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Sunday school turns interactive

Published Sep. 25, 1999
Updated Sep. 30, 2005

First United Methodist Church's Joy Explosion children's ministry program is attracting youngsters by teaching in interactive ways.

It's not your traditional Sunday school.

Gone are the crossword puzzles and coloring books. In their place are Shriver the Diver and Percy the Pirate.

Welcome to Adventure Bay, an interactive Sunday school program that centers around a ship and its voyages. The class is part of a children's ministry at First United Methodist Church called Joy Explosion. Adventure Bay caters to children in first through sixth grades, while another program, Critterland, is for kids ages 3-5.

"Everything is hands-on learning," said Paige Sawyer, who with her husband, Scott, is a family and children's minister at the downtown Brooksville church. "They'll be learning interactively about the love of Jesus Christ."

The characters in Adventure Bay will develop as the program unfolds, Mrs. Sawyer said. There is one small puppet who gets everything wrong, and the kids learn Bible verses by "teaching" the puppet.

The new programs are offered in the former SunTrust Bank building on S Main Street.

"We were trying to find space to help the program grow and draw people into the program, and that's what it's doing so far," said the Rev. Douglas Zipperer, First United Methodist's pastor.

"We saw a need to create almost a brand-new children's outreach ministry," said the 49-year-old minister. Zipperer said he is happy with the way things are turning out. The program "is exciting, and the kids are excited," he said. "They go home talking about what they're learning. It teaches the Bible and lessons in memorable ways for the kids."

Before the program began, the church was averaging only 20 children per week in Sunday school. Since the recent opening day, 80 children have registered. "It's a replacement of the old Sunday school, a new approach to Sunday school," Zipperer said. "And all programs are free."

Because Adventure Bay is the main youngsters' program, the family ministries building depicts ocean and sky. It has a dock, and the sets are buildings related to beach and other water scenes, giving it a tropical seafaring atmosphere "almost like Pirates of the Caribbean," Mrs. Sawyer said.

The Sawyers were hired nine months ago to put together a cohesive family ministries program that includes all church members except for teenagers, who are involved in their own youth program.

Before moving to Brooksville, the couple ministered at First United Methodist Church in Hazlehurst, Ga., for 1{ years.

The Sawyers said they conducted lengthy searches in libraries and on hundreds of children's Web sites. They also talked to people from other churches and Christian publishers before they discovered the Sunday school programs they are now using.

In addition to Adventure Bay, Critterland is also offered. It is geared toward preschoolers.

"It's formatted the same every week because that's the way preschoolers learn," Mrs. Sawyer said. "It's also very interactive: not doing a lot of coloring. It's a (preschool) program that's not (just) babysitting. There will be Bible-learning games and a nursery."

Before coming to Brooksville, Sawyer was into youth ministry but has found children's ministry more exciting.

"It's easier talking with the kids and showing them something and having them become excited about it," Sawyer said. "I seem to have found my niche." He said his wife is the administrator and he is the "putter-together."

"Our kids are very active, with open personalities, and not shy at all," he said. "They become a part of everything going on."

During the last 15 minutes of the Sunday school programs, participants are put into smaller age-related groups to recap that morning's program and pray.

During this summer's vacation Bible school there were 30 Critterland participants and 70 in the Adventure Bay group.

The Joy Explosion also will offer a Sunday morning nursery program with a curriculum, a kid's time children's church during the worship services, Wednesday preschool and elementary school programs and cherub choirs for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds on Tuesdays.