At Parkway Heights United Methodist Church, each Sunday morning in September found young Michelangelos by the roomful, stretched out flat on their backs, painting their own versions of the Creation story.
On one particular Sunday morning, Zach chatted excitedly as he drew the stars. Beside him, Griffin solemnly concentrated on his depiction of the sea, and Kate smiled cheerfully as she worked on her representation of the sun and the moon. To tell the truth, the work of these first- and second-graders bore little resemblance to the awe-inspiring Creation scenes Michelangelo painstakingly portrayed in the Sistine Chapel during a tortuous four-year period of the Italian Renaissance.
That's not the point, though.
The opportunity to try matching brushstrokes with Michelangelo is just one of several innovative ways children at Parkway Heights experienced the Creation story during September. Children who were Michelangelos one week may have looked at creation the next week through the eyes of a scientist, conducting a variety of experiments that emphasize the complexities of the human body; the following week, they could have found themselves eating popcorn and watching a video, or using a computer to design high-tech images of creation or perhaps participating in a puppet show. October workshops are focusing on a different Bible story, Noah and the ark.
It's all part of a Sunday morning makeover at Parkway Heights: traditional Sunday school has been revamped, using a fresh approach to Christian education called Workshop Rotation. Children from kindergarten through sixth grade will study one Bible story each month, but will rotate to various workshops each week so they can experience the story in different ways.
"We have been following the same pattern for Sunday school for more than 50 years," says Debra Topp, director of children's ministries at Parkway Heights. "The world in which our children live has changed dramatically during that time. We have wonderful, dedicated teachers, but they have needed new tools with which to work.
"This new format encourages children to engage the Bible story in a way that is meaningful for them. I am convinced that it will help us bring children into vibrant, authentic relationships with God through Jesus Christ."
The concept has been well received by the Parkway Heights congregation, Topp says, in part because the church has used a rotation format for vacation Bible school for several years. "Vacation Bible school has helped everyone understand that having an experiential, fun educational setting does not dilute the message, but enhances it."
The new approach also allows volunteers more flexibility in scheduling their participation. Traditionally, Sunday school teachers have been asked to commit to a full year of teaching; with the Workshop Rotation model, they may sign up for as little as one month, teaching the same lesson to different age groups each week. Each age group has adult friends called Shepherds, who provide continuity for the year by nurturing the children and accompanying them to their workshops every Sunday morning.
Planning for the shift in Sunday mornings began last November, when a 10-member Children's Ministry Team began meeting weekly, praying for God's guidance as they considered alternatives. By January, the team had decided on Workshop Rotation, which was developed in the Presbyterian Church and has been adopted by many denominations.
In late spring, preliminary designs were completed and work began, and by the end of August the Sunday school area was transformed into what is now known as the Upper Rooms.
Children meet Christ
"Jesus was most intimate with his disciples during the Last Supper in the Upper Room, serving them and instructing them," Topp says. "We chose the Upper Rooms as the new name because we want children to meet Christ in that way."
The name is also fitting because all of the classrooms where the children meet on Sunday mornings are upstairs, she adds.
Walking up the stairs to the Upper Rooms, children enter a radically different milieu: that of the Holy Land. The once-ordinary cinder-block walls of the stairwell have been recast to resemble the interior of a windswept structure from old Jerusalem. At the landing, the standard cork bulletin board used to post information for years has been replaced by a substantial scroll, the message board of ancient times.
When they reach the top of the stairs, children step through an arched entranceway and over the threshold of the Upper Rooms: the interior of a building from the Old City. The main hall leads the children to the Courtyard, the central meeting place. There, against a backdrop of lush flowering trees and venerable stonemasonry, shepherds greet them as they gather for the opening session.
From the Courtyard, children move out in groups to one of five workshops:
- Parables and Productions presents the Bible story of the day through drama, storytelling or puppet shows.
- Reel Revelations is a Sunday morning movie theater, complete with fresh popcorn and relevant Biblical videos.
- How Great Thou ART provides colorful surroundings where children can express themselves through artwork and crafts.
- Mega Bible Bytes provides a different forum for creativity, a 10-station computer lab.
- The Courtyard is a multi-purpose workshop for science, cooking, games and other activities.
The new system received high marks from children on opening day. "It was cool," says fifth-grader Jordan Tinnon, whose group met in the Courtyard to conduct a variety of science experiments emphasizing the complexity of God's creation. "We scraped the insides of our mouths, and I saw gobs of cells through the microscope."
Sixth-graders met in Parables and Productions, where aquarium-sized dioramas illustrated a Creation story narrated by church member Eric Weil. "We had fun," comments Hannah Archer. "We got to sit on pillows in the dark around an electric campfire. When we were done, we laughed, because our shepherd told us to unplug the campfire."
Making Sunday mornings different and fun is precisely the point, notes Paige Hanneke, a member of the Children's Ministry Team. "There was a great level of excitement during the open house we held to preview the redesigned rooms," she says. "This excitement did not just come from the children, but from the adults as well. The ultimate compliment occurred when several youth members of the church were overheard saying that they wished they were 'little again' so they could attend the Upper Rooms."
'All of us were scared'
Topp credits the church staff, as well as its council and trustees, for trusting the Children's Ministry Team to develop The Upper Rooms with integrity and good stewardship. "Looking back, I can safely say that all of us were scared," Topp recalls. "This was a very big undertaking, and none of us felt capable in our own strength. Praying for guidance was not optional, but mandatory. In His faithfulness, God provided all that we needed.
"This project emerged after our budget was set, so we were dependent on gifts," she says. "Probably our biggest challenge was accomplishing the physical renovation with minimal funds."
Key to the project's success was the gift of 10 computers from American Computer Services and Union Planters Bank. "When the gift of the computers came through, I knew that God was blessing this effort," Topp recounts. "We thought we could have one or two computers. Never had we allowed ourselves to think of 10 available to a class. Again, God provided all that was needed through those who caught the vision of what this could mean for the children."
One of those who "caught the vision" is Children's Ministry Team member Martha Thornton, an educator. "I was led to become involved in this project because I believe that the rotation model improves on traditional Sunday school," she says. "Research indicates that experience and participation increase retention. For that reason, I wanted to be one of the many volunteers who have given of their time and talents to make sure this program became a reality."
For Children's Ministry Team member Melanie Storey, "it was most rewarding to work with people who are my friends in a way that doesn't happen often enough, to be creative for a wonderful reason. The Upper Rooms certainly provide a new and stimulating place for our children to learn the stories of the Bible. It has been incredibly gratifying to see old, boring Sunday school rooms that probably have been the same 25 years or more bloom and blossom into an amazing, fun, inviting place in which to share the love of Christ.
"We want to keep the interest of the children who already attend and draw even more children in," Storey adds. "If the children who come to the Upper Rooms are excited, maybe they will bring their friends, and the number of children who hear the wonderful stories of the Bible will grow and grow."
That fits with the church's objectives, according to Topp. "Our goal for the Upper Rooms is the same as our goal for all of our ministries here at Parkway Heights, to make disciples of Jesus Christ. The way that happens will vary from child to child as they are touched through the workshop presentations of the scripture story."