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 tell us about ourselves? Are we content to let it happen?

Literacy For The Poor

To understand what is at stake in the Christian-education crisis, we need a historical perspective. How did the institution develop? How have the form and function of Sunday schools changed over the years?

The first American Sunday schools were started in the 1790s, modeled on British experiments. They aimed at offering the illiterate, urban poor a basic education—reading and writing—with the Bible as textbook. Sponsored by philanthropic laypersons, these first Sunday schools usually had no institutional tie to the established church. Sometimes they met in a church building, but just as often they used a rented hall. Their teachers were usually paid professionals, and Sunday schools occasionally drew on government funds. They were, after all, fulfilling a secular purpose—education.

But in the first decades of the nineteenth century, according to historian Anne Boylan, the author of Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution 1790–1880, Sunday schools changed dramatically. Their purpose became evangelistic—to prepare students for conversion. Bible knowledge became the basic aim, often pursued through contests of verse memorization.

The new evangelical Sunday schools spread like wildfire, as part of a vast outpouring of evangelical philanthropy in the early nineteenth century. Teachers—now volunteers—were typically in their late teens and early twenties, often recently converted in the Second Great Awakening and the revivals that followed. They gave tremendous energy to their cause.

While the ABCs continued to be taught, the spread of free public schools made this less critical. Public schools chose to exclude Christian doctrine from their curriculum, opting for broader principles of civic morality and the providence of God. Sunday schools, Boylan suggests, thrived partly because they formed a symbiotic relationship with the public schools. Most Americans wanted their children to learn more than the watered-down civil religion of public schooling. Sunday schools made up the deficit.

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As the Sunday-school curriculum changed, so did its institutional links to the church. Middle-class church members began sending their children. At first this was an act of piety—even the pastor condescending to send his children in with the ghetto kids—but it soon became normal as churches embraced the schools. The movement had begun interdenominationally, but as churches took over, denominational structures did, too.

For a long time Sunday schools maintained a strong missionary component. “During the 1860s and 1870s,” writes Boylan, “almost every large city in the country had … a large, service-oriented Sunday school, located in a poor neighborhood and often operated in connection with a city mission.” In addition, Sunday schools in the settled East took up offerings to extend Sunday schools in the West, where roaming missionaries established them as a first step toward building a church. In any locale, the Sunday school’s reason for being was to prepare children (and some adults) for conversion.

After the Civil War, however, Sunday schools shifted their thinking. The new curriculums assumed, according to Boylan, “that students would remain in school for many years, that they should grow gradually in religious knowledge, and that conversion would be a minor aspect of the overall experience. (Individual schools and teachers could, of course, place greater stress on conversion if they wished.)” Revivals had declined, and a more optimistic, less crisis-oriented view of children’s development had spread. But the shift also came because Sunday school had changed from a mission strategy to a church-nurturing strategy. The heathen were no longer its chief targets, but the children of the blessed.

Distinctives Of The Movement

By the late nineteenth century, Sunday school had settled into something quite recognizable today. As Christian-education specialist Jack Clark puts it, “Sunday school is one of the most stable institutions that there is. People know what Sunday school is. It has an identity. That’s one reason it’s so hard to change.”

When so many innovations last only a generation, why did Sunday school endure? Why did every Protestant church embrace it?

Observers point to two characteristics: like nothing else in the church, Sunday school is lay led and is done in small groups. Lay-led small groups allow personal relationships to dominate. Sunday school became not only a place for nurturing believers, but also a primary doorway into the church. Outsiders, both children and adults, could find themselves in a small, friendly group taught by someone not terribly different from themselves.

In some places, this is still a successful formula for Sunday school. “Sunday morning still is the base,” says Harry Piland, director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sunday-school division. “We don’t cash in our base.”

Though Southern Baptists acknowledge the same problems that cause other churches to despair, and admit that Sunday morning classes no longer draw in unchurched people, their Sunday schools are growing—adding 600,000 participants nationally over the past decade. The reason is commitment, says Piland. “Southern Baptists are committed absolutely, not just partially, to Sunday school. The strength of our church lies in the mobilization of lay people.… In a sense, for the Southern Baptist Convention the Sunday school simply is the church. It is the organizational structure of the church doing its work.”

Such commitment is hard to manufacture, however. Most churches today lack such a vision.

A Core Problem

The problem with Sunday school starts at its very core: volunteers. Sunday school requires more lay leadership than any other program of the church—dozens, sometimes hundreds, of teachers, who must be highly reliable week after week. Says Marlene LeFever of David C. Cook Publishing Co., a leading curriculum publisher, “If you ask any director of Christian education, ‘What’s your number-one problem?’ it’s volunteers.”

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Wes Willis of Scripture Press echoes her: “Teacher recruitment is the single most common question I encounter. I was at a conference recently where one director of Christian education said, ‘I’m recruiting my teachers to teach for just one quarter—they won’t commit to any longer than that.’ Someone else said, ‘I’m recruiting on a monthly basis.’ Then someone said, ‘I’m signing up teachers one week at a time.’ ”

The problem goes deeper than simple availability, claims Bill Barber, minister of Christian education for a huge Sunday school at Central Church in Memphis, Tennessee. “This is a ‘me’ generation. People just don’t understand commitment. I had a meeting recently for prospective Sunday-school teachers, and I asked them, ‘What are your fears?’ One lady said, ‘I’m afraid of making a commitment because something else might come along that I want to do.’ ”

Finding teachers was never easy; Boylan’s historical study reports that nineteenth-century “complaints about ‘instability and decay’ in teaching staffs were frequent, as were remarks about being ‘very much in want of good and permanent teachers.’ ” Nevertheless, “Sunday school succeeded for 200 years on the energy and ability of a massive corps of housewives,” Wes Haystead says. Now housewives are in short supply.

“For the single parent out in the workplace, to give up that block of time is difficult,” says Billie Baptiste, publisher of Gospel Light’s Sunday-school curriculum. “If you have a divorced family, the child is often with a different set of parents on alternate weekends, so there is sporadic attendance. The parents are more prone to feel they are entitled to vacations, to time away.”

Failing to find enough teachers who will make a year-long commitment, many churches are rotating teachers in and out. Such changes make Sunday school less satisfying for both students and teachers, because personal relationships do not have a chance to grow. “Nobody ever gets a sense of ministry out of it,” says Haystead. “That kind of structure has killed a lot of interest.”

For Lack Of Vision

The problem of volunteers is matched by a subtler difficulty: a lack of pastoral concern. “For some time it hasn’t been fashionable to be a Sunday-school enthusiast,” Haystead says. He remembers attending the Congress on the Bible, a major conference of evangelicals. “In the whole program there was no mention of Sunday school, which is the largest forum for teaching the Bible in the world.” He wrote a letter to the organizers, who apologized for their oversight. But, says Haystead, their forgetfulness is a “symptom of the fact that those leaders aren’t involved in Sunday school in their own locale.”

Sunday-school leaders often feel they are presiding over the decline of one of the church’s most crucial institutions—yet they cannot easily get the attention of the church’s leaders, who are far more concerned with the visible, clergy-led Sunday-morning worship service than with the diffuse, lay-led Sunday school.

I asked numerous Sunday-school activists if they knew of any emerging models of Sunday school—some new approach that deserves examination. They all said no. “I see a lot of tinkering,” Haystead said, “mostly out of desperation. Staff workers come to conferences with a look of desperation in their eyes, saying, Does anybody have any answers?”

Some churches, concluding that times have changed irreversibly, are eliminating adult Sunday school entirely. Instead, they run children’s programs concurrently with worship services and substitute home Bible studies or other midweek small groups for their adult Christian education program. It can work, as Bill Hybels’s gigantic Willow Creek Church outside Chicago has proven by mobilizing hundreds of midweek Bible-study groups.

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But programming during the week can lose as well as gain. According to Memphis’s Bill Barber, “Lots of churches are into small groups every which night of the week. Most go for a while and then buzz out. They’re up and down.”

The Changing Mind Of The Church

It is not every day that an institution that has been stable for a century plunges into oblivion. The decline of Sunday school is not a seasonal change in fashion. It represents a shifting of tectonic plates, a shaking of the foundations. What does it say about the changing mind of the church and the world?

We cannot blame the dangerous decline of Sunday school solely on a shortage of housewives. The societal shift to two-income families is significant in our generation, but it cannot be terribly important over a century. Women in the nineteenth century worked—worked longer, harder hours than we do. Yes, their schedules were flexible, but in the face of tremendous demands they made the choice to flex them toward Sunday school. Would we?

Nor can it be argued that Sunday school is outdated because of computers or video or new educational techniques. Sunday school is a broad way of putting people together on Sunday morning: It has changed a great deal, and it can again. It is flexible enough to deal with a changing world.

The best explanation for the decline of Sunday school may start with an unpleasant suggestion: We don’t care enough about children.

Sunday school’s mission, while extending to adults, has always been powered by a concern for children. By objective measures, children today are neglected in America. Of all age groups, children are most likely to live in poverty. They suffer from shattered families as perhaps never before in history, and few couples, whether rich or poor, are willing to stay together “for the sake of the children.” Surely the entitlement of abortion says something about how children are valued. So does the decrease in stay-at-home mothers—perhaps the most immediate short-term cause of Sunday school’s decline.

Of course, there is talk about children today. There are endless publications and seminars about family life. But these are mainly reactive. The interest is based less on enthusiasm for children than on fear of the demise of the family.

In the church, the fear seems strong. The breakup of the traditional family, the spread of drugs and premarital sex, are greatly voiced concerns. “The baby-boomer parents are concerned about their children,” Gospel Light’s Billie Baptiste says. “What they want is quality. They demand quality. Because of the crisis with families, there’s a fear level with parents. They want their families to be strong. They are looking for values.”

But if they seek “quality,” Sunday school is the last place they are going to find it. Sunday school’s lay leadership practically ensures that, however friendly and personable it may be, its quality control will be weak. This probably explains, as much as anything, why Sunday school has not been able to draw strength from fear over the demise of the family. Few people see that Sunday school is medicine for the disease the family has got. Sunday school, in fact, does not seem like medicine at all. It is not a six-week seminar you can pop in the VCR. You cannot take it in a dose. It is more like a way of life. And it is a way of life at odds with the pursuit of quality.

Today, quality-seeking American Christians are probably less centered in a local congregation than they ever have been. They will drive considerable distances to church, choosing their congregation on the basis of strong preaching and professionally led programs. To attract such members, churches must add professional staff. Today, most medium-sized churches have a professionally led youth group. Large churches are likely to have a professionally organized nursery. They are competing for members with the megachurch down the freeway. Even more, they are competing with the many “quality” entertainments of a Sunday morning.

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The modern American Christian has little denominational loyalty and only slightly more congregational loyalty. He or she is loyal to “quality.” The loyalty of a consumer—consumers do have strong loyalties, to brands and chains and mail-order catalogs—is a different kind of loyalty from that of a family member.

No wonder Sunday school is in trouble. It grew up as a cause, as a way of bringing the gospel to children. It became inescapably part of small-town America, an extension of the family and the community: all of us gathering to teach each other, and each other’s children. Family and community may not fit with competing “quality.” But does “quality” substitute for whatever we are losing?

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