[Episcopal News Service] Adapting church services to a virtual format is hard enough, but how do you do the same for Sunday school programs that are typically hands-on, interactive classes? Christian formation teachers across The Episcopal Church have found success with a variety of high-tech and low-tech methods. As Zoom and Facebook Live have become the new sanctuary, they’ve also become the new Sunday school classroom in the span of just a few weeks.
“One Sunday in March, I am in the hallway with other parents waiting for our children to finish Sunday school. The next week, I am trying to learn how to have a watch party [for] the Facebook Live Morning Prayer being done by Fr. Andrew, standing alone in the small chapel of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church,” said Jana Auchterlonie, a Sunday school teacher at the Wichita, Kansas, church.
Two days later, she’d created a private Facebook group for the Sunday school families, and they’ve since fallen into a routine. A family will volunteer to make a short video about the day’s readings, paired with activity ideas, like sing-alongs, and craft projects, like resurrection gardens.
“I have been so heartened by the amazing things our families have done and how the lessons have felt connected and relevant to our current experiences,” Auchterlonie told Episcopal News Service. “One of my favorites so far is a middle-schooler and her mom, who read and discussed [the story of] doubting Thomas, and the child mentioned how the disciples were stuck in a room for fear of the Jewish leaders and we are stuck at home for fear of the virus. They then shared how to say ‘peace be with you’ in different languages, even sign language.”
Craft projects, a staple of traditional Sunday school activities, can be a welcome resource for parents juggling work, school and other household responsibilities as they try to keep their kids occupied. At the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lebanon, New Jersey, Lindsay Wyglendowski and Michelle Marlow produced a series of “virtual formation” videos during Lent telling the stories of the Stations of the Cross and pairing them with simple art projects that kids can do with materials they probably already have at home. Families could then upload their photos to a shared Google Drive folder to share their creations.
Parents who have run out of craft supplies need not run out to the store to find something church-related for their kids to do. For some, all you need is a printer, paper and crayons. Washington National Cathedral has released a series of printable coloring sheets featuring some of the cathedral’s famous gargoyles and stained-glass windows.
“With D.C. children home from school and parents working to provide child care around the clock, the cathedral decided to offer these as a way to help families stay engaged from afar, and in a way that taps into kids’ creativity,” cathedral spokesman Tony Franquiz told ENS.
And as busy parents try to limit their kids’ screen time, the combination of video lessons and simple crafts offers something more wholesome for them to watch – like the videos Emily Tanis-Likkel, family life minister at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington, produces every Sunday. In a slow, calming format reminiscent of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Tanis-Likkel tells biblical stories like the road to Emmaus and the resurrection using figurines and dioramas. Tanis-Likkel then meets with the kids on Zoom to check in and talk about the story.
Some even venture into the realm of virtual reality. The Rev. Jack Clark, associate rector at the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts, recorded a video telling the story of Holy Week using a mix of real and virtual backgrounds with help from parishioner Dan Fickes, who works in video production. Using a script adapted from Gretchen Wolff Pritchard’s “Prayer Walk of the Passion,” Clark takes the viewers to a hillside in Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus’ tomb.
And some churches are experimenting with new interactive experiences that probably wouldn’t have happened if not for COVID-19. In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church organized a weeklong “photo scavenger hunt” for Holy Week and Easter. Each day, a different prompt was posted on the church’s Facebook page, corresponding with a theme or a moment from the life of Jesus, such as water to represent baptism and flowers to represent the Garden of Gethsemane. Families could find the object of the day and take photos of themselves with it, which they could then share on the Facebook post.
“Many participated and found that very engaging,” said Sarah-Emily Steinhardt, the parish’s member engagement coordinator. “Our children’s ministry coordinator also provides a separate video with discussion questions, from curriculum we already have in place, and that is shared on social media as well.”
Recognizing that Christian formation starts at home, many churches are offering support and resources to parents, too, like the “Parents After Dark” Zoom calls that St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, organizes. Another North Carolina church, St. James Parish in Wilmington, sends parents activities and discussion prompts that are targeted to different age groups. Parents received guides for how to talk to their preschool and elementary school kids about anxiety and how to manage their own pandemic-related anxiety. It required some extra work, but Shannon Lockamy, the parish’s children’s ministries assistant, wanted to make sure that parents have the age-appropriate resources they need during such a difficult time.
“It takes some coordinating on our side, but if we reach even one family, all of the work is worth it!” she told ENS.
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.