They were the parents of three children. I first met them at the Sabbath fellowship lunch. After some small talk, our conversation turned serious.
"We are searching for a place to settle and a church in which to worship," the father said. "To be honest, churchgoing wasn't always a priority for us. But after the kids came, everything changed. We need a church that has the best children's program."
One of the most significant problems facing ministers is how to foster spiritual formation in the children in their congregations. Spiritual formation is the process whereby people transform into Christlikeness. For many parents, a child-friendly church plays a significant role in their choice of where to live. They are concerned for their children's growth in faith. Often they feel they do not have sufficient skills to build faith in their children. They look to ministers and the church for assistance. They need the help of a faith community that can facilitate the spiritual formation of their children. But the question is: Are our churches equipped to assist them?
A unified curriculum
A unified church curriculum that emphasizes the infusion of religious language into the lives of those in the congregation provides a valuable tool for spiritual formation in children and parents. The central elements of such a curriculum are religious language and Bible stories. Religious language is an important tool for building faith. By religious language I mean words and concepts that Christians throughout history have drawn from Bible stories: words such as incarnation, idolatry, salvation, grace, antichrist, commandment, redemption, etc. These words conceptualize our faith. Taken together, the words that comprise religious language create a kind of methodology of faith.
However, we do not incorporate this language into our lives as much as we should. For example, one seldom overhears people conversing in a shopping mail about the finer points of forgiveness or redemption. Our lives and those of our children are too segmented into sacred and secular categories. A unified church curriculum can, to a significant degree, remedy this problem. Its goal is to induce people to incorporate religious language into their daily lives thus furthering their spiritual formation. It can do this by constantly reminding congregations of the meaning and purpose of religious language through Bible stories.
The content of a unified curriculum
Bible stories provide the content of a unified curriculum for the church. Since religious language derives its meaning from Bible stories, these stories are the key means of reminding people of the meaning and purpose of religious language. Moses spoke of this: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:5-9, NRSV).
This text reveals several concerns. First, spiritual nurture can result only when faith building touches all aspects of life. That is what a unified curriculum should do integrate religion in the entire life. Second, children in their formative years should be the intentional target of such a curriculum. Third, the key method for accomplishing faith nurture is the repeated narration of how God has led in the past. Bible stories do this with great effect, helping the children to remember, understand, and live out the story in their lives. Here lie the advantages of a unified church curriculum.
Framing a unified curriculum
Framing a unified curriculum can be accomplished in two basic ways. The first is the use of a church calendar, the second is to follow the themes outlined in the Seventh-day Adventist children's curriculum. People usually order their lives around some sort of a calendar or schedule, such as a work, school, or sport season schedule. A unified church curriculum can provide another alter native a calendar in which life is ordered around biblical themes and the language of faith.
The traditional Christian calendar provides a convenient and theologically sound model: beginning with the birth of Christ, continuing through Pentecost, and concluding with the birth of the church. Using this model provides for the telling and retelling of the story of redemption over the course of each year. Pastors can integrate each theme into the broader context of their worship services and other church ministries. This plan weaves church programs, the secular calendar, and the story of redemption into a braid that extends throughout each year.
A second frame around which to build a unified curriculum is the children's Sabbath School curriculum. Although a church calendar addresses the entire congregation, the second option addresses children more specifically. Many of our Sabbath School educational curricula, such as the General Conference Children's Sabbath School curriculum from January 2000 provides an excellent resource. Much research and planning have gone into these programs.
The lessons are designed to teach four key Christian themes: "Grace: God loves me"; "Worship: I show love to God"; "Community: How we relate as the body of Christ"; and "Service: Reaching out to those in the greater community." Biblical texts and stories taught during each quarter relate directly to the theme of the quarter. The repetition on the theme over a period of time allows for the incorporation of various life experiences of a child through the eyes of Grace, Worship, Community, and Service.
These four themes provide a nice framework upon which to build a unified church curriculum. Build the curriculum on either the specific stories and texts used in the children's curriculum or simply focus on the themes. The themes are also helpful as they move in progression from understanding the love of God to putting love into action. Again, it is important for the themes to pervade all the church ministries.
A curriculum for the entire church life
Regardless of the framework that one chooses, a unified church curriculum requires much planning and organizing. It requires the pastor or church staff to work through what they desire the congregation to receive each week for the next year and then to incorporate the themes and texts into all the ministries of the church. These ministries include preaching, children's sermons, children's Sabbath School, some adult Sabbath Schools, children's church, mid week services, small group themes, and helps for family worship.
First, consider the pastor's role of preaching during worship. Preaching provides direction for the church. What a pastor preaches sets the tone for the church for the year. Thus it is imperative when installing a unified curriculum that sermons articulate and define the themes on which the church will focus during the year. Subsequently, the themes will permeate the church ministries both on and off the church campus. From the sermon children's teachers learn basics that they can pass on to children.
A second opportunity for spiritual formation during the worship service is the children's sermon. One must differentiate between a children's sermon and a children's story. All too often the children's section of the worship service consists of a story that has little to do with the sermon of the day or the theme of the service. While the story may have a good moral, it does little to include children in the corporate worship that takes place around them. In a children's sermon, on the other hand, one presents the sermon for the day in a language and a form that children can understand. It may take the form of a story or an exposition. The important point is that children are able to grow in faith along with their parents and within a common theme.
On-site church ministries com prise the third component of a unified church curriculum. One way to continue the weekly theme outside the main worship service is Children's Church, a service designed for children to understand and participate in all aspects of worship. This can be done monthly or quarterly or as frequently as your situation warrants.
The Sabbath School and midweek services are other on-site options for spiritual formation. By providing material on the theme for these groups, parents learn biblical stories in more depth. As parents study in more depth with other adults, they learn the language of faith more fluently. This helps them to teach their children and strive to incorporate the language of faith into daily experiences.
Adventurer and Pathfinder clubs are prime times to continue teaching and interacting with children. Club leaders who provide additional learning experiences on the theme help develop spiritual formation in children.
The fourth component is the arena outside the church. Again, we too often segment our lives into separate secular and religious categories. Individual churches can help to remedy this problem by aiding and encouraging people to incorporate their experiences at church into the other parts of their lives. Pastors, for example, should provide people with incentives to continue contemplating the themes in their sermon after they leave the church building. A great way to encourage people to continue contemplating the sermon after they leave church is for pastors to develop discussion questions about the sermon topic. The questions should consider different age groups from small children to youth and young adults still living at home. This helps the family to talk about the particular biblical theme throughout the week. The language of the Bible continues outside of church and moves into the car, home, work, and school.
Discussion starters on the sermon are a good way to start faith talk in the home. Of course, one should not expect such discussions to take the place of family worships. This is the final area in which the church can help minister to children by providing family worship helps and resources on the topic/texts in which the church community is studying. Parents will feel more competent leading and starting family worships when they have already heard some input at church on the topic.
Creating a unified church curriculum takes work, and much planning. Faith building is not an easy task, but it is well worth the effort.