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Dialogue: A conversation with Carol Gafford

OVERLAND PARK, KAN. — DRAWING KIDS TO THE STORY is a key goal for Gafford, children’s minister for the Overland Park, Kan., church.
Tell me a little about your earliest memories of Bible class.
I remember a lot of really sweet teachers. Our church was a very loving fellowship, although very strident in its do’s and don’ts and lists. I remember sitting down, facing the front and listening. I never really thought that was a whole lot of fun.
We were very knowledge-based — we know this and we’ll give it to you. I don’t think that worked then particularly, and it certainly didn’t lead us down a path to where we could experience a relational understanding of God and Jesus.
Are Sunday school teachers facing the same — or even tougher — challenges today? How is your church meeting the challenges?
This is a multi-sensory generation. They are not learning in as linear a fashion as kids used to. They need to experience learning. Just drilling a hole and pouring it full of knowledge is not capturing them.
We have 45-minute Bible classes, but we need an hour — that hasn’t happened yet! Even if a child comes most of the time, that’s less than two full days a year. To ask them to remember many stories and comprehend in a way that gives them a renewed lifestyle, it’s kind of impossible.
Adding such activities as drama, which can come in so many different ways — reader’s theater, role playing, improvisation — gives them more of an experience. Or art. And during that experience we continue the story.
It’s better not to tell them, “This is what it means,” but help them find a deeper and different meaning.
What are some examples of this experiential learning?
We’re realizing that these kids love to sing. We’re finding that the kids don’t really know the songs that we’re singing — old or new. So we’re trying to make a real thrust at creating a love for music. The goal is for grade school kids to be prepared to sing when they get in the auditorium and not wonder what’s going on.
I think our teachers are good storytellers, but we want to take it past the story, using activities where kids can choose to interact with the story. We can focus on art, drama and what I call production. They may be writing something, but it will be something they are writing, not a fill-in-the-blank or word search.
The sixth-graders did a magnificent job with a study of Psalms this past fall. They wrote their own psalms and presented them to the congregation. It was a really impressive experience for them — and for the church to realize the depth that these kids were expressing.
Music, story, experience and prayer are the four items in elementary school that we focus on.
What do you hope children will take away from Bible class?
We encourage teachers to think “less is more” rather than feeling pressured to present a new story every Sunday. If you don’t finish the story this Sunday, engage your students in a way next Sunday so that they get a fuller picture.
I’d rather that they have embedded in their hearts the understanding of what David wrestled with all through his reign than that they know 49 more things.
Use really appropriate stories and develop them. You can see in somebody’s life like David’s all the things we encounter. The kids respond to that.
I think that kids are more spiritual than adults, just by nature. And a lot of times I think that they have better theology.

You’ve said that you prefer a continuous story line to teaching that jumps back and forth between the Old and New testaments. Why is that?

At my previous church, Western Hills in Temple, Texas, we taught a chronological story and I saw little light bulbs going off that had not gone off before.
I prefer a whole-story approach. We didn’t emphasize the Old Testament much when I was a child, but studying the Old Testament illuminates everything. I think it makes the story come to life, and it makes the first chapter of Matthew interesting.
You didn’t have a traditional Vacation Bible School this year. Why?
At a traditional VBS you have 500 kids hanging from nails because there are so many of them. They’re mostly church kids from somewhere. That’s OK, but you can’t specifically call it outreach.
This summer we did Backyard Bible Clubs. People invited their kids’ friends from school and in the neighborhood to eat and study and have fun. The church gave them all the supplies.
This was our first summer to try it, and nine families took it on. Several had small turnouts, but others had between 15 and 20 in attendance. One family stirred up the entire neighborhood. Even folks who did not have kids were supporting the effort.
I think the kids from this church got a special bonus because they saw their parents doing something very specific, telling somebody about Jesus.
When you talk about your church’s children’s ministry, you don’t sound 100 percent satisfied. Is that true?
We have a good situation here — very dedicated people who love the kids. They prepare and spend time, but we can still add more. There are always more people we can reach out to. Our goal is to move from good to great, never resting in maintenance mode.
This church is more sensitive to outreach than any I’ve ever been in, and yet we barely touch the hem of the garment.
Isn’t children’s ministry more of an “in-reach” than outreach? How do the two relate?
Right now they don’t relate a whole lot.
I think that within Churches of Christ there’s a lot to learn about outreach — where people are and what they think and feel. One of our goals is to partner with parents to lead children to Christ to be faithful followers.
Sunday morning has to be the very best possible moment of education that a child can have. And we’re not there yet — where they are badgering their parents to go to church and they turn loose of them at the door and run to class.
That’s kind of my dream. Then we will have caught fire enough to really say to our neighbors, “Come join us.”
Sept. 1, 2006

Filed under: Dialogue

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