Sunday school looks different since pandemic’s start: From monthly to missing

Sunday school looks different since pandemic’s start: From monthly to missing

Youth participate in a combination vacation Bible school and summer camp at Crossroads Community Cathedral in East Hartford, Connecticut, in July 2021. Photo courtesy of Crossroads Community Cathedral

Republished from Religion News Service

(RNS) — At St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the Chicago suburb of Woodstock, Illinois, the once weekly Christian education program is now monthly, and known as “Second Sunday Sunday School.”

At Crossroads Community Cathedral, an Assemblies of God church in East Hartford, Connecticut, “children’s church” continues to thrive each weekend, and “The Little Drummer Dude” production was presented in early December, but Christian education for young people is described as “one of our greatest weaknesses.”

At Mattie Richland Baptist Church in Pineview, Georgia, the adults have been back in Sunday school and the kids led a Black history presentation, but the bus that picks up children for their education program will remain idle until January.

Sunday school, adult forums and other Christian formation classes, already threatened by declines in worship attendance, have been further challenged since COVID-19 shuttered churches and sent their services online. A study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research said more than half were disrupted in some way. Other research shows religious education for adults has bounced back more than for younger church members.

Scott Thumma address the conference in Nov. 2022. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Scott Thumma speaks during the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion on Nov. 12, 2022, in Baltimore. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“For some, it continued without any real major disruptions, and for others, it basically collapsed,” said Scott Thumma, the institute’s director, summing up its 2022 pandemic-related research during an October event at Yale Divinity School. “And the easiest way to make it collapse was to keep religious education for children and youth online. If you kept it online, you probably don’t have a religious education program now.”

The Rev. Scott Zaucha, pastor of St. Ann’s in Woodstock, a mostly white congregation with about 50 attending on Sundays, said its Sunday school had ceased to exist before the pandemic because of its aging congregation. He wondered how to begin it again and learned that online Christian education was not the answer because it seemed like “another thing to try to keep up with” when regular schooling was online.


RELATED: Half of churches say Sunday school, other education programs disrupted by pandemic


Zaucha found that meeting one Sunday a month in person was the best route, realizing that even if families choose St. Ann’s as their congregational home, they may not be weekly attenders.

“When you have only a few families with kids at your church, and you have two kids on this Sunday and six kids on that Sunday,” he said, “they’re all sort of spread out. But if you say, ‘Hey, families, we’re going to have Sunday school once a month.’ Then it lets them know when is the best Sunday for them to come if they’re only going to choose one.”

Crafts made by children in Sunday school classes decorate St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, Illinois. Photo courtesy of St. Ann's

Crafts made by children in Sunday school classes decorate St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, Illinois. Photo courtesy of St. Ann’s

In Orthodox churches, research shows that the parishes that never ceased holding in-person religious education classes for their children and teenagers fared better than those that halted the Sunday school lessons, with some even increasing the number of attendees. The combination of attending worship as well as Sunday school and seeing other youth on a regular basis became crucial for their participation.

“For them, it has become even more valuable through the pandemic for those parishes, which kept young people together,” said Alexei Krindatch, national coordinator of the National Census of Orthodox Christian Churches, in an interview conducted at the Religious Research Association conference in November. “It was an excuse to get together.”

At Crossroads, a multicultural congregation with about 1,500 gathering each weekend, online campus pastor Luke Monahan has tried numerous options to keep adults and kids engaged since the start of the pandemic. In 2020 there were daily adult devotional videos and two a week for kids. Online options appealed more to the adults than to the kids — his own youngster, at age 6, “shut the little laptop and ran away,” he said. An online kids’ church video he had developed gained little traction.

“One month, I didn’t put it out and didn’t notify anyone on purpose,” said Monahan, who also directs IT and education at the Connecticut church. “Nobody said, ‘Where did that video go?’”

Thumma said in his presentation at Yale that adults have had a much more positive reaction to religious education that is not in person. “Adults seem to love religious education online,” he said. “And we’re hearing stories about all kinds of Bible studies, all kinds of prayer meetings, all kinds of education events that are happening online for adults, but not for children and youth.”

Publishing companies are seeking to respond.

Urban Ministries Inc. has found that adults, even those who aren’t tech-savvy, are interested in its digital platform, Precepts Digital, which launched this year. The video-enhanced Bible study is meant for individuals or small groups.

An individual uses the Precepts Digital digital Bible study program. Photo courtesy of Urban Ministries Inc.

An individual uses the Precepts Digital Bible study program. Photo courtesy of Urban Ministries Inc.

“We have been encouraged by the oldest members of our audience embracing digital,” said UMI CEO Jeffrey Wright, whose Christian education publishing company primarily serves African American congregations. “You expect pushback from nondigital natives. And in one focus group, a person commented, ‘Well, you know, it’s harder but it’s worth it.’”

After the pandemic caused a significant drop — Wright estimates a 60% to 80% decrease — in requests for materials for children and youth in the African American community, the company is working on a children’s version of its digital Bible lessons.

“We have a crisis of catechism going on in America right now,” Wright said, expressing concern for the religious upbringing of the youngest generation.

“If you think about it, a 4- or 5-year-old kid, say, born in 2017 or 2018, has never been in an Easter program or a Christmas program and given that little speech you gave when you were a little kid up in the front of the church. Hasn’t happened. Children aren’t being served.”

Children color an Illustrated Ministry poster during Advent. Photo courtesy of Illustrated Ministry

Children color an Illustrated Ministry poster during Advent. Photo courtesy of Illustrated Ministry

Illustrated Ministry, a 7-year-old publishing company that aimed at progressive Christian congregations, also has sought to provide materials to churches as they shifted from in-person to online and, sometimes, back and forth again, depending on the stage of the pandemic.

Adam Walker Cleaveland, who founded the company in Racine, Wisconsin, said he is seeing a greater demand for resources that provide stand-alone lessons for those who may not be attending Sunday school week after week.

Adam Walker Cleaveland. Photo by Karen Walker

Adam Walker Cleaveland. Photo by Karen Walker

“Since COVID, we have seen increasing need for curriculum and resources that are extremely flexible, extremely adaptable,” he said.

Though many of Illustrated Ministry’s products, including children’s bulletins, children’s ministry curricula and pages to color, are designed for children, they can also be used in intergenerational activities around a table at home.

Walker Cleaveland said his organization is also keeping in mind the volunteer teachers — also in shorter supply since the start of the pandemic — who are preparing for Bible lessons, making sure the work is not too time-consuming.

“In terms of our materials, we try to make it so that there isn’t that in-depth prep required, there’s not a huge supply list,” he said. “So you don’t have to make a trip to Michael’s every week before Sunday school.”

Pastor Florine Newberry, who leads Mattie Richland Baptist, said its membership rolls have grown from 50 to 96 as the congregation shifted from predominantly Black to a more diverse group after welcoming people who stopped to listen to her outdoor sermons during the pandemic.

After preaching at her church’s front door to people who remained seated socially distant near their cars, the congregation is back inside and adult Sunday school started earlier this year. But formal Christian education for teens and children has been limited due to the pandemic and concerns about respiratory syncytial virus, commonly called RSV.

Youth give presentations on Black history at Mattie Richland Baptist Church in Pineview, Georgia. Photo by Ja'Qwan Davenport

Youth give presentations on Black history at Mattie Richland Baptist Church in Pineview, Georgia. Photo by Ja’Qwan Davenport

Instead, Newberry has picked up the phone and suggested particular Scriptures to encourage them when they told her of bullying that’s occurred at school.

But Newberry is looking forward to Jan. 1, when she expects to use her church’s bus to pick up children for Sunday school after deciding it is safe to transport them again.

“If you can get ’em while they’re at that age, you can really make a difference,” she said of the children who’ve been inquiring about when she’s going to pick them up.

“Once I get them back in Sunday school, I’ll be happy.”

A Freedom That Can’t Be Stolen

A Freedom That Can’t Be Stolen

Imagine being a slave, and on this particular day, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger forced your master to set you free immediately! You and your master may have heard about the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, but it didn’t free you.

Gaining physical freedom is one thing. But how did formerly enslaved people gain emotional freedom while avoiding the heavy chains of emotional slavery due to the incredible injustice of their past and present reality? What possible relationship could or would they have with their former master?

What about you? As many are focused on celebrating Juneteenth and freedom, are you still in emotional chains due to injustice? How do you go on functioning while injustice continues? Black people are still being shot. Churches and schools are targets for mass murders.

Maybe you’re not in physical chains, but are you emotionally enslaved?

Want your freedom? When thinking of slavery, Grandma Shuler, my dad’s mom, always comes to mind. She was born in 1879 in South Carolina where an unofficial slavery still existed! This eighty-five-year-old’s smile and lack of bitterness profoundly impacted me when I was ten years old.

I considered becoming a Black Panther because the Ku Klux Klan ran from them. It was difficult for Blacks to be anything other than sharecroppers (a new kind of slavery) immediately after slavery was abolished. Grandma and Grandpa and their adult children lived on the same land where their parents had been enslaved. Their house’s foundation was a slave shack with an outhouse. This was 1964!

My dad has some of Grandma’s genes. He and many Black men like him had a quiet dignity no matter how badly they were treated in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. They didn’t fight back or curse at their oppressors. Injustice couldn’t break their spirits.

But how do you reconcile Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the recent shootings at the school in Uvalde, TX, and the grocery store in Buffalo, NY?

Initially, I felt that part of me died when I heard about the struggle and murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Certainly, I wasn’t free emotionally. Ironically, God spoke to me through a radio interview with two White humbled co-hosts who had done their homework. They got me talking about these murders. Surprisingly, it was therapeutic. I didn’t realize I needed to talk about it instead of keeping it inside. Many Black men don’t process it externally, which is slowly killing them.

How should we handle injustice when peaceful efforts require more discipline than giving in to our emotions? History shows us there is power in “radical love and forgiveness.” When Dylann Roof murdered nine members of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., during a prayer meeting in June 2015, many surviving friends and family shocked the nation when they chose to forgive. Emmanuel AME is one of the oldest Black congregations in the South and has a long history of anti-slavery activism, civil rights protests, and ongoing political engagement. Even the late pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims shot that day, was a state senator who pushed for police to wear body cameras. So why forgive? Chris Singleton, who lost his mother in the attack, told USA Today, “After seeing what happened and the reason why it happened, and after seeing how people could forgive, I truly hope that people will see that it wasn’t just us saying words,” Singleton says. “I know, for a fact, that it was something greater than us, using us to bring our city together.”

When we don’t forgive, we put ourselves in emotional slavery. Our unforgiveness subconsciously permeates every relationship – and I’ve found that relationships are the key to healing racial divides. A freedom that can never be stolen is not about how people treat me. It’s all about how I choose to respond to it. In my latest book, Life-Changing, Cross-Cultural Friendships, which I co-wrote with Gary Chapman, author The 5 Love Languages, we talk in depth about our journey of an authentic friendship through some of the most racially divisive times in history and provide a roadmap for others to do the same.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to

forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is

some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this,

we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

My grandma couldn’t force White people or anyone else to give her justice, equality, or simply human courtesy, yet she continued to smile. Grandma was not weak. When she spoke, people moved. This barely five-foot-tall woman lived with her six-foot two-inch husband, raised seven children, and could still shoot her rifle with accuracy well into her eighties. She couldn’t go to the hospital to give birth. She and Grandpa lived off the land to survive and fed their children without a formal education. Imagine all that she saw, being born in 1879 and living until 1971. Her freedom was not dependent on White people giving her their version of justice. She treated all people with respect. She said, “As I’m treating others with respect, even some mean White people, I’m loving God and respecting myself.”

And, of course, Grandma smiled.

 

 

About the. Author

Clarence Shuler is the President/CEO of BLR: Building Lasting Relationships. He’s authored ten books. He and Dr. Gary Chapman speak together at The 5 Love Languages, Date Night, and Life-Changing Cross-Cultural Friendship events. For more information, visit www.clarenceshuler.com.

 

UrbanFaith is Expanding!

UrbanFaith is Expanding!

Hear the Word you need when you want it.  

UrbanFaith, published by UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.), has teamed up with HarperCollins Christian Publishing to launch UrbanFaithStudy.com, a subscription-based digital platform with an expanding library of more than 100 video sermons and studies from well-known African American Christian voices. We know it’s hard for young adults to find churches they feel welcomed in and even harder to find leaders they can trust to teach the Word in a way they can hear and understand it. UrbanFaithStudy.com provides the empowering teaching you want that stays faithful while being relevant. 

“I am pleased to see this robust and unique platform featuring strong voices and transformative messages by African American pastors and authors,” remarked Jeff Wright, CEO of UMI. “I know it will be a blessing to many people.”

UrbanFaithStudy.com offers culturally relevant, topical sermons delivered by pastors such as Bishop Joseph W. Walker, III; Dr. Dominique Robinson; and husband and wife team Pastor Gabby Cudjoe-Wilkes and Pastor Andrew Wilkes. Bishop Walker is the International Presiding Bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship and pastor of the historic 30,000-member Mount Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. Dr. Robinson is a religious scholar, theological educator, preacher, writer, activist, and advocate who serves as an assistant professor of preaching at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX. HBCU and Ivy League-educated pastors Gabby Cudjoe-Wilkes and Andrew Wilkes co-founded the Double Love Experience Church in Brooklyn, NY, a growing congregation of believers committed to the liberating, love-powered ministry of Jesus. 

“What an extraordinary opportunity to house digital archives of hope & possibility in the era of a global pandemic, racial reckoning & resilience. It is my prayer that the sermons we offer will help those who hear them know that God has not left them. Even in these times. To share this in partnership with two brands that curate accessible & timely content: UMI & HarperCollins [Christian] is a dream.” – -Pastor Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes

UrbanFaithStudy.com will also launch book study curricula for believers looking for deeper engagement and group study content that engages the church with culturally relevant topics. These curricula are by well-known African American voices, including New York Times bestselling author Jemar Tisby; beloved author and speaker Crystal Evans Hurst; Grammy Award-winning artist Lecrae; and Bible teacher, pastor, and author, Jada Anae Edwards.  

“When teaming up with UMI more than a year ago, we knew creating a video platform to host engaging, life-changing biblical content would showcase both organizations’ ability to reach new audiences,” said Mark Schoenwald, president and CEO of HarperCollins Christian Publishing. “The church is evolving, becoming more dependent on technology to deliver sermons, Bible studies, and other curricula. When designing UrbanFaithStudy.com, we used our strengths to achieve more than we could if we had each approached the project separately.” 

UrbanFaithStudy.com will serve many consumers, including church congregations, divinity students, young preachers, and individuals seeking to understand how faith informs cultural engagement. The monthly subscription is $5.95 for individuals and $19.95 for churches. To subscribe, visit UrbanFaithStudy.com. 

UMI Mourns the Loss of Founder, Dr. Melvin E. Banks

UMI Mourns the Loss of Founder, Dr. Melvin E. Banks


Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr.

UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.) announced today that its founder Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr., died on Saturday, February 13, at 86. Dr. Banks launched UMI in 1970 to provide African American churches and individuals with images reflecting their congregations and relatable, Christ-centered content from an urban perspective.

“Dr. Banks was a revolutionary publisher and giant for the African American church and community,” said C. Jeffrey Wright, CEO of UMI. “He was the first to create contextualized content that portrayed positive images of African Americans in the Bible. Because of his innovation, UMI has reached millions of Black churches and individuals with the Gospel.”

For the last 50 years, under Dr. Banks’ leadership, UMI has developed Christian education resources, including Bible studies, Sunday School, and Vacation Bible School curriculum, websites, magazines, books, and videos for its 40,000+ strong customer base. He wrote a number of books and devotionals and hosted a two-minute daily podcast called Daily Direction. In 1995, he brought on Mr. Wright as CEO to take on the day-to-day management of the company. Many evangelical organizations have recognized his pioneering work, including the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), which presented him with its inaugural Kenneth N. Taylor Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.

“So many people have been introduced to the life-changing message of Jesus because of Dr. Banks’ ground-breaking initiatives,” said Terri Hannett, Vice President of UMI. “For 50 years, UMI has produced discipleship content that was intellectually rigorous and uniquely relevant for the Black experience.”

Dr. Banks was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1934 and made a commitment to salvation at the age of 9 years old. He graduated from Moody Bible College in Chicago in 1955 and attended Wheaton College, earning a B.A. degree in theology in 1958 and his master’s degree in biblical studies in 1960. After graduation, he took a job at Scripture Press Publishers, where he struggled to sell euro-centric Sunday School content to African American churches. This experience led him to create contextual resources for African Americans with imagery and stories unique to their culture. After a few years, he left the company to start his own to expand the publishing content for Black churches.

Dr. Banks had served as board chair since 1994 after the passing of Tom Skinner, the founding board chair of UMI. On February 14, 2021, the UMI Board of Directors voted to appoint Dr. Stanley Long to the role of Chairman after serving as Vice Chairman for the past 45 years.

“Dr. Banks has been one of my closest friends for nearly 50 years,” said Dr. Stanley Long, Chairman of the UMI board. “I will miss him beyond what words can describe. He and I have shared the same vision and burden for as many years as we have been friends. As board chair, I will invest as much energy as he did to continue the work of UMI in the same direction it has journeyed from its inception, to impact the lives of as many men, women, and children as possible.”

Dr. Banks also planted the Westlawn Gospel Chapel church in Chicago and co-founded the Urban Outreach Foundation to reach pastors, lay leaders, and Christian educators through conferences and other resources. He also co-founded Circle Y Ranch, a Christian camp and conference center for urban youth. Dr. Banks received an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Wheaton College in 1992 and served as a Board Trustee.

Dr. Banks died from a month-long illness and is survived by his wife Olive and his three children Melvin Jr., Patrice Lee, and Reginald. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to Circle Y Ranch Bible Camp c/o UMI 1551 Regency Ct., Calumet City, IL 60409 or donate via the website: https://circleyranch.net referencing Dr. Banks. Resolutions and tributes can be sent to [email protected].