I had been a pastor at a fledging church I helped found for a little less than six years when I was shaken to my toes. The wife of one of the original families who helped start the church informed me that their family would be leaving and would be joining a much more conservative church down the street. I was stunned. Not only were these folks looked upon as pillars of the church, but I considered them friends. With tears in her eyes she explained that their teenage son who had been having some difficulties in school wanted to go to the other church’s youth program and Sunday school. She went on to say that she felt it important that they support their son and that the entire family attends the same church. I was hurt and saddened but I could not argue with her logic or reasoning.
It was nearly a year later however, before I got the second half of this painful lesson. I ran into the young son at a local football game. I had known this kid since he was six or seven years old and now he was almost as tall as me. I gave him a hug and we went through an awkward exchange. For some reason he felt compelled to tell me that he missed me and missed “lot of the things at my old church.” Then he went on to say that he thought that he was learning a lot more things at his new church. When I asked him like what, he responded; “They teach who Jesus was, how to read the Bible and I learn about God.”
I responded, “That’s great, I am glad you like it there and stay in touch.” I think I smiled but inside I was torn up. I went home exhausted that night but slept very little. The next couple of days, I plowed through my sermons; I looked at our children’s curriculum and the outline I had created for the nine month Confirmation class. I defensively kept screaming in my head, “What do you mean you are learning more? We pride ourselves on being a questioning, teaching church! You are not learning. You are memorizing!”
I huffed and I puffed and told myself that we should be proud. We had Jesus Seminar scholars come to our church before they were “On the Road.” We had professors from the local universities speak to us about the early Christian roots. Our Sunday schools were designed so that the children could have an open mind so that when they were mature enough they could make their own decisions. A New Testament scholar at one local university said that our Confirmation curriculum was more advanced than some of his own classes. What the hell was this kid saying that he was learning more?
After a couple of weeks of this thrashing, I finally calmed down enough to begin to ask myself what could I learn from this young man. What was missing in our approach to Christian teaching? What were we really teaching our children? What did this young man want that he did not find at our progressive church? What was the pedagogical model we had created, or more importantly what model did we need to create?
This started a fourteen year project that was never completed, but we learned a lot. It is very difficult for one midsize church to create a full curriculum with limited staff and volunteers, although we made a valiant effort. We brought in outside consultants, read books and tried lots of different things. Some things worked and some did not, but we looked back on the ones that did not work as important lessons. Over the years some principles about our children’s education began to become more clear. I have observed many of these things in churches that I have visited all over the country.
1. Children want to learn from people who believe in what they are teaching. Models of behavior are far better teachers than dogmatic rules or threats of suffering.
2. As they mature, children want to know the reason that they need be there on Sunday mornings, other than you are supposed to be there.
3. Children crave community and the support that comes from it and a foundation of common understanding.
4. It is much easier to teach children to listen to their “inner voice” when they are young than it is if we wait until we think they are old enough.
5. Children want some specific teachings and guidelines that help them find peace, joy and balance in their lives. We believed that Jesus had provided those teachings.
6. Children want a curriculum that is experiential, that provides experiences of inspiration.
7. Children, like most humans, ultimately seek a spiritual connection to something bigger than themselves. It is OK to call that connection God.
Even with these helpful guidelines, we found it a major challenge to create a curriculum that reflected them and it is not always easy to find teachers who are comfortable teaching them. The positive experiences we had in those years far outweighed the negatives, however. As we develop the new TCPC Children’s Curriculum, we are using some of those same guidelines with many of the same goals.
We want to foster our children’s concern for the whole human family and share the ideal that every human being is entitled to rights and freedoms simply because they are part of Creation. We want them to feel included and be inclusive with those of every class, ethnic persuasion, every sexual orientation, every religion and age. We would like to teach them to stand up to defeat the injustices that confront every one of us each day. We want them to grow up experiencing the Oneness in life and to become abundantly aware of all Creation of which they are an important part.
It is our hope and prayer that when a child tells a friend (or former pastor) about their progressive Christian church, they will be able to say: “I learned a lot of things at my church. I learned from the Bible and my teachers about Jesus’ way to experience God and the Oneness of All Life.”