Sunday Stories: Forward

by Pamela Mclean

inspired by Godly Play® by Jerome Berryman

Sunday Stories is a lectionary-based curriculum using Montessori techniques, drawing heavily on the influence of Godly Play®.

Copyright Pamela Mclean 2015. The author of Sunday Stories, Pamela Mclean, grants permission to parents, clergy and children's ministers to use, reprint, republish, adapt and distribute these Sunday Stories pages, provided that the copyright, the authorship, and the influence from Godly Play, are credited.

Emmanuel Community Church is a long-standing ELCIC parish in Calgary. A graying congregation with diminishing attendance, Emmanuel faced the problem of having to provide a children's programme, on any given Sunday, for “three to twelve children between the ages of three and twelve”. Even with a handful of volunteers taking turns teaching, it was a discouraging challenge. No-one wants to spend hours preparing a spiritual bible lesson only to find the only students were three-year-olds, or laying out twelve sets of suppolies for an exciting craft and have only one or two students use the materials. Teachers did not receive training. Different teachers, even using the same curriculum, taught with different emphasis and brought different class-room management styles. Not knowing what to expect from week to week, the children struggled with the materials and behaviour standards, which in turn frustrated teachers more – and volunteers less willing to recommit to the coming year.

One of those frustrated teachers consulted me in hopes of addressing underlying causes. By then, I had been delivering the “children's chat” at the main church service for nearly a decade. However my experience working on children's programmes goes back to the 1970s. Over the years, appalled by Sunday-School curricula heavy in simple moralism and cut-and-paste theology; I experimented with different curricula, adapted, customized, and wrote lesson-plans from scratch. One of the more exciting programmes I investigated was Cavaletti's Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, described in her book The Religious Potential of the Child. So I was excited when, in 2003, a colleague implemented Godly Play, an American adaptation of Caveletti's programme, for her congregation. When I was approached for ideas, Godly Play that came to mind as a possible solution to Emmanuel's Sunday School problem.

First, though, I surveyed the parents of Emmanuel's children regarding what they felt were the most important characteristics for our children's programme. As the children's primary advocates, the people to whom God has entrusted God's little ones, parents and guardians must collaborate in establishing any children's ministry. With some dissent, most parents wanted the children's programme to overlap with the worship time so that they might avoid having to keep children quiet during the ministry of the Word. In addition, and with remarkable consistency, Emmanuel's parents answered that they wanted their children to

  1. learn Scripture;

  2. to be visible to, included in, and accepted by the greater congregation; and

  3. to praise God with song.

These principles are deeply rooted in Lutheran culture: “Sola Scriptura”, “the priesthood of all believers,” and Luther's appreciation of music. Clearly, such foundational cultural values cannot be set aside for the sake of a curriculum. And orthodox Godly Play provides none of these! Godly Play stories are highly paraphrased retellings of Bible stories rather than faithful translations from Scripture. Godly Play takes place entirely in its own room with no transition from and to the nave where their family worships – and, presuming the children will be brought and picked up by their adults, must either beheld at a separate time from worship, or completely overlap worship such that the children are completely excluded from the worship service; and uses its own lesson cycle with no attempt to coordinate with the lectionary being used by the adult congregation. Godly Play deliberately rejects the use of music in the Godly Play room, as being incompatible with the individual expression and deep personal quiet. Perhaps Godly Play is simply the wrong children's programme for this congregation.

And yet!... the paedagogical approach used by Godly Play is powerful, delighting the students and removing pressure from the teachers. Students in Montessori programmes remember what they have been taught, and are personally commited to what they have learned, in contrasts to strongly authoritarian instruction which sets up children to rebel against what they have learned when they reach their teens and young adulthood. Effectiveness, retention and personal commitment are exactly what we should be striving for in fulfilment of Scriptures command that we train up our children in the way they should go. We do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater! So we adapted, and adapted heavily.The reader may judge for herself whether we have adapted Godly Play beyond recognition. Certainly one Godly Play trainer made the point that we do not so much tell Godly Play Stories, as “tell stories in the style of Godly Play”; and another made it clear that our home-made story materials are not “Godly Play” materials, but merely “inspired by Godly Play.” So, to avoid unintended infringement upon a registered mark and unintended distortion of what Godly Play truly is, we have adopted the name “Sunday Stories” for our programme.

Focussing on the principles for which parents themselves advocated, we made the following changes:

We made substantial changes to Godly Play, driven by our need for Biblical integrity, inclusivity, and music. At the same time we retained, we hope, the benefits of Montessori techniques, informed by the work of Montessori religious educators Sophia Cavaletti (The Religious Potential of the Child; The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd) Jerome Berryman (Godly Play”, Young Children and Worship) and Sonja Stewart (Young Children and Worship, Following Jesus: More About Young Children and Worship.) Just as in orthodox Godly Play, the stories are told with vivid, beautiful materials that children can touch and see; with the addition that they are then visually associated to the Bible whence they come by iconic bookmarks. Just as in orthodox Godly Play, children choose for themselves story materials or art supplies for their own response to the Scripture. Unlike orthodox Godly Play music is taught and used without, we hope, disturbing the peace of the Story Room; and the feast that builds a spirit of community in the orthodox Godly Play room is replaced by participation in the Eucharist along with the rest of the Church.