Other "Thinking Drafts" and writing by Keith Drury --http://www.indwes.edu/tuesday .
Why The Sunday School Has Declined
Sunday School used to be king. It boasted a healthy attendance -- often larger than morning worship. The Sunday School superintendent had "clout." Often he was the leading layman in a local church, right down to getting an ex-officio spot on the local church board. Offerings were big, with the Sunday School spending more on resources than all other programs of the church combined. "King Sunday School," generally speaking, held a position of eminence in the church. All that has changed. Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall. Why?
For whatever reason, Sunday Schools plummeted in the 1980's and 1990's. In my own denomination in the 1970's the Sunday School was larger than the morning worship service! But today Sunday School superintendents are frustrated and discouraged. Sunday School teachers have lost their motivation and excitement. Pastors are generally embarrassed by the poor quality of what is happening in the primary Discipleship program of their church. Sunday School is no longer king. Or, at least it's a more humble king!
How did all this happen? What were the causes that contributed to the decline of the Sunday School in the last two decades? Before we can see a turnaround in the Sunday School hour, we need to confess that we're in deep trouble and confess how we got that way. I believe we will see a great turnaround in the next decade. But it won't happen until we admit how we got into trouble in the first place. Why has the Sunday School declined these last two decades? Here are some thoughts to consider:
Why Sunday School declined in the 80's and 90's
1. Pastor abandonment. In the last decade, many pastors completed their abandonment of the Sunday School hour, in many cases, considering it competition, or at least an embarrassment. We have succeeded in making the morning worship hour the "entry port into the church." At the same time, however, we have greatly downplayed the "next step" in commitment. Thus, we now have thousands upon thousands of people "sitting in the entry port" week after week, unable, or unwilling, or unmotivated to take the next step in their commitment -- getting into a Sunday School Discipleship group. Some pastors don't even attend Sunday School themselves unless they are teaching. What the pastor ignores usually declines.
2. The trivializing of Sunday School. In some places, contests, campaigns, and promotions have made Sunday School so trivial -- even silly -- that its image has been greatly scarred. Many adults do not want to attend Sunday School because of what they think it is... not necessarily because of what it really is. "Sunday School" has come to mean M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E in these churches. They refer to Sunday School as something trivial or childish, using the term as a negative adjective -- "Sunday Schoolish." In these places, the Sunday School has suffered because of its second-rate, trivial "goldfish-swallowing" image.
3. Teaching preachers. We now have a great group of preachers who love to teach... and for some, the sanctuary has become the classroom. To these churches, Sunday School seems superfluous... a cheapened, weakened, watered down teaching time done more poorly by untrained laymen than the pastor does with excellence an hour later. Why listen to laymen do a poor job at what a professional can do with excellence? Why attend a poorly taught Bible class when people can come an hour later and hear a seminary-trained Bible communicator do it better? For many the answer is obvious. Go to the worship-class led by the pastor and skip the second-rate Sunday School class.
4. Church planting. Though most denominations haven't been breaking that many records there has still been a significant number of church plants in the last 20 years. Face it, a sophisticated Discipleship program like Sunday School takes time (and committed leaders) to get off the ground. We're all happy to have these churches planted -- even though it takes a while for the Discipleship attendance to catch up with more established churches. But it is one of the reasons why Sunday School statistics have taken a hit the last two decades.
5. Small church crisis. In the last several years the church under 50 has had a tough time... my own denomination has more than half of its churches (about 1,000 Sunday Schools) averaging fifty or less. These churches are losing ground. In my denomination I measured the Sunday Schools under 50 to discover that they lost 3,286 people in average attendance, while the 53 Sunday Schools in my denomination over 200 gained almost a thousand. There is a shift here, and the smaller church is having a difficult time holding on to Sunday School attendance, with some smaller churches simply giving up and dropping Sunday School altogether. Of course this is more than a Sunday School problem, but it has had a significant effect on Sunday School attendance during the last decade. Smaller churches are struggling, and their Sunday School hour is struggling even more so.
6. Multiple services. More churches now hold several worship services. It is one of the expansion strategies promoted by church growth experts. While the idea is good, and often works, it sometimes hurts the Sunday School at first. Sooner or later some people are clever enough to figure out "we can come and put the kids in Sunday School, attend the worship service during the same hour, and have this whole thing over with in one hour." Twenty years ago, only the "super churches" had multiple services. Now even churches of 100 are trying it. The idea is a good one, and with careful planning it can actually benefit the Discipleship attendance in the Sunday School hour, but without that extra effort multiple services can put the squeeze on the Sunday School.
7. Sporadic attendance. Remember the old days of the "Sunday School pin"? People actually tried to be present every single week of the year for Sunday School. Boy, has that ever changed! People now come and go as they please. Now "it takes 200 attendees to average 100." Sunday Schools today must "grow to hold their own," in order to compensate for a host of "absentees" who are off camping, visiting relatives, with their other parent, or simply "sitting out a week."
8. Upward drift. There's no doubt about it, most evangelicals are drifting up the socioeconomic ladder. Sociological studies have repeatedly discovered that the higher the socioeconomic level of a local church, the less likely adults are to attend Sunday School. The rich and powerful may add prestige to our church, but they often see no need to attend Sunday School.
9. Temporary dropping of Sunday School. While it is not a broadly practiced thing, there are enough churches who now drop Sunday School over the summer to have a significant impact on "the yearly averages."
10. Permanent dropping of Sunday School. Five percent of my own denomination's churches -- that's one in twenty -- have no Sunday School at all -- not even Sunday evening Sunday School. These are often smaller churches who have given up, or newer churches who don't have leaders yet. This was unheard of a decade ago.
11 . Loss of the "Big Day." In the past, almost all churches had several Sunday School campaigns. Like it or not, these campaigns and promotions had a significant effect on the Sunday School attendance averages in the past, even if they sometimes trivialized the mission. These campaigns and promotions have all but disappeared, and Sunday School attendance has suffered because of it.
12. Collapse of bus ministries. Whatever your opinion about bus ministries, there is no doubt that where it was practiced there was a significant positive impact on Sunday School attendance... and when it was discontinued it had a depressing effect on attendance. In the last ten years, almost all churches have dropped bus ministries.
13. General lack of attention. Recently a group of pastors were asked: "If you gave your wife as much attention the last ten years as you've given the Sunday School, what would she look like by now?" Hmmmmmm... In the last decade, pastors, district leaders, college professors and denominational leaders have given the Sunday School hour little attention. No wonder "she" looks so poorly!
14. Weak teaching. Ask people who travel around the church what they think of adult Sunday School. Ask evangelists, district superintendents, and denominational leaders. I have. They almost unanimously say that the quality of teaching is ghastly. Some admit that they themselves do not attend when they visit a church because sitting through the average class ruins their attitude for the rest of the day. Face it, friends, though we have some top notch teaching going on, generally speaking, these church leaders are right. The public's expectations have gotten higher these last ten years, while most of the teaching has peaked -- or gotten worse. People today won't come "just because I'm loyal." They expect excellence in exchange for their time, and if they don't get it, they simply don't come back. Weak teaching has hurt the Sunday School hour these last ten years.
Has your Sunday School declined in the last 20 years? Do any of these factors figure in? Is it an irreversible trend? Have these factors pretty well killed the Sunday School? Should we simply close the thing down and "dance on its grave" as one Wesleyan author suggested a decade or so ago?
Or, is there something here worth salvaging? What do you think? Is the Sunday School going out of business, or has it simply hit a decade of hard times and is now perfectly poised for a massive turnaround in the coming decade?
Fourteen Reasons Why
The Sunday School Hour Could Grow
In The Coming Years
Will we see a great revitalization of the Sunday School hour across Christendom. Who knows. If we do, there are reasons why Sunday School could see a great turnaround and burst of growth. Here are 14 of them.
1. Pastors might come back. The decades of the 80's-90s pastors poured their energies into the morning worship service, developing a highly polished and professional worship service oriented to praise and preaching. By and large, pastors have done a great job at accomplishing this goal. We now have some semblance of excellence occurring during the worship time. Many churches are running at 80-90% on the "excellence scale" in these worship services. Whatever particular number you would assign your own worship service, you've got to admit that your Sunday School "excellence quotient" is probably far lower.
Pastors might wake up to this imbalance in the coming years. They could recognize there is a point of diminishing returns in trying to squeeze those last few percentage points out of the "worship excellence" when the Sunday School hour is in such bad shape. Having gotten the port of entry (the worship service) in line, they could now turn their attention to the Sunday School hour as the logical next step of commitment. This energy, vision, and stamina which the pastor pours into the Sunday School will in itself cause a great resurgence of growth in the Sunday School hour. Whatever the pastor gets concerned about usually grows.
2. Sunday Schools will recapture a mission worth working for. In a few cases it could be "fellowship" or "outreach." But in the vast majority of churches, the Sunday School may recapture the mission of large group Discipleship. The Sunday School hour will provide the "logical next step" after worship involvement as people grow in commitment. This mission orientation will generate a powerful and loyal movement of Sunday School workers. When workers capture a mission worth dying for, their motivation alone will provide a great impetus to growth.
3. Adoption of REVIVAL TEACHING Methods. In the future could we see thousands of teachers in adult classes adopt the purpose as igniting spiritual revival in the church by carefully planning their class around a strategy beginning with a sharing-caring time, including "accountability testimonies," then winding up the last half of the class with convictional Bible teaching leading to a call for decision? If so, we could see a revival in the whole church, not just the Sunday school.
People's lives will change week after week in the Sunday School hour. They will testify about these changes in later classes and other people will get under conviction. This will create a spiral of revival activity in the class which will begin to spill over into the entire church. A large group can't experience a revival like this without affecting the entire church. In the coming years this REVIVAL TEACHING MODEL could become the dominant method of teaching in the Sunday School hour and pastors will see these Sunday morning groups as the key to spiritual revival and Discipleship in their church. Anything experiencing a revival tends to grow.
4. Praise and worship renewal. Something has been under way in the last 20 years. Maybe it is a renewal, or maybe even a revolution. We have made major shifts in our morning worship services. It hasn't happened everywhere; in fact, it still isn't happening many places. But it is happening in enough places to indicate a spreading wave. Evangelicals have passed through the "Charisphobia era." We are now open to experiencing more praise and worship on Sunday mornings. The praise and worship revolution has been entrenched.
What does all this have to do with Sunday School growth in the future? Sunday morning worship could become less and less a classroom and more and more a praise and worship celebration. Pastors could then turn to the Sunday School hour to provide for the solid Bible teaching on obedient living which will be a requisite if the celebration experience is to be more than just fluff.
5. Sophisticated, professional laymen. In the future a great host of new laymen will take over teaching positions. These laymen will not be satisfied with doing a second-rate job. In fact, they will not even agree to teach a class if you say, "It won't take much time to do this." This modern, sophisticated layman is unwilling to commit time and energy to anything that is not really a worthwhile task. But when he does volunteer, he does it wholeheartedly with significant preparation. This group of laymen will produce the return of the "lay Bible teacher" in our churches. We will again see laymen who teach the Bible with excellence. This increasing quality in teaching will attract other laymen into attendance, and the Sunday School will grow as a result.
6. Increasing multiple pastoral staff. While most of our churches will not have multiple staff, most of the people will have it. The majority of churches will continue to have one single pastor. However, the majority of Christians will be attending the larger churches with multiple staff. The statistics show it. This is a bit confusing isn't it? For instance in one year's study in my own denomination half of all the people -- 70,799 people every week, attended churches averaging 120 or more. Yet, this attended only 282 churches. The other half attend the other 1,400 churches averaging under 120. The numbers hold true in other denominations as well. So, while most churches are smaller, most Christians attend churches over 100. An increasing number of these churches are getting associate pastors, or assistant pastors, or youth pastors, or Discipleship pastors. In these multiple staff churches, each professional staff person usually takes a class as his "own congregation" pouring energy into shepherding these people. This pastoral contribution, along with the increasing sophistication of laymen, will combine to bring a return to excellence in the teaching-learning-changing experience which will attract a whole new generation into Sunday School Hour Discipleship groups.
7. Emergence of a new "Big Day" movement. While the days of the old style "Sunday School contests" have pretty well evaporated, there could be an emergence of the new "Big Day" again as we move past 2000. Ironically, those churches which abandoned Sunday School contests earliest could experience a return to the Big Day the quickest. It seems there needs to be a half dozen or more years between the rejection of an idea and the return to its grandchild!
8. Broad concern about shallow commitment. While the church continues to grow in the future, there will be increasing concern over the shallow level of the "Discipleship product" we see produced. Many church leaders now privately confess "the river is a mile wide but only an inch deep" when it comes to commitment. The fastest growth in most evangelical denominations is the number of one-hour-a-week-Christians. They come for an hour of worship and that's it. No evening service. No small Groups. No Sunday school. One hour and that's all. There could be a growing concern among pastors and leaders to assimilate into deeper commitment people who drop in only for an hour's worship service. Leaders could see the Sunday School hour -- usually the hour before or after the morning worship -- as the logical "next step" for these people to take in their growing commitment to the Lord. The Sunday School will become the primary means for entry level Discipleship -- helping people toward deeper commitment and holiness.
9. Public attention. Face it, in the last 20 years you haven't heard or read much about the Sunday School hour. Christianity Today, Leadership, denominational periodicals, district and denominational leaders, Christian education professors and just about everyone else ignored it.
Could all of that silence generate a tremendous amount of pent-up energy in the Sunday School? In spite of all this inattention, there are more workers in the local Sunday School than any other effort in the church including music and worship. Could this inattention have generated a tremendous "hydraulic energy" which, once tapped, could lead to an explosive and powerful growth spurt? The pastors who begin leading the Discipleship ministry of their church, including the Sunday School, could find a large group of workers just waiting for a worthwhile mission and clear steps to accomplish it. When this pent-up energy is released it will create a rocket-thrust boost in the Sunday School Hour program (and the entire Church). It's just waiting to be tapped. Could be.
10. Baby busters. The Sunday School hour is particularly adept at meeting the specialized yearnings of the baby busters or "generation X." Their longing for intimacy, serious study, and their deep desire to somehow connect with people in a serious caring atmosphere could draw thousands of "busters" and "Buster parents" back into the Sunday School Hour.
11. Bible ignorance. It is difficult to plumb the depths of biblical ignorance today! Pastors no longer can say "Don't be like Lot's wife" without further explanation. Many people have no idea whatsoever who Lot was. The growing level of biblical ignorance will create a powerful yearning for basic Bible truths. How else can you explain the phenomenal success of such programs as "Walk Through The Bible"? It is because people are embarrassed by their biblical ignorance and are hungry for someone to help them get some sort of a grasp on what the Bible is all about. While teaching information alone is not enough, the Sunday School is ideally positioned to meet this need for basic Bible knowledge as the first step toward spiritual formation and revival.
12. Prayer Renewal. Because of the Revival Teaching Strategy, teachers of adults and young adults could restructure the class time to provide for a long sharing-caring time where people really open up and share personal concerns, needs, and requests. This could be followed by a "season of prayer" where four, five, six, or maybe the whole class prays. The Sunday School class will become half prayer meeting in the next decade. People are hungry for a real prayer meeting -- and many of them aren't there during midweek. The Sunday School Hour will fill this need during the first half of class and we'll see a fresh burst of growth resulting from this prayer renewal.
13. Increasing busyness. People are not going to have more time in the future, but less. It is not going to be easier to get people to "add another night to their schedule," but more difficult. Do you really think Sunday night service will survive? Midweek? The time pressures of the future will be absolutely exhausting. It will be increasingly impossible to get people to give up another night of their precious time. All this will mean that churches will need to streamline their weekly schedule, getting more done in less time with fewer meetings. This means that the hour before or after the morning worship hour will be the longest surviving hour beyond worship.
While the Sunday School has experienced a decline, it still has far more people attending than any other meeting in the church except morning worship. It makes sense. Busy people would rather come an hour early or stay an hour after, rather than make a whole new time slot in their busy weekly schedules. The increasing busyness of people in the coming decade will cause churches to recognize the importance of the hour before or after the morning worship as a "prime time" for ministry to people. This factor will cause a great burst of interest and energy in the Sunday School hour and will result in even more new growth.
14. Innovation could explode. Face it, the Sunday School has been one of the most traditional programs in the church. ( Well, maybe the second most traditional if you could woman's ministries)! Over the last 50 years, Sunday School has operated on the principle "If it works, don't fix it." And it has worked. So we haven't tried to fix it. Tradition has reigned supreme in the Sunday School. We did things the same way because "that's how we do them." "Everything is going great, why change?"
Then, things started to collapse. Everybody's a little more humble now. We're not so defensive of "how we always do it." We're now ready for innovation, new ideas, and fresh patterns. Some Sunday School teachers who have been frozen into one particular style of teaching for dozens of years are now open to some sort of answer to their class' decline. Perplexed superintendents are now ready to do something new -- anything -- in order to capture the attention and participation of dozens of people who attend church regularly but seldom show up during the Sunday School Hour. We're open to innovation now. We've confessed our need -- we're in trouble. We recognize we don't have all the answers anymore. We're ready for new ideas and innovation.
This attitude now pervasive across the Sunday School movement will provide the seed bed for boundless fresh ideas and new approaches. Some churches will switch their Sunday School hour from before worship to after worship in order to promote outreach and growth of both meetings. Scores of churches will invent new ways to get participation in classes during multiple services. Some churches will shift their Sunday School programs to Sunday evening and find success. Hundreds of new classes will be started. Some average and smaller churches will entirely scrap the graded Sunday School idea and will replace it with an intergenerational approach to Discipleship. The name "Sunday School" will disappear in hundreds of churches as a new image is portrayed with "Christian Living Classes," "Sunday Discipleship Groups," "Adult Fellowships," "Sunday Care Groups" and other innovative names. Tradition will be dethroned in the Sunday School; innovation will be crowned the new king.
Over the next 20 years we could experience a virtual flood of new ideas and innovative concepts for the Sunday School hour. These innovative ideas will provide a boundless energy source for the revitalization of the Sunday School and other Discipleship ministries in the church over the coming decade. We're ready to change now. What was one of the most change-resistant arms of the church is about to become the greatest innovator!
So what do you think? Is the Sunday school ready to die or be re-born? Have things pretty well "bottomed out" with the Sunday School? Or are we in a perpetual bear market? Does Sunday school have a future or is it time to just bury the carcass? What do you think?
So what do you think?
To contribute to the thinking on this issue e-mail your response toTuesday@indwes.edu
By Keith Drury, 1990. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.