“The goal of weekly Sunday sermons is not to provide your congregation with every spiritual resource they need for the rest of their lives– it’s to sustain them til the next week. Just like every meal need not be a festal cornucopia, so too, the goal of each sermon is to sustain the parishioner til the next meal.”
These words from one professor were about weekly Sunday sermons, but I have found them to be profoundly applicable to the process of preparing weekly Sunday school lessons as well. A large chunk of my summer has consisted of designing and writing middle and high school Sunday school curriculum for my church, and I’ve found application for this thought to my summer task. The professor intended to communicate a release from stress and to take pressure off the weekly sermon. The sermon is not the fullness of God incarnate in 15 minutes worth of words. The sermon is not three years worth of seminary study compressed like one of those prank spring snakes in a can. The sermon is not Charlton Heston (or soon to be Christian Bale) delivering the verbatim word of God from Mt Sinai saying, “Thus saith the Lord…” The sermon is none of those things. In the same way, Sunday school is not intended to be a complete and exhaustive transference of Biblical knowledge in one fifty minute lesson.
I understand that. But I think there is additional insight to be gleaned from this metaphor. Thinking of the sermon or Sunday school lesson as a meal is a comparison that sheds light on ways to reach my millennial generation. My generation, dubbed by many as the millennial generation, is a foodie generation. By that, I mean that people approach food as an experience and something more than just something to be consumed out of convenience or hunger. Food is seen (and tasted) as so much more than mere sustenance. Each meal is an opportunity to try something new, to expand one’s palate, and to experience food in a spectacular way. So what does this have to do with church?
I think that the metaphor that my professor used holds true. A Sunday school lesson isn’t meant to be a feast or a banquet overflowing with protein, carbs, and sugars. But at the same time, this generation of sermon hearers is expecting something that will expand their palates, deepen their appreciation for food, and give them an experience of something new, enriching, adventurous, or exciting. So how can a preacher or teacher deliver an acceptable weekly sermon to a generation of foodies who constantly crave something complex, deep, and delicious?
First, we must reexamine our menus. By menu, I mean the overarching architecture and content of the weekly lessons. When I first started teaching middle school Sunday School, the first thing I wanted to do was to make it all about fun. As you can guess, that didn’t work very well. Structure and content are necessary for a successful classroom experience for teacher and students. During a curriculum retreat at my church this past spring with Sunday school teachers and our education committee, we envisioned a curriculum for our youth that was two pronged. Sunday mornings we would be covering stories from the Bible, hitting most books over a three-year cycle. Sunday mornings would be spent examining our identity as an Episcopalian, part of the Anglican tradition, and a member of the broader Christian community. We worked as a group to put together an outline for the books and stories we’d tackle over the next three years. We wanted to create a curriculum with meaningful and engaging content. We would have fun along the way, and we would build up self-esteem along the way, but the primary focus was on knowledge and application of the Bible to our students’ lives. As Gary Vaynerchuk says in his book on social media advertising, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, no matter how good the presentation of information is, content is king.
Second, we must reexamine our ingredients. Chefs who create meals to meet the standards of the foodie palate know they can pick only the best ingredients. Once we figured out the “menu” or overarching architecture of our Sunday school curriculum, it was time to pick the ingredients, the basic building blocks that would fill each lesson. In this stage of curriculum writing, my priest and I worked together to pick out stories from the Bible that would best synecdochally represent the book or genre on our menu. Part of the goal was to teach stories that are referenced repeatedly in literature, movies, and other forms of (high and low) culture. Additionally, we wanted stories that opened the door to discussions of the hard questions in Scripture, that raised hermeneutical questions, and that provided a relevant spiritual resource for our students’ lives. This was difficult to say the least. With every decision to include a certain story or passage, our null curriculum grew ever bigger. (The null curriculum is what is left out of a curriculum. That which is not said.) But unless you’re Dagwood, you can’t fit everything on a sandwich. And so we trimmed down our curriculum to manageable chunks, finding stories that represented the book (or group of books) in our menu and also emphasized Biblical themes that are important in our Episcopal tradition.
Third, we had to think about our pairings. Every foodie worth his or her salt knows that a single dish can be a great thing on its own, but a pairing can bring out flavor profiles and complexity that is simply magical. For us, pairing was a necessity. In education classes, we talk about the “zone of proximal development,” or ZDP for short. This is the set of information that students can connect to previous knowledge, allowing them to retain and make meaningful sense of the material. In order to activate the previous knowledge, we turned to examples from popular culture, literature, and other resources. For example, for a lesson on the crucifixion, atonement, and justification, I turned to Les Mis, Beauty and the Beast, and Schindler’s List for clips to help explain the manifold dimensions of the world-changing event on Calvary.
Fourth and last, we must reexamine our presentation. Growing up, I always thought presentation was overrated. And perhaps that prejudice is still dominant, as I put that last on my list. But it is important. In a sermon or Sunday school lesson, the presentation is not a static, fancy toothpicked garnish in a tiny bite of meat-I’ve-never-heard-of. The presentation is delivered by a living, breathing person. This is key. The teacher plays a powerful role in the entire leaning process. Even with the best curriculum, the best ingredients, and the fanciest recipes, if the chef is sub par, the entire meal will be a disaster. The content must be presented in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, palatable, and in digestible chunks (chunks actually is a term we use in education classes). The teacher is in control of all of this.
Of course there is more to be said about all of this. Technology in the classroom, homework, research, and reaching students of all abilities are topics I’ve considered in writing this curriculum, but there I’ve already breached my 1000 word limit for these posts, so we’ll call it quits for now. So the next time you’re preparing a sermon or Sunday school lesson, I hope that you find great ingredients and don’t forget to consult your cultural sommelier.