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):
- 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.)
- Is the Sunday school "brand" worn out and outdated?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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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?