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Gather 'Round helps all ages, families build faith community at church, home


Sarah Pinnell, a 24-year-old college graduate in theology from Kitchener, Ont., is writing the multi-age curriculum for Gather 'Round. Despite a language barrier, Pinnell was a natural attraction for the younger set during a Mennonite Church Canada Learning Tour to Cuba in February, 2005.

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Mennonite Church Canada/Mennonite Church USA/Mennonite Publishing Network joint release
June 14, 2005
-by Laurie Oswald

Newton, Kan. (MC USA) – Kim Leichty didn't go to Sunday school growing up. But she's made up for lost time at Rochester (Minn.) Mennonite Church. That's where she tested Gather 'Round, the new Sunday school curriculum to be published in fall of 2006.

Kim, a longtime Sunday school teacher at Rochester Mennonite, taught multi-age lessons this winter and offered feedback to writers. She's one of many Sunday school teachers across North America who served as testers for the curriculum geared for ages 3 through adult. Mennonite Publishing Network and Brethren Press will co-publish the curriculum on behalf of Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada and Church of the Brethren. The curriculum replaces Jubilee, used since 1994 for age 2 through grade 8.

Exciting for Kim, part of the congregation of 35 people including children, is the year-round multi-age materials. Jubilee offered those only during the summer quarter. This new format helps teachers in small congregations that have only enough students for one class to develop that class over a longer period of time. Gather 'Round also focuses on building faith community and becoming Jesus' disciples, which lends an Anabaptist flavor to lessons that Kim didn't receive as a child but can provide for other children today.

"I didn't go to church as a child but I got baptized 13 years ago at Rochester Mennonite," Kim says. "I really love the strong focus on peacemaking and community building and the emphasis on Jesus' teachings that Gather 'Round has."

Verse memorization and music making are strong in the multi-age materials and popular with her class that includes students as young as 3 years and as old as 13, she says. "Scripture memory hasn't always clicked in the past, but it certainly does in this new curriculum," Kim says. "It's presented in a really fun way and elicits a lot of interaction from the kids from beginning to end.

"And the curriculum only has the kids learn two songs for the whole 13 weeks, which creates a lot of good interaction between the older and younger students. Often you will see an older child hold and point to the words of the verse or the song for the little kids. Or, when we light candles, the younger ones hold the candles for the older ones to light."

Much of this interaction is natural at Rochester Mennonite, where several families are represented in the Sunday school class, she says. "Three families each have two students in my class, and so this kind of curriculum works really well, since these kids have grown up together in a small congregation already."

Family-oriented curriculum also powerful in larger congregations

Larger congregations that have tested Gather 'Round also find the curriculum to be positive – especially new materials for high school youth, adults and families. With new parent-caregiver and youth tracks, Gather 'Round helps the church family to unify its spiritual formation and extends that into the home, says Pam Nyce Yoder, a member of the 175-member East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa.

Pam, children's worship leader, tested the middler curriculum for grades 3 through 5. She and the other teachers tested most of the other levels of the curriculum. The levels are: childhood/preschool; primary, K through grade 2; junior youth, grades 6 through 8; youth; parent-caregiver; and multi-age.

"The church-home connection of Gather 'Round is really exciting," Pam says. "There are no take-home pages, so there's not a lot of paper going into the trash. Instead, they've have created a table centerpiece that families can use for dinner table discussions.

"The church-home connection really helps to build this strong foundation. It's like we are building very strong roots on a tree that can branch out and not topple over or be pulled out of the ground."

Elsie Rempel, Director of Christian Education and Nurture for Mennonite Church Canada, and active member of the advisory board of Gather’Round affirms Pam’s assertions.

Rempel is pleased with the growing possibilities for Church-home connections that Gather’Round offers. With its focus on bringing the message home during the week, and all ages studying the same Bible text on Sunday mornings, she hopes parents will engage their children in faith talk naturally throughout the week. “The parent and caregiver curriculum can be used in classes or for individual Bible study and training in sharing faith with children. It is one of the best tools around for restoring parents’ confidence as the nurturers of faith that God and the church call them to be,” she said. Nine congregations from MC Canada are also testing the Year One edition of Gather’Round.

Gather 'Round gathers people into God's family

Pam and Kim have the opportunity to send their critiques and feedback from class immediately to a shared Web site. It's where editors, consultants and writers such as Sarah Pinnell, a 24-year-old college graduate in theology from Kitchener, Ont., can fine-tune their material while they're creating it. She is writing the multi-age curriculum.

Sarah agrees with Kim and Pam that Gather 'Round embodies and exemplifies its name. It gathers people from many different ages into God's family both within the congregation and at home. And it gathers people who have feedback to share and writers who brainstorm together.

"One of my biggest joys in writing has been to sit around a table with the writers of all the other levels and brainstorm ideas for how they can all dovetail together," Sarah says. "It's so awesome to all be working on the same lesson for the same week.

"And it's so great to know that parents can ask their children pertinent questions about their lesson. And instead of letting it drop with the kids saying, 'oh, nothing,' they can probe a little further. Parents now have a real tool for encouraging dialogue."

Deuteronomy 6 shapes dream of church-home connection

The church-home connection is something that Eleanor Snyder (Kitchener, Ont.), director of Faith & Life Resources, has dreamed about for a long time. Eleanor is part of a steering committee that is leading a team of writers, editors, advisors and educators to develop Gather 'Round. The team is responding to the trends and feedback from Jubilee that show adults want to be more involved, she says.

"We've based our commitment to the church-home connection on Deuteronomy 6, which says that we are to love the Lord our God with our hearts, souls and strength and that parents are to teach these commandments to their children," Eleanor says. "They are to impress them upon their hearts and to talk about them at home.

"We believe that one hour a week in Sunday school is not enough to form faithful followers of Jesus. It has to be lived during the week."

Having worked at that, Gather 'Round also strives to give students a multi-layered and holistic biblical base in the classroom, she says. The curriculum contains a four-year Bible outline. It reiterates a Bible story four times at increasing levels of complexity as the child moves through the curriculum from age 3 through high school. But as the Bible outlines will remain the same, the student and teacher resources will change every year.

Eleanor believes that Jubilee and Gather 'Round are helping multiple generations of children to grow up biblically centered in their faith and in their relationship to Jesus.

"When Jubilee is finished, it will have nurtured children for 12 years," she says. "Someone who began Jubilee in 1994 at 2 years old will graduate from eighth grade in 2006. The first kids in Jubilee went from beginning to end. And I'm excited that another generation will have the same opportunity.