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The State of Sunday School
Is there a connection between the waning popularity of Sunday school and declining church membership?

A few years ago, while having lunch with an acquaintance, I told him I went to Sunday school. I don't think I could have surprised him more if I had said I believed the earth was flat, pigs could fly or that the Maple Leafs would win the Stanley Cup.

Sunday school has a rich and radical history.

"I didn't think anyone went to Sunday school anymore," he said, his eyes wide with amazement. He went on to add that while he went to Sunday school as a child growing up in the United Church in the 1960s, he stopped as soon as he hit his teens—and never went back.

His experience is not unique. Many people—including many church-going adults—don't go to Sunday school anymore. For many, Sunday school is just a relic of a distant past, a quaint memory of hearing Bible stories, learning memory verses and going to picnics.

In fact, Sunday school has a rich and radical history. The first Sunday schools were founded in 18th century England by visionary activists as a way to educate and teach literacy to poor children. Some Sunday schools also offered sports; three major English soccer clubs – Everton, Aston Villa and Fulham – grew out of Sunday schools.

The first recorded Sunday school in Canada was held in Halifax in 1783. The first all-Canadian Sunday school curriculum was developed by the United Church of Canada in 1963; the Anglican Church of Canada introduced its own in 1966. Both had the misfortune of coming out just as Sunday school began its decline in this country. In the United Church, for example, Sunday school registration dropped from 757,338 in 1961 to 179,345 in 1993; today just over 87,000 attend. Similar declines have occurred in other mainline church groups.

Is there a connection between the waning popularity of Sunday school and declining church membership? Jim Pledger thinks so. Pledger is a United Methodist pastor in Sherman, Texas. From 1996 to 2006, his denomination lost over 500,000 people, dropping from 8.5 million to about 7.9 million members. Of that total, only 3.3 million attend church services, down four percent from 1990.

Pledger thinks his church can turn things around—through a return to Sunday school.

"Some people claim Sunday schools have seen their day, that small groups have taken their place," he says. "We need small groups, but they are not substitutes for Sunday school. They don't last long. Sunday school classes can last decades and become vital learning, leadership and support groups."

During his years as a district superintendent with the church, Pledger saw a link between declining Sunday school attendance and membership loss. He led efforts in his district, and later in his conference, to increase Sunday school attendance and improve overall attendance at services.

For Pledger, Sunday school is the doorway to lifelong church attendance and involvement—if people don't attend Sunday school as children, they likely won't go to worship services, either. For him, Sunday school "is the glue that holds the church together, and the pivotal place we can make changes that transform people and churches."

Sunday school is also a way to promote biblical literacy. There is no substantive data about biblical literacy in Canada, but surveys in the U.S. show that half of all Americans can't name even one of the four Gospels; a majority can't name the first book of the Bible; 60 percent of Americans can't name five of the Ten Commandments; and 50 percent of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.

Why is Sunday school struggling? Finding volunteers is one problem; many adults find it hard to commit a year to teaching. Lack of support from the church is another. In his article “This Little Light of Mine: Will Sunday School Survive the Me Generation?”, Tim Stafford suggests that one reason for the decline is that churches don't see it as a critical part of their mission, with the result that they don't devote staff and resources to the education of children and others—they sign up whoever is willing to teach and hope for the best.

"Sunday school's lay leadership practically ensures that, however friendly and personable it may be, its quality control will be weak," Stafford says.

What's the state of Sunday school at our church? Is it healthy, dead, or just hanging on? How many children attend? What about adults? Is it hard to find teachers? Or is Sunday school an idea whose time has come and gone?

Those may be good questions to discuss with others one day—maybe even in a Sunday school class.

John Longhurst directs marketing for Mennonite Publishing Network, the co-producer of Gather Round http://www.gatherround.org/ Christian education materials for children, youth and adults.

Originally published in The Messenger, February 18, 2009.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.

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