There was a time when all we had to do was open the door.
But those days are long gone in most churches. People like to point fingers at the outside culprits (sports, kids these days, parents, etc.), but the truth is, we have always been competing against our selves, and still are.
Those of us who lead are competing against the things we can no longer see and smell (both literally and figuratively speaking), …the things we are unwilling to change or don’t think matter.
Back in the day, our sheer numbers enabled our conceit. We thought classrooms like the one pictured above were fine because our rolls were bigger. We thought attendance each Sunday of some 50% to 70% of our enrollment was good!
- But where are all those kids now that were raised in that kind of Sunday School?
- And why haven’t they returned with their children?
- And given this lack of long-term result, why are we still doing the same old things?
IT WAS NEVER ABOUT THE NUMBERS
If anything, the past has taught us that “numbers” is not the same thing as evangelism. It’s the quality of the Sunday School experience and message, not the size of our rolls, that we should be MOST concerned with.
“Transfering Their Yes -to Jesus”
The quality of our rooms, teaching, and activities help children say “yes.” I started Sunday Software and helped invent the Rotation Model to “address the yes,” as much as spur, creativity, teacher-preparedness, and improve Bible literacy.
But “yes” doesn’t start in the classroom. It begins with communications and the experience of arriving.
Five Things Today’s Sunday School Can Do Better:
You and I could probably come up with a list of 20 things. But lets at least get the ball rolling with these five important ways to get a “yes” from our children and parents.
1. Communicate via Cellphone
If you’re still relying on bulletin announcements, newsletters, and postcards, you are a dinosaur. Today’s parents communicate via Text Messaging, Facebook, and Email. They use Google Calendar to schedule and keep track of things. Thus, a serious Sunday School has to make the collection of adult and youth email addresses and phone-numbers a priority, not an after-thought.
Some details: Did you know people can receive your Twitter “tweets” as text messages on their cellphones without having to sign up for Twitter? (Twitter is a free text broadcasting service, and not just for celebrities and presidents!) Solution: Create a Sunday School Twitter account and invite people to “follow” your announcements through their cellphone text messaging app. (See Twitter’s FAQs for the simple instructions.) 75% of young parents have a Facebook account. Solution: Create a church parents Facebook “Group” (not a “Page”) that lets group members and teachers “post” their announcements, classroom photos, and videos. Create a calendar of special Sunday School events in Google Calendars (don’t over do it) so parents can download-insert those dates into their calendar and receive reminders. Use online sign-up apps and forms for events that will automatically alert them via their phone.
2. Smell Better
Many church buildings suffer from ‘old building’ smell, …a mixture of mildew, floor cleaner, bathroom sanitizer, dirt, and old perfume. The problem with that is the brain remembers and subconsciously labels various smells as “No, I don’t want to be here.”
Many Sunday Schools aren’t that clean either. They suffer from a mixture of dust & clutter, dirty floors, and worn-out furniture and facilities. Because smells and perceptions of cleanliness have such a powerful emotional component related to our sense of “do I like it here,” we have to get this right.
Here are a few quick solutions:
- Put a popcorn machine at your Sunday School welcome table or area.
- Use a subtle orange oil or cinnamon oil diffuser in trouble spots (do not use floral smells).
- Avoid the use of janitorial-supply chemicals in favor of nicer and familiar smelling cleaning supplies, such as, lemon and Febreeze.
- Annually clean carpets, and cover bad spots with new rugs.
- Put motion-controlled scent devices in bathrooms.
- DUST. Dust allergies are one of the most common and make you feel uncomfortable and even sick. Circulate air and upgrade/replace dust filters. Ten-percent of our kids will negatively react to classroom and hallway smells just because they have dust and mold allergies.
- Put things in plastic bins instead of cardboard boxes which retain moisture and smells.
- Have an annual cleaning day.
- Declutter classrooms and clean out supply closets.
- Replace crappy furniture.
- Brighten your hallways and rooms with warm lighting.
- And for gosh sakes, buy new infant and toddler toys and equipment. Your preschool areas shouldn’t look like a museum.
(P.S. If you don’t believe this “smells” thing, then you too have lost your senses.)
3. Improve the welcome and sense of belonging.
Many and adults arrive with “maybe” on their minds. They are naturally nervous about entering into a crowd or building. It’s a brain wiring thing: fear of the unknown (even places they’ve been before). Fortunately, there are many things you can do to smooth the sub-conscious anxiety many people carry with them into church: For example, give them something to do and hold upon entering.
Staff a “snack and nametag table” at the entrance to your program area. The nametags will also allow the classroom teachers to immediately greet students by name. Have teachers give out stickers to younger students to go on their nametag as they arrive in the classroom (its a rubric, …a “device” to initiate contact and comfort). We use these same techniques when inviting people into our home, we just don’t do a great job of it at church. Have ‘first-timers” gift bag for new-comers (a branded plastic cup, church pencils, stickers, brochure, etc.). Use the greeting table as an email and text-msg data collection and training point, and for gosh sakes, don’t stand behind it like a clerk. Invite parents to stay for a time or participate.
We feel we belong when we develop friendships. Fun, interactive learning experiences invite children to feel welcome and safe with each other. It’s one of the things that intrigued me about computers in Sunday School when I first saw kids use them -they provided a “safe” indirect way to interact with each other. Kids who won’t talk to each other over a worksheet will gladly talk to each other about what they see on a screen. (Eye contact with people they don’t know that well can be very intimidating for some kids.)
Encouraging teachers to improve how students relate to each other can provide real benefits. That’s why interactive learning is essential.
4. Reduce the Scariness.
Look at your hallways, lighting, and signage from the point of view of a 6-year-old who is 4 feet tall and can’t read. Solutions: Bright, colorful hallways with visual cues. Decorate with inviting objects and textures, and not just flat paint. Have volunteer “traffic-directors” in the hallways. Decorate doors. Improve your lighting. Give anxious children something to do and hold when they arrive in your classroom. Give an anxious child something to “give to the teacher.” Invite parents to attend with their children as needed, and have your leaders looking out for skittish children.
An important corollary to reducing scary-ness is thinking about the anxiety some of our program styles create. For example, “Children’s worship” and “gathering” times are easy to organize for adults, but big loud groups can trigger anxiety, especially among new-comers. Loud music and lots of motion can be disorienting and intimidating, especially to those with sensory sensitivities (two of my daughters have such). Children may feel anxious, lost, afraid, and even, unsafe. Solutions: Designate areas in the big room with signage/color for age different groups so they know where to go and feel they have a place in the crowd. Make sure group areas are staffed by familiar faces who are trained to welcome kids to their group. Make sure whoever leads the gathering looks and sounds inviting. Keep an eye out for kids who look anxious or withdrawn, the issue may be sensory.
BTW, reduce the “scariness” for parents too. In today’s world, they expect organization, cleanliness, and communication, …and don’t want kids whining about how boring their class was.
5. Improving the Parents’ Arrival and Learning Experience
Children don’t drive themselves to church.
A children’s program that is not also addressing the needs and attractiveness of the church to parents –will eventually fail. Parents have anxieties and attractiveness issues as well. They have welcoming and engagement needs. Ultimately, fulfilling the needs of the parents and discipling them will improve their children’s attendance and discipleship.
Unfortunately, many churches toss parents into “the adult education” groups run by long-time members who have figuratively lost their sense of sight and smell. These classes are typically run by older adults with different needs and sedentary approaches to learning. Solutions: In addition to always having a millennial-friendly, comfortable seating, “real coffee” class led by millennials, if you’re using the Rotation Model, schedule the parents’ class into one of the fun workshops for a “throw back” lesson (art, drama, etc) once a month. Create occasional “after church” cook-outs for parents to mingle.
I hope this list helps your conversation and outreach. Yes, there is so much more we can do! These “5 Things” are the low-hanging fruit.
Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian minister specializing in new approaches and resources for teaching Bible stories to children. In addition to developing interactive Bible story software for www.sundaysoftware.com, he is one of the founders of the Workshop Rotation Model for Sunday School, and a curriculum writer at www.rotation.org.