Trinity UMC kicks off innovative Sunday School
BY CARRIE MADREN
With football, model car crafting, mini-golfing and tea party throwing, Sunday school at Trinity UMC in Emmitsburg is anything but boring. This year, instead of squirming in seats through traditional classroom lessons, Trinity's kids got outside to pass, throw and hear the Word through a game of football.
They've also spent Sunday mornings shooting hoops, kicking soccer balls, trying on emergency medic gear, sipping tea and going water-bottle bowling - all in the name of learning about Jesus.
Since September and the arrival of new senior pastor John Rudolph last July, Trinity - located in a small town on the Maryland/Pennsylvania border - has been experimenting with a radical new form of children's Sunday school: harnessing kids' natural energy for God's glory.
When Rudolph arrived, some 60 worshipers of all ages attended Sunday morning worship. Then, while adults attended Sunday school after the worship service, children would yearn to return home. As a result, "our young adults that had children would go home too," Rudolph said. So he and passionate lay leaders schemed: Let's try to pay attention to what interests the kids have, and let's not do it here in our boring Sunday school rooms, let's go out into the community.
Then, when Sunday school kicked off in September, teachers and kids traded the classroom for a football field.
The new school year kicked off with Fundamentals of Faith and Football, which used basic football skills to teach biblical lessons on faith. Starting with a tailgating party, Faith and Football became a six-week-long series in the park.
"We started off with teaching kicking and punting," said Rudolph - the start of a football game. That sports lesson led to: How does our faith in God start? Kids gathered on the grass for a Gatorade break as they listened and participated in discussion. "We talked about how God created us and the whole world, and the reasons we need God," he said.
A Bible lesson always accompanies the activity, says mother-of-three Cady Anderson, then kids study relating scriptures during the week.
Another football lesson related football penalties and game rules to God's law and the Ten Commandments. Another week, "when we taught passing the football, we talked about how we can move along in our faith," Rudolph said. Just as a team tries to advance the ball, faith moves forward, too.
"God is trying to build our faith and perfect us in life, that's how we move forward: faith moves forward by following Christ," he said.
Soon, Rudolph and his fellow teachers saw unexpected fruits of their new approach.
"Since we were outdoors, other kids in the community saw us and they began participating," said the pastor.
One boy who began coming every Sunday was from a family where the parents were divorced and uninterested in church, explained Anderson, "that child was there and so enthusiastic."
The new, active Sunday school was answered prayer, said church parent Anderson, who has a 10-year-old son, as well as two daughters, ages six and five. Her son was "was at the age where we really needed to grab him, or we were going to lose him, and at that age where church wasn't really where he wanted it to be."
With the radical new format, the ‘tween's view of church changed. "He did not want to miss Sunday school, he thought it was a party every week and he wore his football jersey every Sunday," said Anderson, who's husband teaches the boys along with Rudolph. "My son is so thrilled with Sunday school that I never hear anything about not wanting to go to church."
Football lessons tended to draw boys, but an indoor group catered to girls' interests. "We had a tea party, made hats and talked about how we can all be thankful and be friends, and we talked about how Jesus is our friend," said Fran Eyler, Sunday school superintendent who works with the indoor class.
Since the tea party kick-off, her indoor group has also sampled liturgical work - ushering, serving as acolytes and offering Communion - as well as investigated women of the Bible and rung children's handbells.
Winter's chill soon forced the outdoor Sunday school inside. But the energy continued and both Sunday school groups joined together.
"We built wooden models of cars, helicopters, boats and birdhouses and painted them," Rudolph explained. That several-week series led to discussions about Jesus, the carpenter's son. "A carpenter and a king - what does that mean for us? We tried to make a connection there."
When teaching about Jesus, the Great Physician, two firemen and a paramedic from the local fire department came to demonstrate equipment and let kids try on uniforms. Teachers launched into a lesson about God as our true rescuer.
February will take Sunday school to the local gym - another visible community spot for drawing in new kids - for basketball and soccer until the weather warms up for more outdoor play.
In addition to the sports and other fun, Trinity added a mid-week children's activity to the ongoing Thursday night prayer service and adult Bible study. An all-ages evening - dubbed Thursday Night Training - includes dinner and prayer service, followed by Bible study and the new Pioneer Club, a local chapter of a national Christian group for kids.
Kids now feel cared for, Rudolph said. The church's efforts have paid off in numbers: some 15 to 25 children now stick around for Sunday school each week."We feel like we're following where the Holy Spirit is leading," Rudolph said. "The energy from the kids is contagious, and even for our seniors."