't ailing...
Image is everything-at least in the business world. When its
image needs repair, a company conducts a stylish PR blitz, complete
with a celebrity spokesperson, slick ads, enticing giveaways, and
maybe even a new name or slogan. Some Christian leaders now
advocate a similar "corporate cure" for Sunday school's ailing
But is that all there is to it? To find out, Children's Ministry
Magazine asked our readers: "Do you agree or disagree that the name
'Sunday school' needs to be changed?" By a 3-to-1 margin,
children's workers said it's time for this ministry moniker to
Playing The Name Game
From a literal standpoint, the name "Sunday school" is obsolete
because educational programs are no longer held just on Sundays,
and most no longer resemble school-classroom settings.
Name Blame -- From a practical standpoint, the
name may turn kids away.
"The last thing kids want to hear on the weekend is 'school,' "
says Amy Sacha, a children's ministry coordinator in Englewood,
Ohio. Children's ministers who voted for a name change agree that
five days of school is enough and that children need a change from
their weekly routines. They need a place where they can be actively
Most children's ministers who want to discard the "Sunday
school" name cite its negative connotations, saying it "conjures up
a picture of a long, boring session on your seat" and reminds
people of textbooks, memorization, lectures, and "being forced to
go to something they disliked as children."
In addition, children who have negative experiences in school
associate the word "school" with failure and frustration. Instead,
says Martha Parris, a director of Christian education in
Springfield, Missouri, "Children need to be encouraged that
learning about God is a positive activity." And a new name can do
Name Fame -- The minority of readers who favor
keeping "Sunday school" say it's a well-established, recognized
name that denotes tradition and has a rich history. Others say it
has pleasant associations and is familiar and appealing to
non-Christians and Christians.
Jan Bunner, a children's ministry coordinator in DeRidder,
Louisiana, says, "The unchurched know that God can be found at
'Sunday school' and that a teacher there will accept them
unconditionally. Churchgoers know that the biblical teaching at
Sunday school is the same as always." Robyn Clifford, a children's
minister in Pinson, Tennessee, values the word "school" because it
gives an expectation that learning will occur.
Putting It In Perspective
Whatever the name, that alone doesn't necessarily mean your
program is meeting needs. Whether they favor chucking or keeping
the Sunday school name, many children's ministers say it's what's
inside that counts.
Soozung Sa, a Christian education coordinator in Wautoma,
Wisconsin, says that although a name change can renew leaders'
spirits and attitudes, "the program has to be as credible as the
name; the name is not enough."
"When there's a change in name only, children can see right past
it... and recognize immediately that the learning experience is
still 'Sunday school,' " says pastor John Bartz from Frewsburg, New
York. He supports a name change "only if the learning atmosphere
and Christian education program are changed as well."
Bartz offers this analogy: To change the name only and not the
content or atmosphere of the learning experience would be like a
store changing its name on the marquee, but keeping the same
shelves, aisles, and, most of all, product.
Moving Beyond The Name
Making substantive changes within your program itself isn't as
overwhelming as it first sounds. To determine if genuine learning
occurs in your program, answer the following questions.
What's your goal?
First things first: If you can clearly state your program's
purpose, then meeting it will be much easier. Todd Crouch, a
Sabbath school director in Washington, Pennsylvania, says his
program's goal -- "teaching kids about God and their relationships
with others" -- is more important than its name. Kenn Gorman, a
director of children's ministries in Wenatchee, Washington, is
clear about his goal. He says church education must "lead children
to a relationship with Christ, show them how to lead a holy life,
and get them into ministry to others." Everything flows from the
Do you emphasize teaching or learning? understanding or
memorization? Just because you're teaching doesn't necessarily mean
children are learning.
When is the last time you checked to see if kids were really
learning? Jesus, the master teacher, used his learners' world and
provided learners opportunities to practice what they learned.
Jesus wanted to be sure they "got it." Jean Mass Pike, a ministry
associate in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, teaches as Jesus taught by
approaching learning as "a lifelong process of faith development,
with active learning and service opportunities for children, youth,
Focus on understanding. Contrary to the beliefs of many
well-meaning Christian educators, requiring tons of memory work
isn't the way to make Scripture stick. Children who excel at
memorization rarely retain the information long term, while those
who struggle with memorizing view biblical literacy as beyond their
reach. At Crouch's church, children's workers "are focusing kids'
minds on Christ as the key factor in all relationships -- not just
on memorizing facts."
Does your curriculum promote lifelong
When asked, "What other changes have you made in your Sunday
morning educational program that have had positive results?" many
children's ministers cited new curriculum that's more
participation-oriented and active.
Some children's ministers write their own lessons, making them
age- and need-appropriate. But remember: Even the best curriculum
can't make a difference unless teachers are trained to use it.
Do you challenge kids to think? to work
Although it's tempting to automatically provide the right
answers, an important part of kids' learning is arriving at the
answers by themselves -- or with their classmates.
Barbara Greenwald, a director of Christian education in Saginaw,
Michigan, says changing her program's name and focus to Disciples'
Enrichment Hour has had dramatic results. There's "no more filling
empty vessels with correct answers," she says. Instead, the format
"allows for more creativity and expression of faith."
When children are encouraged to work together in pairs or small
groups, they learn interpersonal skills and form relationships with
other children-and adults. For example, Debbie Neufeld, a
children's ministry coordinator in Winnipeg, Manitoba, says her
teachers, or "care-group leaders," are responsible for the
spiritual care of a small group of children. They get more involved
in kids' lives than just teaching lessons on Sundays.
Do you focus on quality rather than
Thoroughly covering a few main points is more learner-friendly
than cramming tons of material into one lesson. Jesus himself --
who knew everything and had loads to communicate to his disciples
-- understood this principle. In John 16:12, Jesus said, "I have
many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." He
might've just coined the phrase: "Less is more!"
Sa's staff members also work on their "quality" by praying
together regularly, which gives them a sense of community and
ownership and deepens their commitment to the children.
Does your program promote active learning?
"The education time on Sundays needs to be a positive active
learning experience-not a paper-and-pencil lecture time," says
Parris. "Just changing the name of something doesn't do any good if
you don't improve the program and practice, too."
Learning by doing involves direct, purposeful, and personal
experiences. It's fun, focused, inclusive, and acknowledges
different learning styles. Active learning evokes emotions that are
then focused through questions and tied to Scriptural truths.
At Judy Basye's church in San Mateo, California, Sunday mornings
have been totally revamped to feature two-and-a-half-hour VBS-style
programs. Deb Nafziger, coordinator of elementary grades, praises
the changes at her Wheaton, Illinois church. The addition of
activity stations, hands-on learning, creative Bible lessons, and
small groups has led not only to positive responses from parents
and children but to easier volunteer recruitment.
You can incorporate active learning through exciting Bible
lessons with life applications. Kids can go deeper into hands-on
learning with music, crafts, dramas, role-plays, puppets, videos,
stories, games, computers, and service projects.
Sa says active learning is necessary because unlike school,
children can choose not to come to church. "We don't have the
luxury of being able to snap our fingers and have everyone come
running to us. Children will float away if we don't keep their
Although change can be threatening, it's urgently needed in
Christian education. "We're hung up on the name when we should be
concentrating on developing programs that are radically different,"
encourages Gorman. "Many are the same as when I was in them 20
24 Great Aliases
Great names arouse curiosity; give an instant feeling of
belonging, fun, and excitement; and help teachers, parents, and
children remember their Christian calling. If you're looking for a
new label that better expresses your phenomenal Christian education
program, try one of these.
- Kidz Club
- Journey With Jesus
- Sonland Celebration
- Sunday Challenge
- Sunday Friends
- School of Christian Living
- Disciples' Enrichment Hour
- Power Hour
- Bible Fellowship Hour
- Spiritual Adventures
- Bible Adventure
- Great Adventures
- Kid Konnection
- Kids of the Kingdom
- Faith Exploration
- Sunday Morning Live
- Community Kids
- The Vineyard Playhouse
- Sunday Bible School
- First Steps in Faith
- Bungaland (Believers Understanding Nurtured in God Alone)
Caution: Initially a new name can be confusing, so promote and
explain it well to children and parents.
Stephanie Martin is a free-lance writer and editor in
Colorado. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change.