by Maureen Stein (September / October 2000 • Volume 16 • Number 5)
A desire to bring more security to their town's children, as well as share the gospel of Jesus to many who have no worship home, led four ecumenical neighbors to a vibrant after-school ministry in a small town in rural Illinois
What does the church have to offer a culture that continues to push it and the gospel message to the margins of life? How can a small congregation in a rural area with an average worship attendance of 30 persons make an impact on a community in which half of the people will never, except for weddings and funerals, come to worship?
An ecumenical ministry we call Stepping Stones has become one answer to these questions. The ministry has grown out of a unique set of circumstances in our rural town of Chenoa in central Illinois.
Chenoa is a community of 1,700 set in the northeast corner of McLean County with seven churches: Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite, ELCA Lutheran and Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.
For the past 5 years, in addition to monthly meetings of the Ministerial Association, several pastors in the town, and (for a time) from two nearby towns, met weekly for sermon study, book discussion, the practice of spiritual disciplines, watching videotape series, and mutual support.
Baptist pastors from the three communities had begun the group. During those five years, the level of trust has grown as the group shared joys and frustrations, as well as failures, fears, and laughter.
For one year — April 1998 to April 1999 — the Baptist and ELCA churches shared worship and Christian Education space while the Baptists were building a new sanctuary. Each church in town had offered space to the Baptist congregation during their building program — but worship schedule and accessibility were major factors in the Baptist decision to come to the ELCA building.
After a year of living peacefully together and adjusting to each other's habits (including the use of the kitchen), it was clear that we could work closely together toward a common goal.
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church houses a food pantry, and the Baptist pastor is treasurer of the Ministerial Association. Over the years, we have had contact with a number of families in town we would never have seen in church, and we had dreamed about ways to reach out with the gospel to these families.
The Baptist pastor, whose church has the strongest Sunday School program in town, had for a few years asked his congregation about beginning an after-school program. However, the task felt overwhelming for one church. So we partners continued to pray about this.
In April 1999, the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado dominated the news and the consciousness of our country. The vulnerability of our children, the fragile nature of families, and the harassment from peers that so many young people endure became topics of conversation and concern everywhere.
At the May 5, 1999 Ministerial Association meeting, we addressed the possibility of an after-school program. Within a few weeks a new member of the Baptist congregation approached the pastor, asking to coordinate an after-school program.
Then, on August 25, 1999 Stepping Stones had its kick-off with 79 children in attendance. Since the second week, attendance has averaged about 100 children (one-fourth of the entire grade school population) and 30 volunteers each week.
During the summer of 1999, a Steering Committee gathered, including the pastors and representatives from each of the four participating churches — Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and ELCA — and an after-school coordinator. We reviewed existing curricula for after-school programs and decided that none of the packaged structures met our needs as an ecumenical group.
What could we do together that did not trample on our real theological differences? The solution for us was to develop our own two-year curriculum. We designed a structure based on stories of Scripture.
In the first year, we use Genesis stories for the first semester, and stories from Jesus' life for the second semester.
During the second year, we cover the first semester with the story of Moses and the Exodus and subsequent Old Testament stories. During the second semester, we are focusing on the stories unique to John's Gospel and the growth of the church in Acts.
At the biweekly summer meetings, Steering Committee members discussed the goals of the program. We decided that six foundational principles would guide Stepping Stones. These include:
- Name the name of Jesus;
- Provide a noncompetitive, positive, and safe environment for each child;
- Teach and demonstrate compassion and generosity through service;
- Create stepping stones of faith through learning biblical stories, enjoying Christian music and drama, and observing Christian role models;
- Be a resource for parents and families;
- Encourage families to participate in the wider community of faith.
A mailing was sent announcing the program to all residents of the town (even before we knew what the curriculum would be). We distributed advertising at food booths run by two of the churches during the Fourth of July celebration. Members of the Methodist church entered a float in the parade, and the Presbyterian and Lutheran pastors and children from each Stepping Stones church rode on the float.
We asked for funds from each participating church to cover the cost of mailings and T-shirts and supplies for the children. Bibles were ordered for each child.
The Steering Committee considered many other details — registration forms, a code of conduct for each child and parent to sign, the number of classes for each grade level, passages for memory work, a schedule for the two-hour (or three-hour) sessions once a week, volunteer staffing and recruitment, Christmas program planning, gathering a library of resources from all four churches and pastors, a rotating schedule for church members to provide snacks for each week, obtaining supplies, and speaking to school administrators and the school board.
Classes in Action
The week before the kick-off event in August, only three children had registered. But by the first day of Stepping Stones, 79 children were participating.
We have rarely had a week of less than 100 children in attendance. Classes have been split and rearranged, schedules have been altered, and volunteers have been moved from one class to another as needed. Each week, classes have time scheduled for snacks, music, a recounting of the Bible story, and a reinforcement of the lesson with activities or crafts.
Our coordinator is energetic and detail-oriented, flexible and focused, and clearly called to this task. Methodist women take over the Baptist kitchen once a week with no problem. Volunteers act as teachers and classroom assistants, kitchen helpers, music director, and superintendent of discipline.
Key to this effort is the ecumenical nature of the program. No one congregation could have supported this ministry by itself. That we are working together as members of the body of Christ for the welfare of the children in town is part of the message being sent to the community, and the community has responded with much encouragement.
No fee was set for participation in the program so that no child would be excluded for financial reasons. Funds are readily available. One family has directed memorial funds from a funeral to the Stepping Stones program.
And the children, they are wonderful, energetic, ornery, needy, giving, gifting us as volunteers, and responding to the stories and the presence, care, time, concern, and prayers of Christian people. From the list of children who have attended, nearly half have no connection with a congregation in town. The level of chaos week to week can be high, as well as the level of frustration.
This is long-term work we are doing, so there are times when it's not clear that we have done anything. But then a parent will tell us about the songs heard in the car, or the story told that week in Stepping Stones.
Each week we begin with prayer — kitchen staff, teachers, and classroom assistants gather in a circle, holding hands and praying. We pray for strength, wisdom, patience, and the need to remember the importance of what we are doing. This is Stepping Stones, done in the name of Christ for the sake of the community.
Maureen Stein is pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Chenoa, Illinois.