Room 319 on most days looks like it’s managed by a professor with concentration issues. In one corner, carnation seedlings are growing in a happy haphazardness. Across the room, a semblance of a clothesline is tacked to wall and weighed with clips that hold clusters of affirming notes the students write to each other each week.
In between, the walls are painted with the kinds of murals junior-high kids paint for themselves. This is their room, and one of the best symbols of the massive curriculum-writing project Youth Minister Matthew Arehart envisioned from nearly the day he started work at Holy Communion in 2012.
What existed before still makes him shudder.
“Demographically, the lessons were written for smaller, rural churches,” Arehart says of the J2A curriculum created in 1986. “The examples were not at all current. The model wasn’t working. The kids didn’t pay attention to it. There was absolutely nothing in it they found interesting.”
In 2012, Holy Communion stopped using the model. It borrowed and pieced lessons together until Arehart was ready to start writing.
“We didn’t have anything to move into, but for me, it was more important to stop. As long as we had that safety net, we weren’t going to try to figure anything else out,” he said.
Now, each lesson has a science, art or sociology activity to add relevance and help kids with all kinds of learning styles grasp the message.
“To me, the experiments just make it more interesting,” Arehart says. “You don’t always remember the lesson, but you remember the experience and the relationships. And that’s almost more important. When you revisit it, your mind will connect to that experience.”
The curriculum is the new map for how junior high and high school students move through formation and confirmation at Holy Communion.
“In junior high, we wanted to give them a grounding in the faith they inherited, to grow into the covenants,” Arehart said “As we move, they will have experiences to do outreach at home in Memphis. The idea is that as they grow, their faith worlds will get larger, culminating in an international pilgrimage the church will offer now once every three years instead of every two years.
The curriculum matches the three-year lectionary cycle. The old model was a series of Bible stories tied to the liturgical year but often unrelated to Sunday worship.
“I just remember the old way being very unstructured,” said Kneeland Gammill, 18 and a senior at St. George’s Independent School in Collierville. “We would read something out of the New or Old Testament in Sunday School, but it wouldn’t relate to what we were talking about in the church service.”
The other issue, he said, was that a significant portion of Sunday School in pilgrimage years was turned over to preparing for the trip, including fund-raising projects.
“Now, we sit down talk ten, fifteen or twenty minutes,” Gammill said. “There is usually a Scripture reading. Matthew explains it, and then we do an activity. He puts a lot of emphasis on the modern. He weaves elements into the lesson that is more practical and easy to understand.”
Arehart will finish the three-year junior high lesson cycle this semester. He is more than halfway through writing the senior high lessons.
“A few years back, Rabbi Micah Greenstein spoke at CHC and something that he said has stuck with me. He talked about how so many people want to do good and plan these mission trips and go do something to help people somewhere else, then they feel good about the work they have done and come back home to place that needs help. He said we need ‘do the most that you can with the time that you have in the place where you are.’ Here, we had a large group of youth, a desire to do good, and a city that has a lot of work that can be done… but how could we be more active in our city?
“Once I started thinking about this, then everything started to make much more sense,” Arehart said. “Once we changed how we do pilgrimage, then the doors would open to be able to do so much more as a youth program and to so more in the city of Memphis. So, moving pilgrimage to Year C of the Lectionary, we now have two years to do other things.”
Year A is focused on local mission.
“I am currently putting together a summer retreat that deals with learning the history of Memphis, what is going on in Memphis now that is positive, and how can we get involved? This would continue Year B when we would add a regional mission trip,” Arehart said.
Under the new format, the four Sunday morning classes for grades 6-12 have been replaced with a junior- and senior-high offering, reducing the recruiting it took to find teachers and substitutes for classes.
“The cool thing is, Matthew is really flexible on adjusting the lessons,” said David Visinsky, a parent who co-teaches the junior high class. “If something really clicks, we can go deeper. That flexibility wasn’t available with a canned product.”
Visinsky is the first to say the Old Testament is a challenge for middle schoolers. “It’s not the most fun thing in the world to teach, but Matthew has turned it into something that is a lot more fun.
“He’s not just rewritten the lessons, he has really revolutionized it. He took something that was off-the-shelf and made it ours. There is so much more value in teaching that way as opposed to a three-page thing that may not be applicable to our class.”
Several other congregations have asked Holy Communion for permission to use lesson plans, including St. George’s in Germantown and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dyersburg.
“I didn’t know that,” Gammill said. “That’s impressive. Matthew built this from the ground up. We would joke, ‘Matthew must live at the church’ because he was always working. We all gained a lot of respect for him. He cares about it so much and has put so much of his time and effort into it.”