I thought I had it figured out.
The giant two-story-high inflatable waterslide rising up behind our fellowship hall.
Guaranteed success for Rally Day. Some serious numbers. Happy kids. Happy parents channeling their best 7-year-old selves. Lots of fun.
Throw in free hotdogs and chips.
If you promise to soak them and feed them, they will come.
Avoid the veggies. Keep the Jell-O for wry smiles from previous generations.
Do this, I thought, and anyone and everyone would be willing to don bathing suits and climb the steps and go “whoosh” again and again. Pure joy.
Oh, back in worship we blessed the Sunday school teachers by surrounding them with children. We read off their names and anointed their hands, setting them apart for the year-long task about to unfold. Between services, the kids met their teachers, smiles on faces all around. They found their class space decorated, colorful, their names in bold letters upon dividers: Jesus loves Johnnie. Jesus loves Jasmine. Jesus loves
And then Sunday school died.
To be honest, it had been coming about for awhile. We had tried stuff. Cool stuff. Inter-generational Sunday school we had built by ourselves from the ground up. Large group and small group. Empowering kids to lead. Equipping parents to encourage faith conversations at home. Including the arts. Rally Day generated a large turnout. Lots of excitement. No waterslide, but something even more important: families gathering together to talk about faith, to discover and experience Jesus in a highly interactive and participatory setting.
And for a couple of years we had high commitment from those willing to participate, kids and their parents and grandparents. We filled at least three tables every Sunday. Puppets told stories. And Christian clowns. And we had game shows. And drama. We unleashed gifted people and the Spirit laughed and soared. But in time we discovered that doing something so radically different always produces some level of discomfort. Requires a certain level of trust. Brings with it an amount of risk. Takes time. After a few years we lost traction and we couldn’t keep it going.
After another failed run of traditional Sunday school, we re-imagined Sunday school as Bible Improv, taking key Bible stories and teaching them through a highly participatory improv model, inviting the kids and their parents to enter the story, engaging them, reflecting with them. On a stage with red velvet curtains and gold ropes.
Rally Day was awesome that year. At key moments in the story, we had the front row hiding under plastic sheets to avoid the rains re-imagined by battery-powered squirt guns. Sound effects. Adults doing things that made their children laugh. And their friends. The popcorn flowed. And everyone could remember the story, the awesome story of God’s creative and powerful word calling creation into existence.
And by the time January had rolled around and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and the Exodus and King David had received the same improv treatment, it was over. Lack of Interest or commitment or time. Something. It was finished. As a long-term model, for us, it had ultimately failed.
A couple more years of traditional Sunday school followed with just a handful of kids consistently participating. Traditional Sunday school, intergenerational large-group/small group model Sunday school, Bible improv, we had tried it all with the same result. Rally Days brought hope, expectant hope. Hope that in the end disappointed.
Installing Sunday school teachers and litanies of promises, blessings and oil anointing, waterslides and bounce houses and popcorn and hotdogs and games, I love these as much as the next person. I hope somewhere right now some kids are spraying their parents with squirt guns or hitting the bull’s eye sending their pastor into a dunk tank or playing catch with water balloons in some creative and interestingly biblical way.
But our Rally Day started months ago when we killed our Sunday school below confirmation age and began a hybrid worship service that aimed to combine the best of Sunday school, family faith formation, and family-friendly and highly participatory worship. Every Sunday we rally together to experience another story from Scripture in song, reading, American Sign Language, drama, art, sharing and more. We pray. We commune. We model faith-formation to be taken and embodied at home. And we eat cookies when it is over.
Instead of a Rally Day to get the kids all excited for the coming year, we have kids excited to lead the litany, the prayers, participate in the dramas, share the highs and lows from their week, dive into the Bible stories. Bless one another. All modeled on the “Faith Five” from Rich Melheim and Faith Inkubators who have spent much of the past two decades studying how young minds learn and how faith is caught, rather than taught.
My perfect Rally Day was last Sunday after I engaged in a back-and-forth conversation on the parable of the wedding banquet and had one child tell me how in it God through Jesus had promised heaven to everyone as photos flashed by on the screen of kids and adults dressed in costume having acted out scenes from the parable the previous week. Later, a 7-year-old distributed communion while being supervised by a 13-year-old. “The Body of Christ given for you,” she said, looking to the 13-year-old who nodded her approval. All I could say was “Amen.”