Watson: Sunday school is dying

Sep 10, 2018 by

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Sunday school is dying. And that’s OK. Technically, the whole church is dying in the Western world. Few expect the church to actually die, however. Religion remains a uniquely powerful force in human experience.

Hillary Watson


As a pastor, I am theologically hopeful and pragmatically confident the Christian church will survive the decline and become more faithful through it. Sunday school, however, is facing probable death.

Sunday school is a vestige of a culture that does not fit the way we act and educate ourselves today. In many churches, the late summer is a time of arm-twisting volunteers for both youth and adult Sunday school. The reasons, in my experience, are consistent year after year: It takes a lot of time to prepare, volunteers don’t feel qualified, weekends are so packed with kids’ soccer games or work or out-of-town visitors that families choose not attend Sunday school.

These reasons point to a bigger truth: It’s not an effective model for delivering education anymore. Yes, there are dedicated attendees who appear wide-eyed every Sunday. There are stalwart teachers who cheerfully commit year after year. But the majority of congregants, even with the best intentions, struggle to arrive early or stay the extra hour.

It’s not about congregational disinterest. It’s a cultural shift. We are busier than we were 50 years ago. We are also more networked — where church used to be the primary mediator of communities, today many of us juggle an array of volunteer groups, work, niche interest clubs and online communications to stay in touch with distant friends. In addition, many of us — in traditional employment as well as the booming hospitality industry — work weekends. I also suspect commute times play a role, as many Anabaptist congregations draw attendees who commute an hour or more.

The biggest factor, however, is a cultural shift in how we learn. We’re inundated with information. When we feel like stretching our brains, we turn on NPR or a favorite podcast or go to a yoga class. At the same time, our sense of disconnection is rising. It’s no wonder many Sundays I see more adults gathered around the coffee table socializing with friends than streaming into lecture rooms. In the high school class I taught for five years, youth were so fried from their overbooked schedules I frequently felt it would be more helpful to give them a break from learning than to add one more hour of ‘school’ to their stressful lives.

At the same time, I wonder about the future of Christian formation. We need intentional educational spaces to increase biblical literacy, bond with like-minded Christians and align our lives more closely to God’s calling.

I wonder what would happen if congregations took a hiatus from Sunday school and experimented with other forms of spiritual formation: a twice-yearly weekend retreat, short-term book groups, early-morning devotional groups at a coffee shop proximate to church members’ work, Sunday evening gatherings, 10-minute weekly pastor-led podcasts, a midweek theology discussion continuing the previous Sunday’s sermon themes.

There is no rule that we must plop ourselves in a basement room and learn on Sunday mornings. In fact, current evidence suggests that is the worst time in our week to learn. The church needs creative, engaging alternatives.

Hillary Watson pastors at Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Mich. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.

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