Jul 11, 2005

From the Archives

Sunday School is Changing in Under-the-Radar But Significant Ways

Americans have grown accustomed to change. But children who attend Sunday school these days have an experience similar to that which their grandparents would have had decades ago. In a culture saturated with change, one of the most stable aspects in the religious sphere has been Sunday school – the weekend educational efforts that Protestant churches offer to people outside of worship services.

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However, a new study conducted by The Barna Group of Ventura, California shows that while many aspects of Sunday school remain constant, there are significant changes bubbling beneath the surface. Longitudinal research among Protestant pastors, commissioned since 1997 by Gospel Light, has explored how churches prioritize and engage in Sunday school, the usage of curriculum, midweek programming for children, and Vacation Bible School programs (often called VBS).

Things Stay the Same…And Things Change

Church reliance upon Sunday school has remained stable: 19 out of every 20 Protestant churches (95%) offer “a Sunday school in which people receive some form of planned or systematic Bible instruction in a class setting.” Nearly the same proportion of churches – 97% – offered Sunday school eight years ago, when the tracking research began. While churches are often divided along denominational, theological, and methodological lines, the research points out that Sunday school remains one of the most widely embraced ministry programs.

However, the fact that so many churches offer Sunday school may mask some of the changes taking place. The research identified three changes shaping up within Sunday school programs – and two additional shifts affecting other children’s programs. Those alterations related to Sunday school include a declining percentage of pastors who claim that Sunday school is their top priority; fewer churches offering Sunday school for children under age six or for junior-high or high-school students; and the increased customization of curriculum by churches. The other two changes affecting children’s ministry include a drop in the number of churches offering a VBS program and a decline in the prevalence of midweek programming for children.

A Declining Priority

In terms of Sunday school prioritization, the research showed that just 1 in every 7 Senior Pastors (15%) considers Sunday school to be their church’s highest priority. This represents a significant drop from previous years – 2002 was the high point, when 22% of pastors claimed that Sunday school was the top priority of their church.

What types of pastors were least likely to prioritize Sunday school? Those leading mainline churches (8%), pastors under 40 years of age (10%), and predominately white congregations (12%). On the other hand, those most likely to strongly emphasize Sunday school were African-American congregations (37%), Baptist churches (23%), pastors who have been leading their churches for 20 or more years (23%), charismatic churches (21%), and congregations with pastors age 59 or older (21%).

Cutting Out Those On the Edges

Another significant change is that fewer churches are offering Sunday school programs for the youngest and oldest children – including adolescents and teenagers. Churches are less likely to offer programming for children under the age of two, dropping six percentage points since 1997 (79% to 73%). They were also less likely to offer Sunday school programs for children ages two to five (declining 94% to 88%), as well as for junior high (dropping from 93% to 86%) and high school students (moving from 86% to 80%). These may not seem like substantial drops in terms of percentage points – after all, a large majority of churches continues to offer such programs – but, it represents about 20,000 fewer churches providing Sunday school for each age group.

One of the signs pointing to additional changes in the future is that pastors with the shortest tenure in ministry (one to five years) were less likely than more experienced pastors to offer five out of the six types of Sunday school programming (the only exception being junior high classes). While a majority of these young pastors continue to offer Sunday school, they are at the leading edge of experimenting without traditional Sunday school.

The most common Sunday school programming is offered for elementary age children (grades 1 through 6) and for adults. Currently, more than 9 out of every 10 churches offer Sunday school for elementary grades (92%) and adults (91%). These levels are statistically unchanged since 1997.

Customizing the Content

The fastest-moving shift within Sunday school programming is the move toward “customized” curriculum. Currently, 1 out of every 5 churches (18%) creates their own curriculum for elementary-age classes – nearly double the percentage measured in 2002 (10%).

The profile of churches most likely to create their own curriculum is revealing. The data show that Buster pastors (26%) and those in the West (25%) – often viewed as pace-setters for other regions – are among the most likely to customize, suggesting that the trend is likely to grow in prominence. The churches least likely to customize were Southern Baptist (4%) and African American (9%). Although the research did not define “customization” for pastors, the interviews suggest it ranges from simplistic efforts (e.g., piecing together lesson plans and coloring pages from previous years) to investing significant staff time and creative energy into crafting a complete curriculum from scratch.

Still, the most common type of elementary-aged Sunday school curriculum used among churches is that produced by their denomination. In total, 52% of all pastors report purchasing this type of curriculum. One in every four pastors (26%) indicated that their church buys curriculum from an independent publisher.

Other Programs

Another shift in children’s ministry since 1997 has been the 12% decline in the percentage of churches offering Vacation Bible School (or VBS) – from 81% to 69%. That represents about 38,000 fewer churches offering VBS than eight years ago. Those most likely to offer VBS were Southern Baptist and mainline churches, congregations with 250 or more adult attenders, and black congregations. Among those least likely to have VBS were charismatic or Pentecostal congregations, churches in the West, churches attracting fewer than 100 adult attenders, and churches whose pastor has been serving in full-time ministry for less than six years.

Why not offer VBS? A lack of teachers is still the most common reason (mentioned by 23% of pastors). Interestingly, pastors are becoming increasingly likely to mention that their church has “no time” for VBS (up from 5% in 2001 to 13% now) or that they “offer other activities” (up from less than 1% to 12% now).

The fifth shift identified by the Barna study was a 10% drop in the proportion of churches that have midweek programming for kids (slipping from 64% in 1997 to 58% in 2004). This represents a drop of nearly 20,000 churches. Midweek programming was most common among Southern Baptists, large churches, churches in the South and Midwest, and charismatic congregations, and least common among mainline churches, small churches, and those located in the West or Northeast. Pastors who have been at their current church for more than a decade were also more likely than were short-tenured pastors to offer midweek programming.

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Perspective on the Changes

Anticipating that some people will infer that Sunday school is fading, David Kinnaman, the director of the study, explained that, “rumors of Sunday school’s imminent demise are greatly exaggerated. Every weekend more than 300,000 churches offer some type of systematic religious instruction in a classroom setting – and those programs are attended by nearly 45 million adults and more than 22 million youth and children. In fact, nearly 9 out of every 10 pastors said they consider Sunday school to be an important part of their church’s ministry. The changes facing Sunday school seem to be more about the form – not the function – of Sunday school. It appears as though churches are moving toward a ‘label-less’ future: they will offer summertime programs, but not necessarily VBS, and they will continue to prioritize Christian education, but not necessarily Sunday school.”

The Barna Group’s Vice President continued: “The most significant part of the changing landscape, however, is the new identity being carved out by Buster pastors and those relatively new in ministry. Where these young leaders will take Sunday school and VBS is anyone’s guess. Although many Buster pastors currently deploy Sunday school programs, they seem open to new methods and approaches and less driven by tradition or program loyalty. Many Buster pastors possess a means-to-an-end perspective about Sunday school and VBS, which suggests the churches they lead will be more apt to adopt innovations in spiritual training.”

“When it comes to ministry to children specifically, pastors are facing a bevy of pressures and demands that have precipitated many of these changes,” commented Kinnaman. “Many pastors are coming to realize that ministry to children must be one of – if not the – preeminent emphases of their church. Ministry to children is highly strategic. Young people are spiritual sponges whose most impressionable years are too important to pass up. In contrast, changing adults’ spiritual perspectives is a hit-or-miss proposition. Further, churches face increasingly complex demands to partner with and equip parents. There are pressures that Sunday school provide one-of-a-kind experiences and facilitate clearer and deeper outcomes in the lives of children. There are also increased expectations placed on churches for personal choice and for multimedia relevance. Without compromising the Gospel, Sunday school and other forms of Christian education must continue to adapt to be effective in this ever-changing environment.”

Research Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 614 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches conducted in December 2004. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with that sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Pastors in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of churches in the sample reflects the proportion of the churches from that denomination among all Protestant churches in the U.S. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a statistically reliable distribution of pastors.

The research was commissioned by Gospel Light, a Sunday school and VBS curriculum publisher based in Ventura, California.

“Mainline” churches are those associated with the American Baptist Churches/U.S.A.; United Church of Christ; Episcopal Church; United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

In this report, “small churches” were defined as those that attract less than 100 adults to their weekend events on a typical weekend. “Mid-sized churches” in this study were those that attract 100 to 250 adults; large churches were those attracting 250 or more adults.

Baby Busters are adults born from 1965-1983; Baby Boomers were born from 1946-1964.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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