Back to Sunday school?

July 1, 2010

A friend of mine was dismayed when Sunday school teachers at her church proposed a new Sunday school schedule for fall: classes held weekly except for the third Sunday of each month, when there would be no structured Sunday school classes. The teachers and their kids would take a break from the 9 o’clock hour Sunday school responsibilities and the Sun. school slot would become childcare with some kind of programming for those parents who need it.

The teachers explained that this proposal would provide a break for them, and that although worship and Sunday school are in separate time slots (one can do both), the teachers would be able to come to worship without having any responsibility for Sun. school that morning. It’s a difficult proposal to oppose, as this is a 250-member congregation with no paid staff to help with Christian education. The teachers have been a dedicated and enthusiastic group.

In further discussion, a disquieting reality became clear to my friend: Christian education for kids in this church is threatened by all kinds of competition. Here are some of the comments she heard:

“The kids do baseball all day Saturday. I just need a down day at home sometimes.”

“We can’t always be there [Sundays]. We’re trying to do soccer as well as church.”

“Saturday nights/Sundays are the only days my kids can stay over with their grandmother [with a day off of Sun. school]. That’s important time too.”

“The Smiths don’t attend Sun. school often, but their daughter is very alert and was the first to know what the Apostle’s Creed was last week. They’re getting good Christian teaching at home even if they’re not doing Sun. school.”

“It [Sun. school plus worship] is all just too much to do as a single parent with kids.”

My friend, who must soon vote for or against this proposal in a session meeting, is stumped. “Where do we start in a session discussion of all of this? How do we raise a vision for Christian education, emphasize a sense of outreach and compete with societal expectations and choices that are bearing down on our young parents?”

Is this situation an unusual one? Or is Sunday school slowly, or sometimes with a fell swoop of fatigue, becoming extinct?


Pat said... Maybe it's

Pat said...

Maybe it's time for us to do some out of the box thinking. So many times we dig our heels in and become determined that we must continue doing things as they've always been done, thus missing opportunities for fresh ways of doing church and reaching the culture.

Earl said... I keep

Earl said...

I keep hearing that Sunday School is on the decline. We have trouble with Sunday School. Enrollment keeps going up and teachers keep volunteering. We are running out of room

Chris Duckworth said...

Chris Duckworth said...

During the program year we are likely to have 30-35 Sundays of Sunday School, accounting for days when class is canceled or replaced by intergenerational activities (ie, Sunday between Christmas and New Years, Sunday of Thanksgiving Weekend, Easter Sunday, and so forth). That's 30-35 contact hours/year in education programming ... about what the kids get in one week of public schooling.

We kept very good attendance figures this year in Sunday School, and we learned that with the exception of one exceptional family, even our best attending children missed Sunday School about 20-30% of the time. We're using a curriculum with distinct lesson themes/topics from week to week, and many of our learners are missing a significant amount of material.

We're reducing the number of traditional Sunday School lessons being taught in the 2010-2011 year and replacing those lessons with days of preparing for a church Bible Bee, lector training (for third grade and higher), and a creative class project (song, dance, mural ...). As an Associate Pastor, I work closely with the education ministry and will be preparing materials for these special activities. The hope is that an alternative activity helps the kids get enthusiastic about learning (ie, the Bible Bee), develop skills to contribute to the congregation's worship life (the lector training), and learn how to give creative expression to faith (the class project). It will hopefully also give a break to teachers by providing a different kind of Sunday morning activity.

Will all of these projects pan out? Perhaps not, but we're trying something different, recognizing that 30+ traditional Sunday School lessons is difficult for teachers and learners alike.

Anonymous said... As I

Anonymous said...

As I was reading this article, I couldn't help but think "maybe it's a sign that churches should start focusing on things other than Sunday School."
I know churches are fairly obsessed with getting families with young children to join. But there are so many other groups of people out there for the church to serve...retirees, singles, childless couples...that have no need of Sunday School.
Perhaps the decline of Sunday School points to different possibilities for churches

mwb said... I have to

mwb said...

I have to agree with what the last anonymous said. Sometimes I look at how many different churches organize things it seems like they are too focused on too specific groups only (kids, young adults, etc.), rather than, while offering those, also offering general ways of connecting the whole community across different groupings.

I recognize that resources can be tight and you can't offer groups to cover every single type of person that could potentially attend. Just don't get obsessed with ones that aren't working currently, but instead recognize that the focus may have to change from time to time as things change within community over time.

There will be times when traditional Sunday school works and others where it doesn't and you need to focus scare resources else where.

But that's just my own insane .02

storiesontheway said...

storiesontheway said...

At the risk of being overly forward, I'd like to draw your attention to my Sunday School website:

I'm developing a curriculum (free for use)that recognizes the reality of sporadic attendance and volunteer burnout. I don't have any strategies to increase commitment or attendance but I do hope to make Sunday School within our current parameters more effective and satisfying.

I think that Sunday School is too important a part of the church's mission to abandon it altogether, even in favour of other worthy work.

Rhonda Waters

Lisbeth said... When I

Lisbeth said...

When I was young, Sunday School for kids was held at the same time as Worship for adults. Thus the day was not "too long" for the 11 and unders. 12 and olders (including adults) had Sunday School either before or after worship service. Volunteer teachers rotated so each taught a couple of weeks and attended worship a couple. Perhaps that type of system would bring more kids to classes.

emmcphee said... I

emmcphee said...

I respectfully disagree with "anonymous" - Sunday School is about much more than child care. All Christians are in need of some form of intentional Christian education and formation, not just the children. The more compelling argument for me would be the teachers saying, "I want to go to my class sometimes, too!" That's where rotating teachers' schedules can help - although probably in this situation as well. You just need more volunteer teachers, and then everyone can have one or more weeks off a month. The down side is less consistency for the kids, but how can we make this work for everybody? Families still have to make their choices about church, sunday school, and so on.

Strode said... I

Strode said...

I certainly agree with emmcpnee.
The statement: "But there are so many other groups of people out there for the church to serve...retirees, singles, childless couples...that have no need of Sunday School" struck me as very odd, in that each one of those groups have as much need of "Sunday School" as our youth, whether they have been a Christian for 40 years or 40 days. Bible study is for a lifetime.

I understand the difficulty of teachers needing a break. I understand the feelings of many that they have not been given a spiritual gift of teaching. I do believe that the Holy Spirit will provide that gift for the use of the congregation.

I also believe that we shouldn't treat Sunday School as just another program. We need to remember to be prayerful and attentive for the Lord's leading. He may show your congregation a different way or time or structure in which to provide educational opportunities.

Catherine Knott said... I

Catherine Knott said...

I am serving the Church of Scotland as a minister member of the PCUSA- and find myself in some interesting situations regarding the age old Sunday School question.
As a national church, the C of S requires a chaplain for school assemblies (that's me!) and as a result, I feel that a lot of families think that their children "get enough church through school."
However, I always thought that Christian education was a church thing, and extended to all members, regardless of age, marital status, etc.
While we have difficulty with numbers in Sunday School on a weekly basis, we have created a worship space once a month for families (read children, grannies, parents, pet goldfish) that includes a worship encounter, rotational workshops for the family, and eventual interaction with the congregation remaining in the sanctuary. While we're still learning how to integrate these families into the whole of the congregation, we find that our "try something different and risk" approach has been fruitful.
We will have challenges regardless of time and place in our ministry... the hope is that we rise up to them, and think about our motivation behind "getting people into the door."