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From Youth to Adult: The Transformative Experience of All-Church Sunday School

In this reflection, Reverend Duane Carlisle, Lead Pastor at First United Methodist Church in West Lafayette, Indiana, explores the transformative impact of an inclusive, all-ages Sunday School series. Encouraging a community-centric approach to faith formation, Pastor Duane’s message provides valuable insights for cultivating belonging, building intergenerational bonds, and breaking down barriers faced by newcomers within the church.

Shall we do another all-church Sunday School study for Advent?” I asked Elizabeth, one of my church members. In a time when attending church once or twice a month qualified as regular attendance, Elizabeth was a parent in one of those rare families that was at church pretty much every Sunday. So, I was curious how she would respond to my question.

“Yes!” was her quick reply. “That would be great!”

I was a little surprised by her enthusiasm. Elizabeth’s kids are fairly spread out, with one in high school, another in elementary, and a third not even in school yet. Because of their diverse age range, I always found Elizabeth’s feedback helpful.

Earlier in the year, for the season of Lent, our congregation had gathered in our large community room for an all-church Sunday School experience that welcomed all ages. As a mid-sized congregation, we, like many other churches, have been slow to rebuild regular attendance for Sunday School. The 2022 trickle of folks transitioning from virtual viewing to in-person attendance had slowly been building. Worship attendance was growing through the return of both long-time members and new folks discovering us and beginning to plant roots. Thanks to the dedication of a few key leaders, the adult Sunday School classes had gained strength and stability.

But my observation was that for the new folks who seemed to have found their “regular pew” during the worship hour, getting plugged into a Sunday School group took a little more effort. I would hear of a desire from new folks to connect in these smaller, more relational spaces, but getting started took some effort. I imagined what it would be like to show up an hour earlier to church, find the classroom in the education wing, and be the outsider entering into a group where everyone else seems to know each other. And for new families with children, there was the additional challenge of bringing their youngsters to a new classroom where their kiddos also had to go through that awkward stage of feeling comfortable and safe in a new place with new people. Many people would just not take that step.

And so, my hope was that with an all-ages, whole family Sunday School experience for a season, some of these barriers might be reduced. For our class, we set up round tables with materials for all ages in our Activities Center— activities for the littles and learning materials for youth and adults. Coffee and refreshments were nearby and abundant. For new folks, the spaciousness of the community space didn’t feel as daunting as entering a smaller classroom. For the little ones, getting to hang out with parents, grandparents, or friends gave them a sense of security as church began to feel more and more like a place of belonging.

But the real value, it turned out, was the intergenerational relationship building that the proximity fostered. Young people could be in conversation with the adults around them. They could observe mature faith being modeled. But they could also see that even adults are still full of questions about life, faith, and where God is at work in their lives and in the world. They could more easily recognize that the journey of faith is a life-long process and that everyone is seeking answers, no matter what stage of life they are in. This is how Elizabeth described it:

“The all-church Sunday School experience was so fulfilling for my boys and me. We went away each Sunday with a greater sense of belonging to the community. The discussions not only provided a platform upon which the voices of our wisdom-filled generation could be heard, it made my teen and preteen feel like what they had to contribute was also valuable. For me, I appreciated the transparency that the gathering fostered, allowing light to shine on the mystery of faith. I saw that even lifelong churchgoers sometimes lean on faith when the understanding isn’t always palpable. And it felt more like family.”

For years now, youth ministry experts have been telling churches that a more effective approach to faith formation for young people is not a youth group but a community where each child is known and valued by everyone for the unique and beautiful person that they are. I believe that this is true for all ages—for all beloved children of God, which is each and every one of us.

In a time when there is a lot of hand wringing about the future of the church, finding ways to come together to make visible the wealth of relationships and the abundance around us is a gift we can give to each other. It is a way to celebrate what God is doing, to dream about what can grow from the abundance we see, and invite others into the “kin-dom” revealed through the beloved community we build together.