What If Nobody Came?

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No children, from grade kindergarten through grade 12, were in attendance in any of the four classes that Sunday in April. None! The teachers were there and many of the students were present at worship, preceding Sunday school. Out of a total of approximately about 30 or more who could have showed up, zero came. As one of the teachers (high school age youth), that reality got under my skin and is bugging me enough to write this blog.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been a Sunday school teacher for high school youth for more than 40 years in five churches. I consider myself to be a "champion" of Sunday school and of youth involvement in the church. As a result, I admit my sensitivities (perhaps even defensiveness) about the topic. I was nurtured in the church and Sunday school. The teachers were my adult role models. My siblings and I seldom missed Sunday school; we never questioned attending. We were there. Was it boring sometimes? Without a doubt. Did I wish I was somewhere else having more fun? Sure. It was not a Sunday-by-Sunday decision. It was part of our lives, not an event in our lives.

The crisis of nobody showing up cannot be simply passed off by the explanation that Sunday school is a dying institution in the pluralistic age in which we live. In fact, it may be a symptom that our church (and likely many others) are missing the boat on the important issue of faith formation in our young people. A question I have is "How much do we care?" My answer is not nearly enough. So I pose the following list of questions. if I rattle some cages, I offer no apologies. But I will value all responses and reactions.

So here are my questions, with my own opinions, misguided or not, (in italics):

  1. Are other options available to families on Sunday mornings? (Yes. For instance, Sunday is no longer a blackout time for youth sports and other activities.)
  2. Is the Sunday school "brand" worn out and outdated? (Yes, probably beginning decades ago, but we did not recognize and act upon the early symptoms and stuck with the brand despite the evidence.)
  3. Does the prevalence of Christian schools in the CRCNA contribute to the problem? (Yes. I believe that parents view participation of their children in Sunday school as less important because they get spiritual input Monday through Friday at their Christian school. It is dangerous to think that such schools can and should meet the faith formation needs of children, and even more that this role be farmed out to them. I am an alumnus of the public system, which could be seen as a disqualifier for commenting.)
  4. Is participation in Sunday school by children the result of apathy in general by other age groups? (Yes. This has been been widely documented by researchers such as The Barna Group and it affect people of all ages.)
  5. Is the future of Sunday school for youth doomed? (No. There are many examples of things being done that are effective in the faith formation of children and youth. The question is whether churches (and our church) have the vision and courage to make the necessary changes.)

The preceding is just a sample of the questions that need to be bravely, but persistently, confronted. My final question is...

Have I given up on what the church can do on Sunday morning—and other times—with youth?

No. In fact, the question from which this blog post is derived ("What if nobody showed up?") is becoming a rallying cry for our church. Several of our leaders are committed to ending a business-as-usual attitude that has been prevalent too long. Do we know what that will look like? No. But by September, we will have a clearer idea, and it will be different in one or more ways. I believe that the Holy Spirit is leading us into this new era of change.

My appeal to you, the reader of this blog post is to ask for your feedback on the nature of the problem.

Do you identify with my concern? If you have been there and are now doing something new and fresh, what is it and how is it working?

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Community Builder

Good questions. We have fluctuating attendance numbers at our small, village church. Several of our children are "brought" by their grandmothers. Some come with parents, but the parents are not regular church attenders. I would love to stay abreast of your church's action steps for updating the program in your church.

At one point in our church's history, we had a youth pastor who advocated for more up-to-date music in our opening exercises. It's not a worship service, but I guess no sacred space is immune to the worship music wars. I think the era of "bring a friend" Sunday has gasped its last.

It's challenging, really, to know where even to begin.

Community Builder

Thank you, Michele. Whether a rural or small-town setting or urban setting like ours, the challenges are much the same. My plan is to provide updates as our congregation travels this journey. There is much we can learn from one another. We know, also, that there is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution. In fact sharing responses like yours, helps us to avoid thinking that we are isolated. 

Participant

Thanks for sharing and starting this conversation.  I assume you are running a program right after the worship service? 

I am sure our contexts will differ, however, I would think that generally, North Americans are busy with many other plans on Sundays after a worship service.  That's the world we live in.  Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect the kids and youth to remain after a service for another hour?  What about a sit down with them and their parents to listen to where they are all at?  You may need some actual input/data as to what is going on rather than assuming things.  You might have to listen between the lines as people give what you might feel are lame excuses why they are not coming.  Also be sure to have listen to the youth themselves, giving them full permission to say whatever is on their hearts and minds about your Sunday School programs.  Hey if they come up with alternative suggestions, let them run with it and lead as much of it as possible.  Sometimes the different content we wish to teach for faith formation we offer at the wrong ages, or it tends toward faith information, rather than formation (not mutually exclusive of course).  What are your congregation's kids at different ages hungering and thirsting for, faith-wise, at their levels?  Perhaps identify what have been the goals in learning and formation for each age group?  Are those goals in tune with what parents strive for with their kids, faith-wise?  Is faith growing at home or have families also farmed it out to the Sunday School?  If their faith formation is happening in Christian schools, can you leverage that, connect with that. participate in that in some way?  Don't compete with or duplicate it, partner with it.

We are living in a largely post-Christian culture.  Perhaps the approach may have to be more about engaging your congregation households in living out their faith in their weekly contexts, neighborhoods, schools, businesses and so forth, and then "teach" during times of debriefing what people are doing and experiencing in following the Lord in these places.  And it sounds like perhaps the leadership of your local church needs to have some frank and prayerful conversations around the idolatry of certain styles of worship music?  We have a number of local churches from a variety of denominations nearby us who do a lovely job of worshipping like it's 1955.  But then again, in nearly all those churches, the "young people" are in their 60's and 70's.  

The good news I hear in your story is that the Spirit has woken you up to some new direction through the non-attendance.  And you are responding to His leading even if you don't know yet where that is going.  Praying for His guidance to become clear in due time.

Colin.

Community Builder

Hi Colin. Thank you for sharing some wonderful ideas for us to consider. We are seeking the Spirit's guidance on future directions. you thoughts about hearing from the parents and youth themselves are what we plan to do. Your comments validate doing that as well as many other things. David  

 

 

A Covenant church nearby  has had great success with confirmation class.  This is offered to students at least in 7th grade, it is a two year program, taught by the pastors and several teachers.   It is very doctrinal and ends in a special worship where each student has a written one page testimony as they join the church.  The class is taught on Wednesday nights and students are only allowed a few misses. 

 

 

Community Builder

Jonathan, I was confirmed in a Covenant Church myself. That is a model that has worked for them, and may have relevance (with some tweaks) for CRCNA churches. a retreat-based model is something we have discussed for teaching the Heidelberg Cat. Thank you for sharing.

This past year we were faced with the challenge of dual custody parents and children affecting our attendance and flow of Sunday School.  After some ideas of moving everything to Wednesday night, we ultimately wound up re-branding our Sunday morning learning experience.  We changed the name to The Core and focused the learning time on core teachings and Bible stories.  We also incorporated an active adult group all under the umbrella of The Core.  We also made a decision to limit the winter session to 12 weeks, ending just prior to Spring Break.  Our plan is to keep it to 10-12 weeks in the fall as well.  We're hoping this helps with recruiting teachers and keeping the interest of the kids and families.

Community Builder

Rebranding is something we are going to do. But we also realize that doing so without making substantive structural and other changes will be inadequate. I like the sound of "The Core", and the move to Wednesday nights. Thank you.

Participant

At the risk of shamelessy plugging a resource of ours...GenOn Ministries is nearly complete with creating something that we expect to be a solution for you, David. About 20 churches are now "piloting" our Sunday LIFT (Living In Faith Together) which moves Sunday morning faith formation from the classroom ("school") to the table ("relationships").

It's a time for building relationships intergenerationally through a shared meal (or snack), Bible study (conversation around a story or biblical text), fun activity, and prayer/song. All in an hour. Some churches have said they'd like it to replace their Sunday school and others are seeing it as a supplement (every 4-5 weeks or for the summer). Some are holding it before or after worship and others in-between two services. 

We'll have more to share once we hear from more of the pilots about their test flight of LIFT! Whatever the case, we're hopeful it will energize Sunday morning Christian education. Here's a bit more description (including a link to a sample session). https://www.genonministries.org/pages/intergenerational-ministry-sunday-...