THE GREAT EXCUSE:
"Kids these days are involved in so
many things that they don't have time for Sunday School."
Wish I had a nickel for every time I heard this
excuse for why kids don't come to Sunday School or fellowship, or ________.
(insert your event here).
The question is: IS IT TRUE?
really "too busy" ?
After hearing it ad nauseum, I decided to see if there was research to support this popular
excuse. And hey! ...I actually found some! Keep reading... I
also came across all sorts of anecdotal 'evidence' that
"kids these days are overscheduled." That "travel
teams and sports are taking kids away from the church."
Several newspapers around the U.S. have run stories about how "sports
on Sunday" are pulling kids away from church. Interestingly, many of those articles
are wire reports, picked up by local papers and run with a local anecdote.
That's how many papers get their "news" ...from other papers. No research,
no statistics, no investigation.
The Blind leading the Blind.
We live in an "ain't it awful" world
where pet theories about why this, and why that
are turned into FACT by reporters, talk show hosts, and authors
with books to sell. And in my humble opinion, church people are too quick to
make excuses. Churches have been guessing at the reasons for the decline
in their Sunday Schools without a serious investigation of the facts.
There are two possible explanations for that: (1) They have bought into
conventional wisdom. (2) The conventional wisdom helps cover for their poor
performance! (btw...regarding "poor performance" -you should
read my experiences looking for a new church here in my new town. The
lack of follow-through on visitors was surprising. These are the same
churches probably complaining about kids being too busy too!)
Who's to Blame?
Depending on who you talk to, the problem is "busy
kids" or "parents not spending time with their children," --or a general
decline in church attendance. "The Secular Culture" is often blamed. A few
will date the decline to the removal of prayer from schools. Lately it has
been "sports on Sunday." [Of course, few blame the lousy 'product'
many churches pass off as preaching and ministry, but that's another
But do "busy kids" or "kids
playing sports" really translate into
Yes, if we want to believe it. No, if we look at the stats and refuse to
One problem is that up until now we have only been waging a war of words and
anecdotes in the church. As easily as some can cite dramatic
examples of families trading church for sports and sleeping in,
I can counter with my own personal anecdotes that. "y kids are busy,
but they go to church." Fact: My older teen works at the mall, takes
honors courses, and has a boyfriend, -but she goes to church.
My youngest plays select travel soccer with its practices and
travel game schedules, but she goes to church. I'm busy, I work
a 50-60 hour week and part of every weekend, and I go to church. My wife works
full-time and she goes to church.
And there are more in my congregation just like my family. So who's examples
By nature I'm a contrarian. I don't readily
accept the stock excuses that we in the church have created to support our
failures. So I began this investigation Googling the internet. I wondered if there were any statistics about how kids
spend their time, including on Sunday. Lo and behold, there were. Then, as I
answered one question, I Googled other questions. The following is a
report of what I found, and my thoughts about what it means.
The Research into What Are Kids Doing with Their Time
There's actually a bunch of it out there.
In 1997 a study was conducted by the University of Michigan's
Institute for Social Research on 3,500 children nationwide
to determine how they spent their time. This study was widely
quoted in venues such as Newsweek, Time and the Associated Press.
Excerpts from it can be found all over the Internet.
Here's a simple chart of the results.
"A breakdown of the estimated average number of hours and
minutes children spend weekly in major activities."
||70 hrs, 44 minutes a week
This chart suggests we should be ranting about television
rather than commitments to sports teams (you'd think this
would be especially true given the direction television and the schools seem
to be headed, but no, "sports" is an easier target.).
Update: PC magazines October 1, 2007
issue there's a chart comparing internet usage to TV watching in the major
countries of the world. For the first time in the U.S.A, internet usage
out-paced TV viewing. This stat included adults in the study and time spent on
the computer at work. So even as we speak, things are changing. So I wonder
why we don't hear the complainers blaming "Increased Internet Usage"
as a reason why people don't go to church?
TV, internet, and school 'usage" aside... maybe the problem
is with sports on Sunday(?)
This seems to be the knee-jerk
conclusion. Problem is, the stats
don't support the conclusion.
According to a 2003 study by Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Department of Health and Human
61.5% of children aged 9--13 years do not
participate in any organized physical activity during their non-school
Worse: 22.6% do not engage in any free-time physical
activity. This means if you're going to complain about sports
in general as your church program's major competition, you can only use it as
an excuse for 38.5% of your
Ok, in your hyper-hockey or soccer community --maybe 50% are
participating in organized physical activities after school. But are all 50%
playing year round, and on every Sunday morning? HIGHLY doubtful.
You might have a few kids who always seem to be gone playing sports, but as
the study points out, odds are the rest are simply staying away for other
reasons mentioned later in this article. For those of you in hyper-sports
communities, read my aside below.
[Aside: Can you imagine planning a
weekly church event for all your adults at 1 pm every Sunday? No, you can't.
Then you'd really come up against sports. So why in some communities where
Sunday morning sports 'may' be a serious competition, do we plan Sunday
School exactly at a time they can't come? Excuses, in my humble
opinion, are often the last resort of those who don't care enough to
contrast we know for SURE that 43% American adults do NOT attend
church in a typical weekend. (Barna Research, 2002 Survey). Why
then the backlash against kids in sports? Because in some ways kids and sports are an easier
target to blame. [Yet rather than complain about sports, some churches
are creating sports ministries. They are trying to meet the needs of their student-athletes,
and helping young athletes see their sportsmanship as an opportunity
to demonstrate Godly values. And others are creating more flexible schedules
for kids rather than the "all or nothing" proposition of Sunday at 9 a.m.]
[Another Aside: Four times a year my daughter's
soccer team would join with dozens of other soccer teams and descend upon a
community for a weekend tournament. Never once have I seen a church set up a
tent next to the concession stand and offer Sunday morning services, coffee
or a donut to
traveling families. In rethinking Sunday School, we need to look at ways to
"move the mountain to Moses" in some churches, communities, and times of
So if it's not sports, then, who or what's to blame?
Maybe it's "all the moms working outside the home
that we have these days" ???
Chew on this statement:
"Contrary to popular belief, the increase in female labor
force participation has not led to a decrease in the amount of
time children spend with their parents," says John Sandberg,
sociologist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research (ISR), the
world's largest academic survey and research organization.
"Even though parents, and especially mothers, may be
busier than ever, many seem to be managing to fit in more
time with their children than an earlier generation of parents
Maybe its a general lack of parental involvement in the
lives of children?
Nope. According to the University of Michigan study, children between the
ages of 3 and 12 in two-parent families spent about 31 hours
each week with their mothers in 1997, compared with about 25
hours in 1981. Time spent with fathers increased from 19 hours
to 23. In general, parents and kids are spending MORE time together these
(As an Ohio State grad it's killing me to
keep quoting that school up north. But their research prowess is famous and
OK, so maybe the issue is all the "single parent families"
we have these day...
The answer depends on where you live and the income level of
your single parents. In the year 2000 Census, 19 million kids
lived in single parent households. In 1970 8.4 million kids lived
in single parent households. The proportion of children living
in single-parent homes doubled between 1970 and 1998from
12% to 28%. However, if in your area the standard of living/income
is at or above the national average, you probably have fewer
single-parent households than these overall statistics reflect.
Why? The sad truth is that nearly half of single-parent families
live in low income neighborhoods and low income rural areas.
4 of 10 children living with single parents are living below
the poverty line. If you're from a white, middle-upper middle
class church, an "increase in single parent households"
is probably not much of a problem. And there are no stats that say "single
parent moms" go to church less than two-parent households."
Maybe the problem is "all the divorces these days."
Not really. According to the US Census, there were roughly one
million divorces granted in 1975. In 1998 there were 1,135,000.
Given the increase in overall population, that means there were actually
fewer divorces in 1998 then in 1975.
Yet in 1975 many Sunday Schools were very well attended, so "divorce" can't be
blamed, though it's certainly a stressor.
Yeah, but nowadays there are fewer children than there
used to be, --right?
No. In 1960, 36% -or roughly 63 million out of a total population
of 177 million was under the age of 18.
In 2000, there were roughly 70 million people under the age of
18 in the U.S., but they made up a smaller proportion of the
total population (26%) because people are living longer and having
fewer children. We have more kids in this country now than in 1960.
Maybe its the TYPE of sporting activities kids are engaging
in these days?
Think again. The National Sporting Goods Association did
a study in 1986, 1990 and 1994 to determine the percentage of
children ages 7 and older who participate in various types of
sports during that year. They were undoubtedly looking for changes
in the culture that would signal a need for different products.
Bicycle riding, camping and swimming were
the top three sporting activities engaged in by children and
youth in '86, '90, and '94. Soccer was 9th on the list after
the relative percentages of which sports they did the most changed very little from '86 to '94
--suggesting no great cultural swing in what children and youth
do for activities. (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/yi/y9641a.asp).
Yes, soccer increased in the 90's, most of that was in the elementary ages
who play on Saturdays, not Sundays.
Maybe it's all the HOMEWORK kids have these days?
Not according to the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on
Education Policy. In their reported titled "Do Students
Have Too Much Homework?" they concluded, "most American
students spend less than an hour a day on homework, and that
workload is no bigger than it was half a century ago." "There
is this view in the popular media that there has been this terrible
burden of homework on children, and that the homework is increasing,"
said Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education
Policy at the Brookings Institution. "That is not the case."
Likewise, the National Assessment of Educational Progress,
a congressionally mandated set of exams given to nationally representative
groups of students, shows that the percentage of students who
said they had done an hour or more of homework the previous night
dropped slightly from 1984 to 1999. By 1999, only a third of
the 13- and 17- year-olds in that survey reported doing an hour
or more of homework.
The same was true of the 282,000 college freshmen surveyed
last year by researchers at UCLA. Only 34 percent of that group
reported spending more than an hour each weekday on homework
during their senior year of high school. That's the lowest percentage
since the California researchers first put that question on their
surveys in 1987.
According to a RAND study, high school students' homework
loads have not increased much since 1948except for the
decade after 1957, when the Soviet Union's launch of its first
Sputnik satellite spurred a push for more rigor in U.S. schools.
"There was no golden age for homework that we could find,"
said a social scientist in RAND's Pittsburgh office. "Even
at the peak, no more than one in four high school students were
studying more than two hours a night."
Has suburbanization been at the expense of city and rural
area churches in the last 40 years? Are the "old"
churches losing Sunday School attendance to the suburbs?
Not really. The 1960, 1980 and 2000 Census data shows near static
growth in the numbers of people living in rural areas. The numbers of people
in their towns to draw from has stayed the same for most areas. Yes, some
small towns have lost population. The growth
has been in the cities and suburban populations. But surprisingly, the "depopulation
of rural areas" is something of a myth. What has happened
is that suburbs have grown, and some populations have shifted
to other states.
(for an inkling of why rural church membership has shrunk for some churches,
look further in this article at the "competition from other churches"
statistics.) Many small town churches have grown as populations came their
Is the issue that parents of children don't volunteer
as much these days like older members?
Apparently not. According to data from the 2000 US Census younger
mothers and fathers DO volunteer.
| Age Group
||Percent of that age group saying
||Average hours volunteered per
|25-34 years of age
|75 years and over
to a large US Labor Dept study, unemployed women are
far less likely to volunteer with an organization than
part-or-full time working women. Working women volunteer more
than stay-at-home moms. Chew on that one!
Read it and weep.)
Sorry, mom, the problem may be you...
According to U.S. Dept of Labor
Statistics, the number of women who worked full-time year-round more than
doubled from 27.5 percent to 50.2 percent over the past 30 years. Gains were particularly
dramatic for married women and for women with children. For
example, women with children between the ages of 6 and 17 had
a 34-hour average work-week between 1969 and 1998. The percent
women working full-time year round rose from 25.8 percent to 48.6 percent.
Earlier in this article I quoted the stat
saying parents were actually spending MORE time with their kids. As you'll
see in a moment, that stat should actually read: "more time with dads."
What then does this mean?
Interpretation: Mom has less free time to get kids to and fro, and
be a volunteer. She's exhausted during the weekend (just like dads), and had
to compress more of her household responsibilities into the weekend. It
would seem that Sunday morning has become DOWN TIME for many working moms.
The problem may also be "more work"
According to that same U.S. Labor Dept study, the number of
men and women working more than a 40 hour work week has risen
between 1979 and 1998. For men, the percentage rose from 35.1
in 1979 to 40.2 in 1998; for women, the proportions were 14.0
percent and 21.6 percent over the same period, respectively.
The study noted that the higher the
education of the worker, the more likely they were to work longer
hours. Take that.. you college educated suburbanites.
Because the number of hours in the day has NOT
increased, these numbers tell us this:
"available non-working hours"
have shrunk in the past 30 years.
That means more competition
for less time.
Are we competing with dad?
According to the National Study of a Changing Workforce
study done over several decades, children of working parents
today are getting more time with their fathers and about the
same time with their mothers as in 1977. Working women spend
three hours with their children, and men 2.3 hours, each workday,
compared with 3.3 hours for women and 1.8 hours for men in 1977,
resulting in a net gain in parental time.
Put this study and the US Labor study together, and you get
a picture of working families -working more, during their peak volunteer
years, but still carving out time to be together. Something had to give.
The competition may also be "OTHER
According to the ongoing Harvard "Pluralism" study,
in 1997 there were an estimated 163 million people who were members
of a church in the U.S. The Roman Catholic Church accounts for
60 million of those adherents. According to Barna Research there
are 320,000 Protestant churches in the U.S. One hundred million "members"
divided by 320,000 churches = one church for every 312 people
in the U.S. Churches went on a building spree in the 60's,
70's and 80's. New denominations popped up. There are more church
buildings now than ever before in the history of our country.
And interestingly, the new churches, by and large, did not
grow at the expense of the old mainline denominations. According
to the Presbyterian Department of Research, when a member stops
going to a Presbyterian church, they are most likely to go nowhere.
They just slip into church inactivity. Demographically speaking,
the Presbyterians have a birthrate and retention rate problem.
And while some churches have closed, especially traditional churches
in older cities, many others have opened in the cities.
In most areas of the country, and in a majority of churches,
Sunday School attendance is at or near a 40 year low. This would
seem to indict the culture (or the churches), but in fact, in
poll after poll, Americans have never scored higher on their
general sense of spirituality or desire for spiritual understanding
and healing. What some polls and pundits are suggesting is that
many of church members and non-members are looking beyond the
church for spiritual fulfillment, and that we are in a period
of de-institutionalized spirituality. But I digress...
The competition may also be with Sleep Deprivation...
According to the National Sleep Institute study, Seventy-four
percent of us reported experiencing at least one symptom of a
sleep disorder a few nights a week or more. That number was up
significantly from 62 percent in 1999 and 2000, and from
69 percent last year. Further supporting this increase is the
rise in sales of sleep aids. 15% of us report using them last
year. Men get less sleep than women, and the older you are, the
more sleep you get.
If you're Roman Catholic, you have another problem...
According to an ABC poll on Religion in America, Catholic
men attend church only 29% of the time, compared to 42% for Protestant
The Competition also includes a shift in American
attitudes about organized religion...
Despite widespread efforts to increase
church attendance across the nation, the 2005 annual survey of church
attendance conducted by The Barna Group (barna.org) shows that one-third
of all adults (34%) remain “unchurched.” That proportion has changed
little during the past five years. However, because of the nation’s
population continuing growth, the number of unchurched adults continues
to grow by nearly a million people annually. The research confirms that
millions of unchurched people are spiritually active. For instance, one
out of every five reads the Bible in a typical week; six out of ten pray
to God each week; and during the past year 5% have shared their faith in
Jesus Christ with people who are not professing Christians. In fact,
nearly one million unchurched adults tithe their income – that is,
donate at least 10% of their annual household revenue to non-profit
The church dropout rate among people who
define themselves as being somewhere middle-of-the-road on political
issues is escalating faster than among those who are either conservative
or liberal. And the numbers for Roman Catholics and those who live in
the Northeast are even more pronounced.
"A large and growing number of Americans who avoid congregational
contact are not rejecting Christianity as much as they are shifting how
they interact with God and people in a strategic effort to have a more
fulfilling spiritual life." This trend is
very evident among Young Adults and is distinct from the Baby Boomer
generation. --Barna.org, Summary of the 2005 Annual Survey.
See additional survey info below about
Could the competition be the result of a "changing
definition of Sabbath." I've heard that before.
According to a 1999 survey of Presbyterian pastors, elders
and members, their definition of "Sabbath keeping"
had evolved to include moments of Sabbath throughout the week
(times of prayer and meditation ranking highest among those moments).
About 25% practiced "Sabbath-like" activities 2 -3
days a week, and another 25% recognized they were engaged in
Sabbath activities on a daily basis. (pcusa.org/research)
Most pastors (63%) said they are very comfortable or generally
comfortable with the idea of separating "Sabbath keeping"
from Sunday. So maybe the churches and pastors have HELPED to open the door to
competition. Whether or not that's wrong or the correct reason for decline
is another matter.
Additional Factors to Consider:
1. Historical trends...
Churches often compare today's
attendance to a "Golden Age of Church Attendance" in
the 50's through mid-60's. But for comparative purposes, the
so-called "Golden Age" was rather short-lived. Sunday
School as we know it, however, is barely a 100 year old phenomenon.
Teaching our faith to our children has taken many forms over
the centuries, and will continue to do so in the future. And as will be
mentioned below, Gallup Poll surveys of church attendance in 50's are
2. We are in a period of general church attendance decline.
According to Gallup and Barna surveys, church attendance surged
in the late 80's and early 90's after a number of years of decline,
but began to decline again by the mid- 90's.
3. We are in a period of changing attitudes about church
commitment and the concept of institutional loyalty. This period is sometimes
referred to as the "post modern" period. It began in the 1970's.
4. AND YET, WE LIVE IN "RELIGIOUS TIMES"...
to 2002 Gallup Poll Data, Americans have never felt religion
to be more important in their lives than right now. The numbers
are virtually the same from 1982 to 2002. 61% of Americans rank
religion as "very important" in their lives. This is
up from a dramatic "low" in 1941. (Apparently there
are atheists in WW II foxholes.) Actually, people's sense of
the importance of religion has increased slightly since
1982. One interesting divide, however, is between women and men.
Religion is important or very important to 69% of women, but
only 51% of men. (And remember, Dad is spending more time with the kids these
days than in past decades).
4. We are in a general period of "well being."
Emphasis on traditional Biblical education and church attendance historically
wanes during such periods. Similar patterns are seen in voting turn-out,
hot-line ministries, and the historic waves of "revival" ministries. Does
this mean that Sunday School could use a disaster of Biblical proportions?
5. Churches of the post-modern era no longer preach the
gospel of attendance as a path to piety. Simply put:
attendance pins have gone out of fashion. The institutional church has
promoted an institution-centered faith, and as the culture has shifted away
from organized groups the church has paid the price (witness: lack of
membership at Moose, Elk, the Masons, and the PTA).
6. The past experience of institutional religious education
left a bad taste in the mouths of many kids in the last several
generations who we must now deal with as adults. To put it bluntly,
"Some of them are back, and not all of them are buying it."
7. The quality of many Christian education offerings and
worship experiences seems stuck in the past. On this last
item I have devoted quite a bit of energy and enthusiasm. In
no way am I suggesting that Sunday School should disappear. I
believe it must get better, and have worked hard through my efforts
with the Rotation Model and Sunday School Software Inc. to make
the experience of learning in the church better. The rate of change in our
culture has quickened, but the church has not kept up. Musical tastes are a
good example of this. Check your CD collection for organ music. Change is
not the enemy, complacency is.
8. "Sleep overs"
--odd as this might seem,
are one of the trends CHIPPING AWAY at Sunday morning attendance.
My evidence is only somewhat anecdotal, but I KNOW in the 60's
and 70's that kids didn't have nearly as many sleepovers on Saturday
night as they do these days. We didn't celebrate birthdays as
festively either. But nowadays, it seems that many of our children
have birthday party sleepovers to attend every month. Well then
I ran across this tidbit from American Demographics magazine
(www.demographics.com), "sleepovers are becoming more common
at a younger age." It seems like such a minor trend, but
coupled with other minor trends -it means a small percentage
of your potential attenders are out of commission each Sunday.
I'm looking for hard research to back this up, but "amount
of sleep" is a relatively recent issue.
9. Average Bed Times -- And "The Advent of Bedroom
Electronics." According to a Knowledge Networks/SRI
study, 67% of U.S. children have TVs in their bedrooms. According
to Belgian research children with a television set in their rooms
went to bed significantly later on weekdays and weekends and
got up significantly later on weekend days. Children with a gaming
computer in their rooms went to bed significantly later on weekdays.
On weekdays, they spent significantly less time in bed. Children
who watched more television went to bed later on weekdays and
weekend days and got up later on weekend days. They spent less
time in bed on weekdays. They reported higher overall levels
of being tired. Children who spent more time playing computer
games went to bed later on weekdays and weekend days and got
up later on weekend days. On weekdays, they actually got up significantly
earlier. They spent less time in bed on weekdays and reported
higher levels of tiredness. Children who spent more time using
the Internet went to bed significantly later during the week
and during the weekend. They got up later on weekend days. They
spent less time in bed during the week and reported higher levels
of tiredness. Going out was also significantly related to sleeping
later and less.
Why Teens don't make it to Sunday School...
study of 3,120 Rhode Island teenagers conducted by Carskadon
and Amy Wolfson, assistant professor of psychology at The College
of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., found that 85 percent
were chronically sleep-deprived and accumulated a minimum 10-hour
sleep deficit during the week. Forty percent went to bed after
11 p.m.; 26 percent said they usually got less than 6.5 hours
on school nights. Research has shown that
teens are wired to
be night owls, but require as much if not more sleep than children.
Sleeping in on the weekends is a matter of health for many teens.
Psychology Today's editor states that, "High school kids
average 6.1 hours of sleep a night when they need 9.25 hours
to be fully alert all day long the next day."
Could the problem be the number of teens who
can drive? 40 years ago families had fewer cars. Today, teens can "be
elsewhere" without having to ask mom and dad for a ride. Just a thought.
The problem may also be our expectations
and double standards.
Few cast aspersions on an adult member who travels for business
or work an occasional weekend.
But God help the 10 year old travel
The proportion of children attending Sunday School in most
churches is routinely higher than the proportion adults attending
adult education. But rarely do churches get bent out of shape
about adult education. Where the kids are concerned, we seem
to beat ourselves and lament.
For example: A church with 250 adult members and 50
children would feel good about counting 125 of the 250 adults
and 25 of the 50 children in worship every week at 10:30 a.m.
150 total bodies in attendance would be considered rather successful
in most 250 member church. And having an adult class with 25
adults in class at 9:15 a.m. would be WELCOMED by many of those
small churches, even though it was only 10% of total number of
adults. Yet imagine a Sunday School thinking 10% children's attendance
was a "success." Even at 25% (13 of the 50 kids enrolled)
would generally be considered "too low" by most churches.
The rise of "small group" ministries across the
denominations has taught us that adults need small groups that
meet a variety of scheduling and spiritual needs. Many churches
offer a variety of study and fellowship experiences to adults.
But the children are largely offered 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning
-take it or leave it. Most churches do not have children's fellowships,
and those who do typically teach "Bible Lite" -if Bible
It is much easier to join a church as an adult than as a youth.
Prior to joining, an adult typically attends two or three optional
"coffees & classes" led by the pastor. By contrast,
a 14 year old may have a year or more worth of classes, attendance
requirements, books to read, a statement of faith to explain,
and an interview with the elders to sweat out.
We preach "obey the Sabbath" as a means of leveraging
people into Sunday classes. But then go home to mow the lawn,
garden, and do lots of other things Moses would frown upon as
quite unsabbath like. A reminder of what Jesus said: "Man
was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man."
We need to be careful about pretending to occupy the high moral
or theological ground on the "sanctity" of Sunday morning
Is the Problem a Lack of Faith?
I believe that's an easy answer offered by preachers
and people without answers. "Lack of faith" does
address some of the reasons why people don't support Christian
education or Sunday School. But unfortunately, it doesn't explain
why people in the 60's and 70's had higher Sunday School attendance.
Few would look back at those decades as "decades of faith."
The surveys done over the years do not give credence to such
a view. Some have suggested that belonging to a church was more
a part of the "American Dream" back then. It was
what "good Americans" did. But those crowded churches
and classrooms may, in fact, reflect a selective memory, and/or
fewer church buildings at the time. As previously noted, it was
NOT the "baby boom" which overcrowded the churches,
because there are more children in the US today than in the 1950's
Well, then, maybe people don't go to church
as often as they used to "back then" ?
Sorry, another myth blown. Gallup Polls have asked Americans
since 1957 if they have "attended a church or synagogue
in the last week." In 1939, 41% said yes. In 2002, 44% said
yes. In 1957, 47% said yes. The lowest % in the last 40 years
Is it a diminishing of Institutional Authority
over the years?
There are theories that "people respected institutions
more back then." But the Gallup polls, Harris surveys and
Barna Research tell us something quite different. They tell us
that "the Church" is still one of the most respected
institutions in our country. And a HIGHER percentage of Americans
claim church membership nowadays than 30 and 40 years ago! (In
1950's Gallup survey just 49% of Americans claimed church membership.
In 2000, 69% claimed church membership.)
However, there is some conflicting data on this subject. In
July 2002, Gallup reported that only 66% of American believe
Protestant ministers can be trusted. "Confidence in Religious
Institutions" in 2002 had sank to 45% - a 20-year low. Those
2002 Gallup results were: 26% had a "great deal" of
confidence; 19% had "quite a lot;" 32% had "some;"
18% had "very little."
Annual Barna surveys show a growing
Un-churched population that has a surprising degree of spiritual activity
and expressed Christian faith. They're just pursuing their faith outside the
Gallup Polls do tell us that the
"perception of relevancy"
about the Church has changed. In 1957 only 7% thought religion
was "old-fashioned and out of date." By 2002 the percentage
believing that was 24%.
It is fair to say that "lack of attendance"
is being aggravated by lack of confidence in the church's ability
to make a difference in the lives of their children. In
this respect I do know from personal experience, that one's OWN
experience as a child in the church can inspire lack of confidence
in traditional methods. Many parents may indeed be sub-consciously
thinking "it wasn't that good for me so it won't be for
MY children." In other words, we may be fighting the legacy
of 40 years of boredom and mediocrity in the Sunday School and
church in general.
Regarding the current level of Bible literacy....
(now here's a problem)
A 1997 Gallup poll found that 92% of Americans homes owned
a Bible, but fewer than half could name the first book of the
Old Testament. Fewer than half could name all four Gospels. According
to a Professor at Wheaton College quoted in Christianity Today
magazine, 1/3 of his incoming evangelical-leaning freshman class
didn't know the Christmas story was found in Matthew, or that
Paul was in the book of Acts.
...And these are the people we have to recruit to be Sunday
School teachers. Oy Vey.
So what is it?
Why is Sunday School in a funk
in so many churches?
It's not one thing. It's many. Excluding the number of "funks" that are locally
self-induced by uninspired leadership and a congregation's overall
local decline, the evidence suggests we are losing ground on many fronts:
1) Changes in the culture. If you thought the
Baby Boomers weren't completely in-tune with church, wait until you meet
their children --the 18-30 year olds.
2) Increased competition from Media,
Family-time demands, and other churches.
3) The growing un-churched but nominally
Christian culture providing more "cover" for skipping out on church
4) A long standing general lack of Bible
literacy (or desire for it) has been undermining Sunday School's main
premise --that a Biblical education is important.
5) The Church's rather monolithic and
unchanging approach to programming styles, timeslots and outreach.
These are not new problems. Things have
not suddenly grown worse in the last 10 or 20 years.
If Sunday School's goal was to turn children into
faithful adults sitting in our pews, then even the "1950's and 60's heydays"
could be considered an abject failure. Where are all those kids who sat in our churches
in the 60's and 70's? A large percentage of them did
not return to active membership in our churches. And they did
not bring their children with them. In some very real ways, we
are "paying for the sins of our fathers" (and
mothers). The ministry they led did not lead to large numbers
returning to the church in adulthood. And those who do come back, are finding
the church largely unchanged from their childhood.
And those who returned are different than their parents generation
because their world is different. They are working more hours, especially
moms, and yet seem to be more intent on spending time with their kids. They
are generally more tired on the weekends and they are more mobile. The
movement from a manufacturing to service industry has meant more weekend
Those who did return to the
church with their children are more willing to "optionalize"
commitments such as Sunday school, in part because they are less
institutionally loyal than the previous generation. As a generation,
don't think Sunday morning Sunday School is EXCLUSIVELY important
to their child's spiritual upbringing. Waking up tired on Sunday morning
with the prospect of attending a mediocre experience only helps make their
decision to stay home that much easier.
The glass may have remained half full, but the glass may be getting
smaller as well.
In the first ever research done on Empty-Nest
religious patterns, the Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religious
Studies has released a report states:
Just as family cycle transitions into parenting roles among
the baby boom cohort exerted an upward push on worship attendance
for this cohort over the last 20 years and helped stabilize overall
religious participation rates in the United States over this
same period, the inevitable and relatively massive transition
of the boomers out of active parenting roles should exert considerable
downward pressure on overall levels of religious
for at least the next twenty years. ... Regular attendance
for empty nesters is significantly less than for persons with
either preteen or teenage children. ...Social scientists refer
to this phenomenon as "churches by choice" -as a matter
of child rearing, not by conviction of faith http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/roozen_article1.html
That study was conducted in 1996. If they're right about the
effect of the "Boomers who become Empty Nesters," the
Church is in a SHAKING OUT period through 2016. The Baby Boom
Generation is a triple threat. They spiked our attendance when
they were young, they drifted back to the church with their own
children -but with a different attitude about us, and as soon
as their children have left the nest the Boomers will drift off
And the demographic groups coming after the Boomers have
even less interest in religious affiliation and church attendance
and lower rates of volunteerism. (See the findings from the Barna annual
A note of caution: Some
successful churches don't feel a sense of urgency about these issues,
-particularly those in growing towns. Their numbers are growing, or at least
not shrinking. But the fact of the matter is that the trends seen in
multiple surveys are affecting EVERY church. Smaller churches feel those
trends more significantly. And some of the remedies I'm about to suggest
make great sense even in successful programs, because they address the needs
of real people in your congregation, or just on the outside of it. Indeed,
the time to change is WHEN you're healthy. The time to close the barn door
is before the horse leaves.
Jesus said "let the little children
come to me and do not hinder them."
But to carry that out in today's world
and for the foreseeable future,
we cannot sit by Jesus' side and wait
for the kids to come to us.
We need to remove the hinderances.
In Part III of this series, I
describe and offer ideas on Characteristics of a New Children's Ministry.
I am sure that there are some folks reading this article who
will disagree with it. I am sure there will be some who shudder
at the thought of "abandoning" a monolithic approach
to children's Bible education. And there will simply be some
who aren't interested in putting forth the extra effort required
to change. But this article wasn't written for them. It was written
to help me understand some truths, and to help clarify in my
own mind some thoughts about "where do we go from here"
as they relate to Christian education. If those have been your
I welcome your thoughts and comments, and I invite you to
keep reading in Parts I and III
of this series.
Revised November 2004
Revised yet again September 2007
Revised one more time, Dec 2009
Read my other thoughts about CHANGING THE
CHURCH over at my ministry's blog,
Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian minister, Christian educator,
President of Sunday Software Inc., and leader in the Workshop
Rotation Model movement for reinventing Sunday School. Over the
years he has written and published numerous articles and two
books on Christian education and led numerous conferences and
seminars on these subjects. Neil and his wife Malinda have three daughters and
now live in Sarasota Florida. This article was first
published at www.sundaysoftware.com.
You can read MORE Articles about the
Church from Neil at
To contact Neil, email him at email@example.com
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