NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Sunday School, a staple of Protestant church life in the United States in the 20th century, is in decline, prompting some scholars to question whether the institution has a future.
The Southern Baptist Convention has reported declines in Sunday School enrollment each year since 2004. That year's annual statistical survey by LifeWay Christian Resources reported Sunday School enrollment of more than 8.2 million. By 2010, it dropped to 7.6 million.
Other denominations report similar declines. Experts interested in reversing the trend cite factors ranging from the proliferation of youth activities that leave today's young people too busy for Sunday School to an increasingly secular society that puts less value on church activities.
One effect is what used to be common knowledge about Christianity is unknown to a large and growing share of Americans, especially young adults. Barna Group studies in 2010, for example, showed that while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Even seminary professors report occasional reminders from students who did not grow up studying the Bible and who don't always catch the meaning of phrases like "prodigal son" or "woman at the well."
A 2005 Barna study found 95 percent of Protestant churches offer "a Sunday School in which people receive some form of planned or systematic Bible instruction in a class setting." While Sunday School remains one of the most widely embraced ministry programs, the study said, it is undergoing change.
Just 15 percent of senior pastors in 2005 considered Sunday School to be their church's highest priority, a significant drop from previous years.
More churches are dropping Sunday School programs for their youngest and oldest children. Three out of four churches offered programming for children under 2, down six percentage points from 1997. Churches were less likely to offer Sunday School for junior high (dropping from 93 percent to 86 percent) and high school students (moving from 86 percent to 80 percent.)
In a column last September, church historian Bill Leonard listed symptoms that reveal Sunday School's influence is waning in churches, both large and small:
• Declines in overall attendance by children and adults.
• Intermittent participation by some of the most regular participants.
• Multiple worship services that may affect traditional Sunday School schedules.
• Difficulty finding teachers whose calendars support consistent involvement.
• Decisions by some congregations to close Sunday School programs for certain age groups.
• Complex family calendars that require weekend travel, employment, caregiving or recreational responsibilities.
• Concerns about an increasing biblical illiteracy evident among a growing number of Protestants.
• Deterioration of fellowship and pastoral care offered through the community life of the class.
Amid such challenges, Leonard posed the question, "Can Sunday School remain an effective vehicle for addressing the escalating biblical illiteracy evident among American Protestants?"
Mike Harton, an educational consultant and coach in Richmond, Va., said there was a time when Sunday School was for Bible study, and teachers were trained and certified for the task. In Baptist life, he said, the focus of Bible study transitioned to outreach. Classes appointed outreach directors and kept lists of prospects.
"Today, Sunday School is largely about fellowship," Harton said. "It is the primary small group which attracts and holds new members." That is important, he said, because unless new members attach to a small group and create relationships, they won't stick around.
"In that regard, I continue to aver that 'Sunday School is the glue that makes people stick to a church,'" Harton said. "But it is not the Bible study, nor the outreach—it is the social opportunity."
Ken Meyers, minister of Christian formation and education at Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., said the question is larger than the program of Sunday School.
"To make Christian education and spiritual formation offerings viable, we must understand our culture," Meyers said. Past approaches were based on a "propositional" methodology, where new members were expected to regurgitate church propositions before entry into the congregation, he added.
Today's approach to faith formation, Meyers said, must be founded on a "connectional" methodology that invites people "into conversations that connect their diverse stories with the common quest toward finding purposeful lives."
During a recent sabbatical, Meyers developed a new education project for the church titled "Stories from the Vineyard" integrating a "head-and-heart" approach for spiritual development of congregation members while opening up conversations with the larger community.
The culture of society is quite different than when the Sunday School movement reached its apex in the 1960s, Meyers said, but many churches continue to use old approaches that no longer are effective. The result is plateaued and declining churches.
"Our church culture assumes that people will come to us, that the church is central to society, and that our faith formation is about propositions," Meyers wrote in a church newsletter article introducing the plan.
The new approach would better position the congregation to be in conversation with the community at large, Meyers asserted.
"Such connections will spur not only our life stories, but they will elicit the stories of others seeking meaning and purpose in life," he said. "This approach allows for the postmodern or emerging church realities. Such connections of our human stories will inspire our approach to faith and, in turn, inspire the needed conversations with people beyond our membership walls."