In what I suppose could easily be described as a pastor’s version of a “busman’s holiday,” while on my recent summer vacation I was asked if I might step in and lead a graveside memorial service at the cemetery in my home town. In the interest of full disclosure (and proper pastoral ethics), I should add here that I wouldn’t have ordinarily been asked to do this; but as it happened, the family’s pastor had concluded her ministry at their church just a few days before and had already left the state; the funeral director, a long-time friend and neighbor on the lake, was in dire need of clergy and knew I was available (!); and, as it turned out, this service would include a great many people from that town and congregation where I grew up, some of whom I hadn’t seen in well over 30 years.
So how could I say “no” to that?
It ended up a rather moving experience for me, as before and after the service I was greeted with smiles and tears by old friends who, each in their own way, were instrumental in the nurturing of my Christian faith as a youth, as well as in the discernment and cultivation of my own call to ministry: the Sunday School teacher who brought scripture to life by coming to our classroom dressed as biblical figures; the Deacon and “Deaconess” (as they were known then!) who recommended that I be granted “in-care” status (as that used to be known) by the Aroostook Association of the United Church of Christ; the woman with whom I once sang in the choir and who, as a UCC lay minister in her own right, in my early years of ministry became a valued colleague in many a wedding, funeral and worship service; and so many others – old neighbors, former classmates and family friends – people who opened up a floodgate of memories for me; and who, whether they knew it or not, shared a great many lessons of life, faith and ministry that I still carry with me all these many years later.
This past week at East Church was “Homecoming Sunday,” which traditionally marks the beginning of a new year of Sunday School; and so, much of our service on Sunday was purposefully and joyfully “child friendly.” Our opening hymn was “It Is Good,” an epic children’s song about God’s Creation with a chorus that will, I promise you, stay in your head forever (!); and the Children’s Message for the day had to do with “imitating God” in all things, and featured truly horrendous animal imitations on the part of this pastor (the highlight was when one of the kids asked me, “How do you even keep a straight face when you do that?”). Afterward, the children met with their teachers, and together they developed a classroom covenant in which they promised, among other things, to “treat other people how they’d like to be treated.” There were stories, games and even an after-church pizza luncheon with the whole church family.
And all through the day there was laughter, and love, and above all, faith shared and nurtured.
As of late there has been much written on the so-called “blogosphere” and elsewhere about Christian Education and Children’s Ministry in this current age; the gist of these articles being that the traditional model of Sunday School is long since outmoded. These articles inevitably speak of how much the world, culture and the family dynamic has changed over the last 25 years (which is true); how stressed-out and time-poor today’s average family has become (also true); how churches need to minister to families as they are today, not how they were (or at least how we perceived them to be) years ago when Sunday School classrooms were usually filled to overflowing (sadly, yes).
Granted, these ministries have fallen on hard times in our churches; but the answer is not, as some have opined, that we simply let go of the idea of Sunday School altogether. On the contrary; it seems to me that now is the time for broadening our understanding of Christian Education; for churches to embrace the idea that to truly nurture the faith of the next generation of believers requires a holistic approach; in which we welcome our children, youth and seeking adults into the whole life and experience of the church: a ministry that certainly includes Sunday School, yes; but also involves worship and fellowship as an experience that involves the whole congregation, that includes shared mission and outreach as a caring community, and which ever and always emphasizes the mutual care and support that comes in being part of a family of faith.
More simply stated, the lessons we’ve learned as Christians and as the church are the very lessons we need to teach to our children. Sometimes those lessons do come in the form of goofball songs, bible stories and arts and crafts that happen in an hour on a Sunday morning; it might happen in a moment of prayer and reflection at a worship service; or else it’ll be found in the warm smile and loving embrace of the person sitting next to at the pot-luck dinner. But make no mistake, these will be the lessons that our kids will remember, and which will take root in their hearts as they grow in faith…
…and years later, whether they know it or not, these will be lessons they will share with their own children.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry