Sunday school at Hilltop United Methodist Church in Madison, PA has experienced a series of stops and starts. According to Jayne Sweet, who took over as head of the department in January, it’s all part of bringing 21st Century teaching practices and technology into their Sunday school program.
A middle school and high school art teacher by profession, Sweet has introduced stop motion movie making as a way to help children learn Bible stories and share these stories with others.
Stop motion photography has been used to create animated features for many years. The 1964 Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is an example. The Boxtrolls, released in 2014, is another. Making a 90-second animated film using this technique requires hundreds of individual photographs that are joined to create the illusion of motion.
Sweet came up with the idea while working on a grant request for the school system where she teaches.
“As I was writing the grant request, the thought came into my head that if there’s anything that needs to move into the 21st Century, it’s Sunday school,” she said. “They’re pushing this for education – technology, technology, technology. That’s the way kids learn now. And we wonder why Sunday School numbers decline. We’ve been doing this for 30 years and I don’t see big dramatic changes.”
She wanted to find a way to bring the modern teaching concepts of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking into the program at the church where her husband, Rev. Randy Sweet, is pastor. “I was praying one day and this idea just came to me to use stop motion in Sunday school,” she said.
The all-ages class began with a 28-second film about Jesus and John the Baptist using paper cutouts and scenery created by the students. Sweet served more of a director’s role in the film-making process, encouraging the kids throughout the production.
“The kids have to answer the questions of who, what, when, where, and how to put the videos together,” she said. “Then we write the story board. The kids are moving the characters, taking the pictures. They do everything.”
To ensure authenticity, the students have to read and reread the Bible story many times. Throughout the process, they learn the word of God in a way that is more meaningful to them.
“They get excited about what we have to do,” she said. “I know it’s going into their heart every time they read it.”
The group completed its second film about Palm Sunday. For this 1 minute and 40 second film, they created sets out of cereal boxes and characters from clay.
Sweet put both videos on YouTube so that class members could share them with others. Faith Knudsen, a teen in the class who has become very involved in helping to make the films, said she has shared the films with friends and family.
“I copied the YouTube link and sent it via text,” Knudsen said. She’s thinking of sharing it via Facebook and Twitter next.
And that’s exactly what Sweet prayed would happen.
“I’m passionate about this because it teaches God’s word in a tangible way and they are experiencing it and they know that it is really important to share the word of God. That’s our ultimate goal, to share God’s word.”