Let’s stop blaming Sunday school for killing the church

white churchChurch attendance is down in mainline churches and now even in evangelical churches. It’s natural that people are looking for reasons for the decline. One popular theory is that separating children and youth from the rest of the church by having programs for them (Sunday school) during the worship time has led to this decline. The book Let’s Kill Sunday School (before it kills the church) by Rich Melheim & Friends espouses this view and shares stories of churches which are transitioning to an intergenerational blending of education and worship (eduworship) on Sunday mornings.

I am all for this movement. I love the idea of all ages worshiping and learning together and I think the traditional worship service as it exists in many churches needs to change to become relevant to those with a postmodern mindset. However, I disagree with the basic premise that it is Sunday school which is the cause of younger generations no longer attending worship services or being involved in the organized church. Rather, I think Sunday school may be responsible, in many cases, for helping young people hold on to some semblance of faith. It is the worship service itself which is the reason most young people no longer attend church, more so than their time in Sunday school.

Let me clarify that I am talking about a quality Sunday school experience and the traditional worship service geared to adults where most people are spectators rather than participants. My children, who are now in their 20s, grew up in a church where they attended Sunday school on a regular basis. Each week they attended a Sunday school opening which was a mini-worship service where they learned prayers, the Doxology, and other parts of the worship service before going to age-graded classrooms. In the mini-service, they didn’t just hear prayers, hymns, etc. but were helped to understand them. They learned what it meant to praise God with all their senses. Once a month they attended the family Sunday worship service, which sought to reach an intergenerational audience. During the summer there was usually no Sunday school, so they attended the regular worship service.

In Sunday school, my children had friends and got to know their teachers. Through their relationships in Sunday school, they got to hear personally how others lived out their faith. They were able to interact, ask questions, and work on forming their personal faith. When summer came and they attended the traditional worship service, they sat in a pew and watched. There was very little in the prayers and hymns they could relate to. In Sunday school and in the public schools they attended, it was recognized that people learn in different ways, so learning was interactive, using different senses, and often fun. In church they had to be quiet and listen; the vocabulary was often beyond them and the words of the hymns frequently ancient and not understandable.

Those seeking the demise of Sunday school contend that the reason young people don’t want to attend worship these days is because they never got used to it, never got to feel a part of the rest of the church. I disagree with this. My children attended worship and considered the people of the church their “church family.” They are certainly familiar with worship and know what to do in the service. While thinking about this blog, I decided to ask my 28-year-old daughter if she agreed with me about Sunday school and the traditional worship service. Here is what she had to say.

I feel like all of my best memories from church came from Sunday school. We dreaded the days we had to go into the actual church (even when it was a “family Sunday”) and would do anything we could to avoid them. I believe when we were old enough to decide we actually would skip church on the family Sundays sometimes. So if there wasn’t any Sunday school we probably would have stopped going completely. And I think it’s because the things that happened in the worship services just didn’t feel relevant in any way to our lives. At least in Sunday school we’d watch contemporary movies that tied in Christian themes, and focused more on the meaning of being a Christian rather than the stories in the Bible. And I’d say one of the reasons why I don’t go to church now, or didn’t start going to church once I became an adult, is that worship services “still” don’t feel relevant to my life. I don’t get anything out of sitting in a building every Sunday morning singing ancient songs and reading from a book that frankly feels outdated in a lot of its morals and messages. It wasn’t a matter of me not being part of the church. I sat through services enough times that I knew how to “do church.” It’s just that I didn’t want to. It would seem to me that forcing kids into traditional worship is totally the wrong way to go about it. The opposite would be better, even if this idea is too radical for most old church goers – change traditional worship to better suit the needs of the newer generations.


4 thoughts on “Let’s stop blaming Sunday school for killing the church

  1. Thanks for engaging this important conversation. As one of the “friends” authors of a chapter, I’d like to point out the movement is more wholistic than what happens on Sunday. The invitation is to consider why faith development shifted to an hour on Sunday and away from the household. Changing up what happens on a Sunday morning is only one aspect of asking if Sunday School killed the church. On a deeper level it becomes, “Did removing the primary role parents in faith development remove Jesus from our children’s lives?” My chapter was a resounding, “yes.”

    Brian Hughes
    Columbia, Maryland USA


    • I agree with you, Brian. In this blog post, I was just trying to make the point that, in some cases, Sunday school actually contributes more to a child’s faith formation than attending traditional, adultcentric worship services and that worship, as it is now in many churches, needs to change if we want to reach younger generations who process information in different ways than older people do. This is a simplification of the reasons why we don’t see young adults in church. Other reasons include young people seeing the church as hypocritical, bigoted, and bureaucratic. Another factor is parents not being the primary provider of their children’s faith formation. Many parents need assistance with this role. As a Sunday school teacher I consider this part of my ministry. When I give teacher training, I share this with the participants and spend time discussing ways Sunday school teachers can partner with parents in their children’s faith formation and resources for family devotions, etc. I also stress that children need to be connected with the rest of the church in worship and other areas.


  2. (1) Try writing a sermon that reaches five year olds and sixty-five year olds at the same time. (2) Church services are often very boring. Subjecting kids to this will not cultivate adult attendance. (3) We have the kids/youth in church for the first 1/3 of the service, including the “Children’s Message/Sermon, baptisms, etc. and we often use kids/youth as greeters and scripture readers. (4) I remember as a kid being in “the big house” for a while with the grownups and then going to the backyard or upstairs to another room to watch movies, play games and talk among ourselves.


    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply and I agree. I take a more balanced view when it comes to “Killing Sunday School.” It might be a good thing in certain churches to get rid of it, where the congregation is open to change, but in most churches with a traditional service, I think the kids are better served by some time in worship and some time in Sunday school. As to sermons, I think that is definitely one area that definitely needs to change! We have a few books at the resource center that look at making the “sermon” more interactive or breaking up the message and having short bits of it throughout the service. But again, many pastors and many people in the pews just want things the way they’ve always been.


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