The Future of Sunday School

SS.jpgFrom The Wall Street Journal

The decline in Sunday schools appears to be gradual but steady. A study
by the Barna Group indicated that in 2004 churches were 6% less likely
to provide Sunday school for children ages 2 to 5 as in 1997. For
middle-school kids, the decline was to 86% providing Sunday school in
2004 from 93% in 1997. Similarly, there was a six-percentage-point drop
in Sunday schools offered for high school kids — to 80% from 86%. All
in all, about 20,000 fewer churches were maintaining Sunday-school
classes. And the future does not look bright: Only 15% of ministers
regarded Sunday school as a leading concern. The younger the pastor,
the study showed, the less emphasis he placed on Sunday school.

What is going on at your church? Is Sunday School fading?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.yourlifematterstogod.blogspot.com Steve Dunn

    Sunday School in our middle sized church is holding its own on all fronts and we have actually added two adult classes in the last two years. Our children’s Sunday School was strengthened when we intentionally created a younger couples class.

  • Heather

    Maybe the SS model is old, and we’re ready to move to a more effective model of Christian education.
    I am.

  • RJS

    Sunday School certainly isn’t fading at our church, not at any level from preschool through adult.
    I wonder about correlations here – with size and type of church. I also wonder if something of a different name is replacing the concept of “Sunday School.”

  • RJS

    Heather,
    What would you consider a more effective model of Christian education?
    One of the benefits of the SS model is that it is open – not tied to quality of Christian family. In my experience it has provided an experience and welcome for kids and youth from a range of backgrounds including non-Christian, nominally Christian, or troubled.
    I know many – including the pastor of the church I attend – who grew up in faith through SS not family.

  • http://www.jodimullenfondell.blogspot.com Jodi

    This is depressing for me. As a minister of a vibrant and growing International church in Stockholm, Sweden, I am quite positive that our growth would’ve absolutely stunted without our Sunday School program. As I mentioned, we are in Stockholm, Sweden. The Swedish Mission Covenant church no longer places a high level of importance on Sunday School. My guess would be that the Swedish congregation at our church offers something for children during Sunday worship about 25 times a year. Guess what happens the other 27 times a year? Families with children opt out of coming to church.
    While we have a part-time Children’s ministry director in our church, I as one of the pastors am heavily invested in what’s going on there. Additionally, we run a 5 week summer program on the model of the American Vacation Bible School and have it once a week instead of every day for a week. All of the pastors, (3 of us) are very much engaged in this program as it is one of the greatest doors that we have into the lives of our children.
    So maybe can we talk about curriculum or models but my firm belief is that if we fail to offer a place for children to encounter loving adults who model God’s love for them, while also presenting the great stories of the Old and New Testaments for the children to graft into their psyches from a very early age, what makes us think that these same children will suddenly develop an interest in church and the Bible later in life? What overall truth does it communicate to families with kids that our churches are no longer interested in offering Christian education for their children?
    I am always amazed when I hear about senior/lead/head pastors who show no interest in youth or children’s ministry. We definitely need a clear vision for our present situations, but that shouldn’t exclude long range thinking about who the future of our churches will include.

  • Rick

    A lack of emphasis on Sunday school does not mean a lack of emphasis on ministries for children and youth. It does indicate that new types of gatherings are being utilized instead.

  • Jim

    As @Heather stated, maybe we are headed into a new mode of Christian education. Perhaps it starts with something as simple as how do we refer to it. My wife is a children’s pastor and she has also been an elementary school teacher. There are so many negative connotations associated with the word “school” that are held by both kids and their parents. Rarely are children fired up about going to school each day and many times parents see school as part of a failing educational system. Are we creating our own roadblock by hanging on to an antiquated term?

  • Rick

    Younger kids are frequently being given their own church “service” while the parents are in the larger service.
    However, there are variations on this. Northpoint Community in Atlanta for example, has gatherings during the main services. However, once a month they have a gathering in the children’s ministry area, geared for kids, but in which the parents come along as well. The parents are then equipped to teach and emphasize the main points of the lesson(s) throughout the month.
    Likewise at countless churches, especially for middle and high schoolers, there is more growing emphasis on their own services, and on additional small group gatherings during the week.
    Of course these new methods bring up the issue of a lack of generational variety at the main/adult services.

  • Chris

    Why would anyone want to go to school on Sunday?

  • Travis Greene

    Sunday School was an innovative and good idea for its time, but that doesn’t mean it’s an ironclad model for all places everywhere. If it’s working for your church, awesome. But there’s nothing magic about it.
    As Rick @ 6 says, lack of something called “Sunday School” doesn’t necessarily mean lack of emphasis on children/youth.
    For instance, my church just moved facilities (we’re in the hermit-crab stage) and the primary reason was to have space for children. We’re working on how to how to develop an effective children’s ministry, something that will involve both teaching and mission. But I don’t think we’ll do it by saying, “Hey everyone, come to church an hour early and we’ll split you up into grades and genders for a classroom-style lesson”. Or maybe we will, but it’ll be because we decided that was best, not because “that’s what churches do”.

  • http://www.everybrokenthing.net/A_Dark_Dismay.html Lance

    After years of trying, our youth ministry director finally achieved her goal: kids should be in church with their parents. Not in some multimedia crazed venue bent on destroying young eardrums.
    Sunday “School” gone.
    In some ways I agree with the decision. The Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit” approach seemed too manufactured. And the teens were enjoying it way too much. No longer will we have to endure their heathen buddies coming along for the ride. They were a bad influence anyway.
    And now, I no longer have to wait around for their service to end. It never got out on time anyway. No more missing the first quarter of the best football games.
    If only they can figure out how to get the kid next to me to lower the volume on his ipod during communion.

  • michael

    Forget the specific programs and begin to think outcome-based. What kinds of outcomes do you want to see happen in your church? Now, for YOUR context, what “program” will be most effective at delivering those outcomes? If that means SS — great! If it means no SS — then great too!
    The whole discussion seem very anti-Jesus Creed where Jesus simply said love God and love others — now you figure out how you best become a more loving person.

  • http://mikesstudies.blogspot.com/ chaplain mike

    “Sunday School” is one of the best examples in history of how a program designed for church folks to minister to unbelievers in a truly missional sense became transformed into something that Christians do with one another. For generations now, nothing says “church-going Christian” like “Sunday School”.
    How about if we revive the idea in its original missional sense? Hold “Sunday Schools” (whatever you want to call them) in the community, away from the church building, for kids in the area? And how about if we make a special effort to do this in the cities, in poor and neglected neighborhoods?
    D.L. Moody came to Christ through such a program, and then started his ministry by renting spaces, knocking on doors, and holding classes for kids in the city.

  • Bill S.

    I’m seeing some churches without Sunday School offer various classes after church services which effectively cover a lot of Sunday School content. Such classes tend to do a good job attracting people from outside the church since they seem less attached to the worship service.

  • Robert Angison

    We do Sunday School and I’m a HUGE fan of Sunday School. We don’t call it that but it is what we do. Our classes are (for the most part) really vibrant and growing groups.
    I believe that, when done right, Sunday School (or however you do groups) is the single most effective and complete assimilation process your church can provide guests and attenders.
    My biggest observation about their success or otherwise is the emphasis of the Pastor of the church. If he is passionate about groups they will do well. If not, they will not. If you have a dwindling Sunday School or groups program look back at your last 6 months of sermons and services and count (literally count) how often you referenced and vocally affirmed your groups ministry. If you’re not doing it at least twice a month you’re not passionate about groups.
    Lasting spiritual formation does not happen in the context of a lecture but in the context of a conversation. Groups provide this. I’m a fan of our groups. We have way too many resources available in Christendom not to provide excellent material for our groups across the board.
    I don’t think Sunday School is dead or dwindling, I think it has a great future. I think these churches are dwindling. I also think its over-analysis by the WSJ.
    You are the Church!
    R.A.

  • http://www.nathangilmour.com/hardly Nate

    Honestly, I wish we could scrap our Sunday school and try another model some days. (Those would be the days that my wife and I are the only two or two of the three people who show up for the adults-under-sixty class.) That said, I am glad that our son has a program geared towards our children. I just get bummed planning a really great adult lesson only put it back on the shelf for another week.

  • pds

    peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com
    I am guessing the Barna numbers include quite a few graying churches that just don’t have enough (or any) kids anymore. Once you lose a critical mass, it becomes very hard to get young families to join your church.

  • James

    I’m always curious about the cross-tabs on the Barna numbers, too…
    Like those divorce numbers. They’re not nearly so hair raising when you start to look at things like orthodox belief and regular church attendance…
    At any rate, our Sunday school attendances is great (evangelical church, broad mix of socio-economic backgrounds and ages, avg attendance ~ 450). I don’t have attendance numbers for our kids, but I know from tangent conversation with the people who are in charge, we’re growing (because they need more stuff to accomodate the growth).

  • Bob Smallman

    “After years of trying, our youth ministry director finally achieved her goal: kids should be in church with their parents.” Amen, Lance! We divide up the family enough at church activities — let’s encourage them at least to worship together. It’s not unusual for children to ask me questions about the message after church or to give me pictures illustrating it — we too easily underestimate them and what they absorb.
    We happen to have a fairly vibrant (and fairly traditional) Sunday School, including a number of different classes for adults. While it “works” for us (in the sense of providing a well-attended place for Christian education and nurture involving small groups), I’m not wedded to the model, and we’ve tried variations over the years (intergenerational classes, larger groups during the summer, etc.).

  • http://www.godhungry.org Jim Martin

    At our church, Sunday School is doing well, overall. I attribute this primarily to teachers/parents who see to it that children not only have good classes but have the opportunity to participate in activities together outside of class as well.
    Some of these activities might simply be fun. Quite often, they are service oriented.
    The great concern that I have toward our Sunday School revolves around parents who will no longer bring their children on a regular basis. A child might be in class one week, out two, and then back again. Consequently, there never is any continuity for these children.
    Thanks for raising this issue.

  • http://highcallingblogs.com/about/marcus-goodyear Marcus Goodyear

    I’m a bit late to this conversation. I’m also not a pastor, but we’re looking for a new church right now.
    That means we’re thinking again about why we go to church. There are a lot of factors, but a big one is our desire for continued growth and discipleship. I’m not sure how we grow without some kind of educational model. It could be like school or apprenticeship or mentorship. School seems like a decent enough model to me, but I always like school.

  • http://www.basilandbutterflies.com Austen Sandifer Williams

    Sunday school certainly serves some purposes, but how effective is it overall? We read about this steady decline in Sunday schools at the same time that we here study after study showing a decline in church attendance among people who theoretically had access to Sunday school when they were kids. If we want to help kids have a heart for God and God’s work, have basic biblical knowledge, and want to be part of church, we have to help parents get there too.

  • http://www.revitalizeyourchurch.blogspot.com Mark O Wilson

    We have found a shift in our discipleship from Sunday School to midweek. This is true for all ages — children through adults.
    The form is not nearly as important as the substance.
    I have seldom seen a church that is doing great at both Sunday school AND Small Groups. It’s usually one or the other


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