How and why has Redeemer changed its Sunday school?

Everyone's habits changed dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, and for many, that includes the weekly ritual of attending church, said Kelsey Johnson, associate pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hinsdale.

Church services have long since returned to in-person gatherings that closely resemble those held pre-pandemic, but attendance at Redeemer's THOSE services and Sunday school have not, Johnson said. "It's the story of the church right now in America," said Johnson, noting that Redeemer is not alone in its struggle to fill its pews and classrooms.

The pandemic didn't cause the problem, she believes, but accelerated a decline that was already in the works before churches, schools and other institutions closed their doors to visitors in 2020. Rather than lament the loss of those who no longer attend Redeemer's Sunday school classes, Johnson said the church is making changes to better suit the needs of worshipers. One of those changes is the introduction of a new Sunday school curriculum.

"We looked at that reality and said, 'Let's try something new,' " said Johnson, who helped to introduce Godly Play, a method of sharing Bible lessons and church teachings with children using a Montessori-based philosophy.

Godly Play, which is based in Texas and used in churches all over the world, uses storytelling and play to share the liturgical lessons of the day. Johnson said children also are allowed time in each session to ask questions and to reflect on what they've heard. Lessons follow the liturgical calendar, so children who attend Sunday school are hearing the same stories and learning the same lessons their parents and older siblings are hearing in church.

Children from 3 years old through fifth grade gather for each Godly Play session, which happens during the 11 a.m. Sunday service in a separate area of the church building. Each pastor-led session is just 25 minutes long. Along with stories from the Bible, Johnson said children learn lessons that apply to their everyday lives. While using a glass bowl to tell the story of baptism, children learned about the importance of caring for fragile things, Johnson said. During a session that involved painting, they learned to clean up after themselves.

Stories about important people in the church's history, like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther, also are introduced.

"They're able to learn about people throughout history who have values that we hope to impart as positive elements of their development," Johnson said.

Johnson said the new Sunday school curriculum is being well received by children and their families. She sees potential for longer sessions, as well as mid-week sessions, at some point down the road.

Johnson said she and other church leaders are considering changes to the confirmation program, and have already introduced a monthly program for older adults. Called Thursday 2 Gather, it brings people together on the second Thursday of each month to enjoy outings, activities, volunteer opportunities and Bible study. It's one more way for the church to bring people together in the new, post-pandemic world.

- by Sandy Illian Bosch