Over the past decade, worship attendance, annual giving, and participation in Christian education have doubled at the United Church of Christ in Norwell, Massachusetts. We have learned that tending to growth requires tending to worship and education for all ages. Arguably the most significant shift in our congregation has been our emphasis on education and worship for all. Like many mainline Protestant churches in our country, worship and church school for children were held at the same time. Parents and other adults worshiped upstairs while children attended church school downstairs. The children were invited to join in worship when there was a children’s message, or when it was Youth Sunday. Even on the surface of this arrangement we recognized numerous flaws.
First, and most immediately pressing, was that issue of recruiting church school teachers. Because church school was held during worship, and because worship was an engaging activity for adults, most adults avoided teaching because they didn’t want to miss Sunday’s service. There was also the significant issue of teacher education. We were offering a fairly paltry assortment of Christian education opportunities for adults, which meant that the only time adults really learned anything about their faith was during worship. If teachers couldn’t attend worship, that meant they were not learning themselves, and if they were not learning themselves, what were they prepared to teach our children? This was most glaringly apparent in the fact that our minister of children’s education never had the opportunity to attend worship. While teachers taught only a few sessions at most during a given program year, our minister of children’s education was downstairs in our basement classrooms all year long. In that educational model, the leading educator of our children never had the opportunity to worship or learn more about the Christian faith.
A cursory examination of our educational program revealed that there were glaring issues, but what slowly came into greater focus was the implicit and unacceptable message we were giving to the members and friends of our congregation. Having adults worshiping God at the same time that our children were in church school communicated that Christian education for adults was not important and that having children participate in worship was not important. We had not intended to send such a careless message, but our church tradition and convention was communicating just that—children needed only education, and grown-ups needed only worship.
Once we realized the unhealthy faith dynamic we were sustaining, we knew it had to change if we were going to grow in faith as a community. Due to teacher recruitment issues, over the years we had convened different task forces to look into other educational models we might employ. We came to the conclusion that our course ahead would involve more education and commitment on the part of church staff and membership. We knew that worship was more like an educational vitamin supplement than a full meal, and we knew that if children didn’t learn to worship it was unlikely that they would ever acquire the taste for it. We began to suspect that expanding to a two-hour model for education and worship on Sunday morning was the path we needed to take. However, we were reluctant to break from our traditional model, largely, and personally, because of fear. We knew our educational model was spiritually unhealthy and structurally compromised, and it was unclear if anyone had the courage and resolve to make a change that might fix it.
With the encouragement of council, I drafted a proposal for a new approach to worship and education, and the church followed it. Thankfully, church leadership recognized the importance of the situation we were in and acted to strengthen our educational ministries by enacting an initiative that offered education and worship for everyone. We would extend our Sunday morning offerings to allow for comprehensive adult education and worship participation for our children. We were choosing to learn together and to worship together.
The transition was surprisingly smooth at first, with some immediate and truly hopeful results. The opportunity to offer adult Christian education on Sunday mornings reinvigorated our adult Christian education ministry team, and within short order we were able to offer several different adult education classes every Sunday morning. Because of our limited offerings in previous years, this meant that participation by adults in Christian education hit levels we had never seen before. On any given Sunday we would have dozens of adults gathering for Bible studies, book studies, and classes on spiritual disciplines and other topics. Not only that, it suddenly became much easier to recruit children’s church school teachers because church school was no longer competing with Sunday worship for adult involvement. Without question, the number of young children in our program declined due to a lack of willingness by some parents to commit to an extra hour of church on Sunday morning. That said, with the addition of our middle school and high school Bible study classes, the participation of our teenagers on Sunday mornings ballooned. While we always long for a deeper commitment to education by more members of our congregation, we could not ignore the fact that the life and vitality of our church had been enhanced by increased time spent together in educational activities.
Of course, “Education for All” invariably meant we would be engaging in “Worship for All.” The adjustment to having even our youngest children in worship proved to be more challenging than adding an extra hour to our Sunday morning experience. We tried our best to prepare for the transition in worship. We still provided nursery care for infants and toddlers, we made sure we had activity bags made up and set out for families with children who might struggle to pay attention, and we even offered Sunday morning classes for parents about how to parent in the pew. Even with those preparations in place, the children struggled, as did their parents. Our first month or two of worshiping together was undeniably noisy. Thankfully, after several months, we noticed that children were becoming accustomed to being in worship for an hour. Our services became less noisy. And the children began to actively participate in the leadership of the service. Learning together, worshiping together, and being together in fellowship are worth the challenges that come with just such a transition.
It is important to note that the particular challenges we faced during our time of transition still persist to this day. The objection to forcing our congregation to get up and get going even earlier on Sunday morning struck a chord with me. Sunday was supposed to be the Sabbath, and perhaps our increased educational demands were stripping families of some of that sacred time. The most difficult aspect of our transition was the realization that education, worship, and fellowship within Christ’s community are not priorities for everyone. Parents value secular education, and they have higher expectations for their children in school than they do for their children when it comes to faith education. For many families, organized sports are more important than organized religion. And many people refuse to take on much if any responsibility at all for the religious education of children. Some parents don’t want to teach their children how to worship, and plenty of adults still refuse to teach church school. With the increased educational expectations of our church has come the increased realization that matters of faith often inhabit a rather peripheral location in our human and cultural landscape. This reality is certainly disappointing to those of us who make faith a priority, but it is helpful information when making decisions in the church. Now when we make a program decision in the church, we always try to determine what is best for the spiritual growth and development for our people, not what is easiest. The church’s role is not to make life easier for people but to teach people how to live life better.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Excerpted and adapted from Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitalityby Stephen Chapin Garner with Jerry Thornell, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality
by Stephen Chapin Garner with Jerry Thornell
In Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality, Stephen Chapin Garner and Jerry Thornell share the story of their home congregation, the United Church of Christ in Norwell, MA. This average congregation has approached congregational life in a not-so-average way. Garner and Thornell don’t claim to have the secret to church growth and vitality, but in sharing the story of their simple church in New England, they give hope and innovative ideas to congregations in regions all over the country .
Listening to God: Spiritual Formation in the Congregation
by John Ackerman
People today are less interested in thinking about God while being much more interested in knowing God, observes spiritual director and author John Ackerman, who served as a parish pastor for four decades. In this insightful book, Ackerman outlines ways congregations can promote members’ spiritual growth toward a greater intimacy with God. This book is about the whole system—individuals and small groups, lay leaders and clergy, worship and education—everything we do in a congregation to form us more fully into the body of Christ and to become aware of Christ in us .
In God’s Presence: Encountering, Experiencing, and Embracing the Holy in Worship
by Craig A. Satterlee
Too many worship services, suggests Graham Standish, are perfunctory, suggesting that most churches don’t think much about how to connect people with God. In God’s Presence makes the case that congregations must restore intentionality and authenticity to worship in a way that will open people to the Holy. Intentionality, he says, reflects a deep understanding of what tradition has attempted to do, what contemporary people are hungry for, what is going on in our culture, and how to connect the three.
Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities
by Cassandra D. Carkuff-Williams
In Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities, Williams explores early Christian communities and their practices in order to identify principles for discipleship formation. She then offers expert advice on how to approach modern-day issues of Christian education and discipleship formation based on the examples set forth by our earliest forebears in the faith. This book provides an overview of the past in order that we might take the proven example of early Christians and apply it toward our present and our future .