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Timeless stories

New York church focuses on classic Bible stories, involves children and adults

December 16, 2010

STATESVILLE, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s call to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter

We usually think of new things as exciting, but for Stillwater United Church in Stillwater, N.Y., old Bible stories are generating fresh excitement.

As pastor the Rev. Charlie Woodman explains, members of Stillwater just began to feel they were missing out on something. Last May, several members representing the church at a community family day began discussing the direction of the various ministries and someone noted they just didn’t hear the old Bible stories anymore.

“I asked for more information and they said, ‘We don’t hear about David and Goliath or Joseph and the (coat of many colors),’” Woodman said. “We’ve been following a curriculum that follows the lectionary. If those stories are in there, they may not be choices that I would choose to preach on or they are only in there once every three years.”

So Stillwater decided to fill the summer with all the old stories of the Bible.

“I asked for a list and I preached them all throughout the summer and had a great time with it,” Woodman said.

The summer program was so well received that once again in the fall, it was suggested that some emphasis be put on the old stories, this time as Sunday school lessons. 

“From there the leaders of the church got on fire and worked out a way to weave a story each month into worship as well as introduce it to parents and children together through crafts, activities and more,” said the Rev. Cass Shaw, general presbyter of Albany Presbytery.

Woodman wasn’t sure how the idea would be received by his coordinator of Christian Education, but she was open to the idea. She presented it to the Sunday school teachers and they also responded with enthusiasm, brainstorming about all the activities and crafts they could do around the stories.

“They’re planning to do Joseph and the (coat of many colors) as a tie-dye t-shirt day,” Woodman said. “They are dreaming up all sorts of things. Sunday we’re doing the fishes and loaves and the kids are going to make their own bread loaves in Sunday school.”

The teachers had just one stipulation: if they were going to teach the stories in Sunday school, then the parents should also hear them from the pulpit so that parents and children could discuss the stories after church. Woodman was happy to oblige.

“The enthusiasm, the cooperation, the recognition of the vital power of these stories in our life together, and the way the congregation has taken this on are all witness to the way this congregation responds to the urging of the Holy Spirit,” Shaw said. “It has become another of a number of catalysts for growth and deepening of their spiritual and communal life.”

While it’s been an exciting and fun project, it turns out it’s also been a needed one. Woodman said not only does he rarely preach on those stories, but some of the children didn’t know them either because they haven’t been taught in Sunday school; the curriculum also follows the lectionary.

To find out just what knowledge the youth had of these stories, the church tested the senior high class on the creation story to see what they already knew.

“We asked if they knew how many days in which God created and they were asked on what day did he create that thing,” Woodman said. “Only one person in the senior class could say that there were seven days and none of them knew what was created on each day. It concerns us that our kids don’t know the basics of the Bible.”

For now, Stillwater has started slow, devoting one Sunday per month as Bible story Sunday, but they want to increase it to two Sundays a month next year and see how it continues to develop.

For Woodman, one other reward has been seeing the effect of the initiative on his congregation.  Bible story Sunday has been something they’ve been able to embrace and enjoy on all levels.

“I couldn’t believe the enthusiasm, but it’s exciting,” he said. “It feels like you’re riding a tidal wave. It just happened like wildfire all by itself, and I’ve just been riding the wave as we go along, asking questions about ‘What do we do now?’ Something that energizes people is good.  We need more energy.”

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as secretary of First Presbyterian Church.

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