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.

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

  • A “Pull-out” format: This is not actually a “principle” and in fact runs contrary to my personal principles, which are that children and adults alike need both corporate worship, and both alike need appropriate theological study.But bringing children in to worship, sadly, often engenders the enmity of those who prefer an “adult-only” society; to the degree that, unless some form of child-care is provided during the service, attending church becomes an insurmountable challenge for many parents. That sad fact is a common communal sin of many congregations, and if congregations are to repent of that sin they must deliberately make opportunities to connect with the children. So the children begin each Sunday in the nave with their families, come to the chancel to hear their story, “journey” to their room for their own programme, and then return to the nave for communion and the blessing. Of course, this challenges us find creative ways to handle the transitions inherent in a 'pull-out' programme

  • Scripture: Luther taught that each Christian finds their relationship to God through Scripture, unmediated by any priest or special theological training. Foremost, before all else, our Sunday School tells the stories of Holy Scripture, simply as they appear in the Bible. We do not try to force any interpretation into the stories. The great sweeping stories of Godly Play, taking up to twenty minutes to tell, would not fit into the six-minute slot allowed for the “children's chat” during the Sunday service. In their sweep, the Godly Play stories generally cover several weeks' worth of lectionary readings in a single story; but at the same time reword, abridge, paraphrase, and even revise the stories for the childrens' consumption. To add Biblical integrity, where possible we replaced the words of the Godly Play story with words taken directly from the Bible. We chose the Contemporary English Version (CEV) as the default translation because of its accessibility and simple vocabulary. We had to un-abridge and un-paraphrase the published Godly Play stories, making them much longer than the original twenty minutes, and then break them into appropriate six-minute segments

  • Inclusion: Adults, children, teens: all of us who are baptized are equally part of Christ's Body, equally members of “the priesthood of all believers.” In faithfulness to that understanding, we share the Story for each week with the whole church, telling it in front of the altar, where it serves to prepare the adults for the readings to come at the same time that it presents the children with the material for their Wondering. After church, parents and their children can share their responses to the same readings. The story we tell typically comes directly from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) used by most mainline church congregations in North America, and rather than being a redundant add-on to the service, actually takes the place of one of the readings. We use the semi-continuous Old Testament readings, which take several weeks to tell each story. Several weeks' worth of six-minute segments provides adequate time to tell even Biblically-accurate versions of the great stories of our faith. Telling the Story in the church required us to invent a liturgical movement that would carry the children contemplatively into a new environmen. We recognized a new facet, the Journey.

  • Worship: Luther said “Music is an outstanding gift of God and next to theology. I would not give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration. And youth should be taught this art; for it makes fine skillful people.” Children respond in the same way as adults: through the arts, including music – often the same very contemporary worship music being sung by their parents and grandparents. As the Church has done for centuries, we can use music to cover transitions: we sing while Journeying from the church to the Story Room, we learn our new song while “getting ready” in the hallway at the end of our Journey, and we sing a contemplative song while cleaning up and Journeying back to the church for communion to help sustain the deep sense of peace that developes during the children's Response to the story.

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.

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