…and some getting started advice and software recommendations.
The following article is an updated version of an article originally published in several magazines, including: Christian Computing, Scroll, Presbyterian Outlook, The Advocate, Christian Educator, Interpreter, and Clergy Journal. This article was written before there was any research or track record about kids, computers and education. Now there’s plenty, and the research continues to back up what we’ve known all along: when you speak in the language of the hearer, you often get heard!
In Their Own Language: Computers, Kids, and Christian Education
by Neil MacQueen
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the gift of speaking in a different language, -the language of the hearer.
In today’s church that includes sharing the Gospel through the language of multimedia and computers.
Since 1990, thousands of churches have supplemented their curriculum with Christian software -bringing excitement and learning to their classrooms. Is it any wonder? Kids love computers. They are eager to use them, give the screen their full attention, and want to come back next Sunday to do it again.
You can’t teach a kid who isn’t there,
doesn’t want to be there,
and doesn’t come back.
Churches don’t have the luxury of compulsory attendance and making students pay attention by grading them. We must be more attractive, and this is what computers do.
In a world of competing attentions, distractions, and alternatives, Christian software is a language that attracts, teaches, and keep kids coming back.
I first began experimenting with computers in my Sunday School back in 1990. I was the Associate Minister and in charge of Sunday School. We had just started the Workshop Rotation Model which teaches Bible stories through various media. We were looking for new kinds of media when several members suggested “why not look at computers” I was skeptical. Back then, computers were slow and expensive, and the software left a lot to be desired. So we started an experiment, and couldn’t get the kids out of the room. They hovered around the computer, -eyes wide open. And when their parents arrived and hovered, they too became part of our wonderful problem.
I’ll never forget the day one of my teachers said to me, “Imagine what this is going to be like when we learn how to actually teach with these things!” That began my quest to better understand what was going on in front of those screens, and how best to harness it for teaching God’s Word. After a few years, I started writing articles and speaking about our experience and insights. Eventually, other churches wanted to know how-to, so myself and some volunteers started Sunday School Software Ministries Inc. to field questions, recommend software, and distribute our manual. By 1996 it had exploded into a full time labor of love. I started speaking at seminars, sold about a dozen different titles, and created this website. Then in 2001 we started developing the kind of software we wanted to teach with.
My software is now a free download for the members of Rotation.org. Check it out!
YES, computers are more expensive than construction paper and popsicle sticks, …but they also get better results.
The most expensive type of Sunday School is one that gives families another excuse not to show up, and bores young people into membership oblivion. –And we pay for it with struggling youth groups. We pay for it when our kids don’t come back to the church as adults, and don’t bring their kids. But the biggest expense is to the kids themselves. Sunday School is a big part of their faith formation. When we bore-away a kid from church, statistically, we are boring them away from God.
Barna Research did a 2001-2003 study of spiritual formation and the church. George Barna admits that going into the study, he vastly unappreciated the importance of children’s ministry to both the child’s need, and the church’s future. The 3 year study concluded that we have until age 13 to make our best faith impressions on children. Yet, as their study pointed out, 7 out of every 8 dollars in the church are spent on adults.
That said, computers are not as expensive as you might think. The math shows that they actually cost less than donut holes for the kids and all the free coffee we give the adults. See my article on the “real cost” of computers and software. It has a lot of real math, and naysayers hate math!
The results of not attracting and teaching our kids are far more expensive in the long run for our churches than software or computers. The Church needs to improve many of its approaches to young people. And without a doubt, reaching them through “their” language, is one great way to attract and raise up this next generation. In fact, it seems so obvious as to be indisputable, -especially these days. The only question is “how to do it right” …and that’s why I created Sunday Software.
Getting started often easier and less expensive than most people realize.
1. Our pews are filled with computer literate members.
2. Many members have laptop computers which can be brought to church.
3. Good used computers are widely available from business and individuals who regularly upgrade.
4. New inexpensive computer equipment is within the range of many C.E. budgets or special donations.
5. Many churches already have computer equipment sitting idle on Sunday morning. 6. Bible story software is not very expensive and is reusable.
When I first wrote this article, I needed to convince people that computers could attract the mind’s attention in a powerful way and were more than a fad. Seems silly to waste time on that argument today, doesn’t it.
Today’s families immediately understand why computers in education make sense. They are using computers in unprecedented numbers and ways. They have them at home, use them at work, and support their use in the schools. They are eager to support a Sunday School experience that puts smiles on the faces of their children. Few parents want their children to go through the kind of Sunday School they themselves experienced. And when they see their kids eagerly learning with software, the parents are thrilled.
The research about the benefits of interactive software in education continue to pile up too.
The latest I’ll quote comes from an article about Kids and Tech in the 8/18/13 issue of TIME. According to an MIT study, “ENGAGEMENT” in onscreen content dramatically increases content retention. Computers aren’t “another screen” kids are tuning-out in front of like TV. Creatively presented content is focusing their attention and improving their memory of the content.
But this isn’t just about attracting kids. If it were, cable tv and donuts would be cheaper and just as attractive. It’s about teaching them with an attractive tool. I’ve spent a lot of time with kids at the computer in my Sunday School. Something special happens when students begin to interact with software. They are eager, they are cooperative, they are intrigued, and they ready to open up. And because they enjoy software, they will happily go over the material more than once.
Teaching with software…
A lot of people assume that the computers and software get in the way of the teacher-student relationship. But nothing is farther from the truth –if you do it RIGHT. Software is a tool for the teacher and students to use together. It doesn’t replace the teacher. At the computer, the teacher becomes the “guide by the side.” We go through the software with our students. The software does not replace us or the lesson plan.
We begin every class with Bible study, and after using some software often find ourselves in discussion or some other related activity. Typically, we have two or three students per computer. Any more and they become passive observers. My small church has four computers in our lab. My co-teacher and I will each sit between two computers. Usually we’re all working on the same program. That means we have to have four copies of it. That’s a bit expensive, but you can’t copy the software, and it would be very difficult to lead one class using four different programs at the same time! Each week a new group of students is rotated into our lab. We might have preschool/early readers one week, teens the next, and grades 3-5 after that. It depends on the schedule and the software we have.
Other than the “lab” model, many churches simply support a teacher who has a computer in their classroom, or brings in their laptop from time to time. Some pastors bring software into their Confirmation programs. Others provide software for families to take home. Software is one type of Christian education material that families are eager to use.
We use interactive Bible story software which often has discussion questions built right in. These are kid-friendly, animated and interactive multimedia programs. We also use scripture memory software, creative writing software for reflection, and Christian game software that has content. Today’s teachers appreciate it when the media has the content built-in. Takes the pressure of their shoulders, and makes it easier to teach.
Many pastors and educators are surprised such software even exists. The denominational catalogs and corner Christian bookstores rarely carry much of a software selection. And now you know why I had to create Sunday Software Inc. We needed to get the word out! …and we needed to provide the teaching support and teaching design that the medium deserved.
Most Christian education software is designed with an ecumenical flavor. 100% of the good Christian software runs on Windows, and there’s very little for Mac right now.
We recommend getting started with nothing older than a “5 year old PC”. These FREE computers will run most of what’s out there for the next couple of years. Antiquated equipment creates frustration.
As the disciples at Pentecost experienced, every teaching innovation has its nay-sayers standing to the side slinging arrows. Some say we are drunk on technology. Some say the kids don’t need our best efforts (“Back in my day a Bible and a folding chair was enough for me!”) But those of us who have experienced computers in the classroom are reveling in a new language that connects with this generation.
Like Peter, we say, “No, we’re not drunk. It’s only Sunday morning. A time for amazement and astonishment. A time for our sons and daughters to dream dreams, and the old to see visions….” (Acts 2)