The End of Sunday School?

​A friend recently asked me:

​My congregation is once again sending out a search committee for a new pastor.  In an all-member survey, several of us expressed grave concern about the lack of young families now—hundreds in the Sunday school classes when our kids were growing up, but just a few dozen now.  In your several research projects on church operations, did any findings demonstrate success on this issue?

Here’s my reply:

Welcome to the club.  Unfortunately, your congregation’s situation is similar to that of many, many other mainline congregations.  One of the major trends in American religion today is the growth of religious nones, people who say that they have no religion or no religious preference on surveys of religious life.  This number has grown from single digits prior to 1990 to 21% of the population in the 2014 General Social Survey.

Many of these people are younger adults, the age group that brought their children to Sunday school in years past.  My suspicion is that we are now in a time when many of them were never brought as children to church or Sunday school, so they see no need to bring their own children.

The good news, according to religion writer David Briggs, is that not all of these nones are atheists, or even agnostics.  Some report having religious beliefs and praying, but are not interested in organized religion.  Some studies report that as they age, some do affiliate with a faith tradition, though not as many as did so in the past.

Some congregations, even some mainline congregations, attract children from non-religious families.  Typically, they have strong Christian education or faith formation programs, whether using a traditional Sunday school or a more innovative model.  Of course, whether they have more children because of their programs or whether they have more programs because they have more children is a good question, probably some of both.

National demographics are against you as well.  Young adults, particularly young white, middle-class adults, are marrying later, if at all, and having children at later ages as well, so there are proportionally fewer children in the population than there once were (just since 2000, the percentage of people under age 20 dropped from 28.6 to 26.6% of the population.) In the US, currently only 53% of children ages 0 to 17 are white, so if your congregation is not reaching out to a variety of racial and ethnic groups, you have cut the pool of children in half.

1950s family at home. Source: Fpg/Getty Images

1950s family at home. Source: Fpg/Getty Images

In the Effective Christian Education Study the Search Institute and several denominations did in the late 1980’s (too long ago to have a website), we found that when you look for a new pastor, whether he or she values Christian education and faith formation probably is more important than whether he or she has experience in this area.  Others can supply the experience and staffing if the pastor sets the priorities and supports them.

Those educators who work with children and youth and even those who work with adults are beginning to call the process “faith formation” rather than Christian education or Sunday School.  That’s because we have learned that becoming Christian is more than learning content from a teacher as a child.  It is a lifelong process involving both formal and informal settings, and both the head and the heart.  The UCC’s Faith Formation page has lots of information on this new way of looking at faith development.  I think it is a particularly helpful shift for congregations with few children and youth for whom the old Sunday School model no longer fits. The web page on children also has some more helpful resources, as does Vibrant Faith Ministries.

Ten years ago, the United Church of Christ conducted a major study of worship.  In this study, we found that music in worship was important to youth and young adults, more music overall as well as more varied types of music.  In addition, worship that was exciting rather than boring, welcoming to all and involving all kinds of people in leadership, informal yet spiritual, and that helped people feel the presence of God and apply their faith to their own lives and to society all helped to attract younger people to the church.

And congregations that involved children and youth in worship and had programs and activities for children had a higher percentage of children and youth attending than did other congregations.  Again, we don’t know which came first.  More contemporary or innovative worship and involvement of youth leaders may have attracted young people and young families.  Or, having a younger congregation may have allowed the leaders to experiment with new styles of worship and involve youth in worship.

Three caveats here – first, as a musician friend of mine says, there are only two kinds of music, good and bad.  Badly done new styles of music don’t attract anyone, so you need to experiment with what is possible, given your resources.  Second, what you do needs to be authentic to who you are.  A choir of white-haired folks singing rock music runs the risk of sounding ridiculous rather than inspiring.  When I suggested to an Episcopal friend that her congregation that had outgrown its sanctuary might want to experiment with a second, contemporary service in their fellowship hall aimed at younger families, she said that one reason the parents brought their children to church was to expose them to the “smells and bells” style that the adults found so meaningful.  So once again, you have to think about what makes sense for you.  Finally, I’m reminded of what a teen told me in a workshop at the National Youth Event.  He said “I understand why the adults want to have their music in worship.  But couldn’t they have our music once in a while?”  Many congregations have a blended style of worship that includes different kinds of music, traditions, and liturgies either in one service or from week to week.  This is one way to provide something that speaks to everyone, youth and adults alike.

A recent study of new ministries in mainline denominations provides some clues to what might attract young adults to a new congregation, and probably to existing ones, as well.  Young adults (with or without children) were more attracted to new congregations with a younger pastor with newer ideas, rather than someone who has been a senior pastor in a traditional congregation; with someone who is media-savvy and experienced in using the internet and social media; and with someone who had skills in doing outreach via small groups.  Contrary to what we have done in the past, the study found that intensive follow-up of young adult visitors seemed more likely to turn them off than attract them.  Programs for children were especially effective in helping new immigrant congregations grow.

This study suggested a different way of growing a children’s Christian education program.  These new congregations seem to have more success with gathering younger adults before they have children, or by being a church home for gay and lesbian adults who find faith in a liberal church that does not reject them.  After several years, when some of them have started families, they challenge the church to develop educational and faith formation programs for their children.

I believe that you have to start with your vision and mission.  What is God calling your congregation to be and do in the next 10 or 20 years?   Given changing demographics and your particular community, it may be quite different from what you were called to do 20 years ago.  It may involve a strong revitalized Sunday school or faith formation program, and then again it may not.  That is a harder question to answer than what to do to grow a Sunday school, but I believe it is foundational.  May God’s blessings be with your search committee as they struggle with it and with finding the right pastor for this next stage in your journey.


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