GraceLink: Linking children with Christ

A dynamic new Sabbath School curriculum to reach children of all ages.

Rene Alexenko Evans is a freelance writer from Franklin, Tennessee

Something exciting is happening in children's Sabbath Schools around the world. Here is a sampling of the things people have been saying about this dynamic new approach to Children's Sabbath School.

Sabbath School leaders: "The children are enthusiastic about Sabbath School attendance, and some parents are already pressing for it to be in Arabic" (Cyprus).

"With these new lessons I have gone from 5-10 students to 20+ students. I have eight volunteers. I believe they are from parents and adults visiting the class and seeing the kids having so much fun while they learn" (Georgia, USA)

"All I can say is Wow! What a cool way of teaching. Thank you" (Iowa, USA).

"The children love to be able to experience the lessons. They get a chance to live the stories and they remember them better that way" (Iceland).

"While working in Lebanon, one of our concerns was getting the children to Sabbath School on time. When we began using the GraceLink readiness suggestions, children were pushing their parents to get to Sabbath School early. We started 30 minutes early for the eager children, as English was a second or third language for [some of them]. We were thrilled when after only a few weeks, all the children came early and Sabbath School was so successful that folks invited their non- Adventist friends to come" (Missionary).

Parents and grandparents: "My grandchildren had not been to church in a while; their parents had virtually stopped coming. Since the GraceLink lessons have started, the children enjoy Sabbath School so much that their parents have started bringing them again" (California, USA).

"My children love to read and do their GraceLink primary lessons every evening. Our family worships have been given a new vita min injection with this new GraceLink material, and my husband and I have also learned so much" (Finland).

"My two young boys have not liked their Sabbath School class for a while. Since we've started attending a church that uses the GraceLink materials for kids, they can hardly wait for Sabbath School. But the best part is that as a result of this new Sabbath School class, they are really excited about the Bible always studying it now and asking me questions" (from a bulletin board forum).

Children: "We had such an interesting and fun Bible study today. I want to read the story again" (Finland).

"It helps me come closer to God" (13-year-old, West Virginia, USA).

"My friend came to Sabbath School with me and said that Sabbath School is a lot better than Sunday School at her church" (Junior, Tennessee, USA).

The subject of all these comments is a brand-new set of 624 Sabbath School lessons for children from birth through age 14. The new curriculum, called GraceLink, was first introduced at the Junior-Teen level in the year 2000. Primary followed the next year, and Kindergarten and Beginner's lessons were introduced this year, 2002.

Why GraceLink?

The roots of the GraceLink curriculum go back to the ValueGenesis studies the Seventh-day Adventist Church conducted in the late 1980s. Those studies showed that a sizeable majority of Adventist youth had poorly developed faith, did not understand the good news of the gospel, and believed their salvation was basically determined by their conduct.

Church leaders looked at that information and compared it to the existing Sabbath School curriculum. Most of the lessons were 20-to-25 years old and had received only minor face-lifts since being introduced.

Rather than focusing on one Bible story and point, Sabbath School time was divided into program time and story time, with neither of these activities having much to do with the other. Besides this, the entire curriculum was ancient compared to current educational theory and practice.

Next, Church leaders looked at the children. They've changed. Just ask a teacher who's been in the classroom for 30 years. Blame it on television, video games, lousy parenting, divorce and remarriage, "noisy" environments, or a host of other factors, but children today have shorter attention spans; inferior reading, writing, and oral language skills.

On top of this, when compared with children in the 1970s, as a rule, today's child has a reduced ability to concentrate and absorb information.1 We may not like it and we may abhor the causes, but the fact remains these are the kids who come to Sabbath School and whom we must reach on Sabbath morning.

Then, in 1995, research among children's leaders in the Seventh-day Adventist Church indicated both a widespread desire for new Sabbath School materials and a surprisingly large number of churches that were turning to non-Adventist sources for religious education materials. If you add to these concerns the fact that 50 percent of Adventist children in North America (more in other parts of the world) do not attend Adventist schools, a real crisis emerges.

Church leaders soon realized that the Church weekly children's pro gram lacked something. In 1996 the General Conference Sabbath School World Curriculum Committee accept ed a proposal for a new Sabbath School curriculum. Thus, GraceLink.

What's new?

1. International collaboration. GraceLink is a ground-breaking project in several ways. From the very beginning it involved Sabbath School and children's ministries leaders from each world division of the Church. Some 60 writers from around the globe met at the initial writer's conference in 1997, and about a third of all the writers on all levels have continued to come from outside the United States. The writers have strived to create lessons with international appeal by focusing on experiences and emotions that cross cultural boundaries.

2. Faith dynamics. Each lesson in GraceLink is centered around one of four dynamics of the Christian faith. The dynamic changes each month.

Grace lessons, to begin with, emphasize what God has done for us. This includes Christ's life and death for us, and includes the love, forgiveness, and acceptance we have in Christ.

Grace can be summed up by saying "God loves me."

Worship lessons center on our response to God's grace. Worship is presented as a total commitment to God and includes obedience, Sabbath keeping, faithfulness in tithe and offerings, as well as corporate worship and praise. "I love God" is the foundation of worship.

Community lessons stress the idea that members of God's family love and care for each other. Community includes the family at home as well as the wider Church family. Community reinforces the value "We love each other."

Service takes that love and extends it to the wider world of nonbelievers. It includes witnessing and evangelism and ways we can help other people.

The idea behind service is to make disciples out of nonbelievers, because "We love you too."

3. Current educational theory. GraceLink is the first Sabbath School curriculum to take into account the different ways that children learn, and to incorporate the very best educational methods available. Using educational theorist Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences, the curriculum provides information in a variety of ways to appeal to different learners.

4. Total Hour Teaching. Each lesson in the GraceLink is centered on one Bible story and makes one point, which is repeated several times throughout the hour. This concept is called "Total Hour Teaching." Total Hour Teaching breaks every lesson down into four parts:

A readiness activity begins the lesson. This is an activity or exercise that piques the interest of the class and gives the children a reason to want to know more about the Bible story for the day. This part of the lesson appeals to the imaginative learners, who ask, "Why should I learn this?"

The Bible story is presented in a way that involves the students, often by having them act it out themselves. This makes the Bible story far more memorable than listening to some one tell it. This part of the lesson frequently includes an activity to help the children learn the memory verse. It always takes students into the Bible to read the story themselves or analyze other scriptures that relate to the main point. This section of the lesson meets the needs of the analytical learner, who wants to know "What do I need to learn?"

Applying the lesson helps the student make the connection between the Bible story and their daily lives, by giving them practical ways to incorporate what they have learned in Sabbath School into everyday living. This section answers the main question of common-sense learners, who ask, "How does it work in my life?"

Sharing the lesson is meant to appeal to dynamic learners, who want to know, "What can this become? How can I share this with others?" It gives students a chance to develop ways to teach others what they have learned.

5. Emotional connections. Each activity concludes with questions that draw meaning out of the experience. This is where teachers help the children make the emotional connection that helps them remember the lesson.

"Experience sculpts the brain," says author and educational consultant Pat Wolfe. "You learn much better by doing something than by reading about it. Reading about something doesn't change the brain a lot; doing it changes the brain a great deal." And, "emotions stamp the brain with extra vividness."

6. New lesson on Sabbath. Also new is the way GraceLink introduces the lesson on Sabbath and gives follow-up Bible study suggestions for the week ahead. This puts all students on an equal footing and eliminates the tension between the few students who have studied their lesson and know the story and memory verse, and the majority who haven't and don't.

A GraceLink Sabbath School class might be a noisy, bustling place, but that doesn't mean that learning isn't taking place. In fact, it means just the opposite. Children are learning because they're doing.

"I think the GraceLink curriculum, more than any other curriculum that I have worked with, gives us the tools to reach all the different children with the message of a loving God," says a children's ministries director in Finland. And that, of course, was the goal all along.

1 See Jane Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).

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Rene Alexenko Evans is a freelance writer from Franklin, Tennessee

October 2002

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