The truck stops, Crandall gets out, and the Sidewalk Sunday School begins. "What was the Prodigal Son doing when he left home?" the 26-year-old minister asks a swarm of giggling children, age 5 and older. As they ponder the answer, he takes a spaghetti strainer out of a sack stuffed with Bibles and turns it into a spiky helmet by filling its holes with nails facing outward. Then he places the metal headgear on a nervous volunteer. A child shouts out the correct answer--"Feeding pigs!"--and, as a reward, gets to aim water balloons at the newly anointed human porcupine.
Crandall's Sunday-school session actually takes place on a Thursday. But he and a growing number of other ministers around the country aren't letting small details like that get in the way of their efforts to reach out to the young. "You've got to do whatever it takes to keep the kids' attention focused on God," Crandall says. "You've got to make it fun, or it's just more dry religious stuff."
So nowadays lesson plans are based on The Gospel According to the Simpsons, in which Homer stands in as Job, and The Gospel According to Harry Potter, in which the boy wizard's decision to walk through what appears to be a solid wall to get to the train that will take him to his magical school becomes a meditation on faith. Church facilities have been updated with computer stations for video games like Bible Grand Slam and movie theaters for features like The Creation, narrated by Amy Grant. Teachers are baking unleavened bread as they read Exodus and aiming slingshots at large bottles for a hands-on study of David and Goliath. Adolescent souls are being wooed with skateboarding, surfing and hiking classes that teens attend with gear in one hand and Bible in the other. In short, churches are preaching to members of the Nickelodeon generation in the showy, attention-grabbing language they understand.
And the kids are listening. After the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., opened its kid-friendly facilities last summer, Sunday-school attendance jumped 50%, to 900 students, in just four months. Churches of every denomination and size are trying these new approaches and experiencing similar surges in attendance. "The more [kids] touch and they hear and they feel, the more likely the content becomes not only interesting, but they comprehend and understand," says Charlotte Echols, executive director for the child-development program at Highland Park Methodist United Church in Dallas. "That transforms into the good feeling that brings them back next week."
Even the very young are being led into religious instruction through play. At St. Simon's Episcopal Church in Conyers, Ga., toddlers have their own altar, at which they can practice setting up for church services with small candles, prayer books and Bibles. In a Bible lesson on Creation, they played with sand to represent God's earth and crawled through a tent to touch the "heavens" painted on its ceiling. Says Nicole Botkin, the church's Christian-education supervisor: "Parents help children with development in motor skills and language during the first years, so why not teach spirituality as well?"
One of the most popular Sunday-school innovations is the Workshop Rotation Model, started in the early 1990s by Presbyterian churches in the Chicago area. Instead of teaching a new Bible story every week, this method investigates one lesson over a longer period and, adapting Harvard professor Howard Gardner's "theory of multiple intelligence," incorporates various learning methods through different media. The Valley Presbyterian Church in Paradise Valley, Ariz., used this approach to teach about Jonah last month. One group of students found the relevant Bible verses on the Internet. A second group, using "bang and clang instruments," dramatized the storm that nearly drowned the prophet. And the third made and ate submarine sandwiches in a joking response to the question "What do you think Jonah ate inside the whale?"
Those who advocate rotation say the system makes it easier for children to learn in whichever medium they understand best. It also helps when it comes to recruiting teachers, as the instructors don't have to learn a new lesson every week and can specialize in what they do best. At First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, Ill., adult "shepherds" recently guided teams of children to five stations that taught the lesson of David and Goliath: Mary's and Martha's Bed & Breakfast had storytelling on a Persian-style rug; Creation Station was an activity corner with art projects; Acts of Faith Theater featured a play; Kingdom.com offered Internet surfing; and the screening room, Paradise Pictures, showed a religious-themed movie with popcorn. "When I was sitting in church before, I used to bring something to do, like draw," says Drew Schulz, 11. "Now I'm learning things, like Noah lived to be very old, and people were mean to him."