About a year ago, our Children’s Formation Committee decided to make a big change to the children’s formation program. Our church had used age grouping for its Sunday School classes for a long time, but this format was not meeting the needs of our families. Families were not as committed to attending Sunday School every week. Additionally, our volunteer pool was shrinking.
Making a Shift to an Intergenerational Program
The committee discerned several goals for restructuring our formation program:
- We wanted the program to be less like school
- We wanted to inspire parents to take the lead in their children’s formation within their homes
- We wanted to build community inspired by the early church in Acts for both adults and children
When we began to look into alternatives to age grouping children’s formation, intergenerational options stood out. We immediately gravitated toward them because they easily build relationships within the church. With more research, we realized that intergenerational ministry helps bring a sense of belonging to all members of the church family who share an identity in Christ and enables us all to live in community together.
We chose GenOn Ministries’ LIFT curriculum to start our intergenerational program. We saw its potential for building relationships between generations. The questions about the scripture allowed all to enter the story and participate in conversation in some way. We also really liked the idea of sharing a meal or snack together.
We used the curriculum for a pilot period from September through November. After a positive response, we decided to continue using it from January until Pentecost in May.
Developing an Evaluation Process
I knew that we needed a more formal way to evaluate this program change. I reached out to the Christian Formation & Discipleship Office Hours staff in Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary about evaluating the program. They were full of great ideas, and I prayed over their suggestions to discern what steps to take with my congregation.
The Children’s Formation Committee and I wrote three questions to help guide our evaluation. We chose questions that focused on why we changed the program and what our goals were.
- How has LIFT influenced your family’s connection to others at St. Matthew’s?
- How has LIFT influenced you/your child(ren’s) connection to God? Has LIFT helped you/your children grow closer to God? If so, in what way?
- How has participating in LIFT shaped your use of the Bible and conversations around faith at home?
Knowing our busy church families, we decided to hold our listening sessions on Sunday mornings during the LIFT hour. We purposely arranged for volunteers to work on crafts with the children while the adults gathered in a different section of the Parish Hall to discuss the program. We conducted the evaluation through conversation by asking the questions, giving time for people to think over their responses, and then discussing as a group.
What We Learned and Discerned
These conversations helped us to see what we were doing well. Parents commented that the children didn’t always participate in the intergenerational conversations, but they all recognized that the children were listening and learning. The adults were modeling faith conversations for the children by asking each other questions and engaging with one another on their faith journeys. Parents also mentioned that they found it a lot easier to leave the house on Sunday mornings with the promise of breakfast and friends.
We also learned where the program needed improvement. The discussions and activities were not going home with the children and adults. Our prayer time was often ineffective at the end of the sessions and could greatly improve with more intentionality and leadership.
After reviewing the feedback from the listening sessions, the Children’s Formation Committee discerned that this intergenerational program is a great improvement for our community. We realized LIFT has some areas where it needs to grow, and we felt that a second year is needed to make changes and see where we are led.
Our Next Steps
We decided to continue with our intergenerational ministry in the upcoming year. We will keep using the LIFT curriculum because of its flexibility. We will also add more intentionality to achieve our program goals, thanks to the creativity of our volunteers.
Because cultivating and supporting the teaching ministries of our parents with their children is one of our church’s main goals for children’s formation, we plan to work on providing families with resources to take home that connect with the lessons. Simple items like a magnetic card with table graces, a prayer to share, or a game that can be done easily can help our families start making some connections to church at home. Another key change we will make is to have our leaders prepare prayers that connect to the stories in the lessons and reserve enough time at the end of each LIFT session for prayer. Our hope is that spending time in prayer as a group using a variety of methods will inspire families to pray together at home.
Suggestions for Changing and Evaluating Programs
If I were to introduce a new program or change an existing one, these are the things I would have liked to know ahead of time:
- Don’t be afraid
- Have support in place from other staff and leaders in your church
- Think about your community, the people, their needs, and their gifts
- Keep your goals in mind, always – Change can sometimes happen very slowly; don’t lose sight of what your focus should be
- Try to measure your original goals when you evaluate a program – When you are writing evaluation questions, make sure that they measure the goals you originally set out to accomplish; if you find that a different goal arises, try to measure that too
- Your questions should elicit thoughtful and honest conversation
- A notetaker is important – If you lead listening sessions, recruit someone to take notes for you because you will be busy listening and asking more questions