by Michael P. Murphy
“OK, class. Let’s build a city!”
Yes, let’s. My assigned Sunday school lesson for the day centered around Acts 17:16-34, the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens. I handed out blank sheets of paper and told the kids to draw pictures of things we see in a city and tape their pictures to the classroom walls. Once they were done I would assume the identity of Paul and walk around and take in what the children had drawn. The last picture would simply read, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
After ten minutes or so, the kids finished their pictures and taped them all around the room. That done, I walked around and commented on all their drawings. I saw a fire station, a police station, a grocery store, a restaurant, a city hall, and a church. Then I came to a drawing of a brick building. The sign over the door read, LIBARY. I was amused at first, then I chose not to embarrass the child who drew it and continued the lesson.
This I never forgot. It served to remind me that these are young children, not adults in little bodies. They had a lot to learn, and I had a job ahead of me to make the Bible exciting to them. Along the way I found myself learning with them.
Here I Go Again
In my last ruminations, you might recall I had spent 12 years as a high school youth coach at my church. Fast forward 12 years later. I had changed churches and decided to be an indiscreet and retired youth coach. After about a year of this, my friend Karen asked if I would help her with the fourth grade Sunday school class. They had a large group of kids moving up at the end of the summer, and they needed another adult in the room to help the kids with their memory verses. My self-imposed retirement came to an end.
I realized I was enjoying myself.
I realized something strange after a few weeks of guiding these fourth graders through their memory verses: I was enjoying myself. It was light lifting, no prep work, and someone else taught the class. I just had to show up and listen to the kids recite Bible verses from memory.
I was impressed with the kids’ enthusiasm for memory verses, but what fascinated me most about this Sunday school hour was how the kids were so absorbed in Bible story time. Marilyn, the lead teacher, told Bible stories well, and she did it with, get this, a felt board. Marilyn had their complete attention as she moved those little felt characters around on the board and told the Bible story of the week. The kids might as well have been watching those stories unfold on a hi-def, widescreen TV with Dolby stereo sound.
After four years Karen and I both decided it was time to hang it up as fourth grade Sunday school teachers. Marilyn had left a year earlier and took her felt board with her. Other adults had stepped in to help with the children’s ministry, so it was a good time to call it quits.
All I had to do was show up.
Every once in a while I was asked to be a helper, but mostly I just attended worship and went home on Sundays. Some two years later I received a phone call from the man known to the church kids as Pastor Phil. Phil was a good guy and a better children’s minister. They loved him. I liked him, despite his penchant for wearing those awful VeggieTales neckties. Of course he probably thought the same of my Mickey Mouse ties, so that made us even. Phil needed a third helper for the third grade Sunday school class. They had a lead teacher and another who led prayer time. All I had to do was show up and be the third required adult in the room.
Here I go again—again.
By the next school year the lead teacher moved away and I, the mere helper, was offered the job to head the class. I took it. Little did I know then that this was the beginning of eight years of happy years teaching the third grade Sunday school class.
Meet Some Kids
Over the course of those years I had the pleasure of watching many kids commit their lives to Christ and be baptized. I got to know their families, always a plus. But sometimes it wasn’t pleasant. I sometimes dealt with confusing crafts and once or twice I had to break up a fight, but things like that were few and far between. The better part was listening to the kids read their Bibles and take prayer time seriously.
Kids are interesting. They tell stories. I liked all the kids I ever taught. A few stand out in my mind. Please understand that I leave out names.
In my first year as a lead teacher I had a girl whose dad was the church property manager. Her family lived in a church-owned home across the street. I could relate to her because my dad had been a church caretaker when we lived in Ohio. I was hardly more than a baby then, but that didn’t matter to this girl. We had a shared life experience that kept us connected.
I had a special needs boy in the class one year. He had an affliction that affected his nervous system and required round-the-clock care, but he didn’t miss many Sundays. He was always accompanied in every class by a young adult caregiver who sat as attentively as he did.
It brought a smile to my face and a tear in my eye.
Sometimes you just don’t know what kind of impression you make on the kids you teach. Only a few months ago I found out. After worship one Sunday I stopped by the junior high/high school classroom on my way to the parking lot. A few of the kids I taught in third grade, now junior highers, were there playing Jenga. I enjoyed watching one kid after another pull block after block out of that precarious stack that quivered but never collapsed. That’s when one of the moms approached me.
She told me her daughter had applied to be a volunteer in the nursery on Sunday mornings. When asked what brought her to Christ her reply was me, Mister Murphy. This brought a smile to my face and a tear in my eye. It served to remind me that 12 years as a Sunday school teacher were well spent.
Things I’ve Learned
Being a good Sunday school teacher is an important part of the ministry of the church. It takes a lot of effort and commitment. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
Be prepared. I spent many a Saturday evening studying the lesson and determining how I could best present it to the class. On Sunday morning I knew the time was worth it.
If you’re not early, you’re late. Be in your classroom at least 15 minutes early and use the time to set up your room. You don’t want kids and their families getting there before you. It sets a bad example. And put those early birds to work. Kids love helping the teacher.
Dress well. In this age of come-as-you-are church, a lot of people dress like slobs. Don’t. It’s church. Set a good example.
Complete your commitment. We had a nasty church split a few years ago. As a result, a few of my fellow Sunday school teachers abruptly left almost two months before the end of their teaching commitment. If you have differences with your church leadership and want to leave, fine. But don’t leave the kids in your class hanging.
Plan a special event every now and then. Every year on the last Sunday before Christmas, we had a party. We had games to play, and the parents brought snacks. Every spring I would ask a staff member to lead us on a tour of the church campus. And every Easter Sunday at the end of class time, I set out several boxes of Peeps and let the kids take as many of those sugary creatures as they wanted. “Give them a good home,” I would say. I got some disapproving looks from the moms but, hey, it’s only once a year!
I have a few more thoughts on things I’ve learned and stories to tell relating to my experiences as a youth coach and Sunday school teacher, including how a certain cartoon featuring a mouse’s pet dog can be a useful tool. Stay tuned.
posted on January 27, 2019
Meet the Author:
Michael P. Murphy is a happily retired dental laboratory technician who now lives the life of a freelance writer in Scottsdale, Arizona. His articles and stories have appeared in The Lookout, Encounter, Straight, Live Wire and R-A-D-A-R. His 1990 novel Wise Up, Zack for Christian teens was published by Standard Publishing. (You still might find it if you dig deep enough on a used book website.) Michael is also a feature writer for Wander AZ, a travel magazine for Arizona tourists.
Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash