IT'S TWO O'CLOCK on a Sunday afternoon. A teenager in western Massachusetts hashes out the weekly Bible Lesson with her Sunday School teacher in Zimbabwe. A few hours earlier, a Christian Science practitioner in Boston preps for her class on the Beatitudes, which consist of middle school-age kids in India and Japan. And at yet another hour of the day, a teacher kicks up an in-depth discussion on how to pray about world issues in The Christian Science Monitor—with his students in Qatar, the US (Wisconsin and Connecticut), and Indonesia.
Time travel? Not exactly. Its the recent launch of The Mother Church Sunday School—online. And the reach is global. Its purpose isn't to compete with branch churches, but to meet the needs of those children and teens who are separated by too many miles to attend Sunday School—students whose closest church might be six hours away— or several countries away. And occasionally there are other factors considered for online eligibility, for instance a teen who has drifted from his or her church setting, and that empty chair in Sunday School is now happily filled—in cyberspace.
A modest but mighty start
In the late spring of 2008, The Mother Church began the project with a few dedicated teachers willing to connect with a handful of teenagers on several continents. We stepped out into the Internet—with an online program using instant messaging (IM), otherwise known as "online chatting." And it all started to click.
One of the reasons it clicked is that it made a whole lot of sense. For today's youth, the computer is their comfort zone, and the Internet is their sense of community. It's where their voices are heard and shared. It's also where they look for answers. And the Christian Science Sunday School provides the best answers—practical, spiritual ones—to the issues facing young people today.
Heartfelt prayer joined forces with nuts-and-bolts considerations as we prepped for the launch. And both prayer and fine-tuning continue today, as we adjust, improve, and expand. It's a process as fluid, ever-changing, and up-to-the-minute as the Internet itself. There are time zones to think about. Busy kids' schedules. And age groups to organize, along with the availability of computers and Internet access.
Though the cost of the program has been minimal, tremendous energy, as well as large amounts of time, go into the planning, maintaining, and nurturing of these classes. But we're seeing sure signs of success, as we experience expanding attendance and interest, along with a favorable buzz from those hearing about us—and passing the word. Many students have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to attend Sunday School in this new way. For some, it's the first time in their lives they've been able to attend a Sunday School on a regular basis—for a few others, who may have fallen away from Christian Science, they've now come full circle.
One by one, the hurdles are being overcome. Because the desire to communicate with God's ideas greatly outweighs any obstacles in the path.
For today's youth, the computer is their comfort zone, and the Internet is their sense of community. It's where their voices are heard and shared. It's also where they look for answers.
Following the Church Manual—in cyberspace
Our online classes may be spontaneous and relaxed —but they adhere to the Order of Exercises found in the Manual, which includes close attention to the opening and closing exercises. Whether classes are offered in instant messaging (for those not tech savvy, IM'ing is having a "real time" conversation by computer without the delay of e-mail sending and receiving), or the more recent uses of online audio/video technologies, the goal is to provide a rich, in-depth experience.
Protecting youth online, including protecting their privacy, is a vital component of online Sunday School. For example, in accord with Massachusetts state law for volunteers and employees who work with children, we conduct background checks on all our teachers and staff. We interview all potential students and their parents by phone to make sure students are really interested and of an approprate age, and if they're under eighteen, that we have parental consent. And according to best practices for data privacy, we also get permission from parents to collect and retain the students' personal information, such as name, e-mail address, etc.
Depending on the type of technology in use at any given time, additional legal issues can come up. For instance, when we communicate online, even if it's in a private group (which all our classes are), there can be restrictions with respect to transmitting copyrighted music or other content. So what seemed like a really good idea and fairly simple—like starting an online Sunday School or even communicating with another branch's Sunday School class via the Internet—has several legal considerations that are in constant need of monitoring.
A new day—with sights on tomorrow
At this writing, we have had teachers in Canada, Europe, and Africa, as well as the US—reaching out to students who are on their laptops while on archeological digs in Iceland ... in boarding schools in the Midwest ... in villages in sub Saharan Africa ... and in the heart of Brazil. And the flexibility is downright exciting—we can integrate new students into existing classes easily, and students who are away from home for stretches of time can log into their beloved classes so they don't break the continuity of their curriculum.
I'm reminded of what Mary Baker Eddy said when she was asked about her attitude toward modern inventions. She responded: "Oh, we cannot oppose them. They all tend to newer, finer, more etherealized ways of living. They seek the finer essences They light the way to the Church of Christ. We use them, we make them our figures of speech. They are preparing the way for us" (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 345).
And so, with ongoing prayer, the online Sunday School continues to prepare "the way" for us, as we strive to make a spiritual education accessible to everyone. Some may call it a cyberembrace, but the real embrace is God's, as He gathers His children ever closer.
For more information or to apply to TMC online Sunday School, please contact The Mother Church Sunday School Superintendent via e-mail: TMCSundaySchool@csps.com.
John Kohler is the Sunday School Superintendent of The Mother Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He is also a Christian Science practitioner based in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.