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The Top-6 Christian Education Models

Take a look at the top-6 Christian education models to keep your Sunday morning routine from being on the verge of becoming prehistoric. Dig into the 6 most popular Christian education models to unearth a living choice for your ministry.


There’s no right or wrong model for Christian education —only a model that works best for your church. So many factors determine your Christian education model — your facility, your volunteer base, and your mission statement and values as a ministry. In addition, you have unique needs, children, and volunteers that dictate how your Christian education should be packaged.

God knows your needs and can work through your church’s strengths and weaknesses to draw children toward the cross. Sift through our finds to determine which model — or hybrid of models — is best for you.

Christian Education Model #1: Self-Contained Classrooms

The self-contained classroom structure indicates that kids remain in their age-specific classrooms with their teachers for the entire Christian education time.

The Treasure

Age-specific classrooms are a way to foster a safe, comfortable environment conducive to kids sharing and growing together in their faith as they build relationships with their teachers. A myriad of curriculum choices exists for self-contained classrooms. Volunteers tend to be comfortable with this type of model because they’re in control of what goes on as they’re guided by curriculum. Parents readily understand the structure because it’s what they’ve experienced.

The Dirt on Challenges

Self-contained classrooms require each teacher to be a one-man or one-woman show-artist, chef, actor, storyteller, game guru, and shepherd-whether those things are in the teacher’s specific area of expertise or not. This model requires a great deal of space because a church needs a classroom for every 20 to 30 kids. Also, children in your church may not fall into specific age groups as delineated by your curriculum. So small churches may have to combine ages, and larger churches may have two or three separate classrooms for the same age group.

Volunteer Preservation

Volunteers who consistently teach classes feel connected and valued as they get to know the kids and play a significant role in their faith development. Volunteers understand clearly what you’re asking them to do, so that’s one hurdle you don’t have to overcome with recruiting. However, many people can be intimidated by the one-man- or one-woman-show approach, and burnout in this model is high.

Our Archaeological Notes

Determine if this model is best for you by looking at these key areas:

Facility

This model is dependent on your facility having adequate classrooms. You need to have at least 20 to 30 square feet per child in each age-specific class.

Volunteer Base

You’ll need two teachers to teach each age group of children so you ensure that there are two adults with children at all times for safety reasons.

Mission and Values

This model is for you if you value tradition, following a scope and sequence step by step, using age-appropriate methods for each child, and maintaining a comfort level for parents, teachers, and church leadership.

Digging Tips

To find the best curriculum for your self-contained classrooms, check out our curriculum selection guide.

Christian Education Model #2: Large Group/Small Group

The large group/small group model involves kids of all ages meeting together in a large room for worship and Bible story presentation. Then the kids meet with small group leaders to focus on discipleship activities.

The Treasure

Kids build relationships with their small group leaders and one another. In this model, kids also have the benefit of corporate worship. Small group leaders are facilitators instead of teachers, so they do less preparation and have the opportunity to go deeper with kids.

“Some kids learn about God best in a dynamic, creative setting like large group,” says David Staal, Promiseland Director for the Willow Creek Association. “Others draw closer to God while in a more intimate, community setting. Many thrive in a mixture of the two because in small group, they dive deeper into the Bible lesson they just learned in large group.”

The Dirt on Challenges

This model is volunteer intensive. In addition to the one small group leader for each group of 10 or less, you need a teaching team and a worship leader or worship band. Resources for this model are scarce because few publishing companies have created curriculum for this model. Finally, your facility may limit this model if you don’t have a large meeting room.

Volunteer Preservation

In some ways, it’s easier to recruit for this model because it’s not a one-man or one-woman show. Each volunteer concentrates on one specific task. The one-task approach makes volunteering much more approachable for people. In addition, each person has the responsibility of a piece of the education hour rather than the entire time.

Our Archaeological Notes

Determine if this model is best for you by looking at these key areas:

Facility

This model is dependent on your facility having a large meeting space for the large group time. You also need to have space for small groups to spread out so they don’t distract one another. However, for security reasons, remember that you want to keep small groups in view so you never have an adult alone with a child.

Volunteer Base

The large group/small group structure requires three kinds of volunteers — small group leaders, large group teachers, and worship leaders.

Mission and Values

This model is for you if you value showmanship, relationship building, and assigning volunteers according to their gifts.

Digging Tips

Large group/small group Sunday school has been around for some time, but it’s been refined and popularized by Willow Creek Community Church’s Promiseland children’s ministry in Barrington, Illinois.

Christian Education Model #3: Children’s Church

Children’s church is the kid-size version of adult worship with a corporate worship time, skits and announcements, and teaching time.

The Treasure

Dann Lies, the children’s pastor at Grace Fellowship in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, says that because there are so many opportunities for kids to serve in a children’s church, children are trained for ministry at a young age. The transition to adult worship is easier because kids have positive attitudes about church already. Kids who experience children’s church know what it means to worship God, serve others, and learn through others’ teaching because they’ve experienced these things at an age-appropriate level.

The Dirt on Challenges

Age differences can create a challenge. “It’s hard to keep the interest of both a 7-year-old and a 12-year-old,” says Rick Chromey, Christian education professor at St. Louis Christian College in Florissant, Missouri. “They’re on different planets in terms of ability, cognitive thought, spiritual maturity, and emotional balance.”

Because children’s church focuses more on corporate worship than relationship building, children may not develop close discipleship relationships with Christian adults other than their parents. Additionally, some critics believe that kids who experience the fun and exciting dynamics of children’s church may have difficulty making the transition to a more somber adult service.

Volunteer Preservation

In many children’s church arenas, a person with a call to pastor kids leads the teaching time, and volunteers take care of other aspects of children’s church — greeting, puppets, music, object lessons, or behind-the-scenes jobs. Because you need fewer volunteers, recruiting is easier for this model.

Our Archaeological Notes

Determine if this model is best for you by looking at these key areas:

Facility

This model is dependent on your facility having a large meeting space, such as a small sanctuary or a gym with a stage. You don’t, however, need classroom space.

Volunteer Base

To pull off children’s church well, a church needs people with talent in the areas of drama, worship, teaching, and preaching. You also need a few people to serve as crowd control monitors (a 1-20 ratio). This model requires far fewer people to run.

Mission and Values

This model is for you if you value showmanship, bringing the worship and teaching of an adult church service to a child’s level, and helping children minister to one another.

Digging Tips

Check out KidsOwn Worship from Group Publishing.

Christian Education Model #4: Rotation Sunday School

Rotation Sunday school involves students traveling each Sunday with leaders to a different established theme-based room — such as an art studio, music and worship area, computer lab, or drama room. Kids spend four to five weeks exploring the same Bible story.

The Treasure

Because kids spend a number of weeks studying the same Bible story, they know the stories well. Kids are also involved in hands-on learning that taps into their areas of intelligence-verbal, logical, visual, physical, naturalistic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

The Dirt on Challenges

Kids may become bored with experiencing the same story over and over again even if it’s presented in a unique way each week. Space is a definite issue for this model. To do the model well, a church must devote time, money, and energy into transforming rooms into theme rooms or learning labs. Parents, teachers, and church leadership don’t often understand the values driving the model, so vision casting becomes a constant task.

Volunteer Preservation

Mickie O’Donnell, one of the founders of the model, says that volunteers are key. Volunteers help in their areas of expertise and feel they have something unique to offer. On the other hand, recruiting for specific rotations comes more frequently — every four or five weeks — and each workshop leader needs training in adapting his or her lesson to the cognitive abilities of different age groups. Also, a development team that works on space and curriculum design is integral to this model.

Our Archaeological Notes

Determine if this model is best for you by looking at these key areas:

Facility

Rotational Sunday school seems best suited for churches that are able to devote rooms to themes for the long term. For portable churches or churches that share space, doing this model well is nearly impossible.

Volunteer Base

Rotational Sunday school requires two types of volunteers. Workshop leaders sign up for a short-term commitment to lead the same project each week over the course of the rotation. You may need four or five leaders per unit. Shepherds travel with an age group and assist the workshop leaders. You’ll also need a team that finds rotational Sunday school lessons, writes curriculum, or adapts existing curriculum.

Mission and Values

This model is for you if you value teaching kids according to their multiple intelligences, exploring Bible stories in a variety of ways, and reinforcing concepts over the long haul by going deeper into each story.

Digging Tips

Check out www.rotation.org for sample lessons, information, and expert advice on rotational Sunday school.

Christian Education Model #5: Learning Centers

The learning center model provides centers for kids to engage in various activities related to a Bible story or theme in the context of one Sunday (rather than over several Sundays). Kids explore a specific theme or Bible story through child-focused activities that help them discover Bible truths. Preschools are widespread users of learning centers, but the model can be expanded for elementary as well.

The Treasure

Learning centers are similar to rotational Sunday school without the permanence of theme rooms. As in rotational Sunday school, kids have the benefit of experiencing a variety of activities presented by people who are experts in specific areas. The learning center model offers various levels of choice. According to Scottie May, assistant professor in the department of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, choice is a key factor in keeping kids’ attention and giving them ownership of the learning process. The changing pace allows kids to experience a variety of activities.

The Dirt on Challenges

If kids are rushed along to the next center with no time to process their discoveries, the activities may not be as effective as they could be. Learning centers work best with about 15 kids per center, so if you have a lot of children, you’ll need a greater number of centers to make the learning environment effective. Unless centers are tightly integrated with a theme and introduced and debriefed with the Bible story or point in mind, the activities become disconnected and less meaningful.

Volunteer Preservation

Volunteer needs depend on your method for implementing the learning center model. For example, you can recruit groups of volunteers with expertise in crafts, games, and worship, and then you can rotate those leaders around to groups of children for your learning centers.

Our Archaeological Notes

Determine if this model is best for you by looking at these key areas:

Facility

This model is one of the most flexible when it comes to your facility. You can set up learning centers in a large room or in smaller classrooms.

Volunteer Base

You need a volunteer to run each center and an adequate adult-to-child ratio.

Mission and Values

This model is for you if you value giving children choices, providing self-guided discovery, and having a variety of activities.

Digging Tips

Any self-contained classroom curriculum is easy to adapt to learning centers. Each lesson component becomes a different learning center: storytelling, craft, game, music, prayer, and more. To find the best curriculum to adapt for learning centers, check out this quiz. You’ll also find a listing of learning center resources.

Christian Education Model #6: Family Worship

Family worship is based on the premise that kids should worship with their parents. This is a full-fledged family-friendly worship service where everything, including the songs, message, and offering, is appropriate for children.

The Treasure

Kids worship with their parents, which builds family unity and gives parents more responsibility in their children’s faith development. Families are all on the same page because they experience the same worship service. Families are involved in creating the worship experience, from greeting to singing and sharing faith stories.

The Dirt on Challenges

The tricky part of family worship is that it can easily be an excuse not to have Christian education at all. Sharyn Spradlin, co-founder of New Re-sors-es, a ministry consulting firm in Seattle, Washington, says, “The most common family worship strategies are well-intended but may in fact actually cripple most families from being the center of spiritual development for their children.”

Many churches include children in the adult worship service, but unless family members help create the worship experience and interact with one another to foster a kid-friendly environment, a “family” worship service does a disservice to families. If that happens, parents are back to bringing coloring books and Cheerios cereal to tide kids over until the service is finished-and you’ve wasted kids’ and parents’ valuable time.

Volunteer Preservation

In family worship settings, families volunteer to serve in specific areas of need during the service. Cyndie Steenis, co-founder of New Re-sors-es, says that families or groups of families facilitate specific task areas, such as music, drama, technical support, or greeting. Inviting families to serve and be part of the service gives them ownership of the family worship program. When families understand that this model encourages faith development to take place at home, they’ll be eager to worship together and live out their faith at church. You may also want to enlist a few families to function as surrogate families for children who attend your worship time without parents.

Our Archaeological Notes

Determine if this model is best for you by looking at these key areas:

Facility

This model is the most flexible when it comes to your facility because almost every church has a corporate worship setting.

Volunteer Base

Your families are your volunteers, so although recruiting will be different, it’s still necessary to encourage your families to participate. Once you get a core group of families serving during family worship and modeling what really is the full experience of worship as a family, have these families recruit other families to expand their understanding of “worship” to include service.

Mission and Values

This model is for you if you value making the worship service meaningful and accessible to all generations and having families worship together.

Digging Tips

Making the change to family worship requires that your senior pastor and congregation are sold on the idea.

Making a Switch

As you’ve explored these Christian education models, perhaps you’ve realized that you need to switch from one model to another. If so, follow these steps to make the transition.

1. Get buy-in.

Meet with your leadership or Christian education team to determine if everyone agrees. You’ll never make the transition successfully if your team isn’t with you.

2. Communicate your vision.

Meet with your senior pastor and the governing board of your church to communicate your rationale for switching, an overview of the new model, and the benefits to the children and your entire church.

3. Get training.

Mickie O’Donnell, one of the founders of rotational Sunday school, encourages churches that are interested in adapting the model to get training first for the team. That’s good advice before switching to any model. Help your volunteers understand the why and the how of the transition.

4. Test the model.

Experiment in the summer with the new model to see if it’ll work in your church. Your experiment will give you a better handle on how your kids, volunteers, and congregation would handle a switch. It’ll also help you work out any bugs before launching it for an entire year.

5. Introduce small changes for a hybrid model.

You can easily take the Christian education model you have and build one of the other models into it. For example, in self-contained classrooms classes, start by adding a corporate worship time at the beginning of your session. You could also form small groups at the end of children’s church for debriefing.Try using centers on a small scale in classrooms first, or expand your centers to have multi-age groups of kids choose centers in a larger context for part of your Christian education hour.

6. Once you choose a model, commit to it.

“A team’s enthusiasm and well-prepared volunteers can make any arrangement work if they go into it well-equipped, committed to making it work, and praying for God’s guidance,” encourages Sarah Storvick, director of children’s ministries at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Woodbury, Minnesota.

7. Re-evaluate annually.

Even a new Christian education model can become prehistoric if it’s not checked regularly. Prayerfully evaluate the results of the model, your children’s motivation to attend, and your volunteers’ and parents’ satisfaction with your Christian education model to determine if you need to make further changes.

For more great articles like this in every issue, subscribe today to Children’s Ministry Magazine.


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The Top-6 Christian Education Models

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