Updated: May 25
Many churches are considering the classical method, both in terms of any school operations that they are involved in as well as in their normal church programming. As a result, we often get questions about how to organize a classical program within a larger group context. Fortunately, Bible Quest was actually developed in a classroom. While the principles of the system applies in smaller, home-based environments and the Bible Quest system can easily be adapted to any group context, larger groups necessitate a little more planning for leaders. In this church program design blog post, we'll cover handling age groupings and choosing a time frame structure, followed by an actual recommendation I made to a church leader interested in Bible Quest.
Consider Ages and Age Grouping
When we first ran Bible Quest at our church in Kansas, we only had younger kids involved. We were a smaller congregation and had a significant age gap between the younger children and what is commonly called the “youth” or “student ministry” (typically seen as students 6th or 7th grade through 12th grade). This was certainly providential, as it allowed us to develop the early stages of the program bit by bit as our students matured.
Even though we had a younger population, we still split the group between the very youngest and our “olders”, even though the older students weren't yet middle school age. The absolute youngest children we ever tried to work with was two years old, but we quickly found that kids who were four or five years old typically seemed to be the youngest end for the Equip Phase. The oldest in our initial group was eight years old.
We began each Sunday School hour with all of the students together for the presentation of the Equip phase material. Once we'd gone over what we now call the Equip Phase material (the memorized repertoire, or grammar), we'd separate out, allowing the older kids to experience activities that were more akin to the Empower Phase (Exercises and Explorations). Of course, as the students got older more of them were brought into this Empower Phase tier.
The younger children would first play review games. Then, when it was clear that they had finished, emotionally and educationally, we let them play or be artsy with something to help reinforce the week's memorized material. If time permitted, we tried to have some extra activities for them that either reinforced the content for the week or exercised their knowledge.
All of this was done in the same large-ish room in the church facility that adjoined a fenced playground just outside, using only two staff at a time. One would take the “olders” while the other would connect with the “youngers”.
The Multi-Age Classroom
I actually recommend running at least a portion of your program with all students of all ages (check out the blog post "Connecting Older Children in the Equip Phase" for more information on how this can be accomplished). This not only allows for the advantages of the multi-age classroom, but it also allows for the leadership person or team to not have to duplicate effort by managing a presentation to two different groups of the same material. However, if the ages are too spread out and the culture of the youth resists (it will be your middle school or high school students that could give you the initial push-back on this as you're getting going), you may want to consider having them in one older group: sometimes full-age integration isn't possible. This is particularly true if you have kids that aren't used to multi-age classrooms or perhaps visitors that come in that aren't used to large spans to age groups. As Paul says, though, I say this by way of concession, not command. It would be best to have one group. If you use two groups, the plan will still be the same in strategy, they may just employ different memorization tactics in consideration of the age-based cultural sensitivities of their participants.
When you design your program, consider the following questions:
What age groups are primarily represented in our program?
How will we manage the various developmental stages present in our program in terms of staffing?
How will we manage the various developmental stages present in our program in terms of physical location?
Your Program Time Frame Structure
Beyond Sunday School, we also had a “Worship Service” after Sunday School, and part of that was devoted to children’s ministry as well. We called “Churchtime” in our children’s ministry parlance.
Most of the children that came to Sunday school were from families that were very involved with the church, and they often had a Biblical background (though not always). Our children all joined their families for the song portion of the worship service. The Sunday School kids returned to the children's wing for Churchtime after Communion had been taken.
The children that came in just for the main worship service stayed with their families during the song service as well. By contrast, though, they often did not have much understanding of the Bible. As a result, we felt that we would focus on what we now call Hands-on Story Explorations with them. We began each Churchtime with a bathroom and water break (just get it over with) and then started instruction with all of the children together, going over the same grammar that we did in Sunday school. Yes, the same children that were in Sunday school were present again, but it provided excellent review for them, and I often recruited them to help with teaching the children that didn't know the material.
Once we'd completed the grammar, we sat down on carpet squares (a great space-management tool) and handed out snacks. If we had any interactive elements for the Hands-on Story that needed to be distributed, we would pass those out at that time as well. Then, we'd tell the Hands-on Story, emphasizing the grammar when appropriate during the story to reinforce the memorized repertoire.
After the story, we would generally do a crafty reinforcement (lapbooks, similar to the Bible Dig Explorations in each week’s material, though often scaled down for time) and then play active review games with the kids. This review game period was vital, because we could always extend it or cut it short as needed to match the variable time of the sermon.
During Churchtime, I positioned most of the staff amongst the participants in the class(es). They helped greatly with classroom management and with meeting kids at the point of need if a difficulty arose. This left group leader (or leadership team) to do what they do best: tutor the kids with the Equip Phase grammar. Once the grammar was complete (I recommend repeating each portion about seven times or so), how you divide your time and team will vary based on your specific context. Here was our schedule:
Sunday School (45 minutes)
Equip Phase (2 adults, same room)
Review for youngers, Empower Phase for olders (Same room, 1 adult for each)
Church-time (Main Service) (30-50 minutes - varied)
Equip Phase (3 adults, same room)
Hands-on Story (3 adults, same room)
Reinforcement Activity (adults went around the room, helping as needed)
Active Review Games as possible (3 adults, same room)
There are a large number of potential structures for a children’s program, and the reality is that because of many other programming factors you may or may not have the authority to change it. Here are some other potential structures:
Begin Together, Separate as Needed - Your program is able to begin with all of the students and adult volunteers as a single group for the Equip Phase. Then, the youngest students are sent off to do some review games or activities while the older groups continue into the Empower Phase. Once that’s complete the oldest, rhetoric-ready students engage their Expedition Phase projects, either working on them or (when possible) presenting them to the full group (or to the congregation!) after they gather together once more. Alternatively, if there are no presentations, the rhetoric students could “face-off” with the younger students in games to test their mastery of the grammar - since younger students have been spending significant time on review, they will often win.
This plan is probably my personal favorite solution, because it brings the value of multiple ages working together into a program where individual developmental needs are also met. It also strongly mirrors the pattern we recommend for home-based discipleship with Bible Quest. Time frames for this structure would vary according to the developmental stages and maturity of your students, of course, but it would work best from about 1.5 to 2.5 hours.
Begin Together, Separate as Needed
Equip Phase Together
Review for younger children, Empower Phase for older children and teens
Review for youngers and olders, Expedition Phase for teens
Presentations or Review Face-off Games
One Hour Together Only - Your program is a full (or nearly full) hour with everyone in near proximity to each other the whole time. This model provides minimal disruption to your program’s flow, but may not provide enough time to work through material intended for students at a higher developmental level. This time frame can be a good solution for programs that have students with a median age of about 10-11 (4th or 5th grade). Use of both the Equip Phase and a full Empower Phase is warranted in this circumstance, but you won’t have time for Bible Dig Explorations. A one-hour program for younger students can work well using a Hands-on Story Exploration followed by well-planned review games and other reinforcement activities. Expedition Phase projects should probably be handled outside of this time frame structure, perhaps as a direct mentorship meeting or individually by willing parents.
One Hour Together Only
Review for younger students, Empower Phase for older students
Two Hours of Power… Together! - Your program is a full, uninterrupted two hours of ministerial bliss, but everyone needs to stay together because of your other limitations (whether volunteer or facility related). You have time to have some fun with what you’re doing and cover a decent amount of content, but younger children will likely run out of gas and either need fun reinforcement activities or else some means of letting off steam. This option can work for with students that have a median age of about 13-14 (7th or 8th grade) or older that focus on the Empower Phase or even the Expedition Phase. It can also work if “youngers” are involved, but it would need to have a strong Equip Phase element and you’ll need to think through maximizing the time you have with them and lovingly managing their wiggles, such as planning a LOT of fun, exciting games that help them review and even planning less-structured times when they can be simply playing.
Two Hours of Power… Together!
Reinforcement activities for younger students, Empower Phase for older students
Review Games for all students except for rhetoric-ready students - they’ll talk about or work on their Expedition Phase projects
Alternating Weeks - Your program is about an hour each week, but you want to be able to spend ample time on memorization (Equip Phase) and dialectic engagement (Empower Phase), and you don’t mind taking a long time on the calendar to do it. It is possible to run a robust Equip Phase one week followed by an Empower Phase the next, focusing on the same week’s material both times. This sort of solution can work well for a group with a median age of perhaps 10-11 (4th or 5th grade) and up, but will be difficult to manage for younger classrooms.
Alternating Weeks - Week 1
Reinforcement activities for all students
Review Games for all students
Alternating Weeks - Week 2
Empower Phase activities
Review Games for all students as possible except for rhetoric-ready students - they’ll talk about or work on their Expedition Phase projects
When you design your program, I recommend discussion of the following questions:
What time frame structures are necessary for us to consider given our local congregation’s needs?
Do we have a highly regimented time frame (such as 45 minutes precisely) or is our time frame more variable (e.g. when sermons can vary in their length, affecting how much time is in the classroom)? If variable, what can we plan to have that we can extend or drop if circumstances require it?
What are our limitations in terms of volunteers and any minimum staffing that our congregation or our church insurance requires?
Do we need to schedule any specific times for review, for bathroom breaks, for play time for youngers?
An Actual Recommendation
I was sent a question from a church leader, with an excerpt as follows:
...how does the Equip phase work in a classroom setting given that certain ages are dismissed at different times?... We have a class of 6-12 year olds that we are thinking of using the material for, as well as our 4 & 5s class. We are wondering if others have both classes together at the beginning, then dismiss the 4 & 5s and keep the others for the rest?
After explaining much of what this blog post covers, I gave this specific recommendation to this individual:
Let's pretend that you are doing a single, hour-long block and have no space or volunteer limitations. I would probably go ahead and run a Hands-on Story Exploration. Even though the younger children may not be able to engage in the conversation that comes out of the story, they could absolutely benefit from the instantly dialectic nature of the narrative (there's a reason Jesus used stories to teach!). A bonus here - your oldest kids could often be the ones running the story, though this would require some work to set up and may require some connection with them outside of the normal church program time frame.
Either way, after the story's conclusion, you could divide the group by age (or, more accurately, by maturity) for the next part. In your case, I'd probably have the 4's-5's join the 6's-8's for some fun review games with the material. After they complete their games, let the 4's and 5's play in an environment where the verse songs for that week and perhaps the last several weeks are playing in the background. The 6's-8's could continue to do Review Games or else (ideally) even do a simple Exercise. Fill in any extra time with a crafty reinforcement activity like decorating the verse already printed on paper, making a simple lapbook highlighting the WHO? content, or something similar.
I'd probably send the 9's-12's off in a group to engage in the Exploration for the story they just heard, followed by an Exercise. If there will still be time afterwards, consider Review Games for them. Remember that ages are VERY approximate - you'll need to evaluate your circumstances and pick something that works in your context.
There are many facets to program design of any sort, but managing age groupings and selecting time frames are some of the most common topics that interest church leaders that I work with. May God grant you wisdom as you seek Him in using the tool of program design to communicate God’s Word to students, parents, and caring mentors in your sphere of influence!