Sunday School's Sun Sets

USA Today reports on the decline of Sunday school as an institution. The reporter finds that parents are suspicious and busy:

Parents, especially middle-class ones, have become ever more concerned about the welfare of their children, whether it’s demanding chemical-free playgrounds or ensuring they get into the best preschool. At the same time, Christian churches have been rocked by a series of sex-abuse scandals that are the worst nightmare for any parent, from youth groups being coerced into sex acts to priests’ confessions of molesting boys. Even if the revelations have subsided somewhat in recent years, “people know the reality has been exposed,” says Robert Orsi, a professor of religion at Northwestern University. “I’m sure parents are thinking of this.”

LeeAnn MacNeil, a homemaker in McLean, Virginia, is a devout Catholic with four kids, but she has serious qualms about teacher selection at her church’s Sunday school. “They’re not vetted properly. That’s a valid concern in my book,” she says. And she can speak from experience: As a Sunday school teacher for several years, she says the sign-up process “was done very quickly. It’s like, ‘Have you been in jail before?’ — the generic questions, like on a job application. They don’t really check your background as much as they should when you’re dealing with young children.”

Yet it’s worth noting that the reason MacNeil’s kids don’t attend Sunday school is lack of time. Instead of a day of rest, Sunday has become just another day for over-scheduled kids to be chauffeured from sports practice to music lessons or SAT tutoring. It doesn’t help that parents themselves, so overwhelmed by life, are skipping church. “You would go to church, and then an hour or hour 15 minutes of Sunday school. It takes up all your morning. It felt like more of a chore for them to go, when you’re giving up some of your weekend and attending school during the week,” says MacNeil. “By the time they come home, it’s 12 noon, and when you have a weekend, you want to play with your friends outside and be a kid.”

Would a return to the Ten Commandments help? If Christians really worried about God’s law, and if Sunday were actually a day of rest and worship, would Sunday school be more popular?

Would grades help? Term papers?


35 thoughts on “Sunday School's Sun Sets

  1. I’d be curious to know if NAPARC congregations have declining SS participation. One thing I’ve noticed – small sample size – is the patriarchal-types who won’t let their kids be taught outside their presence.


  2. Muddy, maybe we should hand out candy for right answers and the attendance numbers will soar. Until then, being a teacher in those classes sometimes feels like this. So I hear ya, mud. Peace.


  3. Let’s not forget that Sunday school was not, until well into the 20th century, the normal way of nurturing covenant children. The problem isn’t with Sunday school. It’s with parents not honoring the covenant.


  4. Dan, your timeline needs adjustment.

    “By whom should the Catechism be taught? By parents. Sabbath-school teachers, and by the Pastors and Elders. § The N. S. Assembly in 1849 declared ” that the institution of Sabbath-schools does not exonerate ministers and parents from the duty of teaching the * Shorter Catechism’ to the children of the Church.” All Ministers and Elders were urged to teach diligently the youth in the ” Shorter Catechism,” which was recommended as a text-book in the Sabbath-school. || Similar deliverances were made by the O. S. Assembly in 1840, 1846, 1854.”


  5. I quite enjoy my current (adult) Sunday school as we’re presently discussing the WCF. It’s a good place to learn to humbly bear with the “I think the Bible says this” people. If Christians truly knew, honored and believed the benefits of the rest and worship on the Lord’s day, they’d be overflowing the SS rooms. But good luck getting people to worry about God’s law; and thus SS will never be popular, ipso fatso.


  6. Matt, our little mission work doesn’t have SS but we want to soon. My previous OP had an excellent class going through the LC which I enjoyed when not subbing for the youth teacher who needed it. Re: youth, it was all about GCP, yo..


  7. Bob S, you forgot to mention SS caused WW2 and is exacerbating world hunger.

    It’s not that bad of a thing, good grief..


  8. If Christians truly knew, honored and believed the benefits of the rest and worship on the Lord’s day, they’d be overflowing the SS rooms.



  9. “Bob S, you forgot to mention SS caused WW2 and is exacerbating world hunger.”

    You forgot abortion. But if his teacher Ptacek can pull a command against age segregation out the Bible then I’m with KG: “Anything is possibuhllllllllllllll!


  10. “parents have become ever more concerned about the welfare of their children”

    thinking that premise is the main thing that could be argued re this post


  11. AB:

    There’s a local Out-Jazz band (not out as in gay) that’s called The Dead Kenny G’s, which is a spoof of punk band The Dead Kennedys and of course Kenny G.


  12. Timeline for “Muddy”: Woodrow Wilson refused to send his children to Sunday school, saying that it was not meant for Christian children.


  13. Re: the day of rest and worship question, isn’t a morning and an evening service plenty for at least the public worship? If there is going to be time for private worship and acts of mercy, perhaps we shouldn’t impose three services and a choir rehearsal?


  14. Matt, thanks.

    d..x, sure. And hence SS has low attendance. But if the people in the church want it, the session can find a way to accomdate. Some people are eager to learn. It’s not as bad a thing as BubEss paints, is all.


  15. Dan, I know I’ve personally benefited from Woodrow Wilson’s work on systematic theology. You win.

    D4, you’re really coming into OL pleading for the priority of choir rehearsal over Sunday School?


  16. d4: Three services IS an imposition, if it’s imposed, ha. Seriously, two services leaves plenty of time for acts of mercy and (more) personal devotion, if one so wishes (and one should). Choir practice? Who needs a choir? ha


  17. Gotta love the substantive rejoinders.
    Nobody of course, has read Ptacek’s book or will.
    But it ought to be general knowledge that SS was originally a Methodist outreach to unchurched children.

    But what happens when the reformed church uses it to teach the covenant children?
    Follow closely, boys and girls, because whether as cause or symptom, catechism and family worship end up suffering. Human nature being what it is, it became SS’s job to educate the covenant children in the faith and once a week was good enough, rather than daily family worship and catechizing in reformed doctrine. Simple biblicism is enough.

    That’s the historical reality which prevails today. SS is a sacrosanct golden calf (as seen in the comments); an untouchable and ensconced tradition in at least presbyterian churches, though I have seen seasonal SS coincide with year round catechism in reformed churches.

    But there’s a reason why the Scotch church added the Directory for Family Worship to the Westminster Standards and disciplined fathers who didn’t have family worship. They weren’t enamored of fathers sluffing off their duties to once a week bible classes taught many times by women or youth in the church. An elder might lead the adult class, but that was an exception in the program I’ve seen. As to how the next generation of leaders would be able to affirm the confessional standard of the church when they played no part in the Chr. Ed/SS was a no brainer.


  18. Bub, I had to read it. Guess why? People were getting contentious about it. Imagine that. So no more Sunday School for the kids (it’s a solid if small SS program), no more youth group, and, if the doctor/patriarch is detained by work, no one comes to church because he always had to be there to supervise what the family was getting. Low ecclesiology, elevated patriarch. So congrats, Ptacek, you win.

    Anyway, you’re saying parents who otherwise would have been diligent to raise their children in fear and admonition of the Lord decided not to because their kids were getting 45 minutes of Bible lessons, one day per week? The central point strains credibility.


  19. Matt, if one should wish more personal devotion then how is a third service such an imposition? But don’t forget time to eat, sleep, and walk the dog.


  20. Zrim: I just don’t see a need for a third. I think two is just right,don’t you? Who needs a third when you have private devotion? Get busy.

    corporate worship
    a big gap of time for eating, sleeping, dog walking, cat feeding, alms giving, personal devotion
    some more corporate worship

    Bob said: ” SS is a sacrosanct golden calf (as seen in the comments)”

    I don’t see it. SS isn’t an obligation for us childless adults but another place to study God’s word.


  21. MG, he makes the case that SS replaced catechism and family worship for all practical purposes in American presbyterianism and links it to the further decline of the same.
    In the PCA church I was in, he was right about the first two.
    Your mileage may vary.
    But one, is it the exception or the rule and two, abuse does not rule out proper use.


  22. Actually a bullseye would be the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

    I chant Latin when I’ve had too many shots. Making rapid progress on hic haec hoc.


  23. Matt, agreed. Some, when pushing back against a- or anti-sabbatarianism, shove too hard and say, “Why two services? Why not three or more?” Because we’re frail, so stuff the hyper-piety. I say the same to those pietists who push for as much possible personal devotion in between (the sufficiently) two formal services.


  24. Mud, since when is an assertion an argument/proof?
    FWIW I found Ptacek’s comments an apt description of the SS/CE situation in the PCA congregation I was in. Eventually there was a switch to a CRC SS curriculum in place of the AofG/David Cooke stuff, (though Victor Ambrus is one of my favorite illustrators). But it was like pulling teeth from a chicken to even get a men’s study of the WCF going, which didn’t last much beyond the 3rd chapter. Too much arminianism in the eldership/church.
    Regardless, the correlation between family worship and faithfulness in the generations vs. SS was more interesting, if not damning imo.
    Again, your mileage may vary.


  25. MG, What do you see as the main reason for the decline in home catechesis and family worship? Our PCA congregation never verbalizes encouragement or admonition on home catechesis or family worship. Of course, in 10 years of being members, we have not experienced home visitations either. It seems those are expected per the BCO. I understand no direct line from SS to lack of catechesis. But it does seem there’s a lack of interest in our Reformed standards (at least in our local congregation) as far as training covenant children. I won’t paint with a broadly evangelical brush, but it seems like Forest Gump’s momma had some sage advice if applied to the PCA.


  26. Brad, in the case of a lot of PCA congregations the lack of emphasis on home instruction comes bundled with package of evangelical attitudes, practices, and omissions. Then, look at how a church packages its product and ask “who is attracted to that?” Probably a lot of folks who want a little religion to go along with their morals – not the types who are yearning for a visit by the Session, etc.


  27. Muddy,

    In our PCA congregation this past Sunday, the Junior High class just used this material on Sexually Transmitted Diseases. I think our 13 year old daughter is now ready to watch the Wire and attend the next PCRT. Or read more Piper.

    I would have preferred a bit of catechesis for our kid.


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