Two of the CMT’s best curriculum reviewers weigh in on the rotation-model for Sunday school, offering point and counter-point.
Point: Rotations encourage interdisciplinary learning
When we decided to do a point/counterpoint about rotation-model Sunday school, I was a natural choice for the pro position.
My own education prioritized hands-on, project-based, interdisciplinary, student-empowered learning.
I wrote jingles and parodies as a participant in Odyssey of the Mind and Destination Imagination, months-long creative problem-solving competitions. I built towers and trebuchets out of nothing but ropes and poles as a Boy Scout.
I performed music and theater and produced big events as a member of garage bands and pit orchestras and student play festival teams. And I helped create monthly newspapers and a yearly literary magazine as a well-mentored student journalist.
At the same time all that was happening, and especially in the later years of it, my church was encouraging me to learn like this: by sitting in a room and talking. Maybe at youth group we got to break out the guitars if the leaders were OK with us interspersing the occasional Beatles song amid “Sanctuary” and “Peace Like a River.” Once, the middle schoolers got to produce their own play, but that was while I was still in elementary school.
What has in recent years become known as the Maker Movement has been around as long as people have been learning by doing. And it’s always been part of the best Sunday school programs.
What I love about the rotation model (sometimes called the workshop rotation model) is that it puts Maker-style learning front and center. During each session in a four-to-six-week cycle, groups visit a different room and engage the Bible passage or story through a different medium: drama, visual arts, games, computers/apps, etc. Several stations run simultaneously each Sunday depending on the size of the program.
In each rotation, they find a mentor skilled in the medium and willing to explore and co-create with them to help bring the story to life. Not every station will resonate with every learner. Indeed, the model is predicated on the theory that different kids learn best in different ways. But over the course of the cycle, there’s a good chance a particular discipline will help everyone really connect at least once.
As with any curriculum, the implementation of the rotation model is a lot more challenging than it sounds. And as with any curriculum, there are drawbacks to the approach. It certainly won’t work for every church and size of program.
But if I were asked to run a Sunday school tomorrow, you can bet I’d start recruiting collaborators for a rotations-based program. At its best, the model engages learners by activating their creativity, honoring their agency, and trusting that the Spirit can work through any medium or discipline to touch the life of a young disciple in lasting ways.
Counterpoint: Spirituality often is checked at the door
In a perfect world, the rotation model offers the best teaching method for interdisciplinary and intergenerational learning for children and youth. Talk to parents in churches where rotation is used, and they will tell you—enthusiastically—the difference it has made in getting their children to church.
As Kyle noted, rotation offers different learning methods and fully immerses a child in a biblical story or passage, even if attendance is spotty. It also passes one of my tests for success: rooms and hallways are filled with sounds of excited voices, laughter, and conversations.
Alas, we don’t live in a perfect world. Group size and physical facilities rule out rotation models for many small churches and even larger churches that lack adequate or flexible space. Rotation advocates note that small programs can adapt by offering one station a week for the entire group, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for a fairly large cadre of volunteers to make it work.
Churches can, of course, deal creatively with small numbers and space issues. My concern is focused more on how the spiritual needs of children are addressed. In the programs I have observed over the years, spirituality gets lost in the busy-ness of the organization and recruitment of volunteers.
Most rotation programs begin by recruiting a long list of “mentor” leaders who have certain skill sets, such as drama, art, dance, technology, cooking, among others. The next most important task is finding all the materials to make each rotation station work each week. Administration and communication tasks ensure that every child has a place to go every week.
The final step in many programs is recruiting shepherds. I argue that inviting shepherds should be the first step. That’s because shepherds provide continuity and the relational ministry that is critical in Christian formation.
The shepherd is the person who greets each child in the group by name, who knows when there is an illness in the family, who sits with the children and engages fully in each activity, who asks the questions that tie the biblical story to each individual child’s life, who stops the action by asking where God is in the story, and, most importantly, who prays for each child throughout the week.
The training of shepherds is critical, but from my observation rarely occurs. Many are treated and see themselves as babysitters or observers keeping the peace. The rotation model provides many opportunities for discovering God in the world, but too often the pace is so fast that these opportunities slide by.
The rotation model is just that, a model. It is teaching and learning grounded in experiential learning theory. When the logistics serve the spiritual formation of young people through Sunday School, it can be dynamic, substantive, and appealing to people of all ages. Let’s be sure we give the Spirit credit.
Kyle Oliver is the CMT’s Digital Missioner and abundant proof of the successes of hands-0n learning. Dorothy Linthicum is Program Coordinator in the CMT and a firm believer in, and practitioner of, the power of interpersonal ministry.