Mary Larson is scared. She is afraid that children are not receiving the Christian education they need. And she is afraid her plea to kids, “You need God in you,” is not being heard.
Larson, director of the child development center at the Fort Worth University United Methodist Church just on the edge of the 109, is tuned in to a trend that has been troubling churches in the U.S. for years. Historically, Sunday school has been a mainstay for middle class children, but it has been on a gradual but steady decline for some time now.
A 2009 Wall Street Journal article puts the numbers in perspective: “A study by the Barna Group indicated that in 2004 churches were 6 percent less likely to provide Sunday school for children ages 2 to 5 as in 1997. For middle-school kids, the decline was to 86 percent providing Sunday school in 2004 from 93 percent in 1997. Similarly, there was a six-percentage-point drop in Sunday schools offered for high school kids — to 80 percent from 86 percent. All in all, about 20,000 fewer churches were maintaining Sunday-school classes.”
Both Larson and the Rev. Jason Hamilton, pastor of the University Church, agree the main reason for the decline is the multitude of demands on the time of today’s average child.
“Our kids are so overscheduled now. I’m 33 and I have two children now, the options that face my young kids [are multitudinous].There’s already so much, so much more than there was 20 years ago, when I was a kid,” Hamilton said.
With the proliferation of activities available to children today – soccer, baseball, swimming, education programs, school functions — it is easy to see how they can be so spread thin as to forgo Sunday school. Hamilton says this practice is “extremely detrimental” to children in their development as Christians.
“It’s huge. The survey numbers suggest most people make faith development decisions prior to age 18. So, your decision whether to have faith in God for most of us has been made by that point. Christian education, in any form, for children and youth is extremely important,” Hamilton explained.
Karen Kennemur, assistant professor of childhood education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says it is the “busyness of life” that has gotten in the way.
Larson said she feels people long for family time and because of their work schedules, Sunday is the only day they have to be together.
“Unfortunately now, I don’t think family time includes God and going to church,” Larson said.
“I can even look at my own kids,” Larson said, “I take my grandson to school. His mom, because of her work situation, can’t get there on Sunday mornings and so I take care of him and I take him to Sunday school.”
“Sunday school hasn’t become a priority for parents. I think that’s sad. We see the affect that has on kids as they grow away from the church. We make it less important for our kids as time goes on,” Hamilton said.
Kennemur says church attendance as a whole has become secondary in importance and life has made it increasingly easier for people to make the church a lower priority. But it is also the fault of the church for not “trying hard enough,” she says.
“We need to be intentionally trying to get people back and make them feel like a part of the community,” Kennemur said. “Sundays have turned into a time to catch up on work or have family time. There’s not enough emphasis on education.”
To Kennemur, the 21st century has much to do with pull away from attendance. Many place the blame on secular society and the nation’s general separation from the church. Studies show as time goes on, the number of people attending church declines. According to Hamilton, this is a generational phenomenon.
“I think in the ‘60s, Christianity in America kind of hit its peak in 1967. And every generation after that has seen kind of a multiplier effect, of drop off in people attending,” he said. “I guess the Baby Boomers were the first generation to really say, ‘We don’t need this.’ They were the first to really walk away en masse from the church. And so that generation of people raised their children to believe church was an option.”
Julia Shipley, an online religion writer from EzineArticles.com, put it this way: “There is much to catch the attention and imagination of our young today. The world has opened up with the Internet and media coverage. They have the ‘new age’ as well as other religions, taught in schools. They are actively encouraged to explore other avenues and to be ‘free’ in their choice. A ‘pick and mix’ approach doing what seems best to them at the time.”
Larson says it all goes back to the parents and what sort of religious environment they had growing up. Having been raised in very strict Catholic household, Larson says church — and especially Sunday school — needs to be viewed as a necessity, not an option.
“All kids go through their teenage years, where they kind fall away from the church, but it’s like yes, that is an important part and I need to go back. But it seems like nowadays, when kids do pull away, I think they’re not having that.”
Hamilton believes even with intermittent Sunday school attendance, children will be experiencing more harm than good. He equates it to simply wearing a label, but without adequate knowledge and understanding to defend and back that label up.
“There’s only so much you can get from the 20-minute sermon on a Sunday morning,” Hamilton said, “If you’re a child, you’re probably not paying that much attention to us, anyway. And if you’re not learning, you’re just not growing. If they’re not getting that [Sunday school education], then they’re not fully getting the chance to fully understand and develop what it means to be a follower of Christ.”
Hamilton, Larson and Kennemur agree Sunday school needs to be made a priority in the lives of children and that starts with explaining how critical their faith development is to their parents.
The three agreed on several perspectives: There needs to be a stable religious environment at home that is then transferred to the church, in the form of a community connection, Larson said.
Once there is a sense of belonging and involvement associated with the church, families and children will feel involved again, Kennemur said.
New types of home worship or Bible study groups are helpful, said Hamilton, but they also need to be bringing people back to the church community and make them feel a need for a deeper participation and attachment.
“On our end, on the church’s end, making Sunday school that is vibrant and relevant and serving the purpose of education and not to be an entertainment venue,” Hamilton said.
He said the church needs to recreate itself and adapt in order to meet the needs of today’s children, their needs and their families’ needs.
Hamilton said the trend in declining attendance will get worse before it gets better, but the church needs to step up and take action immediately.
The content being taught needs to be reimagined for today’s tech – savvy and sophisticated children and that means the church must now learn how to market itself, something it hasn’t had to do for hundreds of years, he said.
“The church has to reinvent itself. The church has to recognize that the whole game has changed,” Hamilton said.