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Mission through Sunday schools:
Jubilee Sunday School materials touches worldwide church


Children learn how God made clouds during Sunday school in Hokkaido, Japan.

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March 1, 2005
-by Lynda Hollinger-Janzen

Elkhart, Ind. – Congregations in the Hokkaido (Japan) Mennonite Conference are graying, said Teresa Thompson Sherrill, but their attention is focused on the young.

“The harsh reality of aging congregations and aging church leadership has many considering the importance of excellent Anabaptist curriculum for the spiritual formation of the next generation of leaders,” she said.

That means celebrating Jubilee in Japanese. Mennonites there are investing energy in the For the Sake of the Children Task Force, composed of volunteers from seven congregations of the Hokkaido Mennonite Conference's western region. This task force is translating and adapting some of the Jubilee Sunday school materials produced in North America. Groups in other parts of the world are doing similar projects for other tongues.

“Some have been skeptical about the relevance of North American materials for the Japanese context,” said Sherrill, working in Japan through Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner, Mennonite Mission Network. “However, many have been thrilled to have materials of the quality of the Jubilee series. The series contains creative ideas to teach the fullness of the gospel from an Anabaptist perspective. It has been a delight to explore and teach these materials in a Japanese context.”

Context is key to proper translation into a different language and a different culture, whether in Japan or in other parts of the world. For example, the Jubilee series often has children gather on a rug around a lighted candle to participate in the reading of the Bible story. For North Americans, the candle symbolizes God’s presence and power to enlighten. In Brazil, however, candles are associated with spiritism and the occult.

“We needed to search for another way to show God’s presence,” said Betty Hochstetler, who has consecrated years of her four-decade ministry in Brazil to creating dynamic Sunday schools. “We decided to create a ritual emphasizing God as the word, using the same Bible each Sunday and an attractive bookmark.”

Four specific concerns motivate Japanese task force members. They desire to teach the Bible in relevant, child-friendly ways and keep children excited about church involvement throughout the rest of their lives. They want to present the gospel from an Anabaptist perspective, and they explore ways to reach beyond Mennonite congregations into the families in their neighborhoods.

The translation of the Jubilee materials and the training of Sunday-school teachers serve as spiritual formation for the adults who participate.

“Each translator and each Sunday-school teacher is in a different place in their own spiritual development. Some have themselves been touched by meeting Jesus through these Anabaptist lenses. They appreciate that learning can take place in fun and creative ways. They feel that Jubilee enables children’s imaginations to work with the stories and bring the stories into their own lives and contexts,” Sherrill said.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Margrit Kipfer de Barrón echoes Sherrill's evaluation of Sunday school as a spiritual discipline for children and their teachers alike. Kipfer de Barrón, a Swiss Mennonite working with the Bolivia Mennonite Church, organizes training workshops for Sunday-school teachers every three months. Mennonite Church Canada Witness provides a $12,000 grant to ministries in Bolivia.

Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers around the world engage in mission through Sunday schools. After the Brazil Mennonite Church commissioned Hostetler as Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mission Network supported worker about five years ago, she has been facilitating the translation of Jubilee Sunday-school curriculum into Portuguese and adapting it to the Brazilian culture.

“Brazilians are proud of the cultural differences that separate their nation from the Spanish-speaking countries around them,” Hochstetler said. “We are developing materials that are concise, creative, culturally appropriate in the Brazilian context and consistent with Anabaptist theology.”

Although Hochstetler and her husband, Otis, have now retired in Brazil, she continues to spend many bone-rattling hours in buses traveling around South America’s largest country to lead training workshops for Sunday school teachers.

Across Brazil’s western border in Bolivia, Kipfer de Barrón has organized an entire gamut of ministries for children including “Happy Hour” clubs, Sunday schools, youth meetings that feature Bible quizzes, discipleship and leadership-training classes and youth conferences that are alternatives to carnival-time partying. Kipfer de Barrón, director of Christian education for the Bolivia Mennonite Church, developed most of the resources for these programs herself.

However, she draws on the resources of a decade-long Spanish language curriculum project, “¡Enséñanos tus caminos! (Teach us your ways),” for Sunday-school materials. Anabaptist educators in Central and South America used the Jubilee outline but collaborated to write this series specifically for the Latin American context.

Kipfer de Barrón has been invited to Chile this month to conduct a workshop for the Sunday school teachers there.

The Jubilee series is produced in North America by Mennonite Publishing Network, Brethren Press and Evangel Publishing House. In Japan, the Mennonite Education and Research Center of the Hokkaido Mennonite Conference has provided editorial and financial support for the development of the Sunday school curriculum. In Latin America, the project is administered by two Anabaptist agencies – SEMILLA, a seminary in Guatemala, and CLARA, a resource center in Colombia. A Schowalter grant subsidized the development of the Sunday school curriculum in Brazil.

The North American publishers are preparing a new Sunday school series – Gather ’Round: Hearing and Sharing God’s Good News – that will become available in 2006.