Ten things Sunday School can do
to adapt to post-pandemic attendance trends
The various clergy and church resources, futurists, bloggers, and number crunchers I follow* are predicting a very challenging post-pandemic future for churches. Most of them believe COVID has exposed, accelerated, and let loose changes that will be with us for years to come, if not permanently. Many of the changes were already "trends" before the pandemic -- membership and worship attendance decline, financial stress, declining numbers of children -- to name a few.
We can debate "why" attendance trends have been and will continue to be a serious issue — but not “if." Various surveys and experts point to several reasons for the trends so I'm not going to rehash them. Instead of hand-wringing and finger-pointing, I'm going to look at ways my Sunday School can adapt.
The BIGGEST CHANGE COMING that will affect "Sunday School" is attendance and the "quality" of that attendance. Indeed, the change was already happening in most churches before the pandemic.
Coming out of the pandemic, many church statistics and experts are predicting a post-pandemic membership drop of about 20%. Concurrently, post-pandemic "regular" attendance will be increasingly defined as "less regular" than before (which is another trend that's been with us for years).
Based on societal trends and church stats pre-dating the pandemic, many experts believe these drops will be "permanent" for many if not most churches, forcing the closure of some and austere contraction of others. While some churches will grow, overall the numbers of "churched" is expected to continue its decades-long slide in the U.S.
Maybe your program's design and attendance is "big enough" to withstand a 20% drop, but what about your budget or your staffing? And what about churches and programs that were already at the tipping point? And even if your church is mildly successful at regaining or even growing its membership over the next five years, changing demographics point to fewer children among that growth. Moreover, what opportunities will be missed by congregations that "hang on" through the decline as if nothing needs to change?
You may be one of the lucky few if...
- You are in a demographically "growing" area or neighborhood. You might not see a dramatic or permanent downturn (until the neighborhood ages).
- Your church and teaching program were "healthy" going into the pandemic. You may not see a dramatic or permanent downturn and can just scale it back a bit.
- Your church's worship was already appealing to families. You may not see a dramatic or permanent downturn, or can make a few adjustments. (But the research suggests that your success is cannibalizing nearby churches.)
But if you're like most churches, you already KNEW that you need to prepare for a different future -- a future that the pandemic has accelerated to our doorstep.
Ten Things Sunday School Leaders Can Do to Prepare for the Future
- Fear not. God is with us in the wilderness, and the wilderness has a way of clarifying and strengthening.
- Believe that "Sunday School" is a concept, not a day of the week. It's about the importance of teaching the Bible, and that can happen in many ways on any day.
- Reimagine how you teach based on the kids you WILL have, not the attendance you no longer have or wish you had --and do it now. It's easier to adapt a program that's still breathing than one you let die.
- Look for alternate times and places to add Sunday School-like teaching. For example, if parents are gathering with adults in a home for a Bible study, the kids could be doing the same in the basement. In children's worship, use break-out groups for actual study and discussion instead of just a talking head delivering "a message." Add teaching opportunities to existing church events, such as your dinners and picnics.
- Equip and resource parents to do Bible teaching through their parenting. This long-standing goal is now more important than ever. (Note: Sending flyers and coloring sheets is not the answer.)
- Establish an outreach & teaching program for non & infrequent attenders. This will include online opportunities and the use of social media. Create something that works for them on their schedule and needs, instead of what used to work for the church's schedule.
- Train & Resource Your Church's Grandparents to be their grandchildren's Christian educators. This may be your "silver-haired" church's next great opportunity to reach & teach kids -- especially in congregations that don't have many kids in attendance but have loads of grandkids.
- Help your church make Bible study a priority and hallmark of your congregation. Parents who believe in their own Bible study will make it a priority for their children, and they will attract others to your church who also believe or want that as a priority in their lives.
- Be cautious about broadly grading your classes. Most older children resist being treated "like babies" and doing so can hasten their exit. Instead, when you have just one or two much older children in a broadly graded-group, turn them into leaders in the group, and mentor them in other ways.
- Use the concepts of "rotation" and "workshop" to improve your teaching and the student's attendance experience. Rotation = focus on major stories for more than one lesson. Workshop = use a variety of creative teaching methods.
- What would you add here?
I'm hopeful because I believe and experienced that crisis is often the mother of invention. And Christian educators are some of the most creative people I know. I'm also hopeful because wilderness experiences are part of the DNA of our faith. They help us to clarify, discover, and hear the still small voice of God. Those who look back on Egypt, or try to live as if they are still in Egypt, will miss out on where and to whom God is leading us.
*Who do I read?
Here are a few of the "Church future" newsletters I subscribe to: