Is Sunday School Dying?

A recent article in USA Today asked the question, "Has the Sun Set on Sunday School?"

The article cites a report from Barna Research that says tens of thousands of Sunday School programs have closed in recent years.

From 2004 to 2010, Sunday School attendance has dropped nearly 40% among Evangelical Lutheran churches and 8% among Southern Baptist churches. 

There's no denying that some children's ministries are faltering and the article cites some very valid reasons why.  Let's look at these and talk about how a church with a declining children's ministry can turn things around. 

Factor #1 - Pace of Life
Parents and kids are very busy.  In most cases, both parents are working and the kids are involved in multiple activities.  The pace of life can be overwhelming, causing parents to see Sunday as one of the only times they can rest or spend time with their they skip church.

One mom in the article put it like this.  "You would go to church, and then an hour or hour 15 minutes of Sunday school.  It takes up all your morning.  It felt like more of a chore for them to go, when you're giving up some of your weekend and attending school during the week.  By the time they come home, it's 12 noon, and when you have a weekend, you want to play with your friends outside and be a kid."

How to Turn it Around...
  • Don't over schedule your church calendar.  Families are only going to give you so much time.  Be very strategic in what you put on the calendar and when you put it on the calendar. 
  • Teach parents the importance of consistent attendance.  We are finding that in most churches kids are only attending 1-2 times a month...and in some cases even less.  This is a factor in declining attendance.  Kids are still attending...they are just attending less often.  A key time you can teach young parents about consistent church attendance is when they go through baby dedication.  In this post, I talk about other key milestones in families' lives when you can emphasize church attendance.  Pastors and adult ministry leaders also have direct access to parents and can speak into their lives about this from the pulpit, in small groups, Bible study classes, etc. 
  • Offer more service times.  When families go to a movie theater, they have the option of going any day of the week with various times throughout the day.  The same can translate into church.  If you only offer families one option to attend, you limit how many can come.  More service options will enable more families to attend. 
Factor #2 - Competition for Families' Time.
There used to be a time when families centered their weekends around the church.  Stores were closed and church was the place to be on Sunday.  For the overall culture, this is a thing of the past.

Today kids are involved in sports, events, trips and more on Sundays.  There is a lot competing for the time and attention of the families you are trying to reach.  I talk more about how being a part of a traveling kid's sport team will take families out of church for weeks on end in this post. 

 How to Turn it Around... 
  • Create environments that have kids dragging their parents to church.  Church should be the thing kids look forward to all week.  It should be more fun and exciting than sports, events and trips.   
  • Help kids feel loved, connected and known.  When a child knows Mr. _____ or Mrs. _______is waiting to see them at church, they will want to be there.  When they are connected to friends at church, they will want to be there. 
  • Teach kids and their parents to follow Matthew 6:33 in every area of their lives.  Seek God and His kingdom first.  There is nothing wrong with families being involved in activities, sports, and long as it doesn't replace God at the top of the list.  And where you're at on Sunday shows where God is on your list.
Factor #3 - No Room for Questions
One person quoted in the article said that he was shunned when he started asking questions and demanding evidence to back up what He was being taught in Sunday School. 

How to Turn it Around... 
  • Give kids room to grapple with their faith.  Kids must own their faith for themselves.  And many kids need to go through a time of questioning on their journey.  Welcome this. 
  • Ask and answer the questions kids are thinking about but may be hesitant to ask.  What are the big questions kids might have about the doctrines of the faith?  Bring them up.  Be proactive in guiding kids through tough questions like, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" or "Why does God allow evil on the earth?" or "Is creation really true?"
Factor #4 - Abuse in the Church
Another factor the article highlighted was abuse in the church.  We live in an era where parents are very concerned about the well-being of their children and go the second mile to make sure they are safe.  Couple that with sex-abuse cases in churches and you've got parents hesitant about letting their child attend.

One mother quoted said, "They're (teachers) not vetted properly.  That's a valid concern in my book.  The sign-up process was done very quickly.  It's like, 'Have you been in jail before?' — the generic questions, like on a job application.  They don't really check your background as much as they should when you're dealing with young children."

How to Turn it Around... 
  • Make sure you follow a "no-exceptions" check-in and check-out policy where parents must present a matching number to pick up their child.
  • Make sure you explain your safety plan to first-time families.  Let them know that everyone in the room has been through a background check, training, etc.  Explain the measures you have in place to keep kids safe.
  • Never allow anyone to be alone with a child.  Only open a room when you have a minimum of two volunteers present.
Factor #5 - Unwillingness to Change
I found it interesting that the article says, "The institutional inertia that churches are famous for has made it difficult for them to adapt to the times.  Change is always difficult in a 2,000-year-old institution."

We know churches and children's ministries that aren't willing to change will die a slow death.  You can't reach the kids and families of 2015 acting like it's still 1965.  When a ministry finds itself talking more about the past than the future...things are going downhill. 

How to Turn it Around... 
  • Stay anchored to the truth...but geared for the times.  I often use this example.  The box that holds the McDonald's kid's meal changes based on what is going on in the culture.  If Pirates of the Caribbean is popular, then that's what you'll find on the box.  If Superman is popular, then that's what you'll find on the box.  The food stays the same, but the container that holds it changes to remain relevant to kids.  And so it is with presenting God's Word to kids and families.  Our message (the meal) doesn't change, but how we package it does change to stay relevant to the kids and families we are trying to reach. 
  • Ask the hard questions about what you're doing.   Every year take a look at what you are doing and ask the hard questions.  Is it reaching people?  Is it effectively helping people take spiritual steps?  Has it run it's course?  What do we need to change?  What do we need to tweak?  What do we need to stop?
Yes...there is no denying that some children's ministries are dying.  But be encouraged.  Some of the greatest children's ministries ever are being built right now.  There are churches and children's ministries that are exploding with growth.  Just because the sun is setting on some churches, doesn't mean it is setting on all churches.  God is doing some fresh, new things.  And He wants you to be right in the middle of it.