By: Keith D. Sundberg

APCE is pleased to announce the selection of Keith D. Sundberg at the 2019 ENRICH Educator of the Year. Keith will be recognized and his ministry celebrated on Friday, February 8, at the Awards Celebration Dinner during the 2019 Annual Event in Galveston, Texas. Also during the Awards Dinner, APCE will present the SUSTAIN, EMPOWER and CONNECT Awards and recognize Educator Certification recipients. For more information and to register for the Annual Event, click here.

The Future of Christian Education

by Keith Sundberg

When I began attending APCE as a young pastor, the Educators of the Year were our best scholars and mentored us all in Christian Education. They confidently guided us in creating engaging and successful ministries within our churches. Today, however, a prudent educator shares their wisdom with an emphatic word of caution. No one of us knows what God is doing and how to best administrate our ministries for the future. Age, though, allows me to not only question what I once believed but also wonder if something else might be true.

The change from knowing to not knowing, just as the change from higher attendance to lower attendance, seems to imply that we are failing. But what if God is helping us to recognize what are the very foundations of our ministry? Maybe the change is helping us to see that, like the early church, we are birthing believers rather than building an institution.

The implication is that we communities of believers are a womb that births faithful people into the world. Some of us stay in the church our whole lives to be godparents to all those children (of every age) who seek to believe—but not everyone stays. In fact, most go out into the world where God guides them.

As a young pastor, I had assumed that numbers in my church would measure my success. Somehow, I imagined the Kingdom of God reaching fruition as one big church. I think some of our hymns planted that idea. The Kingdom, however, is not within walls but rather within hearts. And God is doing what God will do. The church may simply be the nursery.

The need for the church is not in question. In her book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, Lisa Miller, Ph.D., contends that science has proven that all children are born spiritual. Her conclusion is that the spirituality of all children must be nurtured in community if they are to grow into healthy teens and eventually healthy adults. She notes that the church is one of the only games in town.

Embracing the idea of the church as a spiritual nursery would have implications for how a congregation imagines its self and ministry. There would still be a need for educational opportunities for all ages, worship services, and mission work. Much would remain the same but with a subtle change of direction. Liturgy would need to be inclusive of all ages, and we wouldn’t have time to wait until children are old enough to share in traditionally adult roles.

Children and teens would need to be given the opportunity to serve alongside their godparents, including ushering, serving communion with a deacon or elder, leading in worship, participating in mission projects, dealing with injustice, and caring for others. The urgency of limited time with each child would commend us to think more intentionally about their experiences of faith-building opportunities. We would be creating memories that must last a lifetime.

Whether there are children in a particular church or not, we have a calling to care for all children as we are given opportunity. I wonder if we can educate public school teachers, coaches, and parents about their potential role in helping children and teens. If not, adults who attend church regularly and grow in wisdom could become the educators in their neighborhoods and places of employment. People we cannot reach in church would be reached by them. The ministry of the church could be far-reaching by those who seek to live the love of Christ in the world.

My programs for preschool through college students, filed in manila folders, have moved down to a younger age group throughout my ministry. If the church is to send out prophetic and compassionate voices, then we need to introduce, at a younger age, subjects once reserved for those who were older. This curriculum would need to go hand in hand with helping parents know how to carry on the conversations in their homes. The church and now science, through the voice of Lisa Miller, affirm our emphasis on spiritual formation in the family and within a circle of caring adults.

The Spirit, in time, will either affirm this idea or dismiss it through our faithful discussions. Our Reformed faith argues that God confirms through many rather than one. APCE has always been a place where I was enriched and stretched by the insights of faithful educators. I believe this is a group that can be the hope of the future of the church. We have spent our lives adapting to the needs of every soul whom we were called to nurture. I trust that wisdom will come from our discussions of God’s intentions for the church.

I pray our ministry to and with all children, youth, and adults sends forth faithful voices to serve the Kingdom of God outside the church, as well as within.

Keith D. Sundberg serves as the associate pastor for Wayside Presbyterian Church, his home congregation, in Erie, Pennsylvania. Keith was co-chair of the APCE Annual Event in Baltimore. He is a past president of the Eastern Region and continues to serve on the board. He is the recipient of the 2019 Enrich Award.