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Computers make Sunday school more popular
Friday, May 4, 2001
With the click of a mouse, fourth-grader Brendan Leal, 10, was taking on challengers in a computer game called Bible Tic Tac Toe at Jersey Baptist Church near Pataskala.
Emma Sipes of Pickerington, also 10, was pleased to be among those who answered biblical questions on a recent Sunday, vying for X's and O's against Brendan and others in Thomas J. Cook's fourth-grade Sunday School class.
The class also uses traditional teaching methods, but students validate Cook's premise that computers appeal to young people.
"You're hearing the same stuff as in regular Sunday School, but I like it better with the computer," Emma said.
As more students hovered around the monitor, several began to point at the screen and help their classmates with some of the tougher questions.
After the group of about 20 finished with the computer, several students used it individually. Some of them were fascinated by James, an animated character that directs them through their lessons.
Parents seem satisfied with the results in Cook's classroom and are glad the church is adding computers for more students.
Denise Bernthold of the South Side credits computerized instruction for helping her 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, retain her Sunday school lessons.
"Using more senses, you tend to remember more," she said.
Cook, who works with computers at Lucent Technologies, has developed a few computer programs to use in Sunday School. While searching for additional programs, he stumbled upon Neil MacQueen of Hilliard, a nationally recognized leader in the field.
MacQueen steered Cook to a number of the religious-education programs he distributes at his home-based company, Sunday School Software.
"I appreciate his candor in recommending some things and not others," Cook said.
MacQueen also produces religious software; his "Good Sam the Samaritan" CD-ROM is among those used at Jersey Baptist.
The Dallas Morning News recently quoted Blake Peterson, who created the computer lab at Northpark Presbyterian Church in Dallas, as calling MacQueen "the Sunday-school computer-program god. He knows everything that's on the market, he reviews it, and we buy on his recommendation."
Individual churches usually don't question his suggestions, MacQueen told the newspaper, although denominational leaders sometimes raise concerns.
"That's because most of the software is a tad more conservative than the average denomination is," he said. "But it's not more conservative than the average church member. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will ask whether the software uses inclusive language. But 95 percent of Presbyterians won't care."
MacQueen, a 42-year-old Presbyterian minister, was one of the nation's first church educators to blend computers with other teaching tools in Sunday School.
He estimates that 3,000 churches nationwide use software produced and distributed by his home-based company.
What turned on the light for him?
"We know most kids are extremely attracted to computers, and we know most Sunday schools are having trouble attracting kids," he told The Dispatch. "Thus the only challenge is how to rightly teach with this incredibly attractive tool."
This revelation came to MacQueen about 11 years ago, when he was associate pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Barrington, Ill., in suburban Chicago.
After several years of teaching Christian education classes with computers, he and three computer lab teachers formed Sunday Software to make their expertise available to others.
The team initially offered free seminars and teaching, but began selling a few software programs "to pay the bills." The business was incorporated in 1996, becoming a full-time publishing ministry and prompting MacQueen to leave pastoring.
"I no longer pastor a church, I just pester them," he said. "The computer world is where I minister."
Even without a pulpit, MacQueen remains an authorized minister in the Presbytery of Scioto Valley, which includes the Columbus area.
Last summer, he initiated a rotation of computer lessons and art and drama presentations, all with the same theme, in teaching Sunday School at Hilliard Presbyterian Church.
The rotation was successful with first- through ninth-graders and might work with other children as well, said the Rev. Jim Browne, pastor.
"Two years ago, our regular summer Sunday School was pathetic in terms of attendance, energy and enthusiasm," he said. "Last summer, we used a rotation model for summer Sunday School and children loved to come. They really learned the stories; they were excited about being here."
The church is thinking about adopting the rotation model year-round.
"It allows us to use teachers in the area of their real expertise," Browne said. "This allows teachers who are really good with drama to do the drama part of the presentation and not have to worry about the art part if they're not strong in art."
With three or four weeks of lessons on the same topic, children who can't attend weekly tend not to feel left behind as they might if they needed to build on what was taught the week before, he said. The rotation plan recognizes that many children come from split homes and often alternate weekends staying with each parent.
Programs are available for older groups as well.
Actual Reality, a CD-ROM geared toward a high-school and college-age audience, is part of the line distributed by Sunday Software.
"At the time Actual Reality came out three years ago, it was very much ahead of the curve in the Christian ministry; it is a teaching tool for edutainment," said Ray Neu of the West Side, the CD's developer.
The CD features 26 Christian artists, including the Newsboys, a contemporary Christian rock band, who talk to the audience as well as sing to it, said Neu, former director of Youth for Christ in Columbus. He is director of research and development at Antioch Interactive, a multimedia development company in Gahanna.
"Through the magic of Hollywood, you can have kids beam in, just like in Star Trek," Neu said.
MacQueen's assessment of the product led him to write a supplemental study guide. Neu was impressed that MacQueen would make the addition for free.
MacQueen disagrees with the contention that computers make students inattentive to teachers. "In fact, the computer creates a heightened state of awareness and eagerness which a good teacher can make the most of," he said.
As a pioneer in computer-based religious education, he has witnessed his share of rejection from those who rely on more-traditional teaching methods.
"In every age and with each generation the church is challenged to share the Gospel in the language of the hearers," MacQueen said. "That's the message of Pentecost. In our day, that language certainly includes computers and multimedia."
Copyright © 2001, The Columbus Dispatch