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A day, a week or a month: Churches take time to launch the PC(USA)’s Christian Formation program year

Activities include blessings of backpacks and Bibles for new readers

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

At Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, Maryland, children prepare at Vacation Bible School for the “Bee-longing” theme of a new church year. (Photo courtesy of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church)

The last harvest of peaches, melons and other summer fruits is not the only sign of changes in the season. School backpacks replacing beach bags and hiker’s packs in the piles that accumulate at front doors signal a new year and a shift in schedules for families across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), marking a renewed commitment to learning and growth as the new school year begins.

The Presbyterian Planning Calendar marks the start of Christian Formation Week as Sept. 10 for the  launch of the Christian Formation program year in churches. The Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Christian Formation has created and consolidated various resources for churches that can be used on Sunday, Sept. 10, or anytime churches choose to celebrate it.

Churches form their own rituals to honor the annual dedication of the mind, heart and body to study and formation in community. These rituals and special occasions may happen in a day, a week or over the course of a month.

For First Presbyterian Church in Granville, Ohio, Christian Formation Week is an entire month of celebrations. With school schedules starting at various times, sometimes in early August, several congregations use the opportunity to slow down and savor the rites of a new school year and new beginnings.

First Presbyterian Church in Granville, Ohio, plans a number of celebrations welcoming a new year in Christian formation.

Jenni Whitford, Granville’s director of Congregational Faith Formation, describes a staged approach to recognizing changes for families and welcoming members back for the program year. On Aug. 20, the church will welcome children with a blessing of the backpacks followed by a Back-to- School Bash Picnic. “For many of our families, this is the first time we are all back together after a busy summer,” Whitford said. The following weeks at the church include distributing Bibles to new readers and a “Get to Know Your Bible” breakfast on Aug. 27. Intergenerational “Wonderful Wednesdays” programs begin Aug. 30. The official program year launch on Sept. 10 is when leaders will introduce a volunteer accelerator tool to align members’ interests and skills with volunteer positions.

Whitford is thankful for the generous hive mind of other educators and the resources provided by the Office of Christian Education for giving her ample ideas and resources to make this time of year meaningful for member families. “I use many resources — some I have gathered over the years,” said Whitford, who relies on the QuickSheets developed by the Office of Christian Formation as well as resources collected at workshops from the Association of Partners in Christian Education and websites like Virginia Theological Seminary’s Building Faith and the Doubting Believer blog by the Rev. Anne Russ.

First Presbyterian Church in Granville, Ohio, welcomes those engaged in the church’s Christian formation activities beginning this month. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church)

She got the idea of attaching star keychains to backpacks with a little card from the Rev. Mary Gause, transitional associate pastor and certified educator of Overbrook Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio.

United Presbyterian Church in Washington, Iowa, also blessing the return of students to school before celebrating the launch of its church program year. “We are doing a two-part launch of our new year of Christian formation, due to the different dates that school and Sunday school start,” said the Rev. Erin Kaye, the church’s pastor. For the blessing of the backpacks on Aug. 20, Kaye and other church leadership “will use laminated Illustrated Ministry backpack tags, printed in-house, in color and on cardstock with our logo on the back.” For the blessings, Kaye is grateful for the prayer adapted from UKirk’s College and Young Adult Sunday Resources, which may be accessed through the Office of Christian Formation’s QuickSheet, “Blessings for the New School Year.”

“To kick-start their thinking,” Kaye gave the QuickSheet provided by the Office of Christian Formation to the church’s Christian Education Committee, which is planning the church year launch for Sept. 10. “I’ve made use of several of the QuickSheets in my own planning,” said Kaye, who also intends to use a new resource — ready-made social media graphics announcing the launch of the Christian Formation year. “I plan to offer the Faith Practices at Home QuickSheet to our congregation, and to post the social media offerings each week on Facebook and in our weekly email updates.”

“There are so many good Christian formation resources on the denominational website,” said the Rev. Mark Lampley, senior associate pastor at Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, who, in addition to regularly sharing the QuickSheets with leaders and teachers, often invites them to attend the Faith Formation Leader Connection events held virtually by the Office of Christian Formation each month.

The church will debut a blessing of the backpacks this year, an initiative taken on by the deacons for Rally Day. An intergenerational brunch between services has always been the real attraction. “The men of the church make and serve yummy Southern comfort foods, which draws our largest attendance of the year, outside Christmas and Easter,” Lampley said. At the meal, there are Christian formation stations and table tents of children and youth, and adult discipleship opportunities where people can register for retreats, small groups and volunteer opportunities. Youth group launches the same night, while the following Wednesday, the church pulls out the portable grill and holds a neighborhood gathering “under our beloved magnolia,” promoted in the neighborhood newsletter. “Lawn games and inflatables draw a crowd,” Lampley said.

Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, Maryland, is planning to begin the new Christian formation year with a “Come Home to Woods, You Belong” event, said Kat Green, director of Children’s Ministry. “The morning begins with our online family devotion time, ‘Jammies with Jesus,’” which features a dad joke from the pastor and the day’s Bible story. “More often than not, the children have a joke to share,” Green said. “We close with the Lord’s Prayer and a dance party.”

At Woods Memorial, the launch of the program year spans the weeks between July 1 and Sept. 10. This year the children led the way into the theme of belonging through a “prequel” week of Vacation Bible School that occurred during the last week of June. Children gained their bumble bee wings as they gathered around Creation care themes and wrote bee-attitudes with which to bless the congregation as the church begins a new year.

No matter the date, the format or length of celebration, or the rituals and liturgy that congregations use to mark Christian Formation Sunday, one beatitude stays constant: “Blessed are those who seek to learn and grow in faith, for they shall see God.”

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