Thursday, December 28, 2017

Chapter 3: Where and When: Sunday School and Beyond

Christian Education in the Small Membership Church
Karen B. Tye
Chapter Three Review by The Mustard Seed

“When we think about where and when we educate in the church, our mode seems to be the hour on Sunday morning we have labeled “Sunday School.”…Assuming that Sunday School is the primary educational context prevents us from seeing other possibilities for the where and when of education in the church.” (p. 41)

As we learned in earlier chapters, Christian education in the small membership church often occurs in various times and places other than traditional Sunday School. “Christian education happens whenever and wherever the church meets, eats, worships, works, learns, plays, cares, and serves.” (p. 42). So, let’s discuss three contexts, including Sunday School, where education is happening in the small membership church (and hopefully in churches of all sizes): Sunday School, Worship, and events in the life of the church and community.

Sunday School
In Chapter 2, the author mentioned that the small membership church must creatively structure Sunday School to accommodate smaller numbers of students. How do we approach this? Keep in mind that lack of numbers or limited space does not have to be a problem, especially if we imagine school in different ways, such as the one-room school and homeschooling. “Older children learn by helping the younger ones. The younger children learn by observing the older ones…The likelihood of personal attention increases as the teacher has more time to move among the students and interact with the children who need it.” (p. 43)

The one-room school model requires space, but not a lot of space. The space needs to be open and have flexibility, be colorful and visually interesting. Teachers are necessary, but consider forming a teaching team rather than a single adult overseeing everything. Older children can be paired with younger children as a “faith buddy” (p. 43) and work together in class. When it comes to resources, continue to think creatively. In a church, no matter its size, “there is a wealth of gifts and talents waiting to be tapped. There are storytellers, artists, musicians, good cooks, carpenters, jacks- and jills-of-all-trades…Once we stop thinking about what we don’t have and begin to see what we do have, we will find the resources we need!” (p. 44)

By using a homeschooling model for Christian education, we are reminded that “parents are the primary religious educators of their children and that we need to help them with this privilege and responsibility.” (p. 45) Often, existing curriculum can be adapted into take-home packets for parents and grandparents to use with their children when discussing our Faith at home.

Worship and education cannot be seen as two separate functions. “Because worship is sometimes the only time a small membership church gathers, being aware of the educational opportunities in worship and how to make the best use of them is critical.” (p. 46) An important task for educators in a small membership church is to help our students understand the symbols (often seen in icons or inside the altar) and gestures they will see in the worship space, and what these symbols and gestures represent. Next, educators should recognize that “the way we worship is teaching us, too.” (p. 47) Students need to understand why we participate in the Liturgy in the ways we do so that they will intentionally participate based on firm knowledge of the Faith. For more information on how to encourage student participation in the Liturgy, visit the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Department of Education's blog, Orthodox Christian Parenting, for a full article and additional resources. “The Orthodox Church considers all of its members, including children, to be an important part of the Church’s life. Therefore it follows that even the children are needed to do this work/give this offering. So, if it is important that every member of the parish participate in this work/offering, but if it is a challenge even for adults to be fully present and engaged, what can be done to help the children?”

“Core events [represented in the Liturgical calendar], unique congregational events, transitional events, and wider community events are all places in the life of the small membership church where education is happening, whether we realize it or not. Taking advantage of these natural gatherings and groupings, we can be more intentional about these contexts as places of education.” (p. 52) We can teach formally and informally during these events. It’s important to note that these events naturally allow inter-generational involvement, which we have learned is a strength of the small membership church. Being aware, being mindful, and being intentional of the educational opportunities present at these events will offer many possibilities for meaningful and creative Christian education.

Further Reflection (p. 54)
Pick an event important in the life of the congregation.
  • In what ways are you currently educating through this event?
  • What might be done to enhance the teaching and learning?
  • What steps need to be taken to help this happen?
  • We must look beyond Sunday School as the only time for Christian education to take place and instead see that the where and when of Christian education in the small membership church is everywhere and all the time.
  • Yes, we should strive to improve our Sunday School, perhaps by considering non-traditional models such as the one-room school and homeschooling, while at the same time becoming aware that other natural settings in the context of Christian education in the small membership church are worship and parish events.
Up Next...

Are you now wondering in what ways we can apply the what, who, where, and when for a result of how to correctly and effectively do Christian education in the small membership church? There are many factors to consider and the next post will introduce new, necessary components of successful Christian education and discuss how these components build upon what we've already covered to produce a Christian education model that can be fine-tuned for your parish's unique and individual needs. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Chapter 2: Who: It's All About the People

Christian Education in the Small Membership Church
Karen B. Tye
Chapter Two Review by The Mustard Seed

“We teach people, not lessons. It doesn’t matter where we are or what we are teaching, people are at the heart of the educational endeavor. This is especially obvious in the small membership church. We can’t hide behind numbers and assume people will be there to take part in whatever is planned. In the small membership church, we have to think about the people, who they are, what they want and need, and what we can expect of them.” (p. 19)

We must always consider the “who” when discussing Christian education: the participants. In the second chapter, the author proposes that the discussion begin by reflecting on “our general commonalities as human beings. What do we have in common that impacts the work of education?” (p. 19) After establishing how we are alike, we then carefully study our differences. “What is different about people in the small membership church that affects Christian education there?” (p. 20) When considering the commonalities and differences, group the members of the parish in order of children, youth, and adults to better recognize the specific and differing needs of these individual groups.

Understanding the commonalities we share is vital to the work of education. The author highlights three of these commonalities and urges educators to remember these commonalities as they will fundamentally influence our efforts in developing a solid Christian education program:
1.      People are biological beings. “It is important to remember that the people we work with in education in the church are biological beings. This affects the way they interact with the world and the way they learn.” (p. 20) Everyone has biologically based abilities and limitations, and depending on which stage of biological development a person has reached, certain tasks are not yet possible or are no longer possible. Young children may not have developed fine motor skills yet, so Bible lessons using whole-body, big movements may be more comfortable than cutting and pasting intricate figures. Studies suggest that adolescents operate on a different internal clock than children and adults, which can explain lack of energy on Sunday mornings – “finding other times to involve him in church may be an important education move based on biology.” (p. 21.) And adults experience a decline of sight and hearing with age. Plan accordingly for adult education events by ensuring that they can hear what is being said and can see what is printed on handouts.
2.      People are on a developmental journey. This is our “cognitive development”, knowing and understanding. “Think carefully about what children will hear and how they are developmentally ready to interpret what they hear when working with the Bible with them.” (p. 22)
3.      People are learners. We all have a brain. We all use our brains to learn. “Our work in education is to help [people] learn in ways that are brain-friendly, that work with their brains and utilize all the rich potential in those brain cells.” (p. 23)
Now, let’s move on to the differences we share. The author focuses on two areas in which people in a small parish are different from those who attend a larger church. These differences cannot be ignored because they are significant and shape our work in education.
  1. Numbers. “Small membership churches have to think outside the box in terms of Christian education. The difference in numbers challenges us to be creative. If structured, age-graded classrooms are your only image of Sunday school, it generally won’t work in smaller churches. Drawing on images of the one-room schools or homeschooling offers greater potential for our context.” (p. 28) We must think of new ways to structure Christian education for the participants AND in terms of teachers and leaders. The author discusses education models for the small membership church in the next chapter, so for now let’s consider the next difference that small membership churches share.
  2. Everyone is family. Just as one of the qualities of a small membership church is that everyone is like family, this is also a difference in comparison to a larger church. This difference provides the unique and special opportunity for multiple generations to regularly interact together. “Family education is more like an apprenticeship, where one learns through doing and from the guidance of one who knows the way.” (p. 30)
After taking time to study our commonalities and differences, we find the need to group people in ways to best help us provide for their particular educational needs and interests. As stated earlier, these groups are children, youth, and adults. Fully digest and analyze the author’s words below and think about how they apply to the Christian education program already in place in your parish, perhaps sparking ideas on how to grow and improve.
Children are the church of today. “Children aren’t simply Christians-in-training; they are full participants in the Body of Christ now. In the small membership church, we are easily able to include children in the ongoing daily life of the community of faith at every opportunity.” (p. 32-33)
Children are on a developmental journey. “With limited people resources, the small membership church also offers opportunity for children to take on necessary tasks and feel truly needed. When they do these tasks well, they develop a sense of competency that contributes to their overall sense of worth and well-being.” (p. 34)
Children are active learners. “We need to involve all of the senses in our educational activities.” (p. 34)
Youth are also the church of today. “While youth are indeed growing and maturing in their capacity to think and make wise choices, they still have much to offer out of their own perspective and experience. The small membership church provides just the right setting for youth to see themselves as leaders and capable participants in the church today.” (p. 35)
Youth are looking for more than entertainment. “Teenagers are at the stage in life where they are searching, testing, and looking for something of lasting value and importance. They are open to risking and thinking new ideas and thoughts, trying out new beliefs, but they need guidance…Small churches are indeed the right size to offer youth a place to know and be known, to find mentors and guides who walk with them and work alongside them and give them opportunities to lead.” (p. 35-36)
Numbers are not important. “Any church with at least one young person has a youth ministry already, whether it knows it or not…Be creative, and you will see the multitude of ways even a single youth can learn and grow in the small membership church.” (p. 36)
“The small membership church has a unique opportunity…In many of our small congregations, the membership is skewed toward older adults. A large percentage of those in the pews are senior citizens. We can dispel the myth that Christian education is only for children and youth by creating vital and dynamic educational opportunities for our adults.” (p. 37)

Further Reflection (p. 38-39)
In what ways has your church dealt with the issue of numbers when planning for Christian education?
What do you think is important to know about the children, youth, and adults in your church?
  • Plan one-on-one conversations with your children and youth. What did you discover that you didn't know? What difference can this knowledge make in your educational ministry?
People are the heart and focus of Christian education in the small membership church. We -children, youth, adults- are all the church of today, even though members of these groups are at different stages of their biological and developmental journey. These differences, along with our commonalities, must be considered when planning Christian education. We celebrate the inter-generational educational opportunities provided by a small church's family-like dynamics, with knowledge that these opportunities likely would not be possible in a large membership church. Small numbers provide promise, not problems!

Up Next...

We'll continue exploring Christian education in the small membership church by learning about the where and when of education, which whenever possible should always be more than traditional Sunday School classes that last one hour each week. We need more than that! And the small membership church is capable of more than that! In the next chapter, the author provides further insight on building a successful Christian education ministry within a small membership church, so the next post in this series will highlight teaching and learning methods that fit the circumstances of a small parish. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Chapter 1: The Lay of the Land

Christian Education in the Small Membership Church
Karen B. Tye
Chapter One Review by The Mustard Seed

“As we begin to think about Christian Education in the small membership church, it is important to get the lay of the land. To do this we need to look at two things. First, we need to reflect on the nature of the small membership church in general. What are some characteristics of these churches that shape their congregational lives? We also need to do a brief overview of education – what it is, why we do it, and what some of the essentials elements of Christian education are, no matter what the size of the church. Once we have developed this lay of the land, then we will have a good foundation from which to explore the ministry of Christian education in the small membership church in ways that are meaningful and appropriate to these congregations.” (p. 1)

The most common criterion for qualifying a church as “small” is that is has less than one hundred attending worship. Small churches used to primarily be rural parishes or only within small towns, however, today we find small churches everywhere. So, what other qualities are particularly important when planning a Christian education program within a small membership church? According to Tye, there are six qualities that stand out in regards to education.

Starting with the first quality: “a strong sense of community.” (p. 2) Relationships are what matter most to members of a small church, not the programs that are offered. Fostering those relationships and knowing and caring for each other is a priority, central to the church’s sense of mission. Educationally speaking, this means that we should focus on a people-centered education strategy where we pay attention to the particular needs and interests of members through curriculum and methods that give careful thought to how we can address those needs and interests. “In other words, surround the people in the daily, intimate settings of their lives with the teachings of their faith, and they will more than likely “catch a serious case of faithfulness.” “ (p. 4)

Secondly, a small membership church “is like a family.” (p. 4) Often, small membership churches are like a family both figuratively and literally. New members don’t join, they are adopted into this family! These family ties provide comfort and security; they are forgiving of certain slips and behaviors, and supportive of any family member’s vision to improve and enlarge programs which serve the family’s needs. From the Christian education perspective, a benefit of comparing membership to a family image is that we see that many generations make up the church. All generations should be invited to contribute to the church’s Christian education program. “Functioning like a multigenerational family allows the small membership church to be a place where the old can teach the young and where the young can guide the old. It is a place where the one teenager in the congregation can see herself as a vital and needed part of the family, the church. You don’t need a youth group to do this!” (p. 5)

Next, within a small membership church, “traditions run deep.” (p. 6) Orthodoxy and tradition go together hand-in-hand, a beautiful symbiotic relationship. Tye summarizes how deep roots of tradition applies to Christian education within the small membership church (and in this case, a large membership Orthodox Christian church, too) by writing, “Holding on to our traditions helps up know who we are and provides an anchor in a culture that seems to pride itself on living only in and for the moment. A key purpose of Christian education is to provide continuity. It is to pass on the traditions and teachings that form the core of our identity and help us know who and whose we are.” (p. 6)

After that, the author discusses the quality of “a high percentage of participation.” (p. 7) While there may be fewer names on the rolls of small membership churches, research shows that there is a higher percentage of people who actively participate in church activities. This should be encouraging to your small membership church! Small does not mean deficient. Be aware that there is a smaller pool from which to draw for Christian education staffing, and there is a risk of burnout, so use wisdom and caution when forming a volunteer staffing model. Keep it simple and realistic, with room to grow or adapt as opportunities present themselves. “Encouraging ourselves to think of an educational ministry that is woven into the life of the congregation and utilizes already existing gatherings and groupings allows us to take advantage of the higher level of participation and involve all the congregation in the call to Christian formation.” (p. 8)

Next, the author points out that “organization structure is simplified.” (p. 8) There is no denying that small membership churches have fewer people and fewer resources to use in Christian education. Accepting these facts leads to the solution of a simplified organizational structure, which can mean that your program may operate on a shorter time frame, planning will occur closer to an event’s actual date, planning will be informal without multiple special meetings, and often the course of action will be determined through phone calls and conversations during Coffee Hour. It’s good to know that communication is generally faster within a small membership church; this is to your advantage! “Planning does not require a complex organizational structure, but the call to be intentional and deliberate needs to be at the heart of our commitment to Christian education.” (p. 9)

The final quality of a small membership church is “worship is the primary activity.” (p. 9) When a congregation comes together to worship, there is more going on besides worship (even though the Liturgy will always be the most important event we celebrate.) There is education happening! “It is important to celebrate the centrality of worship in the small membership church and to see it as a strength. Also, we need to see, then, that worship is a central context for education in this setting. We need to realize that everything we do in worship is helping to form the people of God, helping them know what it means to be a disciple of Christ.” (p. 10)
Throughout the rest of the chapter, the author reflects upon the essential elements of Christian education as it applies to a small membership church. The following quotes are selections that might provide a starting point as you explore and discuss your church’s educational needs with others who share your commitment to educational ministry.

“Children often learn appropriate worship behavior not from formal teaching but from being in worship on a regular basis and watching the people around them. To understand education as a process of socialization is to understand the importance of participation in the life of the small membership church in its daily, ordinary activities and events.” (p. 13) Church School Directors, please note: Socialization is recognized as a primary method of catechesis in the Orthodox church.

“The basics of education in any setting, including the church, require us to think about what education is, why we do it, where and when we do it, who the participants are, and how we go about it. These are the essentials elements in any educational endeavor.” (p. 16)

Further Reflection (p. 17-18)
List the qualities of a small membership church discussed in this chapter: a strong sense of community, being like a family, deep traditions, high percentage of participation, simple organizational structure, and the centrality of worship. Consider the following:
·         Rank these qualities one to six in terms of how well they describe your church, beginning with one as the strongest trait of your congregation.
·         What other qualities of a small membership church would you identify? Where do these qualities rank on your list?

Relationships are what matter most to members of a small church, so this means that we should focus on a people-centered education strategy. The life of a small membership church is shaped by a family-like structure, a strong sense of community, and deep traditions. And fortunately, these parishes are blessed with a high percentage of participation from members, which provides opportunity for recruitment to Christian education ministry – although a small volunteer pool means the risk of staff burnout is higher, so always be mindful of this.

Up Next...

The remainder of the book “Christian Education in the Small Membership Church” is structured into chapters focusing on the questions of who/where/when/how in Christian education, plus two additional chapters covering resources and guiding principles. The next post in this series will discuss the people of the small membership church: the who. What do we need to know about these participants of Christian education? “In the small membership church, we have to think about the people, who they are, what they want and need, and what we can expect of them.” (p. 19)

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Personal Reflection: Christian Education in the Small Membership Church

Having myself grown up in small membership churches, not experiencing a large membership church until college, Tye’s observations and explanations about the small membership church reached to my core. Many a time, many a page, did I stop reading to reflect upon a personal memory that connected with her words. 

I was part of a church that had no budget for a Nativity play and eight of the ten participants within the cast were related, with my sister as the director. I was part of a church that held Bible Trivia Night in the sanctuary because the fellowship hall was in one of many various stages of completion. I was part of a church with no-frills operations, yet to the credit of a few dedicated members, there was an emphasis on Christian education for youth and adults, even though we had to follow a nontraditional model to accommodate our limitations. And because of the creativity, innovation, inclusivity, improvisation, passion, and dedication of these volunteers, the Christian education program thrived and eventually grew. 

It is possible. And if it is already going strong within your parish, there are ways to further enhance your programs without compromising on the distinct identifying qualities of Christian education within the small membership church. In the book, Christian Education in the Small Membership Church, author Karen B. Tye will help us “think together about the essential qualities and consider the basic aspects of this process we call education, especially as it pertains to the small church setting. We will highlight some of the basics, including whom we educate, where and when we educate, and the resources we need.” (page x, Introduction)

The beauty of considering Christian education within a small membership church is that we are reminded how Christ focused on the small, the simple, the humble when He was teaching. Reflect upon that as you work to establish a Christian education program or improve upon an existing program. Launching a Christian education program is filled with joy and challenges. Thankfully, we are not alone as we prepare. We should always remember Jesus’ promise that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He will be with us (Matt 18:20). We must take hope and strength from this promise and move forward with purpose and assurance! “Our small size is to be celebrated and cherished for the gifts it brings. We aren’t just a little church, or we don’t just have forty in worship on Sunday. We are a cell in the Body of Christ and can faithfully educate our members to do and live as God would have us. Small is beautiful! Thanks be to God!” (page 84, Christian Education in the Small Membership Church
-Submitted by Anna-Sarah Farha, church school teacher at St. George Orthodox Church, Jacksonville, FL

Within the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education, Anna-Sarah Farha is the direct liaison and support for our Sunday Church School Directors. She can be reached at

The Antiochian Department of Christian Education (AODCE) invites you to connect with directors throughout the Orthodox Christian community and access resources for Church School Staff through a Facebook page dedicated to Church School Directors. 

This Facebook page is updated regularly to reflect relevant topics of discussion such as curriculum, following the Liturgical year, challenges to issues faced by directors and the corresponding solutions, building your program, and articles of interest. Join the Facebook group and jump into the conversation so that the network of directors can be strengthened and encouraged through dialogue, surveys, and interviews.

Next Up: Chapter One review of Christian Education in the Small Membership Church, Karen B. Tye

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Christian Education in the Small Membership Church

Creativity, innovation, inclusivity, improvisation, passion, dedication. 

These are all building blocks of Christian education within a small membership church. 

Making up for limited resources such as budget, space, staffing, not to mention only a handful of students on any given Sunday, may seem like an insurmountable challenge, especially if we compare ourselves to larger parishes with full wings dedicated to Christian education, annual Vacation Church Schools, weekly SOYO events, etc. In a book designed for those of us working and serving in the context of a small membership church entitled Christian Education in the Small Membership Church, author and Emeritus Professor of Christian Education at Eden Theological Seminary Karen B. Tye presents her insight on “the creative possibilities that reside in the small membership church for doing the vital work of education and formation, of equipping the saints for ministry.” (p. ix, Introduction)

Over the course of six chapters, Tye describes how a small membership church is different (in a good way!); a small membership church is beautiful; a small membership church offers opportunities unavailable in a larger parish. Every small membership church is unique unto itself, even when compared to other small membership churches. There is a process to determine the individual Christian education model that is right for your parish, and Tye provides a framework for approaching this process. “Rather than seeking the solution or the program, we need to commit ourselves to exploring the particularity of our setting and what that means for the deliberate, intentional, and faithful work of formation on our community of faith. The church of Jesus Christ, no matter what its size, deserves our best efforts.” (p. x, Introduction)

Through a series of posts corresponding with the six chapters of this book, we will explore and discuss Tye's instructions on how to build a healthy Christian education ministry, with opportunity to successfully grow as your parish grows. Although not written from an Orthodox Christian perspective, the book offers rich insight to apply to Church School Directors' efforts in growing Christian education within your own parishes. 

For regular updates on new blog posts, and to follow this series about the book  Christian Education in the Small Membership Church, readers may subscribe to The Mustard Seed on the main page of this blog.  

Monday, December 4, 2017

Creative Arts Festival in the Small Church School

Creative Festivals Facts:
1. The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education organizes the Creative Arts Festival which includes art, photography, poetry, and creative writing.
2. The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Youth organizes the Bible Bowl.
3. The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Youth organizes the Oratorical Festival.
Full details through this link:

Let's focus on the Creative Arts Festival (#1 above) and how to get started with organizing a festival in a small church school. Joy Wise, Church School Teacher and Creative Arts Festival (CAF) Coordinator at St. Thomas Antiochian Orthodox Church, Snohomish, WA shares how CAF workshops are organized in this small church school:

"I made the decision for students to work on their CAF projects during Sunday School classes. I spent time getting familiar with the theme and the lesson plans, which I found invaluable. I was working with middle school aged kids, and spent about three weeks developing the theme with them. I took it in small chunks and encouraged them to relate the theme to what they see/experience in Liturgy. The lesson plans were really great. I looked at the plans for all ages, and ended up using ideas from each of them. I also used a vlog from "Be the Bee." It helped to expand the theme." Since we are a small parish, we have chosen to teach the CAF Theme throughout the year in our Sunday School classes, and will focus on the actual art projects on a quarterly basis. We want to stretch it out in order to develop the theme thoroughly. The theme has so many layers, and we want to make sure that each student has the time to understand the theme and how it relates to Liturgy, to their community, and to themselves. So we will review it throughout the year as we work on the art projects."

Lesson plans for Creative Festivals 2018 for grades PK-12 are available at

Gathering Materials for Creative Arts Festival Workshops:
"I found that it is helpful to have good quality poster board. This is the base of every project. Pay attention to the size requirements of the CAF. I had all kinds of crafting materials: colored pencils, paints, glue, scissors, straight edges, lots of scrapbooking paper and card stock, colored pens, glitter. I gathered it all at sales and with coupons. The main thing is to have the materials displayed in a way that is easy for the students to access. And, it is helpful that the kids have a nice space to work in."

Creative Arts Festival Eligibility, Rubrics, Submission Requirements:
"Familiarize yourself with the CAF website. Look everything over so that you know the rubrics for each entry. Contact the CAF director for your diocese. Let them know that you will be participating. Ask if you can help them in anyway and if they have any further requirements. You have to think ahead to get ready for shipping the artwork. Make sure that you know the "due date." "


Assistance with the Creative Festivals is always available from the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education. Rosemary Shumski is the Departmental Administrator for the Creative Festivals and can be reached through email, or by calling 717-747-5221.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Church School Director Manual

Yes! It exists! A manual for Orthodox Christian church school directors. 

And it's ready to download as a .pdf file. No special software or file sharing necessary. Simply click on the link at the end of this post. 

Read about and study important topics such as the role of a church school director, a year in the life of a church school director, recruiting, preparing and retaining staff, and parental issues. Plus helpful handouts.

This manual was created by the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education as a pan-Orthodox tool for church schools of all sizes. Need help with establishing a church school budget? That's on page 21. Wondering about effective ways to record attendance? Scroll down to page 32. Written by experienced church school staffers and Christian education veterans, the manual will provide a guide for building a church school and supporting the staff and students.