Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!”

A couple of interesting things came up while I was teaching Sunday school yesterday.

1. At the 9:30 service, we’re doing a program based on the old Marketplace 29 A.D. curriculum by Betty Goetz; we’re calling our version “Judean Village 29 C.E.” The idea is that we have gone back in time to a Judean village in the year 29. The adult leaders are mostly “shopkeepers,” or artisans: we have a potter, a scribe, a candymaker, a baker, a musical instrument maker, a spice and herb shop, a maker of fishing nets, and a trainer of athletes. Not all shopkeepers are present each week; sometimes they’re off visiting another village, or visiting the nearby city of Jerusalem. There’s also a tax collector and a Roman soldier who roam around our village, shaking down the villagers for taxes. All the adults are in costume, which makes it a little easier to pretend we’re actually back in the year 29.

At the beginning of the class session, we gather in the market, and the adults exchange a little gossip — extemporaneous comments on the oppressive Roman empire, and rumors about the radical rabble-rousing rabbi named Jesus who may or may not be involved in some kind of resistance to Roman rule, although (so the story goes), the last time he was in our village he stayed with the hated tax collector. After about five minutes of this, the children choose which shopkeeper they would like to apprentice with this week. Then we go off to our “shops” — mostly tables in one big room, although the baker and candymaker have to go to the kitchen.

Each shopkeeper leads their group of 2-6 children in a craft that is mentioned in the Bible (e.g., the potter), or is appropriate to the year 29 (e.g., the musical instrument maker makes pan pipes for use by shepherds). Some of the shopkeepers are good about continuing to talk about life in the village as they work on the craft — some of us aren’t; I’m the musical instrument maker, and the project I’m doing is complicated enough that about all I have time to do is make sure the children get the project done in the 30-35 minutes we have to work on it.

So there I was sitting yesterday with a six year old and an eleven year old, working away at making pan pipes — trying to direct the six year old while not boring the eleven year old — and at some point I realized that not only was I having a blast, the two kids who were in my “shop” were both having a blast, and so were all the kids over at the scribe’s shop. The tax collector came around, and we told him we didn’t have any money, and then the Roman soldier came by — he’s just scary enough, which is to say nor really scary at all except when we indulge in make-believe — and both the tax collector and the Roman soldier were having a blast (they took the collection in the worship service a couple of weeks, in costume, which was even more fun for them).

Not only are we having fun, but the kids are probably learning more about what I want to teach them about Jesus than they learn in any conventional Sunday school session. They are learning that Jesus’ life and ministry had a strong component of justice-making; that Jesus liked and respected everybody, even the hated tax collectors; and that Jesus was Jewish. Equally importantly, the kids and adults get to hang out together in a structured learning environment that allows for lots of informal social interaction, thus helping strengthen cross-generational bonds (and about half our “shopkeepers” are non-parents).

I think we need more Sunday school programs that look like this. Teacher-proof curriculum guides with cookbook lessons plans — the standard approach we’ve been using since the 1970s — are still fine, and still work reasonably well, but it’s a good idea to mix in some other kinds of programs, too.

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2. At the 11:00 service, we’re still working from the old From Long Ago and Many Lands curriculum book by Sophia Fahs. We don’t have lessons plans; instead, we do pretty much the same thing each week: take attendance, light a chalice and say the same opening words each week, have time when everyone can say a good thing and a bad thing that have happened in the past week, hear a story from our book, act out the story (or sometimes draw pictures of it, or make puppets, etc.), talk about the meaning of the story, then go into the front playground and play for ten or fifteen minutes.

I was tired this week. I read the story, and hesitated. “You know what I think we should do now,” I said. And one of our regulars said firmly, “Act out the story!” That was not what I had been thinking, but that’s exactly what we did: we acted out the story, just as we always do, then we talked it over, and then we went out and played in the playground.

Kids like having little rituals. They like doing the same thing every week in Sunday school — I think it feels comforting to them. They don’t need elaborate lesson plans that have several new and different activities every week. Light a candle, talk with friends, hear a story, act it out, talk about it, go play — from a kid’s point of view, that makes for a very satisfying Sunday school session week after week after week.

And the same old structure every week sometimes allows us adults to act more like we’re doing ministry. When we went out to play, I made a point of playing catch with the child who was having a hard time that day. I could give that child extra attention, while the other kids just played on their own; I didn’t have to discipline that child just to maintain order in the classroom, and instead could give that child what was needed that day — lots of my attention.

One thought on “Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!””

  1. This sounds like the best RE program I have ever heard of! What fun! I would have LOVED this as a child and would definitely love it as an adult teacher. There is nothing better than learning through play – and nothing more fun than acting things out and wearing costumes! Sounds awesome. For the littlest kids I’ve heard that Godly Play (aka Spirit Play) is also successful…

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