Not even a whole room Sunday School

I know the term “Sunday School” is deprecated in some areas, but the image of the “one room Sunday School” is very evocative of the kind of childhood faith development program a lot of little churches — or demographically old churches — have, whatever their denomination. But what if you’re in a church — except for one place I’ve supplied, this is about all I’ve ever seen — where you have one or two pre-adolecent children regularly, and the traditional Sunday School model seems unmanagable and formal for the situation.

I know it is in the blood of institutional people to create institutions — it shows we care; it also shows we can’t see other options — but few things can create more frustration and feelings of church hopelessness than the seeming inability to raise up children religiously. And I suspect this is a major stumbling block for growth in the smallest churches. Or if not growth, it is a major void in the mission of any church.

So I’m asking for help, direction, and advise.

Do you know of any models, theories, or suggestions that could help the one-or-two child congregation? I’m guessing something that mobilizes parents (“as resident theologians” to recall one program) or incorporates the children organically into existing church functions like worship. Or perhaps a mentoring-based path. Whatever — and from wherever. Please leave your ideas and suggestions in the comments, or trackback to this post if you blog and would like to write (have written) on the matter.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Well, the first question that occurs to me is whether your one or two regular attendees really are your full pool of kids. What I mean is: are there other children of members of your congregation that just aren’t attending, but might come out of the woodwork if you suddenly, magically, had a strong program in place? Do you not have children around because you don’t have members in the “parent” demographic, or do you not have children around because there’s not enough programming for them to bother showing up? I think that the most effective means of building your program would differ quite a lot depending on the answer to that question.

  2. Well, with a two-kid pool, I’d be inclined to think about how to create something that really focuses on the strengths of such a situation – you have an opportunity to really tailor the program to the invidicual kids, and to create deep and meaningful connections between the kids and adult members of the church who work with them.

    The CLF materials are a good start, I’d say, but it seems to me that working wholly off of curricula created for at-home use would mean you’d miss out on the opportunities inherent in being part of a church community.

    Do you have any adults in the church who are (or could become) really invested in this program? Particularly people who aren’t the parents of these two kids? I’d cultivate a few of these people and perhaps bring them together with the parents in a meeting to start to dream up a program. Being very small isn’t only a liability – there may be some wonderful things that you can think of to do that wouldn’t be possible with a larger program.

    I think you’re right on the money in thinking along the lines of incorporating the kids into the life of the congregation. What about having them help out in the service itself sometimes? Or be greeters? And then use some of the CLF materials to engage them in thinking about why it’s important that we welcome people when they come to church. How about brainstorming with the kids to find a social justice project that they and the adult volunteers can do together that they feel really passionate about, and then have them spend a few weeks putting together a presentation about it to share with the congregation in a service? I think the key here is not only supporting the parents in their role as religious educators for their children but also keeping in mind that the church is in a position to provide spiritual development elements that can’t be done anywhere else. So what are those things and who in your church community would find it really exciting and rewarding to create a program to bring those things to the kids in your church, no matter how many, or how few, of them there are?

  3. Well, I’ve been in a church with a successful two-kid Sunday school, I’m in a church right now with a successful three-kid Sunday school, and I worked for a year as the religious educator for Church of the Larger Fellowship where we prepared materials for home Sunday schools (for isolated families, e.g. deep rural or overseas) and for tiny congregations (e.g., ten adults or fewer). Speaking from my own experience, I’ll say this — tiny Sunday schools can work, and my best Sunday school experiences have ben in tiny Sunday schools..

    Basic principles I use:

    There are four basic “nodes” of educational planning and reform — curriculum, teacher training, assessment, and community support.

    I always have a curriculum plan, including curriculum goals and objectives. Goals are the big picture, unmeasurable things (“We want children to know God’s love,” “We want children to know what it means to be a UU”). Objectives stem from goals, but are smaller, more discreet, and measurable (“Children will be able to discuss what the story of the Good Samaritan means to them”; “Children will be able to name a UU hero or heroine and tell somethinga bout that person”). Having goals and objectives, and measuring progress towards objectives, means that children, teachers, parents, and the congregation will have a sense of accomplishment — that sense of accomplishment is a necessary corrective to the general feeling of: “Oh, our Sunday school is so small is must not be any good.” Measuring objectives in an age-apporpriate way is assessment.

    The curriculum plan also should plot out in some detail basic topics for at least five years ahead. This plan could be as simple as keeping a record of all lesson plans (or session records in a more progressive school), to ensure that children do not repeat the same activity year after year. I also advocate for creating a system for curriculum integration across the life span — easily done in a congregation using the lectionary, or in a post-Christian church like mine good advance planning and record-keeping will do the same thing.

    Community support is essential. Community support should involve things like making sure the Sunday school adheres to the convenant or mission of the church, holding open meetings to invite community input into the planning process, involving children, teens, and adults together in key activites (preferably at least part of the worship service every week), getting non-parent volunteers to help out with the Sunday school in some way (even just providing snacks!). Parents/guardians are of course a key ingredient of community support, and there are a myriad of ways to keep parents engaged in the educational process.

    Teacher training should include safety training, and encouragement for teachers to take care of their own spiritual/religious life. Teachers should be trained that their primary task is to serve as a role model for young people, so young people can get to know a religious adult who cares about them.

    Resources: Church of the Larger Fellowship is still the best at this — check their Web site (and tgr, when I was at CLF we were designing materials for more than just home use).

    I could say lots more, but that’s the basics. Having said all that, tiny church schools can be absolutely the best experience for both kids and adult teachers — you can really do some deep religion in a tiny school, you can really pass on the tradition in formal and informal ways. Bigger Sunday schools are just a compromise for when you have too many children for a tiny Sunday school.

    That last paragraph applies for tiny youth programs, too. We have a two-teen youth group in my current church, and it’s fantastic. Our latest project — we cook dinner for each other, and talk about the morality of food and eating — it gets deep, and has become very religious (table fellowship! do I have to spell it out?).

    And Scott, if you’re doing a tiny Sunday school yourself, I’d love to talk shop — call me at the New Bedford church.

  4. Hey, Scott, I just realized that you linked to my old Sunday school teacher manual for the Berkeley church — somewhere I did a version of that for First Unitarian in Athol, Mass., where we had two kids — if I can find it, I’ll put it up on my Web site (though it’s not much different than the one that’s up now).

  5. Naw, I’m not doing anything like it — the Swedenborgian church I attend has one very small infant in the parish in any case — but I was asking because it was the sort of thing that can lead a lot of churches to an impasse.

    Do you — or anyone else — have a standard resource about what are age-appropriate objectives. I can see having that would help and not having it would be hard to reproduce in the kind of church I’m describing.

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