Church of the Brethren and Mennonite congregations are responding creatively to the new Sunday school curriculum, “Gather ‘Round: Hearing and Sharing God’s Good News,” launched this fall in the US and Canada by Brethren Press and Mennonite Publishing Network.
Strong affirmation has been expressed for new products that help connect church with home, and content that brings Christian education to the forefront of congregational life. Two new products–the Talkabout, a quarterly take-home item designed to sit on each family’s dining table, and “Connect,” the Parent/Caregiver study guide–have received especially high praise.
“Gather ‘Round definitely has the right idea,” said Alan Giornavco, a member of James Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa. “Extending Sunday school lessons into family devotion and activities, and providing resources to talk about the same faith topics across the ages, makes a real difference. As a parent, I know the pop-up Talkabout has earned a much more prominent place in our household this quarter than a simple printed piece would have.”
The Talkabout’s design is unique each quarter. The fall design was a 14-sided piece that popped up out of an envelope. For winter, the Talkabout is a page-a-day, tear-off calendar. Some congregations are ordering Talkabouts for every family in their church–not just those with school-aged children.
At one church, a young girl asked her father for an extra Talkabout to take with her to her mother’s home, so she would be able to use it wherever she was staying.
Other resources new with “Gather ‘Round” include year-round multiage materials, a high school youth level, and a study guide for parents and caregivers called “Connect.” Copies of the fall issue of “Connect” sold out by the second week of the quarter, and more copies were reprinted within 10 days. It includes weekly Bible sessions on the same “Gather ‘Round” Bible texts and themes as materials for other ages, and daily devotions voiced to parents.“This is a much-needed resource to help parents talk about parenting and faith issues together,” said Eleanor Snyder, Christian education consultant for “Gather ‘Round” and director of Faith and Life Resources. “I’ve heard from parents who feel better equipped to talk with their children about God and the biblical stories, and who appreciate the short daily devotions provided each week.”
One Church of the Brethren congregation has used “Connect” for a class of grandparents. The group is excited about the material, and most of the class members were not previously attending Sunday school.
Modesto (Calif.) Church of the Brethren is enthusiastic about the Parent/Caregiver class and has introduced the Talkabout to the entire congregation, placing extras on tables in the church building.
“I’m also hearing marvelous things about the youth piece,” said co-pastor Russ Matteson. Recalling one particular exercise about prayer, he noted that kids talked about it the following Sunday and said they had used the prayer exercise during the week. “It’s challenging kids to think in fresh ways about what it means to pray, what it means to be present with God–in ways that give them tools they can use throughout their lives.”
In addition to linking home with church, numerous congregations are also taking seriously the “Gather ‘Round” call to nurture faith across the ages, and integrate Christian education with congregational life and worship. “Since all our Sunday school classes–children, youth, and adults–are studying the same scriptures we can use those scriptures as the focus for worship,” explained Mark Diller Harder, pastor at St. Jacobs (Ontario) Mennonite Church in Canada. “It’s great to look out at the congregation and see everyone repeating and signing the same memory passage. During the children’s time we can talk about what the children learned in Sunday school, or work with the common story creatively.”
Ron Diener and Tyler Hartford, pastors at Pleasant View Mennonite in Goshen, Ind., also appreciate the foundation “Gather ‘Round” provides for church leaders. “As Sunday school classes are using ‘Gather ‘Round,’ we’re also doing a sermon series based on the common Scriptures, and even compiled a special Advent devotional written by our own members tied into them,” said Hartford. “The experience of building these connections has been worthwhile and meaningful for us.”
A positive response to “Gather ‘Round” has extended even beyond the Church of the Brethren and the Mennonite denominations. To date, six other denominations are already recommending the curriculum to their congregations, and two more are signing up to begin in 2007. Some of these groups were users of the earlier “Jubilee” curriculum, and others are coming on board after selecting “Gather ‘Round” from among several options that were evaluated.
“We’re certainly gratified when our colleagues in other denominations think highly of our materials,” said Wendy McFadden, publisher of Brethren Press. “We’ve worked hard to produce the best curriculum we can for our congregations, and it feels great to have other Christian educators and publishers evaluate ‘Gather ‘Round’ and say it’s the best for their congregations too.”
Individual congregations from a wide range of denominations are also finding “Gather ‘Round” thanks to http://www.gatherround.org/. Visitors there have been able to learn more about the curriculum, take advantage of some of the training events offered during the introductory period, and order materials online.
“Your materials are a hit,” wrote Phil Okerlund, as he ordered more “Gather ‘Round” materials via the website. “Our teachers, staff, and children are really excited about it. What a ministry you have.” Okerlund, of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Muskegon, Mich., first learned of “Gather ‘Round” from an ad in “Sojourners” magazine.
“Gather ‘Round” is a joint project of Brethren Press, publisher for the Church of the Brethren, and Mennonite Publishing Network, publishing agency of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.