(The Comeback of American Sunday School)
After decades of decline, I believe Sunday School may be poised for a Post-COVID comeback. It would be an old thing that became the latest new thing; ecclesiastical Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. Mind you, this would not be a “cut and paste” of Sunday School circa 1970, but it would be a comeback none-the-less. Perhaps a major comeback. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the American church. We will look back upon 2020-2021 as a wormhole; because of the pandemic, we are all suddenly where we would have been in 2030. Since we cannot “go back” to our pre-COVID world (because it no longer exists), our only choice is to move forward. We must assess present conditions and seek God’s guidance concerning how to best connect people with Jesus Christ.
COVID has also changed young, Christian families. If there was a big winner during the worst of the pandemic, it was the multi-billion dollar “keep kids busy” industry. It reopened quickly, held its venues outdoors and in “open states” and now has forever solidified its place in the mainstream. No longer the purview of gifted athletes and musicians, “travel ball” and “national competitions” are the “new norm” for families who can afford it. What I am describing is an affluent and mobile lifestyle that leaves few slots for anything else; including church. A few churches are railing against this new reality (and losing), some are throwing up their hands in frustration and others have capitulated. No matter how you slice it, many young families who were previously regular attendees are NOT back to live church post-COVID, nor are they likely to be. They may irregularly catch a service on-line but they are on an exit ramp out of practicing Christianity. By the time this generation of parents figure out that replacing the formative role of the church in the lives of their children was a critical mistake, it will be too late. Unless churches find the resiliency to meet these families where they are (as opposed to where we would like for them to be), an impending spiritual crisis is pending for both young families and the church.
During the pandemic, many young families hunkered down and made the best of things. My son says that his two boys will remember the pandemic as the best year of their lives. Home became the center of their worlds. They made working from home, educating their children from home, being entertained at home, worshipping at home and eating at home their new defaults. My son added, “You made pajama church pretty easy.” As families have emerged from lockdown, attending live church for many is further down the priority list than ever before. We can moan, wail and decry the fact that these families are only attending church once or twice a month or we can rethink our approach all together. I believe effective churches will have to pivot for the purpose of embracing the mindset of maximizing the time families DO block off for live worship. That time is overwhelmingly Sunday mornings. If families can’t make it to Sunday morning worship, they don’t make it to worship at all. For many Christian families, the Sunday morning “live church” routine generally looks like this:
The Sunday Morning Routine
- Family arrives at church
- Parents take children to a separate area
- Parents attend church
- Family reassembles
- Family heads out
This model is working “less well” by the day if our goal is to build strong, Christian families and to equip our children to be vibrant and unapologetic Christian adults.
What is the problem?
1) Families don’t attend worship service together When parents do attend worship, the kids are “out-sourced” to another part of the building and develop no sense of intergenerational worship.
2) Children develop no connection to “adult church” In many medium and large churches, children cycle from nursery to children’s church to youth group without ever regularly attending the primary worship service. It should not be surprising that many “church kids” do not keep attending worship services into young adulthood because…they have never attended worship services!
3) Parents are not getting discipled The “keep kids busy” industry allows no time to be involved in small groups because there are few free evenings. As a result, parents attend worship irregularly and are not involved in small groups at all. One or two church services a month is where their spiritual growth begins and ends.
May I suggest another approach? It doesn’t involve another trip to church or another night out. It involves one hour. And the extra hour time requirement is negligible since families are already at church. Keep in mind that an hour isn’t much of an ask for traveling families who routinely sit in unfamiliar cities for hours in-between their children’s games, competitions and events. What about this for a Sunday morning model?
Going “Old School”
- Family arrives at church
- Families attend worship together
- Preschoolers stay in the nursery
- Children then go to children’s church or “age and stage” classes
- Tweens and Students then go to Youth Group
- Parents then go to a discipleship class or group
- Family heads out
If this seems familiar to many of you, it should. They used to call this Sunday School. This model offers a “one stop” opportunity for both intergenerational worship and age-targeted discipleship for the whole family.
- Share this model with your leadership
- Recruit people with available time to serve, lead and teach They can serve on Sunday mornings and have their classes during the week.
- Restructure Sunday mornings as needed Most churches need to restructure post-pandemic anyway (i.e. combining two poorly attended services to make one well attended service and a Sunday School slot).
- Create a strategic start date (New year, the week after Easter, back to school)
- Enlist prayer support
- Make sure your worship services are engaging for children
- Ramp up your existing Sunday morning nursery, children, tween and student ministries Invest some resources to upgrade class spaces and teaching technology.
- Launch new Sunday School classes You grow a church by starting new things.
- Directly contact your young families Call them.
- Get the word out Local paper, social media, ect.
For years, experts have encouraged churches to do things they didn’t know how to do or didn’t have the resources to do to. Most churches did these new things reluctantly and deemed the whole venture a failure. The unspoken upside of this model is that we are bringing back something churches already know how to do: Church and Sunday School.
We are going old school and back in our sweet spot!
Feels like a win already!
Rev. Shane L. Bishop has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.