“I see Christian education five years from now on an app. Watching it from a phone. Live streaming.” – Children’s Ministry Director, Charlotte, NC
Last fall I traveled to three cities in five days (Dallas, Charlotte, and Chicago) to do only one thing—LISTEN. This was going to be a huge challenge for me … just ask my wife! Fortunately, I had some help keeping quiet on this assignment, as I was forced to sit behind one-way glass with a one-way speaker and observe focus group conversations facilitated by Grey Matter Research Group.
The purpose of this research was to explore how churches are changing their approach to curriculum and what we call “group-based learning outside of the worship service.” We wanted to understand, from an experiential and qualitative level, how churches are “doing ministry” and where they see things going in the next five years.
Of course, much of the group-based learning that takes place outside of the worship service in any church happens in the children’s ministry, although there was not a consensus on exactly what to call that ministry any longer: Sunday School, Kids’ Church, Word Explosion, Bible Blast … the names were as varied as the churches that applied them.
Over 70 paid ministry staff, in 6 different groups separated between churches above and below 400 in weekly attendance participated and what we heard revealed that while churches may call their ministries by many different names, they share an awful lot in common. They all face challenges week in and week out as they teach and lead families towards a closer relationship with Christ.
Now, before I dig in to the research any further, let me back up and explain why we were interested in this information. Last year the company I work for, Disciplr, was in the beginning phases of developing a brand new technology aimed at making church curriculum “simpler.” Disciplr was built on an idea that came from a small group of us who worked at David C Cook, yes the 100+-year-old Sunday School publishing company.
With that much history in curriculum and a pretty good knowledge of technology trends, we knew the time was right to begin rethinking the curriculum process. In our minds, Disciplr was an amazing idea, but we needed validation of the idea, thus the reason for this research.
So here’s what we learned.
People are busier than ever!
It didn’t matter which group we were with, both big and small churches told us that as compared with ten years ago, people (volunteers and families) are busier than they’ve ever been. Coupled with this, or possibly even caused by it, is a decreased willingness to make a regular commitment of time to their local church.
In Dallas one youth minister remarked, “It used to be that communities and schools would be somewhat considerate of Wednesdays and Sundays. Those were kind of sacred times, but not anymore. They’ll schedule practices at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning if that’s the only time they can find during the week.”
Churches are competing for peoples’ attention and time more than ever. Both volunteers and kids are often inconsistent in their involvement and attendance. The job of ministry staff in retaining volunteers and connecting with kids is tougher than it’s ever been!
Technology is great, except when it isn’t
A number of leaders echoed the positive impact that technology can have, and they believed that ultimately churches would have to adapt in order to keep up with the culture around them.
“I like it, but I’m thinking maybe some of the older teachers may not use it.” – Large Church Practitioner, Dallas, TX
On the other hand, there is a real struggle to keep up with changes in technology, because there exists an apprehension that a new tool or process that utilizes technology could be a struggle for existing volunteers—volunteers that a ministry cannot afford to frustrate and/or lose.
Curriculum should be relevant, biblical and easy-to-use!
In our final group of questions, we wanted to ask churches about curriculum. How do they find and select it, where do they buy it, and most importantly why did they choose the curriculum they were currently using?
We found a number of churches, both big and small, that were still using traditional printed, quarterly curriculum. For these folks, the decision to stick with what they know was as much about making things easy for their teachers as it was about their own comfort level with the status quo.
“You’re trying to respect your teachers. Children’s Sunday school has so many elements to it, and they have way more preparation involved … You’re thinking primarily of how easy is it for our teachers to prepare this and present it to a group of kids.” – Small Church Practitioner, Charlotte, NC
When it came to digital (downloadable) curriculum, people loved the options, the media, the colorful resources and relevant content, and the flexibility. However, for some, the need to wrangle files and organize and prepare everything that used to be done for them with printed curriculum only seemed to add to the problem of less time, less teachers.
“The reason I’m getting out of (Brand X Downloadable Curriculum) is that it’s so convoluted. I hate it, because I have to modify it so much to get it usable on Sunday morning that it’s not worth my time. It’s such a pain.” – Small Church Practitioner, Dallas, TX
And yet, other churches have completely forsaken the idea of print altogether:
“For us, selecting children’s ministry curriculum, downloadable is huge. If we can’t download it, you’re already off the list, because it’s just too much of a pain in the rear end to order a book and run photocopies.” Large Church Practitioner, Charlotte, NC
Most churches, however, were generally positive about the new opportunities that the Internet and digital curriculum provide ministries. We were excited to learn that many churches had begun using Right Now Media as a mid-week or supplemental resource to their kidmin efforts.
“We’ve started using RightNow Media … anybody can get it anywhere.” Large Church Practitioner, Chicago, IL
It’s about discipleship
“Discipleship is the main goal for everybody. We want them to be disciples. So Sunday school or Christian education or whatever, would be a means to the overall goal of discipling people.” Small Church Practitioner, Charlotte, NC
As I wrapped up my multi-city quest for information I was left with an indelible impression. In every group and from every participant, I heard a love for people. These ministers loved their congregations. What motivated them to do what they do, and how they do it, was always first and foremost people.
Their volunteers were especially important—the hands and feet of their ministry efforts. The lens through which decisions are made is most often, “How will this affect my teachers?”
As I’ve pondered this last point, I’ve begun wondering if the sensitivity to frustrating the busy volunteers in our churches is a major reason we’re struggling to keep up with the technological shifts around us. Maybe it’s easier to go with “what works.” But, what if “what’s working” isn’t as relevant? What if it begins to lose its impact in a media-centric, digitally-connected culture?
What if our decisions to not lead our volunteers in the digital revolution for fear that they will resist or leave are only helping to serve a larger problem. Those gifted to teach are not adequately equipped to do so in an age when 64% of American adults own a smart phone and 7 out of 10 visit Facebook at least once a month?
The church is in a tough spot! Children’s ministries are more often than not challenged with small budgets and big demands. Recruiting and retaining volunteers can become a constant battle to please and appease. But as believers, we’re all called to be disciple-makers (Matthew 28:19). Those who are volunteering in your ministry are more than likely doing so as a response to God’s leading.
In the same way, God has called you to be a leader of leaders. Your job is not just about scheduling, organizing, and coordinating. You’re called to equip these people so that God can most effectively work through them (Ephesians 4:12).
I pray that this is both an encouragement and a challenge to you. Maybe you’re on the bleeding edge of technology. You love gadgets, use social media, and are fluent in “txt tlk”. For you, using technology is natural, like breathing.
However, if you feel a lot like the churches that we listened to, chances are you’re feeling the tension between the worlds that exist inside and outside of your church walls. For you guys, I’d like to leave you with a final thought from a brand new ebook we’ve published at Disciplr:
“Remember: Jesus told his followers to make disciples as they go, and today, we go digital. So if we take the great commission seriously, we’ll be leveraging the technology we use every day to make disciples.”
The Digital Discipleship Manifesto
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Michael and his wife Christina live in Colorado Springs where they homeschool their two boys and try to keep up with their Newfie-Poo, Riley. As a part of the Disciplr team, Michael is responsible for serving churches with both technology and content that serve their ministry needs. disciplr.com, @m_covington