The New Funday School

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ROBERT A. DAVIS FOR TIME

First Presbyterian Church of Illinois uses multimedia to teach Noah's stroy

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The most ambitious of the new techniques aren't cheap. First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., paid $279,000 to Bruce Barry's Wacky World Studios, a set-design company in Tampa, Fla., that specializes in Sunday-school makeovers, to turn a room that had sometimes been used for funerals into a zany Toon Town where buzzers go off and confetti rains down during celebrations like baptisms. Many ministers say such investments pay off; Sunday-school attendance at First Baptist has doubled since Toon Town opened in 1999. Some 30 congregations have hired Wacky World to transform their prayer halls into playgrounds. They view these livelier schools as a vital recruitment tool, believing that kids will bring not only their friends to church but their parents as well. "If a kid comes home and says, 'I met some kids, I had fun and loved it, and I want to go back,' most of the time a parent will say, 'O.K.,' and then return to that church," Bill Hybels, pastor of the 12,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., told Children's Ministry magazine. "There are church-wide benefits on all sides of a thriving children's ministry."

So it's no surprise that youth minister is the fastest-growing staff position in American churches. In 1980, 35 children's pastors attended the inaugural conference of the International Network of Children's Ministry; this year attendance was more than 2,500. More seminaries are training pastors to specialize in children's needs. Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., introduced a master of arts degree in children's and family ministry just 2 1/2 years ago, and the program now has 70 students.

Not everyone is a believer in the Funday-school approach. Critics say these programs entertain rather than educate kids. They argue that well-meaning ministers are looking in the wrong place (namely, American pop culture) for inspiration. And they wonder if the church is gaining adherents at the cost of losing its message. "Are we giving kids the message that it's as easy to be a committed Christian as just sitting down to consume culture?" asks Fred Edie, a visiting professor at Duke Divinity School.

Atlanta's Church of the Apostles is sticking to tradition, even if it provokes the occasional yawn. Children as young as 2 are encouraged to memorize Bible verses. "We have a very small window of opportunity with children," says Connie Musselman, director of children's ministry. "We have studied what makes strong believers, and we're just not dumbing it down. We teach a biblical worldview, that everything needs to come through the grid of the Bible."

Proponents of the new approach insist that the Bible itself offers examples of innovative proselytizing. Walt Mueller, founder of the Pennsylvania-based Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, cites the example of the Apostle Paul, who studied objects of Athenian worship to proselytize better. "It's no different than going to China and using a different language to talk about Christ," says Mueller. "It's important to take elements of children's culture and use them as signs to point to the ultimate destination: a commitment to Christ."

Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., is willing to follow the signs wherever they lead. For an hour every Sunday morning, teens in torn jeans and worn sneakers carry their Good Books and skateboards to the New Breed class. A boy with tattoos asked for the courage to stay in school. A girl requested help with her alcoholic father. "This is what Jesus did. He reached people at all levels, not just those who were dressed well," says Buck Waters, the pastor, who also runs a surfing ministry. "We are calling our entire membership to a new level of faith commitment." How better to test that commitment than to leave the classroom door wide open? Waters' class is held at the back of the church grounds — so that anyone can easily hop on a skateboard and go.

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