By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—One United Methodist church has a hands-on, interactive room that has been bringing Bible stories to life for children, and God gets all the credit for the idea.
A few years ago Caroline Harrelson, who calls herself the vessel for this vision, got hit with a very precise, detailed vision of what her congregation at Ashland United Methodist Church should be doing with its youngest members.
“It was very specific,” Harrelson said. “All of a sudden in my head, this idea of a farm scene with some sheep, a water scene, a Bible house. I even envisioned a whale.”
At the time Harrelson had two very young grandchildren and had been spending time at Edventure, the acclaimed hands-on children’s museum in downtown Columbia, and it hit her that what God had in mind at Ashland was a Bibleland very similar to the museum.
“It’s basically a Bibleland Edventure,” Harrelson said.
Harrelson taught elementary school and preschool throughout her career and had also served as director of Christian education at her church, and the vision quickly became a passion. A friend at another church created a pictorial on the computer of the four scenes God had shown Harrelson, and she took the idea to Suzy Speas, Ashland’s current director of Christian education, and the rest of the church.
The congregation embraced the vision, too. Four members created paintings on the walls, one man built the frame of a house and Harrelson and others got the props, and the end result was a playroom and a learning room that the church can use year-round—on regular Sundays, as well as Holy Week and Advent activities and vacation Bible school.
Over the years, the room has evolved. It’s had a burning bush, a Garden of Gethsemane, a table for the Last Supper and more, all with realistic and child-friendly décor. Props are updated to go along with current lessons and activities, and children are able to see Bible stories come to life with action and strong visuals. Adults are also able to enjoy the space.
“Bibleland has been a great addition to our Christian education at Ashland. From our youngest children to our adults, groups of all shapes and sizes have used Bibleland to tell a story and teach a lesson,” Speas said. “It makes the meaning come alive for the children.”
Speas said her favorite series was when they covered Moses. From baby Moses to the burning bush and wandering the dessert, each week the story built on the previous week.
“When we reviewed with the children I asked them to go in Bibleland to where their favorite part of the story took place. They moved without hesitation around the room,” Speas said. “When I asked them to explain why they chose the burning bush or the basket or the frogs, they got so animated and could tell us exactly what was happening during that time, and even more how they imagined people felt or what they might have been thinking.”
That’s precisely the point of the room—making the Bible stories transform and awaken people’s hearts so God and His lessons become real and relevant.
“I believe children understand what they are learning when they can experience the stories,” Speas said. “By fishing from the ‘boat’ with a net, they understand, ‘Oh, this is different than going out with by fishing rod.’ Or when they get water from the well, they realize, ‘Oh, I can’t just turn on the faucet like at my house.’ Each element helps the children (and adults) experience the Bible stories in new ways.”
Harrelson hopes Ashland’s story can inspire other churches to do something similar.
“Anybody can do this. It really just involves some paint,” Harrelson said.
Harrelson invites anyone interested in a similar space to contact her and she’ll be happy to offer guidance and advice: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 803-732-1767 or 803-315-1333.