There are many reasons for a decline in attendance in Sunday School in some churches and denominations. I have read many articles, talked to many church leaders, seen churches and communities that have changed, and experienced some of the contributing factors personally. I find that it is difficult to help a church turn around decline if they are (1) oblivious to what has taken place, (2) unaware of the need to change, or (3) more importantly unwilling to do the work necessary to bring about change.
I don’t know Keith Drury and I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but he has written two interesting articles, the second of which is a response to the first. The articles are entitled Fourteen Reasons Why the Sunday School Has Declined and Fourteen Reasons Why the Sunday School Hour Could Grow in the Coming Years. In the first article, he shares fourteen reasons Sunday School declined in the 1980s and 1990s. In this entry, I will share the first seven of his fourteen reasons in all capitals followed by my commentary:
- PASTOR ABANDONMENT. Keith said some pulled back from supporting Sunday School due to feelings of competition or embarrassment. I think there are lots of reasons for this. Some pulled back because of increasing pressures on their time–they had to pick and choose how to spend their time and Sunday School at the beginning was going along fine. Some enlisted staff to lead the Sunday School. Some felt there were other other ways to accomplish what Sunday School did. The pastor stopped promoting, supporting, and leading the Sunday School. In some cases, he stopped attending Sunday School. This lack of support and leadership sent mixed messages about the value of Sunday School. Worship grew and became the entry point in many churches rather than the Sunday School. Response: pastor, get involved in and lead the Sunday School.
- THE TRIVIALIZING OF SUNDAY SCHOOL. It became one of many choices for the time of people. It was not the key part of the strategy of assimilating and discipling people. It became viewed as for children, and thus Sunday School was seen as childish. Sunday School was considered as “not deep enough.” Response: make Sunday School a key part of your assimilation and discipleship strategy and expect believers to participate.
- TEACHING PREACHERS. Preachers were often some of the best teachers and often best educated men in the church. Why should someone settle for less than the best? So why not just skip a class led by a layperson and attend the pastor’s or sanctuary class? Or why come early when the best will be teaching during worship? Response: lift up the value of small groups and relationships in Sunday School and invest in training your teachers.
- CHURCH PLANTING. Keith’s argument here is that there have been a number of church plants in which Sunday School has been slow to develop and grow. Since life-changing discipleship happens best one-on-one or one-on-two or three rather than one-on-group, worship alone seldom produces this kind of disciples. Response: encourage all church plants to build into their DNA the expectation for small group discipleship and mentoring through small groups or Sunday School.
- SMALL CHURCH CRISIS. In a number of cases, smaller churches have become smaller while larger churches have become larger. This has impacted the Sunday School in the smaller church as well. Parents want more for their children, so they go where they think more will be offered. People dr ive farther to work and pass many small churches on the way. Some like anonymity in a larger church. There has been a loss of key leaders and often younger age groups. There are lots of reasons for the crisis, but the reality is that it can become difficult to assimilate enough new people to make up for the ones that have left. Response: find a niche and reach out to your community; raise the quality of Sunday School reaching and assimilation efforts.
- MULTIPLE SERVICES. In an effort to add more space for Sunday School and worship, this can be a significant money-saving method. There can, however, be negatives. With multiple worship services, it can be common for pastors to find attending a class difficult because they are preaching, counseling, or resting during Sunday School. Keith mentions that some parents figure out that their children can be in Sunday School getting the basics while they are in worship requiring even less time for the family. Keeping track of attenders becomes a little more complicated. Response: pastors, make an effort in every worship service to promote the Sunday School, invite people to attend, or share a Sunday School testimony; keep and pay attention to your attendance records.
- SPORADIC ATTENDANCE. I am not sure I agree with Keith that it takes “200 attendees to average 100.” But the fact is that we are a mobile society. We have vehicles and money which enables us to travel more frequently. More leisure opportunities are available. More competing activities are offered on Sundays, even children’s sports. In general, I do agree that the majority of attenders are less committed to attending weekly. But, as I have said in a previous entry, I believe many of our Sunday Schools are touching more people in a month’s time than they were perhaps ten years ago even though the average attendance may not have increased. Response: enlist greeters and care group leaders; use name tags; offer monthly class fellowship/projects; work to create connections between members and members as well as members and prospects.
In part 2, I will share the final seven of Keith Drury’s fourteen reasons: upward drift, temporary dropping of Sunday School, permanent dropping of Sunday School, loss of the big day, collapse of bus ministries, general lack of attention, and weak teaching. I think it is important that we are honest with ourselves. Could any of these seven reasons for decline be true in your church? What step(s) can you take to address the situation? Don’t forget to cover all that you do with prayer! Take a step to grow this week, and make a difference through your Sunday School. Be revolutionary!