How to End Sunday School

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I’m often asked in youth ministry circles, what curriculum do use for Sunday School?  I answer, we don’t have Sunday School.  The response, how did you do it?  Answer: I offered something else and Sunday School died.

I find it fascinating that in the 21st century we still call our time with students at church on Sunday mornings, Sunday School. Students today have the more educational opportunities than ever, they don’t need more school, and I won’t want more school either. When I think of school, I think books and tests when what students need are opportunities.  Opportunities to lead, serve, build relationships, worship, and learn the word of God.

Did you know that Sunday School began in Britain in the 1780’s as a way to help children working in factories get an education?  Many children were illiterate due to their working hours and their usual day off was Sunday.  Religious education was, of course, a key component and the Bible was used to teach children how to read.

As you walk with students today, I’m sure you see the changes in Sunday mornings and students.  Our students can read, at least most of them, yet they need to learn Scripture and elements of life that are a part of many Sunday School curriculums.

What do we do?   What did we do?

When I began in youth ministry years over 20 years ago, we offered traditional Sunday School at our church to all ages every Sunday morning.  As part of the job, I taught a class or two myself.  What I noticed was that many students were coming to class while their parents went to church and then they would all leave together.  It was a one-hour culture.  Families will give you one hour on a Sunday morning, how did we want them to spend it? I appreciate the learning, but I was concerned that students weren’t going to church.

About that time, I attended a conference where I learned about the power of small groups in the lives of students.  I heard about how students found connection and spiritual growth through relationships. I also heard about student worship services that churches offered their students during the adult worship time.

I came back excited and ready to dive into both areas: small groups and worship for students. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t do this very well. In my exuberance, I steamrolled a few Sunday School teachers a bit but I began student worship once a month (with the blessing of the Senior Pastor) to get kids back into “church”.  We offered this opposite the Sunday School hour so they could do both.  I was reaching 25 kids through Sunday School, on our first Sunday worship 75 middle and high school kids showed up.

It was exciting and scary but it was a definite win. At the same time, we turned Sunday Night Youth Group into small group ministry. The combo was lethal to Sunday School.  As we continued to offer both worship and small groups, students gradually stopped attending Sunday School. They were connecting and growing through groups. They were learning, worshipping, and building relationships! It was messy and brought conflict, but also brought growth and connection.  After a couple years of offering both, Sunday School died through a lack of attendance.  I’ve never been asked to bring it back by leadership, parents, or students.

A few years later, I read Sticky Faith. I was convicted by the statistics of how many students were stepping out of faith after high school and one element mentioned as a factor was not experiencing adult church.  I realized that both Sunday School and Student worship did the same thing, they kept student out of the worship center.  Our worship was awesome, but that’s not the point.  The faith of students is the point. New college students were off looking for youth services, not inter-generational services. Although our Sunday morning student worship was drawing over 100 HS kids a week, we stopped offering Sunday worship separate from the main body for HS.  Only 1 family left over the change.  That was over 7 years ago.

By not offering Sunday School or a worship experience for HS students, what has happened? Beside the fact that I enjoy seeing HS students worshiping in the main service, the change brought opportunities.  They began serving with kids ministry, running tech for the main worship and run cameras. They do parking lot duty, serve coffee, greet, play the in worship band, sing, and leading Middle School kids.  It is a blessing to have ministry teams that welcome High School students in and allow them to learn and grow alongside adults.  The bonus: we are seeing more college students walking with Jesus than walking away.

I know it is not in everyone’s context to stop Sunday School, but if you can’t remove it, maybe you can begin to look at that hour differently? You can start by not calling it Sunday School.

This year, we will stop offering our separate worship for MS, we’ll see what happens.  I’m sure we’ll get push back and may even lose a family.  When Sunday School began, families ate dinner together, traveled together, and attended church together. In our current culture, families rarely even eat at the table, maybe helping them attend church together again is one way we can help them stay together.

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Betsy has worked with students for over 24 years and has served at Cornerstone Church in Caledonia, MI for nineteen of those years. Currently, Betsy is the Director of Family Ministry while still holding the high school ministry hat. Betsy also teaches women’s ministry at Grace Bible College as an adjunct professor. Betsy has been married for 27 years with a son in college and daughter in high school. In her free time, she enjoys reading, laughing with her family, and date nights!

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