Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gather 'Round looks at the future.

As the Gather ’Round curriculum moves into its third year of use (and fifth year of writing), staff and denominational representatives have met to evaluate the materials and make plans for the future. The meeting brought together Gather ’Round staff, other publishing house staff assigned to the project, and representatives from each of the publishing denominations. Gather ’Round is jointly produced by Brethren Press and the Mennonite Publishing Network.

A key resource for a Nov. 2008 Gather ’Round "summit" was data collected through a major curriculum survey conducted in Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregations across North America (see story below).

"We dealt practically with challenging issues such as declining denominational identification and tightening budgets by coming up with improvements in our products and creatively developing new ways to reach congregations and members," said project director Anna Speicher.

Participants affirmed the importance of faith formation and Christian education in the life of the church, and grappled with the difficulty today in training and equipping teachers. Teachers tend to serve for shorter periods of time and are less available for training events. Though the curriculum from the outset was developed with a special emphasis on "embedding" teacher training into the teacher’s guides, the group recognized a need to build even more teaching assistance into the curriculum.

The group discussed refinements in the teacher’s guides that are already in the works. Sessions are being redesigned to streamline the flow and make it easier to follow. Editors are also giving extra attention to age-appropriateness, particularly at the Preschool level. More teacher assistance is being provided in the quarterly "Roundabout" newsletter, an expanded "Roundabout Online" e-newsletter, and recent upgrades to the Gather ’Round website.

In a wide-ranging conversation about Christian education in a postmodern era, participants reflected on the trend toward small group gatherings outside the traditional Sunday school setting, including homes, workplaces, restaurants, and malls. The team brainstormed ways the curriculum can be adapted for midweek use, church retreats, and other alternate settings.

The team was heartened by survey data that showed a high percentage of congregations using denominational curricula. When choosing resources, congregations reported placing a higher priority on theological orientation and denominational values than on price. Among both Mennonite and Brethren congregations, Gather ’Round was the dominant choice for children’s Sunday school programs. Distant second and third choices were David C. Cook and Group.

However, a significant number of congregations had few or no children. These demographics are a challenge. The Gather ’Round project is small compared with other available Sunday school materials. Most small denominations have found it impossible to continue this sort of publishing. Not lost on the meeting were the realities of the current economic climate for church budgets.

Remaining committed to the importance of educational materials with Mennonite and Brethren values, the group spent time analyzing ways to ensure that each component is financially viable--particularly the signature Talkabout and "Connect" resource for parents and caregivers. A number of congregations are already using "Connect" as a general adult Bible study, and Gather ’Round is planning to broaden the writing so that it can be used easily by all adults. There will still be content aimed at parents and caregivers.

The group also explored ways to keep broadening the base for Gather ’Round. This unique curriculum already appeals to other denominations, and orders on the website have increased significantly. Users come from a wide range of other denominations, including congregations from several cooperative users--the United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, Moravian Church, and Mennonite Brethren.

The following results are reported from a recent curriculum survey of Church of the Brethren congregations, carried out by Brethren Press. The response rate: was 23 percent, with 230 out of 1,006 congregations responding. All districts were represented:

What is the approximate age of those attending your congregation? 0-12: 13 percent, 13-18: 9 percent, 19-24: 7 percent, 25-39: 13 percent, 40-55: 21 percent, over 55: 37 percent.

How important do you consider Sunday school to be to the spiritual formation of your congregation? 90 percent described it as "crucial" and "very important."

What best describes your Sunday school attendance? Growing: 16 percent, staying the same: 62 percent, declining: 22 percent.

Do you have a children’s Sunday school program? Yes: 81 percent.

What curriculum are you using for children’s Sunday school? Gather ’Round: 59 percent, David C. Cook: 16 percent, Group: 13 percent, Gospel Light: 11 percent, write our own: 9 percent.

What are the most important factors in choosing a Sunday school curriculum? 1. Upholds Brethren values, 2. Theological orientation, 3. Easy to teach, 4. Educationally solid, 5. Developed by Brethren Press. 6. Price. (Users of David C. Cook materials ranked theological orientation highest, and users of Group materials ranked "easy to teach" the highest. For Gather 'Round users, "educationally solid" ranked second.)

Within the past year, have you used a curriculum developed by Brethren Press? Yes: 67 percent.

--Wendy McFadden is executive director of Brethren Press.

Source: 1/14/2009 Newsline

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