Is this thing called Sunday school working?
You can find millions of children sitting in little chairs in
churches on any given Sunday morning. Does this mean Sunday school
Some of these Sunday school children tote home colorful fliers
that depict old-fashioned-looking Bible characters in faraway
lands. Does this mean Sunday school is working?
Sunday school is operated by arguably the largest volunteer corps
in the country. Does this mean Sunday school is working?
To help answer this question, we decided to ask the end users of
the product-kids themselves. We interviewed kids as they poured out
of local elementary and middle schools. Of those who admitted to
attending Sunday school we asked for critiques. Their comments:
“okay,” “boring,” “too much like school,” “too much sitting in
chairs,” “boring,” “fine,” “the teacher talks about God and stuff,”
We also asked them if they could remember something they learned
in Sunday school. The vast majority couldn’t recall even one
Tim Stafford wrote in Christianity Today magazine: “The bedrock
institution of Sunday school is in trouble. Attendance nationally
is flat or declining. Practically everyone involved, from
curriculum publishers to ordinary Sunday-morning teachers,
expresses frustration with its present and uncertainty about its
Is Sunday school working? Well, let’s rephrase the question. Is
the Sunday school system resulting in effective education and
implementation of God’s truths in kids’ lives? All too often, the
answer is no.
A SHIP WITHOUT A RUDDER
So, why isn’t Sunday school’s vast commitment of human and
financial resources more closely reaching its potential? Is the
problem, as many have alleged, a shortage of committed teachers?
Should we blame today’s fast-lane society and shortage of
It’s not that easy. If today’s baby-boomer parents saw evidence of
quality-that is, if they saw that hour on Sunday morning produce
any net effect in their children’s spiritual growth-they’d gladly
volunteer their precious time to help.
The problem with Sunday school is far more basic. We’ve lost our
Shouldn’t the overriding goal of Sunday school be to lead students
to know, love and follow God through Jesus Christ? But after
decades of doing Sunday school in the same old way, we’ve simply
forgotten the goal. It’s been rusted over by a set of expectations
that few have bothered to stop and evaluate. These expectations
have frequently become the misguided barometers and goals of Sunday
school. Some examples:
*”The children keep coming.” Is a body in a chair the net result
of Christian education?
*”Our classrooms are controlled and quiet.” Silence and passivity
in a Sunday school class usually indicate a lack of learning.
*”The children are busy the whole hour.” Were they punching out
those little stickers to paste on the take-home paper? Were they
engaged in yet another set of word scrambles? Is our goal merely to
fill time or to encourage life-changing learning?
*”Our boys and girls have a new Bible memory verse every week.”
Many churches stress memorization over understanding of scripture.
Education expert Frank Smith, in his book Insult to Intelligence,
writes: “Rote memorization is the worst strategy for trying to
learn anything we do not understand.”
*”Our teachers are teaching great material.” But are our students
learning any great material? Teaching and learning are not the
Attendance, quiet classrooms, busy work, rote memorization and an
emphasis on teaching rather than learning have lulled us into
thinking we’re doing the right thing. But is anyone bothering to
see if kids are retaining anything they’re taught? Is anybody
insisting to know if kids are exhibiting a growing faith? Is anyone
verifying that Sunday school is affecting kids’ day-to-day lives at
home, on the school playground and in the sandlot?
We’re a rudderless ship. We’ve forgotten where we’re going. We’re
caught up in trimming the sails, swabbing the decks and walking off
the plank. Meanwhile our ship is adrift at sea.
A DUBIOUS MODEL
For decades we’ve unquestioningly fashioned our curriculum and
teaching methodology after old-fashioned public schools. Why are
they our model?
Newsweek magazine reported that America’s students ranked near the
bottom in a recent international study of math and science exams.
And newspaper headlines often ask, “Why can’t Johnny read?”
Teachers themselves wonder aloud why today’s crop of students do so
And this is the system we’ve chosen to emulate in Christian
education? Yes, we’ve picked up all sorts of failing ideas from
public education. For example:
*The lecture method-The teacher drones on in front of passive,
mind-wandering students sitting in hard chairs. Almost everything
even the best teachers say will be forgotten within a week.
*Unappetizing education-“Okay, class, the fun’s over. Now it’s
time to buckle down and learn.” We’ve left no doubt in kids’ minds
that learning is drudgery. We’ve convinced them that learning about
God is a joyless, dour tedium. A Christian education director
recently told us, “I tell kids if they don’t want to get into
hard-core, serious Bible study, then they can just leave.” And they
*Teacher-based classrooms-The teacher is the authority with all
the answers. Students are passive receptacles of the teacher’s
knowledge. There’s no time for discovery, student interaction or
*Anti-educational curriculum-We’ve learned our lesson well. Sunday
school student work sheets are filled with scrambled word puzzles,
fill-in-the-blanks, crosswords and missing-letter words. Frank
Smith writes: “There is nothing in the real world that is like any
of this pedagogical treadmill. Nobody learns anything, or teaches
anything, by being submitted to such a regime of disjointed,
purposeless, repetitive, confusing and tedious activities.”
Now for some good news. Many schools are awakening to ineffective
approaches to learning. They’re adopting innovative approaches that
are resulting in smarter students who crave learning. Some are
throwing out textbooks in favor of learning kits. Others are
rearranging their classrooms so that students work in
teams-teaching and encouraging one another. Others are devising new
ways of student evaluation-based on student understanding rather
than temporary memorization of facts and figures.
So, as the schools move away from their old, ineffective modes of
education, will Christian education change, too?
CHANGE OR DIE
It’s time for a revolution in Sunday school. Tweaking won’t
work. The need for change is too long overdue. So, where do we
1. Determine your goal. What is your bottom line for your Sunday
school? Is it something like “to know, love and follow Jesus”? Keep
your goal simple-easy to remember. Write it out. Everywhere. Make
sure everyone in the congregation knows it. Then measure everything
you do against it. Be prepared to throw out a lot of beliefs and
approaches that are consuming valuable time that could be spent on
more direct progress toward your goal.
2. Do what works to accomplish your goal. Toss out the old idols
of how kids should learn. Engage them in ways they will learn.
Don’t curse this generation’s learning preferences. We recently
received a letter from a frustrated Christian educator. She wrote:
“Why do we have to entertain or play games to keep our kids
interested?” If those things can result in learning (and they do)
why fight them? Use them!
Karen, a friend of ours, conducts a week-night Bible study for
kids in her home. The lessons use active learning-allowing the kids
to learn by doing. The sessions are often boisterous, sending teams
all over the house to scavenge for discoveries that illuminate the
biblical lessons. Time is spent building relationships among
kids-filling a legitimate need and allowing students to learn from
one another, to teach one another. The kids love the lessons. The
class has tripled. And every week Karen reports new instances of
kids’ lives and behaviors changed because of their internalization
of God’s Word.
It’s time to retrain teachers, parents and congregations about how
we can teach so kids will learn.
3. Evaluate all aspects of your Sunday school often-according to
your big goal. Station yourself in the parking lot after Sunday
school. Stop kids and ask what they remember from the day’s lesson.
On other Sundays cruise the parking lot before kids come in. Ask
what they remember from the previous week. Ask how that lesson has
affected their day-to-day lives. Frequently ask parents what new
and improved behavior they notice in their kids that may be
attributable to what they’re learning in Sunday school. Take a
class to McDonald’s and determine if the kids are learning and
understanding God’s life principles.
The point is, be convinced that your Sunday school is doing what
it’s supposed to do. If not, change. Pick apart your curriculum.
Are you certain it’s respecting your kids’ time? Or is it peppered
with worthless word games and fill-in-the-blanks? Does it strive
for understanding or merely prepare your kids for a trivial game of
Bible Jeopardy? Does it employ active learning? Is it teacher-based
or student-based? If you’re not certain your curriculum directly
zooms toward your goal, it’s time to alter it or find something
Is Sunday school dying? Only if we let it.
We want to hear from you. Are you feeling good about your
Sunday school? Are you encouraged? discouraged? Send examples of
the highlights and lowlights in your ministry to Sunday School,
CHILDREN’S MINISTRY Magazine, Dept. MG, Box 481, Loveland, CO
Thom Schultz is president of Group Publishing. Joani Schultz
is creative products director at Group Publishing.