How Can the Church Pastor the Next Generation When Sunday School Is Suspended?

The Sunday school children of Shanghai Moore Memorial Church sang hymns on Dec. 22, 2019.
The Sunday school children of Shanghai Moore Memorial Church sang hymns on Dec. 22, 2019.
By Thomas ZhangFebruary 24th, 2023

In recent years, with the changes in religious policies, the "no entry to religious places for minors" regulation has been strictly enforced across the country, and the "Sunday school" that was once in full swing in various places has long disappeared from the church system. However, regardless of the changes in the outside world, the question of "How can Christians pass on their faith to the next generation?” "How can we do a good job of pastoral support and follow-up for the 'second generation of believers?" is still a real topic that believers, pastors, and even grassroots churches can hardly avoid talking about.

However, it is encouraging to note that even in such a restrictive environment, some pastors in the system are still looking for a way forward in youth ministry despite the unfavorable policy and are actively exploring new ideas for pastoral care.

Changing the way of thinking and making the family the first classroom of faith

Before the suspension of Sunday school, Y Church in northern China had held summer camps for 15 consecutive years, leading nearly 1,000 "second-generation believers" into the faith. Today, many of the church's young co-workers, who stand as the backbones of the church, are children from the camp.

Pastor W is not worried that the Sunday school ministry has stagnated in the past few years. In his opinion, the church still has "room" to carry out the next generation of pastoral work under restrictive policies and can take advantage of the Internet age to carry out more new attempts.

From pastoring children to shepherding parents, allowing parents to grow as "Sunday School teachers" in the family is a new ministry that Y Church has begun to explore in the "post-Sunday School" era.

In order to make a change in the direction of pastoral care, the church reconvened the teachers who had led the service at Sunday school and organized them to conduct special training courses on parent-child pastoral care and audio-visual production, so that, with the assistance of the church, parents with young children could strategically build family altars at home.

"If the church does not lead parents in the faith, there is no way for the parents to lead their children properly." In his talk, Pastor W talked much about how important it is for the church to be involved in the education of parents. He thinks that the church's educational materials are an important part of being a parent. "As long as there is a sufficient system of teaching materials based on the Bible's truth, parents will not lose their way in raising their children."

Under the leadership of Pastor W and the pastor in charge of the parent-child ministry, the Sunday school teachers have been working in small groups to create and publish short parent-child educational videos based on Bible stories, nursery rhymes, and Bible comics. Every Friday and Saturday, the teachers would urge parents to watch those education videos with their children. Parents are also encouraged to read the scriptures that correspond to the video's content and punch in.

Also, the Sunday School teachers often go to the homes of the children to help the parents with any problems they may be having as parents.

"Although pastoral care for minors cannot be carried out directly in religious establishments nowadays, there is no documented interference in the pastoral education of children by their guardians in the family, so what the church actually wants to do is enable the parents of children to grow up to be qualified 'Sunday school teachers' to enable the children to receive edification and lay a good foundation in the faith during their childhood." Pastor W said, "Despite the need to submit to the policy from above, the church should not give up on any group and should also have the acumen to change its thinking and take timely measures."

Renewed perceptions: Planting the seeds of the gospel through atmosphere and relationships

Apart from the young children who are still in the arms of their parents, the majority of the minors in the church are children and teenagers who are already in school. With Sunday school and summer camps currently unavailable, it is a challenge for the church to sow the seeds of the gospel in the hearts of this age group and lead them on the path of faith.

Faced with this reality, Pastor C from East China empathizes as a mother who has led her two children into ministry. For years, she has kept a list of the preschool children in her Sunday school class taped to her bed and prays every night before she goes to bed for the spiritual well-being of these future "seeds."

She thinks that for children who spend most of their time in school, atheistic education in schools, on the Internet, and the temptations of the secular culture have an effect on the "second generation of believers" that was not expected.

"It would be best if parents could do a good job of looking after their children spiritually while they are in school." Pastor C said, "But then again, how many parents can do a good job of keeping an eye on their children while they are at school?"

To this end, at the suggestion of Pastor C, the church is determined to continue to provide spiritual care and counseling for young people outside the home. Instead of preaching the gospel directly at summer camps or spiritual meetings, the church took a new approach and brought in well-known experts in adolescent education to take into account the different problems that young people face at that age. In the name of "Adolescent Psychology Class,"  experts conducted a holiday camp for "second generation" children in the suburbs. During the camp, church volunteers lived and ate with the children, guiding and leading them to participate in a life of fellowship through service and interaction. 

"Although the number of children attending the camp in recent years is far lower than that of previous camps, both colleagues and parents can attest that many of the children who have come through our camp have experienced significant life changes. They have learned to serve and care for others and have a greater sense of kinship and identity with each other." Speaking of the effect of the camp on the children's growth, Pastor C felt God's grace overflowing, "Although we cannot run church camps now, we will continue to run camps like this."

During the exchange, Pastor C believed that in the current environment where minors are restricted from participating in the ministry, churches should, on the one hand, strictly adhere to the "red line" of religious policies to ensure their own safety, and on the other hand, try to be flexible and provide opportunities for the "second generation" to experience the spiritual atmosphere and loving relationships as much as possible under the premise of legal compliance, so as to indirectly sow the seeds of the gospel in their hearts.

In line with Pastor C's vision, Pastor W also saw the role of "atmosphere and relationship" in youth ministry in the "post-Sunday school" era. Testimonies from the exchange and study in churches in Hong Kong and Taiwan have given him a deeper understanding of the way forward for the youth ministry.

"The youth fellowship of churches in Hong Kong and Taiwan focuses more on sports, excursions, and interest activities than Bible study." When he was first introduced to the local youth fellowship, Pastor W could not understand it for a moment and always felt that it was "unorthodox." But when he saw how the children were able to enjoy themselves in sports and how they were enthusiastic and eager to learn the Word, he came to understand that one of the foundations of good youth pastoral care is that the church should focus on "relationship building."

Pastor Huang explained that in traditional grassroots churches, the word of truth is often presented in a one-way manner through the pulpit, and it is difficult for believers to build a sense of involvement and relationship with each other beyond simply listening to the sermon. This is especially true for the "second generation of believers," who are still spiritually young but have an active mind, and for young people who have just entered the church. In the past, many of the "second generation" did not attend church willingly but were "dragged" there by their parents.

"At the end of the day, the traditional form of meeting does not attract young people to develop genuine interest in and connection with the faith, resulting in misconceptions about the church and the faith, not to mention taking the initiative to attend the church in the future."

Therefore, in order to arouse children's interest in "coming to church,"  in recent years, Pastor W has identified several young believers in the church who have a strong faith, a burden for evangelism, and the gift of sports and asked them to set up interest groups among the "second generation of young believers." They often bring the children together for fellowship in the form of "ball games" and "eating together,"  building trust and love for each other in a fellowship atmosphere, and leading them step by step into the Word.

"I heard that (the group) recently added new members who were referred in by believers' children." Pastor W shared the recent developments of this interest group so far. In his opinion, such pastoral exploration is still relatively successful. Although he does not expect these children to have a clear understanding of the key points of the faith through one or two soccer games and get-togethers, in the process, the beautiful atmosphere of love for each other in the fellowship and the Christian values based on the truth of the gospel have begun to be implanted in their hearts and memories. I think it is enough that when they grow up and wander away from home, they can still think of the church as a presence that they feel close to and are willing to go to it for help when they need it.

Regarding the future pastoral development of minors, both pastors said that, given the current overall policy situation, it is difficult for the church level to carry out any other actions that are too loud for self-preservation. But they agreed that changing the church's pastoral thinking to fit the times and try out new ways to get together is a "never-ending" process, regardless of the current situation.

"In any case, the church must not lose the mission of evangelism nor adopt the 'lying flat' culture. External hardships are no excuse for our church to abandon any group of believers," said Pastor C.

- Translated by Nonye Nancy 

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