Guest commentary by Sheryle Dixon
Like many churches of all stripes, the First Presbyterian Church of Alma in Michigan has been facing dwindling Sunday school attendance for years. The Sunday school landscape had gone from five Sunday School classes serving 25 students 20 years ago, to one class with two students in 2016.
In August 2016, the church’s education committee distributed a survey to the congregation asking, “What would you commit to?” — with regards to educational programming. Thirty-five surveys were completed and the responses showed they would like a potluck-type gathering after church, one Sunday a month, with an educational program afterward.
With a dwindling population of children, a meal after church was a good way to invite families to stay and then provide a children’s program for the children there. Middle schoolers and older youth would join the adults in an educational program after lunch. Offering lunch would also meet the needs of the large number of older members in the church, since they would have a lunch prepared for them. This approach would make sure no members were overlooked and that all members would know they were valued.
In October 2016, around 60-70 people attended the first “Second Sunday.” A meal was provided and the educational program looked at the theme of Thanksgiving and the faith the pilgrims had to brave the journey. Decorative cups held five kernels of corn on each table and its significance was discussed (this was the food allotment for each person toward the end of the first winter). The children had their own program in another room.
The feedback after the first program was that it was a little scattered and there needed to be a better transition from the meal to the program. These aspects have been resolved. The education committee went from planning a couple Second Sundays at a time to planning a year ahead. There is no central theme, so it does not matter if people are not able to attend all of the Second Sundays.
Examples of Second Sundays for the adults include: Bible trivia, history of Halloween, the story of Lent, readings about love for Valentine’s Day, a presentation about the crisis at the El Paso border and a speaker of Jewish faith who spoke about Purim. The children have various lessons based on Bible verses or stories, generally tied to crafts, such as making valentine cards and holiday food boxes. Each children’s session is different and the planned activities are flexible, depending on the number and ages of the children attending that day. Examples of themes for the children’s session are: God is love, Lent, Advent, God loves me and peacemakers. The educational director contacts the children and their families to remind them when a Second Sunday is coming up.
With the success of the Second Sunday series, the First Presbyterian Church in Alma has also instituted a “Fellowship on the Fifth.” These fifth Sundays of the month (there are three or four in a year) involve just a meal after church, with no program. The church also provided a “New Years at Noon” this past year. These lunches are meant to encourage fellowship and conversation.
With an average of 75 people per meal, the education committee needs some help. The church is fortunate to have two sets of deacons: deacons for congregational life and deacons for parish care. The deacons for congregational life help out with the Second Sundays and Fellowship on the Fifth lunches. We also have an Episcopalian congregation sharing our building (a topic for another article) and they also help out with the lunches. Free-will offering baskets are placed on the tables and this covers the cost of the lunches most months.
Although the Second Sunday series breaks even financially, it more than breaks even regarding the educational life of the church. With children and youth Sunday School class attendance dwindling, the Second Sunday series have kept an educational component in the lives of children, youth, and adults (young and old) at the First Presbyterian Church of Alma.
Each week, we’ve worshipped together virtually during the coronavirus pandemic, and look forward to fellowship and enjoying Seconds Sundays together again when it is safe to gather.
SHERYLE DIXON is a professor at Alma College, a deacon for parish care at the First Presbyterian Church of Alma in Michigan and the mother of 16-year-old twin boys — who were the only youth left in the last Sunday school class in 2016!