In the latest development in the “ohmigosh the sky is falling on the mainline Protestant church!” hysteria, this blog post about the decline in Sunday school enrollment in my denomination has been getting shared a lot in the last couple of weeks, usually under headlines like “Why is no one talking about this?” or “Am I the only one who finds this alarming?” (Actually, the post is pretty well written, though I don’t share the author’s concern; it is the responses to it that give evidence of hysteria.) The post centers on a bar graph from the CEO of our denominational publishing house showing that we had 61% fewer students enrolled in Sunday school in 2010 than we did in 1990. According to the post, worship attendance dropped by 53% over the same period, and denominational membership has dropped by around 20% over the same period. Here’s the thing about these numbers, though, especially the 61% drop in Sunday school enrollment: I don’t care.
Let me say that again: I. DON’T. CARE.
I don’t care about the drop in Sunday school enrollment. Now, while I’m sure that sounds like a blasphemous thing for a pastor to say, it also happens to be true. I don’t care about the decline in Sunday school enrollment any more than I care about the fact that buggy whip sales are at an all-time low. Here’s why:
1. Sunday school is a relatively new innovation in the church. (Only in an organization with a two thousand year history could something two hundred years old be called “a new innovation”.) Depending on who you believe, Sunday school started either in the late 18th century or the mid-19th century. So splitting the difference, call it two hundred years old. Prior to that, parents taught their kids the faith at home. Prior to THAT, adults received instruction in the faith (catachesis) from other adults prior to their baptism. The church in those days seemed to do just fine. In fact, it actually grew, and grew explosively. So maybe the existence of Sunday school isn’t all that critical to the health of the church.
2. Sunday school grew as a response to a particular set of social conditions. Again depending on who you believe, it was either invented to a) teach young kids in the industrial cities of Britain how to read and write on their one day off from the factories and mills, or b) teach young kids in the industrial cities of Britain about Jesus on their one day off from the factories and mills. In other words, given that we no longer work our kids in factories six days a week, maybe Sunday school has outlived its purpose.
3. Jesus never said “go enroll kids in Sunday school”. Jesus did say “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” and he did say “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them”. Sunday school, however, does not necessarily and intrinsically make disciples or bring little children to Jesus. I’ve worked with a lot of tweens, teens and young adults in the church, and I see very little difference in basic biblical literacy between the kids who have been in Sunday school every week their whole lives and the ones who haven’t. I also see very little difference in terms of ethics or in appropriating the values of the kingdom of God in their lives. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but in my experience those exceptions seem to have more to do with home life than with Sunday school.
4. We’re supposed to be about people, not programs. We tend to forget this in the church, but people are what matter. Programs are helpful and useful only insofar as they have a real impact on people. Sunday school is a means to that end, not the end in itself. And if we have 61% fewer people being engaged through a particular program, maybe it’s time to let that program die, celebrate what it did over the course of its life, and move on.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent Sunday school programs out there. If yours is one of them, by all means continue it. But if Sunday school is in need of major life support (or resuscitation) in a particular congregation, then again I say, maybe it’s okay to let it die.
What is particularly striking to me about all of these posts is the responses. On one end of the spectrum are the radical zealots, who not only want to let Sunday school die but want to actively kill it, everywhere and for all time, even in the places where it is working. On the other end are those who are convinced that Sunday school is God’s gift to the church, and that we need to continue it, expand it and practice at all times and in all places no matter what. A subset of this latter group are church folk who want to decide whose fault it is that Sunday school is in decline (Sunday morning youth soccer is a frontrunner here) and bewailing the social changes that have hurt Sunday school so badly (i.e., the repeal of the blue laws that made church the only game in town on Sunday morning).
Both of these, I’m afraid, miss the point. In some places Sunday school is doing a marvelous job of helping teach the faith and helping make disciples of young people (and adults). To kill Sunday school in those places strikes me as ideological, dogmatic and unreasonable. In other places, Sunday school makes absolutely zero sense, either because of space limitations, limited number of pupils and/or teachers, or a host of other reasons. To go into panic mode and invest enormous resources in resurrecting this program in such places strikes me as profoundly bad stewardship. And whatever you thing about youth soccer and blue laws, the fact of the matter is that 1958 is gone and there’s no going back. To rant about these things both evades our own responsibility to make disciples regardless of the circumstances and hampers our ability to see new opportunities to do just that.
So what do we do? We pray, we discern, and then we do what makes sense. If Sunday school is working beautifully somewhere, we celebrate that and carry on. If it needs some tweaks, we tweak and carry on. If it is on its last legs and requiring enormous life support, we let it die, mourn it, and then use the time and energy that used to go into keeping it alive to find new openings for the gospel in the world. Any of these are faithful and appropriate responses if they make sense in a given context.
When we make blanket statements about the need to “kill Sunday school” and when we value the program of Sunday school more than the people it is supposed to reach we are treading into very dangerous ground. We run the very real risk of making either our ideology or our program into a golden calf. And one of the things I remember from my own experience of Sunday school is that golden calves are a very bad thing.