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Tracy Frank, Published August 25 2012

Twist of faith: Churches break with tradition, implement family Sunday school

CASSELTON, N.D. - Some area churches are breaking with tradition by making Sunday school a family affair.

Starting Sept. 9, Martin’s Lutheran Church in Casselton will offer the Sunday Family Huddle and Family Worship Wednesday.

Instead of dropping the kids off for 45 minutes of teacher-led Bible instruction, songs and craft projects, parents will participate in the religious instruction with their children.

And if Sundays don’t work, they’ll have another opportunity for the family Sunday school classes and a shorter worship experience (which is open to everyone, not just families) on Wednesday evenings.

“The philosophy of the program we’re using is ‘Who are better teachers than the parents themselves,’ ” said Aaron Bye, Martin’s Lutheran associate in ministry. “Instead of having that disconnect between what they learned in the classroom and the rest of their week, the hope then is that we will give both the kids and the families tools to incorporate what they’re learning on Sunday into the rest of their lives.”

Families will learn ways to have religious conversations with each other and incorporate what they learn on Sunday or Wednesday into their daily lives.

“What we do in class will be the model for what they do in their homes,” Bye said. “The idea behind it is sharing their highs and lows, talking about the Bible verse, and reflecting on how that is playing into their lives that day. The other big part is focusing on prayer and blessings for each day.”

By giving parents the tools they need to better communicate with their children about faith, they’ll be able to fulfill the promises they made at their children’s baptisms a lot more effectively, said the Rev. Paula Mehmel, Martin’s Lutheran senior pastor.

“We really need to have a partnership because the strongest Christian families are the ones who have the proper tools,” Mehmel said.

Martin’s Lutheran decided to make the change because leaders felt Sunday school just wasn’t working anymore, said Nichole Bye, Martin’s Lutheran Sunday school co-superintendent.

“Kids were not taking away as much as they could have,” she said. “We just felt this would be a better way to incorporate the families into the learning because there’s only so much you can do in the half hour you have them.”

Martin’s Lutheran is modeling its program after something Faith Lutheran Church in West Fargo has been doing for 12 years now.

Pastor Peter Schmidt of Faith Lutheran said the program is so excellent that each year a number of churches interview the Faith Formation Team and watch the program in action. This year eight churches visited Faith Lutheran, including one from Florida, he said.

“The main thrust is to get every family talking about faith in their home,” Schmidt said.

Faith Lutheran’s program is also offered on Sundays and Wednesdays and is called GIFT, which stands for Generations In Faith Together.

“The church has been doing Sunday school in a big way for 50, 60 years, and it has created a group in my generation, in their 40s and 50s, who are pretty ambivalent about church,” said Amy Kippen, Faith Lutheran’s director of Faith Formation. “The idea is there’s a better way to help parents and families.”

Faith Lutheran started the program with fifth- and sixth-graders.

“It was such a huge success that they decided to do it with all of our school-aged kids,” Kippen said.

The curriculum has changed over the years, but all parents and kids are together and it’s a very interactive, high energy format, she said.

“It kind of looks like church with a ton of kids, or vacation Bible school with a ton of parents,” she said.

When they’re not in church, families practice a daily ritual at home where they share their highs and lows of the day, read a Bible verse, talk about the verse, pray together, and bless each other.

Sharing that experience becomes a foundation in families’ lives and they learn that church is something they do as a family, Kippen said.

“Then they grow up in homes where faith is talked about and not because their parents are Bible scholars,” she said. “None of that happens when you drop your kids off in a Sunday school classroom and pick them up 45 minutes later.”

Kippen said she also believes the program creates healthier families by bringing them closer together and fostering communication.

A family-based Sunday school program also eliminates the problem of begging for teachers, Kippen said.

And because of the GIFT program, all of the parents are connected once the kids reach confirmation in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, she said.

“Most parents want to do what’s best for their kids, they just don’t feel equipped when it comes to faith,” Kippen said. “None of that matters in the GIFT program. The parents learn so much. It’s non-threatening.”

When the program started, members questioned why the Sunday school format had to change and some people left the church, but now the parents are proud of the GIFT program, Kippen said.

“It’s not a fight anymore. It’s not work anymore,” she said. “Now people who come to our church just assimilate into that culture.”

Martin’s leaders expect there will be some push back toward the new program, but they’re hopeful the benefits will outweigh any resistance members might have.

“Any time you make a change, especially with something people have some really fond memories of, possibly, from childhood, there’s always that risk,” Mehmel said. “But truthfully, I believe if people give it a chance and are open to it, they’ll see the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

If the parents aren’t available, any adult can accompany a child and if a child doesn’t have an adult to work with, he will be grouped with another family, Aaron Bye said.

“It’s something where I think the excitement is going to grow and quite honestly, families won’t want to miss it,” he said.

Stacy and Steve Link, who attend Martin’s Lutheran Church, are looking forward to the opportunities for religious discussion with their children, Grady, 5, and Keaton, 3, the new family Sunday school program will provide, they said.

“One of the things I’m looking forward to is it will give our family a way to connect on a spiritual level,” Stacy Link said. “Our kids are getting to the ages now where they’re questioning things like, ‘If God’s all around us, why can’t I see him? Or where is heaven? And when I die, where do I go?’ so I’m looking forward to having some of these conversations with them in a church setting where we can explore those ideas.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526