About a year ago, USA Today ran an article entitled:
After taking some time to report on the inception and original purpose of Sunday schools, the author cites a couple of reasons why Sunday school is on the decline:
1. Families are too busy.
Parents and kids, as we all know, are just too busy on weekends, with everything from professional-level sports training to eight-hour SAT prep classes (at age 12!). The institutional inertia that churches are famous for has made it difficult for them to adapt to the times.
Yep, they are. We all are. The American way of life has increased its pace dramatically (it seems) in the last decade or two. Children are more involved in extra-curricular activities, school demands, sports interests, vacations, family events, civic responsibilities, etc. In an apparent effort not to deprive their children of any and every opportunity, parents seem to be the constant initiators and ever present chauffeurs to a multitude of activities.
When I listen to parents of elementary-aged students tell me their weekly schedule, I cringe. And then I think of my own schedule: between both mine and my wife’s jobs, there is dance, piano, and school projects. Add to the list the birthday parties, sick days, community activities, and family-centered excursions, our schedule begins to look a lot like the average American pace.
Families are incredibly busy.
And then we ask them to participate in church on Sunday morning and children-centered biblical instruction (i.e. Sunday school, children’s ministry, etc.). What I am seeing on a typical Sunday isn’t people leaving the church for good, but most people are attending less. Where some families might make it to church 3 out of the 4 Sundays in a month, now those same families are making it to 1, maybe 2 Sundays a month. Some families make it even less: once every 2 or 3 months.
Why this infrequent involvement? Families are so busy and they want a break. And it becomes easy to opt out of church participation instead of the other activities of life. It’s almost as if choosing to go to church less is the easier option. Why? Because the effects of a lack of church involvement and participation aren’t seen right away. If a child skips a few weeks of wrestling or piano practice, it is much easier to see the effects right away.
That’s why this doesn’t surprise me:
Instead of a day of rest, Sunday has become just another day for over-scheduled kids to be chauffeured from sports practice to music lessons or SAT tutoring. It doesn’t help that parents themselves, so overwhelmed by life, are skipping church. ‘You would go to church, and then an hour or hour 15 minutes of Sunday school. It takes up all your morning. It felt like more of a chore for them to go, when you’re giving up some of your weekend and attending school during the week,’ says MacNeil. ‘By the time they come home, it’s 12 noon, and when you have a weekend, you want to play with your friends outside and be a kid.’
Families seem to find much needed space in their schedules by not attending church as much as before. The big problem is going to be: what happens when our families’ schedules continue to load up and run completely out of time and there is no more “space” in life (like church involvement) to borrow from?
2. Effects of the past sex abuse scandals have lingered.
Experts say that many churches are also discovering they’re paying a far heavier price for past sex scandals than they had anticipated, and that Sunday school is the latest collateral damage.
I’m not quite sure what to do with this one, but I imagine it’s more true that we realize. Parents, rightly so, are inherently suspicious of any other adult caregiver and they demand, again, rightly so, for diligent leadership and particular safeguards in place.
The mother cited above had this to say in the article:
LeeAnn MacNeil, a homemaker in McLean, Virginia, is a devout Catholic with four kids, but she has serious qualms about teacher selection at her church’s Sunday school. ‘They’re not vetted properly. That’s a valid concern in my book,’ she says. And she can speak from experience: As a Sunday school teacher for several years, she says the sign-up process ‘was done very quickly. It’s like, “Have you been in jail before?” — the generic questions, like on a job application. They don’t really check your background as much as they should when you’re dealing with young children.’
That is seriously crazy, but more than I care to admit, this is probably true in most churches. What is the average church to do? What resources do they have? What education does the caregivers have and what standards are they working off of? Probably not much.
I sometimes get caught in my own particular bubble in my church where things are done a certain way and the systems in place serve to put parents at ease. It’s easy to get complacent and forget the importance of those systems.
So for those who don’t have a proper vetting process in place, you must! And for those who do, continue to stay vigilant.
I appreciated this article. I know it’s easy for a modern media source to criticize the church. In fact, it’s becoming more and more popular to do. But I like to find the good in these kinds of reporting. It doesn’t scare me or worry me. It helps me think about real families and their real concerns and their real lives. It also reminds me of the very real dangers out there that church elders and leaders need to be aware of to protect our most precious resource: our children.
Oh, and while “Sunday school” might be dying, hunger for the word of God among God’s people will never go out of style. It hasn’t for 2,000 years and it’s not going to start now!