Will Sunday school survive the “me generation”?

It is as much a part of the landscape as the church notice boards on which it is advertised: Sunday School at 9:30, Worship at 11:00. We grew up in it. We have been naughty in it. We have been bored in it. Its texture is strong in our deep memories.

Yet 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 future. Few expect Sunday school to disappear—one might as well expect hymnals to disappear from the pews—but nearly everyone says it has problems with no solution in sight. And this in a time when many believe that, more than ever, people need what Sunday school promises.

“There has never been a greater need for effective children’s Sunday school, with all the negative forces affecting the development of kids,” says Wes Haystead, a Christian-education consultant. “But the church has never been less willing or less well-equipped to fill that need.”

The need extends beyond children. Search Institute of Minneapolis recently published a Lilly Endowment-sponsored study of youth and adults in mainline denominations, concluding, “Of all the areas of congregational life we examined, involvement in an effective Christian education program has the strongest tie to a person’s growth in faith.” They also found that only three out of ten youth or adults in the mainline churches regularly attended Christian-education classes.

Epochal change should not go unmarked, or unconsidered. Why is something that has worked so well for so long suddenly in trouble? What does the decline of Sunday school ...

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