What would you do if your church was small and had a limited budget and the Sunday school curriculum packets for the new semester went missing? Ordering new ones was not an option, so I did the next best thing while I continued the search: I created our own lessons for a few weeks.
Eight years later, I am still doing it because we happened upon a formula and a format that really works for us. The teachers like it, the children like it, and they are engaged in discussion and remembering what they’ve learned in a way that’s connected to the large part of their life that does not take place at church.
It quickly became the “Placemat Curriculum” to us, and is now available as “A Place for Everyone” Placemat Curriculum from Woodlake Publishing, in a venture with Scarborough Presbyterian Church. Here’s a quick look at how it evolved:
As a longtime focus group moderator, I create something I call “story concepts” to engage consumers quickly in conversation. They are visual, sometimes reliant on puns, and an easy way to communicate lots of information to everyone in the room and get them talking about everything from hemorrhoids to yogurt. Using my graphics software and my tabloid-sized “story concept” format, I set out to create an entire church school lesson on one big sheet of paper that we could print on demand.
Since we are a lectionary-based church, I already had a starting point and selected one (or two) Bible passages from the lectionary to put on the sheet. We had just finished a series of summer reading groups at Scarborough, where the children read a book like C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and I had augmented it by handing out Bible passages for them to look up and connect to the story. The group was engaged with the Bible in a whole new way, and we had many “aha” moments as they began to appreciate that Bible inspiration was EVERYWHERE. (Yes, God is in the world, not just in church on Sunday!)
When we added movies to the mix, it only got better! I had been thinking it was a missed opportunity not to include these connections in our regular class. I’d started collecting examples of the Bible in books, movies and pop culture as a religion studies major in college, so I had lots of material already, and was adding to it all the time.
The entire approach turns the way Bible is typically done in church school upside down: Instead of drilling down into the Bible reading to retell it in a way children understand, the Placemat Curriculum uses the Bible reading — literally and figuratively — to reach out to secular and contemporary examples where the same thoughts, story line, concept or message can be seen. Trivia — like the fun fact that figs flower on the inside — is a wonderful aid to “stickiness” and a wonderful analogy to faith. And it’s just the kind of small point that sticks in your mind and brings the whole lesson back with it.
When the Social Creed for the 21st Century was approved (by the National Council of Churches in 2007 and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2008), the social justice connections from today’s world became part of the Placemats, too. The parable of the mustard seed lesson, for instance, cites a call to end child labor from the Social Creed, and shows a recent photo of child workers in mustard fields. Christians are not just called to learn about Jesus, but called to follow the Spirit sent through him with our actions, every day of the week.
Yes, it’s a lot of information for one big sheet. But it’s very effective: Remember those old diner placemats? It’s irresistible to read everything on it once you sit down. You want to grab a pencil and doodle on it. It’s instantly involving.
Fast-forward to today’s youth: What’s a “diner placemat” to some of us looks just like a Web page to them! It feels interactive. You can choose where to “click” first and lots of information is absorbed in a friendly, easy way. That’s how the Placemat works. The teacher can easily facilitate discussion and enjoy a “walk around the Placemat” with the class.
We are all volunteers at Scarborough, with little time to prep. All-on-one simplicity is our ideal! We’ve found that even the thoughtful questions, comprehension questions, historical background, warm-up activity or craft ideas, and book or movie clip suggestions can all be included somewhere on the sheet. We have multi-age classes, where competent readers can volunteer to read the Bible text, early readers can read a small caption or describe one of the visuals, and all can participate together.
And when a 9-year-old tells you they witnessed a “Holy Spirit” moment at school — watching a small act of kindness … or an 11-year-old suggests a movie that “has Bible in it” … you just know the message of finding God and the Bible out in the world has been heard, and the “church has left the building.” Can it get any better than that?
PATTY CHAPMAN is the Sunday school director at Scarborough Presbyterian Church in Scarborough, N.Y.