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Old school, new school

Christian educators and other leaders are using every tool to reach children and their families during pandemic

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Children using weekly Sunday School materials e-mailed to families by The Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky. (Photo by Leslee Kirkconnell)

LOUISVILLE — When members of the Christian Education Committee at Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Versailles, Kentucky, met to discuss options for their children during the pandemic, they decided to try something radical.

Knowing most church families have at least one parent (sometimes both) working from home while trying to home school their children — and that if kids spied one more thing to study, they might run — the committee went old school.

Pisgah is sending letters in a packet sent to each child. Inside is a biblical story featuring a character who must overcome a great struggle. Included are optional family discussion topics, such as how the story relates to what family members are experiencing now.

Pisgah’s director of Children & Family Ministries, Callie Northern, said they want each family member to know that “God is always with us.” To help them believe and trust this, the letter also includes optional activities for families to build the story together — with playdough, drawings and ways to act it out.

“Several parents have been very appreciative of the letters,” she said. “One family said they love giving the lessons to their children’s grandparents to study together.”

Pisgah’s old-school approach is just one of the many creative ways that Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations and worshiping communities are reaching out to children, youth and their families during this critical time. Other examples:

First Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, started two online youth groups for grades 4-6 and 7-12. During check-in, the Rev. Chrissy Westbury, the church’s associate pastor, asks for their “roses and thorns,” giving them the opportunity to share their fears and concerns — and what they found hopeful.  “If we can’t be there for them during what will be a defining and traumatizing moment in their lives,” Wesbury said, “how can we expect them to find any relevance in the church?”

Youth at The Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky, are writing notes to isolated members of the church.  In addition to meeting weekly online, they’re discussing activities they can do when separated, like a virtual movie night.  With a particular browser add-on, everyone can watch and chat in real time together about the movie. “We’re also e-mailing weekly ‘grace and gratitude’ multi-age (curricula) to all family members,” said the church’s director of Christian education, Leslee Kirkconnell. “This is an excellent time to help parents be the primary faith educators we know them to be.”

First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, Florida, features lessons for young children on its Learning Center YouTube channel.

First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, Florida, features lessons for young children on its Learning Center YouTube channel. They also have weekly online Waumba Worship for young families and young adults (“Waumba” means “Creator” in Swahili).

Certified Christian educator Jenna Campbell of First Presbyterian Church in Stillwater, Oklahoma, has constructed a website containing helpful resources for parents, children and youth on topics including family life and seasons in the life of the church.

Youth from two high schools in Midland, Michigan, join in singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” on Easter Sunday thanks to a collaborative effort between Memorial Presbyterian Church’s chancel choir and Central Michigan University. (Photo by Matt Schramm)

An intergenerational collaborative effort at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Midland, Michigan, among the church’s chancel choir, two local high schools and Central Michigan University led to people in each group singing together Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” on Easter Sunday. Memorial’s senior pastor, the Rev. Matt Schramm, and the director of Worship and Arts, Megan Farison, joined in.  Watch the video  stitched together by MPC’s worship intern, Elijah Schweikert.

The Rev. Doodle Harris, associate pastor of Christian Education and Youth at Highland Presbyterian Church  in Louisville, said getting the youth to collectively grieve the loss of their spring break mission trip was one of the most meaningful things she’s done. “Youth are missing major milestones in their lives,” she said.  “Talking about it gave us a sense we could move forward together because we were grieving together.”

When asked what they’ve been learning during this time, the most common response among faith formation leaders was, “Things don’t have to be perfect.”  The Rev. Tully Fletcher, associate pastor for Youth & Families for three congregations  in Conyers, Georgia, who has both a youth group and Sunday school online, has this advice: “Roll with energy they bring. The most important thing to do is stay connected and show them they’re loved.”

The Presbyterian Mission Agency’s associate coordinator for Christian Formation, Stephanie Fritz, said she’s amazed at how educators and faith formation leaders across the denomination have been resourcing and leading faith communities. She said many are looking ahead to summer to find alternatives to Vacation Bible School and traditional mission trips.

“We need to look at them as leading the conversation about how our churches and faith communities will look different as we emerge from this,” Fritz said.

A Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, said she’s excited about seeing educators across the church worshiping and ministering with youth and children — and not to them.

A former school teacher for nearly 20 years, Cintrón-Olivieri — who reads stories each week on the Co-Moderators’ Facebook page — believes the church should tap into the minds of children and youth because they’ve figured out the technology, which the church is now using in ways to continue being this connected church.

“I hear so much about being the 21st century church, but aren’t our young people and children the actual living 21st century church?” she said.

That’s what Harris, the Louisville pastor, is learning.  “Now is not the time to impose doctrine on our youth or children,” she said, “so much as it is a time to let them figure it out and trust that God is with them and with us, as we figure out this new way of being the (quarantined) body of Christ.”

The Office of Christian Formation is proud to partner with the organizations that make up the Christian Formation Collective to resource leaders especially during these times.  The Association of Presbyterian Church Educators, Presbyterian Youth Workers Association, UKirk Collegiate Ministries, Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network and Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association are hosting conversations and have resources for remote faith formation for all ages. Visit each of their websites here to connect.

 Click here to find resources on digital faith formation for people of all ages.

 APCE will host a Zoom conversation on April 21, “What to do about VBS,” at 7 p.m. Eastern Time.

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