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Is Sunday school doomed?

An old black and white photo depicts children sitting while a Sunday school teacher speaks.

Is Sunday school doomed?

Historical photo of Sunday school, 1946, Kentucky

Sunday school may be remembered fondly by many baby boomers, but it began as a method of controlling unruly British children, before it’s transition into a cheery, pastel memory of childhood.

Writing in the Visalia Times Delta, Melissa Pandika laments the overscheduled child and implies that Sunday school attendance is down because children are too busy, and societal betrayals have hurt our trust in the Church and institutions in general.

From the article:

We live in an era defined by a confluence of two big trends: Parents, especially middle-class ones, have become ever more concerned about the welfare of their children, whether it’s demanding chemical-free playgrounds or ensuring they get into the best preschool. At the same time, Christian churches have been rocked by a series of sex-abuse scandals that are the worst nightmare for any parent, from youth groups being coerced into sex acts to priests’ confessions of molesting boys. Even if the revelations have subsided somewhat in recent years, “people know the reality has been exposed,” says Robert Orsi, a professor of religion at Northwestern University. “I’m sure parents are thinking of this.”

Pandika centers the story on St Paul’s Episcopal Church of Oakland, California, where the children’s music director is typically stuck singing alone while the children dance to the pre-recorded hymns. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of the difficulties that adults face in engaging children in learning about God and the Church in an increasingly secular and pluralist society.

Sharon Ely Pearson, who works in Christian formation, tackles Sunday school from a critical perspective in a multi-part essay she’s running this week titled “Christian Formation in a Changing Church”. Part one focuses on the history of Sunday school, and part two explores how Sunday schools operate in our modern culture. You can read these stories–and the upcoming pieces–on her blog, Rows of Sharon.

Pearson pushes for a more radical approach to Christian formation and children, calling on Christians to show their work outside of the traditional confines of a Church.

From the article:

We need to focus on ministry “with” and “for” instead of “to.” What if we embraced the meaning of diakonia as in the Early Church? What if we were out in the community acting like what we believe as Christians can really make a difference in the world? Ivy Beckwith, team leader of the United Church of Christ’s faith formation team suggests we focus on safety, mission, and identity. How can we practice “four acts of love” that are born out of reasons why many people no longer go to church. None of these are tied to any program: (1) radical hospitality; (2) genuine humility; (3) fearless conversation; and (4) divine anticipation). Listen to Ivy here, and check out her recent book, written with Dave Csinos:Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus.


Posted by David Streever


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Sharon Pearson

Paul and Kevin have named key issues. We need to focus on adult formation and help parents practice faith with their children at home. One hour on Sunday morning (if they even came every week) doesn’t do it. 1958 is not 2015 – we don’t separate boys and girls and there are a whole lot more choices (which for some children is not a choice) for what one can do on a Sunday morning: sleep (after an exhausting week), sports, work, custody swaps, school trips and obligations, and on and on.

Paul Woodrum

Circa ’58 or earlier. Where I went to Sunday School, nursery through high school in the 40’s and 50’s, boys and girls were together in the nursery. From 1st through 9th grade we had separate boys and girls classes, the boys taught by men, the girls by women. 10th through 12th was one class of about 100 teenagers, on Sunday morning and, in the evening, youth fellowship. Only about 10% were girls. Can’t remember much about the curriculum, but had some great teachers, great parties and joined with other youth groups for “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” and an annual Easter Sunrise Service on the shores of a nearby lake. Big cultural difference: all stores closed on Sunday and there was no competition from the public schools.

George A. Bennett

I use to be a Sunday School & VBS volunteer. It was a joy to see the kids and their innocent faith in God, which came directly from lessons from the Bible (i.e., creation, Adam & Eve, Noah, Jonah, Solomon, David…). I have trouble reconciling that at a certain point, these young people will be told, ‘it’s all just allegory. ‘

Geoffrey Brown

Take another look at that photo and notice the overwhelmingly female makeup of that class! Perhaps even then we were already failing in formation for males, but large numbers of then-docile women camouflaged the problem. To me, it appears that a longstanding approach to Sunday School attractive principally to girls predates “the good old days” we yearn for. Couple that with our subsequent failure to adapt to changing roles for women in society, and we have our work cut out for us!

George A. Bennett

My guess is the photo is circa 1958?…the boys were in a different classroom.

George A. Bennett

correction: 1946.

Matthew Kozlowski

I am new to Forma, and thankful for the wisdom shared above. My two cents (gleaned from others) is that a main purpose of Sunday school is the building of relationships.

Especially for children, faith development depends on having multiple trusted relationships with adults who model and teach Christian faith. This comes through teaching, but also through adults being who they are.

I can only remember one or two things that Mr. Wells or Mrs. Sugg taught me; but mostly I remember them. I remember their commitment to church, their love of Jesus, their generosity, and the way they lived their lives.

There are many contexts in which children can build relationships with Christian adults. Sunday school, in the right situation, is one such context. And there are many others too.

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