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Is Sunday School on Life Support?

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Is the much-trumpeted demise of Sunday school reality—or myth? Children’s Ministry Magazine has exclusive research  results exploring the truth about Sunday school in churches today.

Is it true that Sunday school for kids is an artifact of a bygone era? Is the inevitable end of this long-beloved Sunday tradition rapidly approaching? Recent articles, blogs, and wider church discussions openly discuss the “death” of Sunday school. At first glance, it may seem true. Sunday school attendance—along with overall church attendance—is in decline. But is the weekly act of offering programming for kids every Sunday truly a thing of the past? Or has Sunday school simply been repackaged? To get a clearer picture of what’s actually happening in churches, we surveyed children’s ministers representing 79 churches across the U.S. and beyond. What we uncovered is surprising—and may hold implications for your ministry.

A Glance at the Chart

To get a snapshot of what’s happening right now in churches, we looked at what churches offer today and how attendance corresponds. Of note here is that while the majority of churches offering kids Sunday school have done so for more than 10 years (81%), the largest segment (35%) also indicates attendance is declining. Also, a  large majority offer Sunday school (72%) or a Sunday school alternative (53%) today.

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Sunday School by Any Other Name
Many churches say they don’t offer “Sunday school” but do offer kids’ programming on Sunday mornings. Here’s a snapshot of what churches say their programs look like.

  • Large-group introductory lessons, small-group debriefing and activities
  • Rotation workshops during the school year with separate, Bible-focused kids’ programming during summer
  • One-hour, curriculum-based, structured lesson time that’s focused on interactivity for mixed ages
  • Kids in worship with families, then leave for music, a Bible lesson, and a craft
  • Bible study of one chapter per week that includes reading and discussion in pairs
  • Standard classroom model of lesson time with handouts and Bible study; ages are mixed because of low numbers
  • Kids go to church with parents and stay there

Checking the Temp
We asked why Sunday school appears to be in decline based on children’s ministers’ experiences.
Here are their thoughts.

  • “The model is outdated and tough for churches to maintain.”
  • “We have half the attendance we did seven years ago.”
  • “Today’s parents don’t place more importance on coming to church than on sports.”
  • “Fewer families coming to church means fewer kids in Sunday school.”
  • “It’s harder to keep kids engaged and to find volunteers.”
  • “Sunday school feels like school to kids.”
  • “Parents are disengaged.”
  • “The divorce rate and changing family dynamics mean parents stop coming to church.”
  • “Teachers and volunteers are hard to come by.”
  • “Parents will only commit to one hour at church, not more.”
  • “There’s a sense that children are a bother at churches with older populations.”
  • “People don’t see the worth of Sunday school.”
  • “There’s a culture shift in the country.”

We Pulled the Plug
We asked why the churches that had discontinued Sunday school made that choice. Though a minority choose closure, the reasons churches closed their Sunday school programs were common.

  • Lack of attendance
  • Space and occupancy issues
  • Church-wide shift that eliminated the program
  • Parents used the program as a babysitting service and did not attend themselves
  • Lack of volunteers
  • Lack of support and interest from church and parents
Is Sunday School on Life Support?
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About Author

Jennifer Hooks

Jennifer Hooks is managing editor for Children's Ministry Magazine and a contributing author to Sunday School That Works (Group).

11 Comments

  1. I am not sure I agree with article completely. Does there need to be a change in Sunday school? Maybe. I have been in Christian Education over 20 years and have seen dynamics change, as well as families. Our current Sunday School is during 2 services. Each class has different learning styles. Our teachers are in tuned to that and we have planned our classes accordingly. Numbers , I find that is not a barometer whether your program is thriving or failing. years ago we were busting at the seams with children, now they are grown in college, moved away, and have come back to help lead a class or a small group. Currently we are combining some classes at least 20 in a class. New families are attending, which we welcome. Also as I walk through the halls and look in on classes. leaders and children are both engaged with the lesson with a variety of ways. It truly is exciting for me I just wish I could videotape this for the parents. The atmosphere is awesome.

    • Christine Yount Jones
      Christine Yount Jones on

      Nora, that’s awesome! It’s great news to hear what great things are happening in your ministry!

    • Candice Hutchinson on

      Nora
      My church is on of those where parents seem to be a bit disengaged, so volunteers are hard to find. We run on ‘your kid attends you’re on the schedule’ lol but this makes people disinterested and aren’t excited to teach!! We have curriculum, we have crafts but the majority bide their time until it’s over.
      Would you possibly be able to share with me some ideas on how things are run at your church (ours is a fairly young church with major growth over the last few years and I’m just taking over the role of nursery and 4&5 class coordinator) I’d love any help I can get!
      Hutchysgirl@live.com
      Thank you!!!
      Candice

  2. Kathy wagner on

    I attended Sunday school in the 60s-80s loved it my SS teacher taught until 2 years ago she was a school teacher and taught that way we sat at tables with a BiBLE and a booklet she showed us maps and BiBLE dictionaries. We learned a lot I followed in her footsteps. My room is set up as classroom. Traditional SS was before church. All ages taught one from Nursery to senior saints.
    When church went to two services the senior saints continued with SS the children became children’s church. I think now it’s a name. We tell kids about the Bible and JESUS. Unless I’m missing something. We have grown with the times. Showing video skits etc. I’m not sure that answers your question but most new but churches don’t know Sunday school. I will remember Sunday school but I’m old school changed with the wording

    • Christine Yount Jones
      Christine Yount Jones on

      I think you’re right, Kathy, that we have changed with the times and added new ways for kids to learn. Thank you for your comments!

  3. Sunday School should have lots of participation, not sitting at a table listening to a teacher. I always built in lots of crafts and artwork and experiments b/c the kids don’t get that in class at school. We would do role-okay, too, which the kids enjoyed.

    Sunday School should always be offered to children.

    • Christine Yount Jones
      Christine Yount Jones on

      DKZODY, we agree that kids need to move and not just sit and listen. We also agree that Sunday school–by whatever name–should always be offered to children. Thanks for your comments!

  4. We have 2 services with Church School but our numbers have dropped in the past 5 years. We have surveyed families and have found that sports, dance and gymnastics have been scheduled on Sunday mornings. Kids are over booked with activities and parents let church take a backseat. We find that involving the children in the worship service (sacred dance, acolyting, choirs, readings, dramas, and creating Scripture videos brings the whole family. The parents are in charge, so if we can get them involved and keep the children engaged in fun learning opportunities that connect the Bible to life, they are more apt to come. We’re not giving up on Church School yet!

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