|Making the Sunday school sale
|Written by Natalie Gillespie
|Thursday, 16 January 2014 01:09 PM America/New_York
Christian retailers cultivate church relationships to sell ever-changing curriculum
Of all the programs churches are traditionally known for, Sunday school remains one of the hallmarks. Through the years, formats, delivery methods, topics and the church audience itself has changed, causing curriculum providers to stay on their creative toes.
Whether today’s churches call it “Sunday school” or now dub it “Bible study” or “small group,” whether they hold classes Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights, Sunday school remains an important component in the church, leaders say. It evangelizes children and gives them biblical stories and instruction they might not get otherwise and offers teens and adults the chance to go deeper into God’s Word, get to know each other and plug into their church in a way they cannot by simply attending Sunday services.
“In the past few years, it appears that while the names and programs have changed to become more relevant to today’s churchgoer, the heart behind Sunday school remains intact,” said Michelle Anthony, family ministry architect for David C Cook. “Ministry leaders desire for the individuals in their church to grow in knowledge and in community with one another around biblical teaching. We also recognize that the majority of those who become Christians do so before the age of 18, and so we place an importance on this type of training in childhood.”
As Sunday school changes with the times, curriculum is changing with it. Today’s curriculum encompasses much more than teacher lesson plans and simple handouts for the kids; it now routinely includes videos, downloadable materials, apps and online resources, as well as dedicated websites, help lines and blogs. Curriculum design also allows for flexibility in class length, calendar, age levels and the amount of advance preparation needed.
“Sunday school has morphed over the past few years to adapt itself to the ever-changing needs of children and adults,” Anthony said. “It has had to adapt to the structure of service times and buildings, to include relevant teaching modes, as well as the preparation of volunteers who serve in its program.”
Donna Lucas, publishing director at Gospel Light, observed that a limited number of volunteers challenges the approach churches take to Sunday school.
“I think that one of the most critical changes that churches are facing with Sunday school is the erosion of committed volunteers,” Lucas said. “I think it is our responsibility as a curriculum company to make the lesson planning streamlined and as easy as possible for busy, hectic lives. We do not want ‘no-prep’ teachers, because God deserves our best and the kids deserve our best; yet we want to acknowledge the constraints that life places on us and our volunteers.”
Casey Thomas, marketing manager, children’s ministry for Group Publishing, agrees.
“We know that Sunday school leaders are busier than ever, so we’re simplifying supplies and prep to make sure they’ll continue to be able to lead well,” Thomas said. “Life is likely to just get busier, so we want to make sure Sunday school isn’t a dreaded responsibility, but rather a joy.”
Old-school curriculum was often produced as “one size fits most.” The prepackaged studies included the same type of lessons and lesson plans to be delivered in the same format every week. Many traditional denominational churches stuck close to the curriculum produced by their denomination.
Today’s Sunday school programs are more custom-designed. Veteran curriculum companies like Group, LifeWay Christian Resources, Gospel Light, Urban Ministries and LifeSprings roll out new content on a quarterly basis, with adjustable class lengths and a variety of formats. Content that is topical, theological or expository? Check. Video teaching? Check. Worship music to go with children’s classes? Check. Lesson plans available to print at the church, buy preprinted or allow class participants to read from an app? Check.
“Demand continues to expand when it comes to how content is delivered,” said David Francis, director of Sunday school at LifeWay. “For example, people in the same group Bible study using LifeWay’s new Bible Studies for Life curriculum could be discussing the same lesson using a PDF download, a printed ‘quarterly’ with 13 lessons, a printed small-groups edition with six sessions or an app on an iPhone or Android device. Each has features preferred by the user. Yet the basic content is the same.”
LifeWay’s newest curriculum offerings include three thematic choices for churches: the topical Bible Studies for Life helps all ages apply God’s Word to real-life issues; The Gospel Project focuses on Christ-centered, missional theology; while Explore the Bible walks participants step-by-step through each book of the Bible in its expository teaching. Explore the Bible is currently available for adults. Students and kids curriculum roll out this fall.
David C Cook’s new Tru is a fully digital curriculum for children that churches can obtain by download for an annual fee or by monthly subscription (and can also be purchased on DVD at SundaySchool.com). Tru was developed by practitioners and ministry leaders around North America and is continually being updated and revised by the users themselves. It takes kids chronologically through the “Big God Story” of the Bible. Cook’s HomeFront resources also prepare parents and kids the week before the lesson (HomeFrontMag.com).
Urban Ministries’ (UMI) newest Sunday school update targets 18- to 35-year-olds, the “missing middle” in the urban church, said John Richards, associate director, adult content development for UMI.
“With millennials in mind, we built a feature-rich quarterly magazine called Urban Faith,” Richards said. “Each issue contains about 10 features on real, relevant issues. The magazine is image-rich and offers some social-media engagement. We want to encourage, equip and engage that demographic and get them back to the church, as well as help them really do life together outside of Sunday school.”
UMI also recently created the site UMITeacher.com to give consumers and stores an overview of the upcoming Sunday school quarter, as well as additional resources.
Gospel Light’s newest children’s Sunday school curriculum is Give Me Jesus, an elementary curriculum designed to introduce the Bible as one story of God’s plan to send Jesus.
“Each week, we teach the kids how to find Jesus in every story of the Bible,” Lucas said.
Gospel Light’s curriculum is updated each quarter “in order to respond to consumers’ comments, relate it to our world today and simplify and streamline it for today’s teachers,” she added.
At Group, FaithWeaver NOW entered its second year of overhauled content and design in 2014. The Adult age level is being refocused this spring to apply to adults without kids at home, while the FaithWeaver Friends and KidsOwn Worship will come with free digital teacher guides beginning this fall. For churches looking for a single-unit theme, Group’s four-week VeggieTales teaching booklets may be the right fit. Esther, King George and the Ducky, Josh and the Big Wall and Rack, Shack, and Benny are due out this year.
“Church attendance is increasingly sporadic. As a result, we want to make sure kids don’t feel embarrassed, confused or called out if they weren’t there the previous week,” Thomas said. “We’re shifting to making each week stand alone so that kids who didn’t experience the preceding week can be just as engaged as those who did. … We’re also making sure take-home pages empower parents and that they don’t make parents feel incompetent.”
The big question retailers may be asking is, can stores still compete for Sunday school sales?
Beyond packaged curriculum and subscription-based services, there are so many Sunday school resources available on the Web that one might think there is no need for churches to buy curriculum at all. In fact, a Google search for the phrase “Sunday school lessons” generated 123 million results, while “ Sunday school curriculum” showed 22.8 million. These numbers can be exciting, but also overwhelming to time-strapped church personnel and volunteers alike.
But churches may find that prepackaged curriculum is easier to use, more trusted to line up with their doctrine and practice, and more thematic for the church congregation as a whole. Additionally, publishers are creating Web spaces and communities that offer ongoing support, updates and additional resources and benefits for utilizing their product.
Some retailers have found ongoing success with Sunday school sales. Bernice Nelson, church supply specialist at The Olive Branch in Dublin, Ga., is one of them.
Nelson said that stores can create a niche for themselves in curriculum sales. She has served churches in her area for the past 13 years and currently sells curriculum directly to about 200 churches annually, with 600 congregations served through catalogs as well. It’s no surprise when Nelson says that developing personal relationships is the key.
“I think just knowing my customers by name and then actually helping them understand what they need is why they keep coming back,” she said. “I also try to reach out to new churches when they are starting up and let them know I’m here.”
Nelson tries to stay up-to-date on curriculum changes and likes to keep sampler kits in stock.
“When customers come in, I just listen to what they need and try to help them find the right curriculum to fit their church,” she said.
“There is still a place for materials to be purchased in a retail setting,” David C Cook’s Anthony said. “Consumers have questions, they want to look at many options side by side and make comparisons, and they may be looking for more than just curriculum. Retail stores offer a personal touch and warmth that the online consumer will not receive.”
By dedicating a staff member exclusively to curriculum, holding training sessions for frontliners to familiarize them with Sunday school product and church needs, and having enough resources on hand to show customers a variety of options, stores can become a vital connection between the church and the curriculum they need. When publishers help retailers accomplish this, it’s a win-win for all.
“The Pentecostal publisher LifeSprings, for example, allows us to sell their product for the same price that they offer it online and we still make a profit,” said Ken Flanders, owner of the Olive Branch. “When a church orders it from us instead of online, we absorb the shipping, so it’s actually cheaper for them. LifeSprings still gets the sale, and we make a little money too. It’s good for everyone.”
Group understands retailer concerns about direct-to-church sales.
“We have a special curriculum website for store shoppers [with no links back to Group] and both online and print curriculum samplers with actual sample lessons for stores and their customers to access and use,” Thomas said. “We also have created low-priced mini-kits with everything customers need to teach three to four lessons of a particular line of curriculum. This gives customers the real experience without the investment of a full quarter’s worth of curriculum.”
Group also offers an information-only hotline for store staff and consumers without trying to sell curriculum to callers.
Gospel Light is another publisher that recognizes the value of retailers’ involvement in the curriculum sales process.
“I think churches need a partner to help them navigate the Sunday school market,” Lucas said. “As a Sunday school consumer myself (I teach 1st and 2nd grades), it would be hard to completely understand any given product just by visiting a website. It would be so nice to have someone who could listen and identify my needs, help me understand which program would suit my church and community best. A local store would understand the community I come from and be able to help guide me to a program that would best suit my needs.”