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.
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- “The model is outdated and tough for churches to maintain.”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, they shared common reasons to close their Sunday school programs.
- 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
Breathing in New Life
We asked churches what they believe is necessary to keep their Sunday school programs alive and thriving. Responses ranged from practical and aspiring to hopeless.
- “We need a completely new paradigm.”
- “Parents will have to change.”
- “It must be valuable to kids—not just another day at school.”
- “We need passionate teachers and volunteers.”
- “We’ll have to move away from a classroom/worksheet model. How is God real?”
- “We need to offer a variety of learning choices for kids—but we need volunteers to staff it.”
- “We need to refocus on God’s Word and prayer, not creating a school atmosphere because it’s easy for adults to handle.”
- “Take it off the Sunday schedule. Families are too busy.”
- “Remove the old teachers who insist on doing things the same old way they’ve been done for the past 20 years and get a team with new energy and ideas.”
Let It Grow or Let It Go?
Do you think the current model of Sunday school is over? We asked children’s ministers to offer their thoughts about what’s happening in their churches and what that means for the future of Sunday school.
- “Clearly what we’re doing now isn’t working for Sunday school.”
- “I don’t see Sunday school as a part of a thriving or forward-thinking church.”
- “Sunday school is just a time slot. As long as the local church is using that time to effectively provide valuable Christian content, it doesn’t matter if it’s Sunday school or some other program.”
- “It’s a tradition that people want to hold on to, but the purpose for it has come and gone. It’s time to find a new, more modern way to teach.”
- “Some weeks we have had no kids in any of the classes from kindergarten to high school.”
- “Sunday school is declining, but so is the capital-C Church! We can’t and won’t see growth when the Church is on the decline.”
- “It’s the main time we can go deeper, so I’d hate to see it go. If children attend both services, it gives us the chance to make church the ‘best two hours of a kid’s week’ rather than just the best hour.”
- “I think we need to stay relevant with the times and do what we can to help families. Sunday school may not be the answer. It may take on a different form, which is okay.”
- “Sure, perhaps a wheel is going flat, but that’s no reason to junk the car!”
- “Kids need a place to gather in small groups with their peers and learn God’s Word at an age-appropriate level.”
- “[Cutting Sunday school] feeds the consumeristic, entertain-me beast. It will breed a generation of church shoppers instead of disciples.”
- “Our current educational models are atrocious, but it’s difficult to change them as our structures are forced upon us by overall church schedules.”
A Snapshot: Support for Sunday School
We asked children’s ministers to rate the overall support their Sunday school programs receive. Overall, support appears to be steady but not overwhelming in most churches.
Jennifer Hooks is executive editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine.
Time for a Well Check
Is Sunday school dying? Not yet for most churches. However, have long been signs that the paradigm is not as important parents and children as it used to be. Thirty years ago activities sports and birthday parties would never supersede Sunday school for most families. Now for most families that’s the norm. I think the Sunday morning time period will change for a lot of churches soon.
Our structure, methods, and purpose for Sunday school will be outmoded. What churches need to be thinking about is how to “kill it” before it dies so that something new and meaningful can grow in its place.
The Value of Sunday School
The two things I find most valuable about Sunday school in its current iteration are the relationships kids build with adult volunteers and the other children, and the fact that Sunday school offers children a place to belong in the church, especially in very large churches.
The schooling model of Sunday school assumes that we can educate or school children into being Jesus’ followers. Or it assumes that becoming Jesus’ follower is just about indoctrinating kids into a certain set of beliefs and that the “school” will make this happen.
We need to change what we do in Sunday school or whatever we call it whenever we do it. Stop telling kids what Bible passages mean and let them figure it out for themselves. Allow kids to explore their questions about the Bible and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Move away from the schooling model and incorporate more ritual, play, art, story, and spiritual practices into our ministries with children.
Ivy Beckwith is a speaker, consultant, and author of Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus (with David Csinos).
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