Low attendance. Boring lectures. Tired students. Unfortunately, this is the reality of most Sunday school classes for teenagers. Most teenagers either do not show up or are showing up very tired and reluctant about their involvement. Can we blame them? Teenagers live busy lives and are under a lot of pressure to perform academically and socially. Students do not want to wake up early Sunday morning to attend another boring lecture, in a boring class-room, after sitting through a busy week of school. We have a big problem.
There is good news. You can refresh Sunday school. You can reignite student excitement and involvement. You can change the ministry you dreaded most into one of the most refreshing meaningful ministries in your youth group. No matter where you are—you have what it takes. It is time to refresh Sunday school and the answer is simple. Stop doing “school” and start connecting with Students.
Connect is a conversational approach to Sunday “school”. A “Connect” ministry has three essential components: 1) a relaxing environment, 2) conversation based small groups and 3) student leadership involvement. The goal of connect is Not to download information. The goal of connect is to build relationships and engage in spiritual conversations that foster spiritual growth.
I have grown up in the Church my entire life. I have been in youth ministry for over six years and never have I participated in a Sunday school ministry that students were excited about, until three years ago. Up until three years ago our sr. high Sunday school had less than 15% of our students involved. We were doing what most church’s and youth ministries do, lectures with discussions in a class-room. Our low point came when we met a few weeks with only 2 or 3 students and on one occasion no one showed up.
One morning when only three students showed up I decided we would do something different, so I grabbed our teaching DVD and brought the kids to caribou. It happened to work out that my van has a DVD player so I was able to show the teaching DVD on the way down. We purchased our beverages, talked about the week, the DVD and then closed in prayer. We had found our answer, we refreshed Sunday school.
The next fall I was excited to continue refreshing Sunday school with what had worked earlier. I brought the idea before the parents at a parent meeting. “For years our sr. high Sunday school attendance has been dropping,” I said. “Last year was so bad there were a few weeks when no students showed up. That is not acceptable and I want to change that this year. Here is my idea. I want to invite the sr. high students to meet at Caribou (one of our local coffee shops, literally just down the road from our church). We will purchase a beverage, talk about our weeks, discuss a spiritual topic and close in prayer”. To my delight, the parents were very supportive. It’s easy to support change when you’ve failed for so many years. After all, our old way of doing Sunday school clearly was not working. Our very first week 36 kids showed up—that’s over 100% of our Wednesday night ministry. Even some of the kids who don’t come to our regular youth group showed up for this. We consistently have over 30 students involved every week and they are growing in their faith and friendships.
The solution was simple. Stop doing “school” and start connecting students. The model for this ministry is simple. Meet at a local coffee shop (or another relaxed environment), connect, discuss a spiritual topic and close in prayer.
If you want to refresh your Sunday school ministry, here are four ways to get started.
1) Change the Name
Stop calling it Sunday “school”. School communicates everything that a student is not interested in on Sunday morning: boring lectures, guided-classroom learning, home-work, stress, and the list goes on. The point is simple. Students don’t want to go to school on Sunday morning, they want a break. Students want to be relaxed.
When we began our new Sunday morning ministry, we changed the name. You can change the name to almost anything you want but we kept it simple. We changed the name to what we wanted to communicate to students, Connect. Our goal was to get students connecting in meaningful relationships that would foster spiritual growth and conversations.
2) Change the Environment (Location) if Possible
Students crave their own space, where they can connect in a relaxed environment. When we made the change to our Sunday morning we began meeting at a local coffee shop. While you do not have to change the location—you do have to change the environment. Since at least half of your senior high students are probably driving, I strongly suggest meeting at a local coffee shop. A coffee shop is already set for a relaxed environment and the beverages are already provided. If you cannot meet at a local coffee shop you may consider one of the following ideas:
1) Change the environment of your existing room or location. If you are meeting in a typical classroom setting the first step will be to remove all of the desks and replace them with round tables. Second, decorate the room with pop-culture items. Third, arrange the chairs in small clusters of groups. If your budget allows, you can purchase coffee shop like furniture to help create a coffee shop like environment.
2) Consider meeting at a leader’s home who lives near-by. Homes are one of the most relaxing environments because their primary purpose is for living, simply being. Try to find a leader who is involved with the Sunday morning ministry (if possible) but most importantly find someone who lives within a mile or two of Church. Otherwise, the distance will most likely become a major obstacle.
3) Change the Format:
While most good youth curriculum’s are laced with interactive and discussion components they are often designed for one adult facilitator leading a large group rather than numerous small groups. In order to foster personal conversation students need a format that keeps conversation personal. Change your format to personalize conversation in a relaxed environment. Set up a model that divides students into groups of 3-6. Less than 3 is too small and more than six is too large and results in students getting distracted or not engaged in conversation.
Provide a transition time. By the time a student shows up at your ministry she has experienced an emotional roller-coaster of experiences. This may be the first time a student has had a moment to relax all week. Provide a time in the schedule when students can show up and simply connect in a relaxed environment.
The format We Used:
10:00 a.m. Adult Student leaders arrive at Coffee shop (Connect S.S location)
10:15 a.m. Students arrive: Purchase beverages and connect
10:25 a.m. Students divide into groups of 3-6 and sit at different tables
10:30 a.m. Connect: (Leader, adult or student) asks ice-breaker questions
10:35 a.m. Introduce topic and read Scripture passage
10:40 a.m. Discuss topic and questions
10:50 a.m. Close in prayer for one another
4) Change the Leadership, Including Students in the Process
If we want students to get connected we need to let them speak. If we want students to grow in their faith we need to let them ask questions and talk about it. Never underestimate the interest and ability of a teenager to bring a meaningful thought or question to the conversation.
When we first started doing connect we led the morning with two adult leaders introducing the topic and facilitating the conversations. We quickly realized the power of including students in the process. Now before we take leadership credit, I should acknowledge that we began including students because we realized that students who were not leading were not always listening.
The way we did this was to select 6 leaders from our youth ministry and ask them to help facilitate a small group discussion. Since our connect topic was a follow-up of the Wednesday evening program we sent out the outline to students on Thursday. These 6 students would arrive early and purchase their beverage. When the other students arrived they would naturally gravitate towards one of these six groups. Note: it is important to select mature students but also a diverse group that represents the different “cliques, or groups of friends” in the youth ministry. By choosing a few mature students you provide your other students an option for involvement in a variety of groups.
Another opportunity that usually opens up as a result of changing the environment and the format is that more adults are usually intrigued and willing to help out with the ministry. Most adults are very reluctant to teach a Sunday school class to teenagers but they are willing to show up for coffee, hang out with the students and engage in a conversation about a spiritual topic.
We have been doing the Connect ministry for three years now and a lot has changed. We learned that consistent communication is essential.nbsp;nbsp;Even though we had a parent meeting which presented our plan and our purpose, adults continued to have questions along the way. And as always, we encountered a few parents who were uncomfortable with the model because they did not feel it was biblically centered, even though every week we were reading and discussing the bible. We learned that even though we met at the same place and same time every week, students were often unsure whether we were meeting on or off campus. We still get kids asking where Sunday school is at. We learned that providing an adult driver and vehicle for transportation from the church to the location was essential and very helpful. Refreshing Sunday school is an ongoing project held together by consistent communication.
The solution is simple. Stop doing “school” and start connecting students. Refresh Sunday school and you may refresh their faith.