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.

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Joining church: member of a club or part of a community?

MEMBERS_ONLY_jacket_tagI was recently following an interesting conversation on a denominational Facebook page about confirmation for those with developmental disabilities. It ended up mostly posts by an advocate for people with developmental disabilities, who started it by asking what the essential concepts are that need to be understood for confirmation to be meaningful, and the denominational employee who monitors the page.

In this particular denomination, as in others, confirmation includes reaffirming baptismal vows as well as taking membership vows to become a professing member of the church, so the discussion focused on these. As the denominational representative noted, the baptismal or membership vows cannot be altered. How then, the advocate asked, can we ask people to take vows when they cannot understand the language used in them? The denominational representative quoted from the denomination’s rule book and noted that anyone who is baptized is a baptized member of the church, but in order to be a professing member people must be able to take the vows themselves.

While noting that the denominational representative was correct about the church rules, the advocate also stated that she “no longer believes that intellect and understanding have anything to do with faith or belonging to a church. The criteria you consistently refer to are human-made, not God-made.”

As I reflected on the two varying opinions of what the criteria should be for letting someone become a member of a church, I thought about the difference in thinking between modern and post-modern people. Rick Chromey in Energizing Children’s Ministry in the Smaller Church talks about four areas where we see a change in thinking and one of these is a change from “club to community.” He notes that in years past, there was a club mentality in our culture that valued structure, passivity, and membership, but “members only” clubs are dying now and being replaced by communities with minimal membership rules. This is seen most clearly on the internet where people gather on websites and in chat rooms to talk about their hobbies, interests, and lifestyles. Over the years the church became like a club with its own rules and rituals but, to post-modern thinkers, this club mentality is not accepted.

It follows that there appears to be an increasingly widening area of disagreement between those who adhere to the modern concept of church membership as something which must be earned by adhering to a set doctrine and the post-modern idea that church is a community open to all those who want to be a part of it. In a blog by Jeff Brumley entitled “Young adults challenging traditional church membership concepts,” the author states that “older folks see church membership as logical and necessary while Millennials and other young people say it makes no sense.” Bob Ballance, senior minister at Pine Street Church in Boulder, Colorado, says that the Millennials in his church “see meaningful participation in church life as more important than being on the rolls. Older members sometimes don’t get it.”

Church consultant George Bullard notes that something that has been happening for about the past three decades in North America has now become mainstream and is impacting the traditional church significantly enough that “virtually everyone is noticing it.” Seeking to address this thirty years ago:

“The pastors and other leaders of newer, innovative congregations began to talk about the word ‘connecting’ rather than the word ‘membership,’” he [Bullard] said. “They suggested that adults during the first half of their adulthood desire to connect with one or more communities of faith, rather than to be members of one community of faith.”

Even then, before the rise of the Millennial generation, some young Christians were drawn more to “movements of meaning and significance rather than organizations with patterns and habits that appear to be in a rut,” Bullard said.

Brumley concludes his article by quoting Ballance who, while noting that some older Christians are worried that younger Christians are not committed, states that younger people complain too: “The whole concept of membership smacks of exclusivity and they have no interest in it – but they do want to be involved.”

The demise of denominational power?

gravestoneReaction to declining numbers of those attending or joining churches vary. There’s plenty of blame going around, from those who claim younger generations are shallow, self-centered, and screen-addicted to those who argue that the separation of the generations into age-related ministries in recent years never allowed children and youth to be integrated into the life of the church. There are some who see ever more empty churches as a positive sign; now that it’s socially acceptable to be churchless, there will be less people in church who are just there to please others and more true believers.

Many see what’s happening in the church as cyclical changes. Phyllis Tickle argued in The Great Emergence that pivotal times in the history of the church happen every 500 years or so, as the church has a giant rummage sale of ideas which leads to a new and more vital form of Christianity. In an article on the Christianity Today website entitled “The Future of the Emerging Church,” Tickle stated that “We are seeing the start of a post-Protestant and post-denominational era.”

What does it mean to be in a post-denominational era? We can look to the emerging church which is disillusioned with the institutional church; yet, besides emerging house churches or independent churches, there are also emerging denominational congregations. However, in emerging churches, even denominational ones, the “beliefs are determined by all the people involved, not by the clergy nor the tradition with which the church is affiliated,” according to research quoted by Tony Jones’ blog post “The Emerging Church Is What It Says It Is.”

Not only are post-modern, emergent Christians not looking for denominational statements to define their theology, they may actually see denominational connections as having strong negative aspects. Jeffrey D. Jones in Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations talks about how new understandings of mission began to develop as Christendom ended; it “could no longer be viewed as something that happened half a world away, but rather as something right outside our door” (151) . For Jones this means that there is no longer an easy delineation between a church’s operating budget and its mission budget…Given the reality that much of the money that is given through traditional denominational mission channels is used to fund staff salaries and pay utility bills at denominational offices, it is increasingly difficult to maintain that this form of mission giving is somehow more legitimate than paying for staff and utility bills to support the local mission of the congregation (151).

Whereas once local churches looked to the denomination to provide statements of belief and polity, resources for worship and Christian education, mission and other world-wide ministries for the local church to support, now the denominational connection may be seen as preventing a church from following its own conscience and call to ministry as a unique entity, especially as both staff and congregation may find themselves disagreeing with denominational stances on social issues, such as the United Methodist Church’s stand against gay marriage, which is at odds with many of those in the United Methodist Church.

As local churches struggle to survive financially, their denominational connections can add to their difficulties. The upkeep of an aging structure is a burden on a congregation which has outgrown its building. In some denominations, a denominational agency may own the church building, rather than the local church, making it difficult to explore the possibility of moving to a more cost-effective location. Denominations may require a church to have a full-time paid pastor despite the willingness of laity to handle (non-sacramental) pastoral duties.

Chris Xenakis, in a blog titled “The Donald Trumpification of Authorized Ministry: Some Lenten Thoughts about Dying Churches, Congregational Resurrections, and Pastoral Leadership,” quotes John Dorhauer’s book Beyond Resistance which states that  many Mainline churches are so financially strapped that “full-time, seminary-trained, ordained clergy are [now] an impediment” to their mission and outreach. The mission of these churches is holding rummage sales and fundraising dinners in order to pay the salary of their full-time pastor.

The Hartford Institute for Religious Research in “A Report on the 2010 National Profile of U.S. Nondenominational and Independent Churches” states that nondenominational churches are on the rise. If those in mainline and other denominations continue to see their denominational connections as more of a burden than a blessing, it won’t be surprising to see the numbers of nondenominational and independent churches continue to rise.

Messy Church: A New Way of Doing Church

Messy Church logoAlthough many churches nowadays are offering a warm welcome to children and working hard to create an interactive, sensory-rich environment, there are still those with a very traditional or somber service with some members of the congregation who believe that children in church should be reverent, quiet and well-behaved. If you happen to be the parent of an average kid (one who isn’t reverent, quiet, and well-behaved) then you may have had the anxiety-provoking experience of having your child fidgeting, talking, or even completely losing it in church and attracting glares from those in nearby pews. This experience can lead to a parent refusing to ever bring their child to church again.

Enter Messy Church to the rescue, a way of doing church for families based around welcome, crafts and art, celebration and eating together. It’s fun, creative, sometimes loud, and often messy. It’s a program which seeks to reach out to people who don’t ordinarily attend church services.

The Messy Church movement started in England but is spreading around the world; it’s presently in twelve other countries including the United States. Messy Church gatherings aren’t usually on Sunday mornings. Their time and place is determined by what is best for families.

For those who might argue that the Messy Church experience is not truly worship, I would argue that the experience of people of all ages getting together to sing, pray, share joys and concerns, as well as a meal, is a lot closer to worship in the early church than a typical 21st century worship service.

You can visit the Messy Church website for more information. There are books, DVDs, and other resources available on the resources page of the website.

Messy Church Logo Copyright Bible Reading Fellowship © 2014

Faithful folks and the supernatural

As Halloween approaches, even religious websites are focusing on the holiday. There is the usual “Should Christians celebrate Halloween?” debate with some strongly against allowing children to dress as witches and other evil creatures and some making the connection of Halloween with All Saints Day.

I just read an article on the United Methodist Church’s Ministry Matters website titled “Ghosts, Supernaturalism and the Wesley Poltergeist” which was fascinating. It told the story of a poltergeist that spent some time in the home of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, when he was a young teen in the early 1700s. (A poltergeist is a ghost who causes physical disturbances such as loud noises or objects being thrown around.) The Wesley family, as well as their servants, heard strange noises and saw furniture moving for a period of about eight weeks.

When I shared this story with a family member who is a faithful Christian, he replied that perhaps the Wesley family was somewhat crazy. It’s interesting that religious people who believe such things as a virgin giving birth, a man rising from the dead, and heavenly beings called angels, have trouble imaging that other supernatural beings exist.

I’ve always thought that part of the appeal of Halloween is the opportunity it gives us to make light of things that terrify us, whether we believe they really exist or not. The creatures that inhabit our nightmares seem a lot less scary when they’re personified by little children. Yet, just as my faith leads me to believe that there are miracles and angels, it also leaves me open-minded to the possibility other beings might also exist, ones that aren’t on the side of the angels. So I may smile as I watch the little witches, ghosts, and vampires going door to door on Halloween, but I still find the holiday just a bit unsettling.

Church-speak

Church words wordleI was once at a church meeting where we were discussing how to make our church friendlier to visitors. I mentioned that we should think about the language we use and try not to use church words that visitors may not know, such as VBS and narthex. The pastor of the church looked at me and replied: “If they want to come here, they’ll have to learn how to speak our language.” I was so stunned that I was speechless (a rare event). Needless to say, that church had very few new members while that pastor was there.

I’m a church person. My job involves working with people from various churches and visiting churches for workshops and training sessions. I was asked recently to visit a church for Sunday services “undercover” so I could let the leadership there know how welcoming the church was to first time visitors. I remember standing at the front door and feeling nervous before I entered, not knowing exactly what I would experience inside. If I was nervous, I can imagine how an unchurched person would feel and that nervousness would be aggravated if the service included words that were unknown to them.

There are times when church-speak is necessary. Most groups have their own jargon which not only aids communication between members but may also give them a sense of identity and of belonging. However, when those outside the group are present, it is more important to be understandable by all than precise. So what works in a church meeting may not be what’s needed in a worship service. The website spirithome.com has a page with definitions for “church words” but notes that “It’s far better to use terms that others won’t have to look up on church-dictionary sites like this one.”