Jump Start

Keith SundbergFear Not

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“Jump Start” is a crash course on Christian Education (CE) for new educators, pastors, and elders. The five-to-seven-hour event begins with a creative devotion, reflections on the participants’ philosophy of education, a list of observations about CE by seasoned educators, and then a discussion of creative ways to engage a congregation in faith formation.

Rather than relegating CE to the traditional classroom, the group focuses on seeing Christian Education, worship, and mission as integrated. An ideal lesson plan strives to explore a biblical idea, celebrate it in the service, and apply it to helping others. A Venn diagram (three overlapping circles) is used to help teachers make sure their lesson plan includes all three aspects of learning, worshipping, and serving.

Biblically and intuitively, we know that faith without works is dead, but so is worship without implications for our living, and so is knowledge without prayer. Teachers, elders, and pastors need to see their vision of work together as overlapping rather than having carefully defined job descriptions with no crossing of lines.

The course brings into question the traditional organizational structure of church life that always seemed to departmentalize ministry by leadership and committee. It challenges church leaders instead to seek to integrate the ministries of the church. Together they should envision events, service projects, and worship services that pull in every age group and every aspect of the congregation’s ministry by gleaning the insight of the various committee members, teachers, and staff.

Jump Start seeks to bring elders, pastors, and teachers up to speed on how to begin their new ministry in Christian Education. It is a crash course by mentors. The initial syllabus of the course was the work of Rev. Dr. Beverly Cushman, Associate Professor of Religion and Christian Education at Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA, and Rev. Keith Sundberg, Associate Pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church in Erie, PA. Both Beverly and Keith served on the board of the Eastern Region of APCE and there collected “Things That Work” from the region’s members.

Initially Jump Start was offered only at the Eastern regional event (EAPCE) in Chambersburg, PA. Then a board member, Rev. Elizabeth Williams, took the program on the road.  Beth organized a daylong event in National Capitol Presbytery and attracted 18 teachers. She invited veteran educators who began to build relationships with the class members. Since church budgets universally seem to be shrinking, there was only a small charge for attending. Both EAPCE and the presbytery shared in the costs of the event. Their generosity was a testimony to their belief that passing on knowledge to the educators who follow is their responsibility and calling.

In the first session, participants actually write their own philosophy of Christian Education. A guide, based on lectures by Beverly, is handed out listing a variety of possible directions for teacher and church. It raises the question of whether the congregation’s focus is knowledge-oriented, experience-oriented, or a combination of the two. Understanding that focus from the beginning will help shape curriculum choices and program design.

The second session deals with realities of Christian Education learned by those who have  experience in the field.  For example, “Christian Education is the responsibility of the parents, not the church.” After years of trying to entice youth to attend by creating more and more elaborate programs, I realized that it was not my responsibility to get them there. The parents took baptismal vows to raise their son or daughter in the faith. The church promised to support them. Our job is to educate the parents in their responsibility and to provide  a meaningful and enjoyable experience when they bring their child to church.

Although the Jump Start course follows an outline, its primary goal is to focus on the problems and concerns brought by the attendees. Usually the content of the curriculum already covers many of the challenges they face; however, there are occasionally other problems for which only veteran educators can offer some direction. One of the immeasurable benefits of Jump Start is that it helps new teachers feel less like they are failing and more like they are engaged with other educators in the challenge of interpreting Christian Education for the church in a very different century than they were raised.

Once their illusions of having to create a “traditional” Sunday school and club program are set aside, educators are ready for the creative suggestions of how to do what they are already able to do. Linda Williams, the DCE at Community Presbyterian Church in Ben Avon, PA, explains how even the smallest church can provide a Christmas pageant. She invites children and parents to church at 8:30 on the Sunday morning of the event. She has copies of the script she has written and costumes laid out. Parts are chosen by those who show up; they run through the pageant a couple of times,  and at the 11:00 service angels sing and the baby is laid in a manger amid the clicking of parents’ cameras!

Jump Start brings people together who don’t think they can educate—and sends everyone out realizing they can. And do! The course affirms that God calls us to share who we are and what we believe with the time and resources that are available to us—nothing more or less. Christian Education in the hands of these teachers may not look like the programs of old.  But these new educators may well be even more effective in nurturing knowledge, faith, and compassion for others. . . at least they will have a jump start on it.

Keith Sundberg graduated from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. For over 13 years he has served as the Associate Pastor at his home congregation, Wayside Presbyterian Church in Erie, PA. He and his wife Barb have three married children and five grandchildren. Keith has also served as the president of the Eastern Region of APCE and is currently co-chair with Rev. Joyce MacKichan Walker, of the National APCE event in Baltimore in 2015.