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Renew what?

As we consider the theme and work of renewal, rally, and rebuilding, it is important to consider the issues and trends that were already challenging us before the pandemic, were further exposed by the pandemic, and will be with us for years to come.

To put it bluntly, we don't want to renew bad habits, poor programs, and declining attendance.

During the pandemic here at, I started posting links, quotes, and opinions from a wide variety of church futurists, research groups (like Barna), consultants, and pastors whose opinions resonated with me. In many cases, I would post excerpts and then interpret their thoughts and stats as they might be applied to Sunday School. Below I've selected my favorites from that topic and edited them.

You're going to read a lot of "don't renew this!" and "let's renew our commitment to that." But before we get any further, let’s remember that it is WE who need to be renewed first: our faith, our endurance, our openness to going where the Spirit leads.

In his excellent 2021 video, Presbyterian pastor Brian Wallace outlined the challenges that face children and youth ministry coming out of the pandemic. He counseled both patience (time) and flexibility (including innovation) as we renew our ministries and commitments. Though spoken during the pandemic, his words speak to the ministry of renewal that's always in front of us. Especially these days, to be a godly leader, we need, as Brian says, to renew of our patience and flexibility, to which the scripture adds: renew ourstrength and mind as well.

From personal experience, I know that the work of renewing my patience, flexibility, strength, and mind begins with rest and prayer, scripture and study.

Then it includes listening and exploring new ideas --even the ones outside my comfort and skill zones.

It includes a willingness to put aside notions about the "right" way to do things, and a willingness to let go of my sacred cows.

And it includes not judging people about the choices they have made about Sunday morning.

I hope you enjoy the following insights from others and my comments about them. Your thoughts and links are welcome.



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Speaking of things we should not renew...

This excellent article is reprinted from the author's blog with permission. Thanks Karl! It really is one of my favorites.

To read this article for Christian education...

  • Wherever you read "pastors" substitute the word "Christian Educators" or "Teachers."
  • Wherever you read "church" or "worship," substitute the word "Sunday School" or whatever ministry you are involved in.

12 Bad Habits Pastors Dropped During The Pandemic That We Shouldn’t Pick Back Up Afterward

Did 2020 feel like a lost year to you?

If so, you’re definitely not alone.

But it wasn’t a lost year. Not if we don’t let it be.

One of the positives is that it forced us to define what is and isn’t essential in ministry. Most of the pastors I know dropped old habits that no longer work like they used to. If life during lockdown forced you to drop some bad habits, don’t pick them back up after the pandemic is over.

Here are 12 to watch out for:

Bad Habit 1: A Focus on the Church Building

This is one of the main differences between churches that have adapted well during the pandemic and those that have not. Churches and pastors that consider their church building as essential to worship and faith have been devastated by not being able to meet in it. Many have had to close for good.

On the other hand, the congregations that have not just survived, but thrived during this season have recognized that our buildings are not as essential as we’ve made them out to be.

The congregations that have not just survived, but thrived during this season have recognized that our buildings are not as essential as we’ve made them out to be.

When this is over and we’re allowed to go back into our church buildings, don’t fall back into the habit of relying on them for all our ministry.

Let’s focus on doing ministry from the building, not just in the building.

Bad Habit 2: An Obsession with Attendance and Numerical Increase

Most churches saw losses in attendance and offerings in the past year. It was unavoidable.

But that was never the best measure of church health and strength, anyway.

Thriving churches learned to see health and growth by what the church (as in the people) did, not just how many people gathered.

Let’s not go back to obsessing about butts in the seats ever again.

Bad Habit 3: Thinking We Have a Clue About What’s Coming Next

Those “2020 Vision” sermons didn’t age well, did they?

I’m not against planning, organizing or casting a vision for the future. But this year we learned to hold loosely to our plans.

Churches with adaptability built into their strategy fared better than those with strict plans. This is a reality that will be even more true going forward.

Let’s keep praying, planning and strategizing. But adaptability needs to remain a high priority.

Bad Habit 4: Not Paying Attention to What’s Coming Next

This is the flip-side of the previous point. While we can’t predict what’s coming, we mustn’t make the mistake of throwing our hands in the air in hopelessness, either.

While we can’t predict what’s coming, we mustn't make the mistake of throwing our hands in the air in hopelessness, either.

In 2020, we had to pay more attention than usual to the changes that are happening all around us. And so many churches did such a great job at adapting so quickly!

If the pandemic and lockdowns shook you and your congregation up, don’t be in a hurry to go back to being too comfortable with the way things are. We’ve learned to watch, listen, and adapt. Keep at it.

Bad Habit 5: Not Pacing Ourselves

Change happened so quickly at the start of the pandemic. From in-person services one week to online-only the next, then back inside, then outside, then…

In the first weeks and months, most of us jumped into sprint mode as we tried to keep up with all the changes. Then, as time went on and we realized this was no longer a matter of weeks, but months and probably years, we had to switch into a slower, steadier marathon mode of leadership and adaptability.

In the coming months there will be many temptations to jump back into sprint mode. Don’t do it!

Ministry is a marathon. Pace yourself for it.

Bad Habit 6: Ignoring Our Health, Families and Souls

This is one of the main reasons to pace yourself in ministry. When we stay at a sprint pace it always costs us something. And those who pay the price are usually our health, our family, and/or our souls.

When we stay at a sprint pace it always costs us something. And those who pay the price are usually our health, our family, and/or our souls.

The pandemic shutdown forced many of us to spend more time with our families and ourselves. Sometimes with bad results. But if these changes have allowed you to pay more attention to the principles that keep you and your family healthy, build on that.

Bad Habit 7: Not Equipping the Church

Maybe the biggest mistake I’ve seen my fellow small-church pastors make in this season has been an extension of our biggest overall ministry mistake – not following the Pastoral Prime Mandate of “equipping God’s people for works of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-12).

During this challenging time, many of us have leaned on the help of our church members more than we’ve been used to. Keep fostering that spirit.

Don’t go back to doing all the ministry yourself. Build on the foundation of increased volunteerism by training, mentoring and equipping church members in continued ministry.

Bad Habit 8: Expecting Anything to be Business-as-Usual

This pandemic hasn’t brought change to the church. It’s just accelerated the pace of change and made it more obvious than ever before.

Don’t allow yourself to slip back into the mode of business-as-usual again. Change is relentless. Our ability to adapt to it is essential.

Bad Habit 9: Hanging on to Dead Programs

You know those church programs you used to do, but you had to stop because of the pandemic? Don’t be in a hurry to restart them.

  • First ask “is anyone really missing them?”
  • Then ask “would it be a real loss if we didn’t restart some of them?”

There will never be an easier time to simplify your church’s ministries than now. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by.

There will never be an easier time to simplify your church’s ministries than now. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by.

Bad Habit 10: A Longing for the Past

There’s no “back to normal” any more.

Even if the past you’re longing for is how things were just last year, you’re still looking in the wrong direction.

Resist the habit of looking in the rear-view mirror.

Bad Habit 11: An Obsession with Being Trendy

This is the flip side of habits 8 through 10.

While some churches have learned to make necessary changes, others learned that nothing will ever replace the essential need that people have to meet together, sing in worship, receive communion and other perennial aspects of being the body of Christ.

Chasing trends feels wasteful and nonsensical during a pandemic. It will be just as wasteful and nonsensical after it’s over.

Bad Habit 12: Taking Anything for Granted

I never thought we’d have to go for weeks without opening the church building for worship. Or go for weeks without being able to offer nursery care even after we opened the building up. Or not be able to gather family for the holidays even though they live in the same city.

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s not to take the most simple joys of life, family and faith for granted.

When life does settle down again, let’s never settle for that.


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The future of Sunday School:
personal, but not always in-person


One of the things that the pandemic reminded us of was that NOTHING STAYS THE SAME (except for God). To check this statement, look in the mirror

Adapt, change, and evolve is what we do.

What we've learned so far coming out of the pandemic speaks to the future we are inheriting:

  • It's going to take time for some people to fully return and engage.
  • Some people probably won't be coming back (and indeed, didn't).
  • Many congregations and programs were already fighting decline before COVID.
  • Surveys are reporting a lot of stress and exhaustion among church staff.
  • We tried a lot of new things during the pandemic, especially online things, and discovered for the most part that we weren't ready, and our members weren't willing after a point. But something tells us that being forced online was a wake up call.
  • And "no church affiliation" is still the fastest growing denomination in the U.S.

    (I've put a couple of citations and "further reading" links for these statements and at the end of this article. )

I am hopeful. Call it providence, but the pandemic brought some of us some much-needed experimentation in Christian education:

  • It has taught us "how -to" and how-not-to reach out online and at a distance.
  • It has inspired at-home learning initiatives and materials, but also reminded us of the challenge of getting follow-through at home.
  • It's been a year of technical learning, trial and error.
  • We've learned that "new" can be exhausting, but also full of potential.
  • We've been forced out of our same-old-silos and comfort zones.
  • We've experienced the luxury of "doing without" things we thought were important and are finding out just how important they really were.
  • And we've all been reminded of the blessing of being together AND learning together (which is something many had taken for granted).

Of course, some churches simply punted the whole time, went through the motions. I'm sad for them.

What does the future hold for Sunday School?

It's going to be wonderful to get back together, which is something many churches are doing right now in a limited way. But the need for more “online" and "at-home" outreach and learning is NOT going to go away with a vaccine. They were not temporary measures. They were the beginning of the future -- a future that doesn't sit in the church waiting for people to show up.

I've heard people say or write "people are tired of online!" -- And the funny thing is, you read those things in ONLINE articles and posts! Contrary to the complaints and wishful nostalgic thinking, we now spend more time online than ever before. In just a few short years "online" has become woven into the fabric of our daily lives. The average American now spends 152 minutes a day on social media alone, and that doesn’t include other online activities such as Netflix, school, or work. More jobs have moved online, and there's been a growth in online schooling too. These trends already existed pre-COVID, and will continue whether you like them or not.

So you tell me... was the declining participation in our online services and lessons because our members didn't want to be online? Or because our online product stunk?

Naysayers are easy to be found when something new is emerging. Remember when those disciples were blown by the Spirit into the street on the day of Pentecost to speak in new ways? (I heard the naysayers when I started teaching with software, and began experimenting with the Workshop Rotation Model, and helped launch this website.)

I have no doubt we're going to see more "online" and at-home Sunday School materials from the publishers and creative teachers. But as helpful as these materials will be, they are not the revolution. The real revolution is personally REACHING OUT to our students and families via various online methods: connecting, pastoring, encouraging, and yes, teaching.

In other words:  our efforts will be personal, but not always in-person.

In my Sunday School software seminars and books, I used to say it like this:

You don't replace teachers with software, they become your guides by the side.

"Personal" is harder and more time-consuming, but it's also often more rewarding and effective.

This revolution won't replace in-person learning

This revolution won't replace in-person learning, worship, or fellowship, but it will supplement it AND encourage it, and give us new ways to reach more kids and families, rather than waiting around for them to walk through our door.

The inclusion of more "at-home" also holds the promise of something we've long sought: bringing parents back into the teaching equation.

These changes are in keeping with something we have been saying in the church forever and 2020 has reminded us in a dramatic way: the church is not a building.

Lots more to say! Your thoughts welcome.

<>< Neil

More for leaders...

One of my favorite "church futurists" is Pastor Cary Nieuwhof. Not only is he leading a congregation, he is talking about the things churches need to be talking about.  I would encourage you to read his blog. Nearly every one of his posts is challenging and full of facts, such as some of the things I just quoted above and continue with below.

"7 Weird Lies About Online Church that Pastors Need to Stop Believing"

Here are some conclusions from "7 Weird Lies About Online Church"

  • If you think people are "screened out," run your theory by TikTok or Instagram. Apparently, people aren’t nearly as done with screens as you think.

    (I would add Netflix and Facebook to the number of "screens" in our lives. )

  • If you think people "don’t like technology," and "church online is just a bridge to get us to reopening," then you're engaged in wishful thinking. "Almost all of the people you want to reach and connect with are online. It’s time for the church to embrace that."

  • He concludes:

    In the midst of an unprecedented amount of change, it’s natural to cling to the familiar. It’s also a terrible leadership strategy.

Citations and Further Reading:

Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian minister specializing in creative approaches to Christian education. He helped create the Rotation Model and


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Ten things about Sunday School we don't want to renew:

  1. The "can't-do," "won't work here," spirit. Time to shake that attitude from our sandals.

  2. Dysfunctional or disruptive volunteers. Oy.

  3. Fluff programs and events that don't include teaching and promote discipleship.

  4. Low standards. I'm looking at YOU children's sermons, classroom environments, and teaching methods.

  5. Lessons and children's sermons that are little more than "be good" instead of the "Good News."

  6. The pastor's 10-foot pole they use on children's ministry.

  7. Paying for curriculum that the teachers aren't using or are dumbing down to the craft.

  8. Counting attendance instead of disciples.

  9. Failure to equip parents to do Christian parenting.

  10. YOUR "DO NOT RENEW" SUGGESTION HERE: ________________________________.


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Why renewing the same-old isn't the answer.

According to a 2019 Barna Research poll, 57% of church-going adults said they were tired or somewhat tired of the usual type of church experience.

This is from the people who were still attending church.

According to Barna,

Church attendance has been declining for decades, and is expected to keep declining due to cultural shifts. So the odds of you "renewing attendance" to some distant past number is probably a long shot.

Instead, renewing who to engage, disciple, and equip people will be the new "attendance."

Renewing will also mean renewing how we communicate, engage, and educate people.

"Churches still operate like cable TV in the 1980s.  Tune in live or you don’t count. Whereas, now the culture increasingly operates like Netflix and YouTube." --they want to be able to consume your content and experiences on their schedule which doesn't always include 9 a.m. on Sunday morning.

To understand this, think of how YOU consume knowledge and communicate with distant friends online on YOUR schedule. That should give you an inkling of how your church and teaching materials and experiences need to become available to people who can't attend your live event, but still want to engage and grow.

Yes, it is easier just to expect every family to give you one hour a week for Sunday School. But increasingly, that is not the world we live in.


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Ten things Sunday School can do
to prepare for the future

The various clergy and church resources, futurists, bloggers, and number crunchers I follow* are predicting a very challenging future for churches. Most of them believe the pandemic exposed, accelerated, and let loose changes that will be with us for many 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" or definition of that attendance. By "quality" I mean the extent to which you as a teacher/leader engage and disciple the children and people in your care, and not in terms of "how many Sundays a month did they show up." Yes, it's easier to engage groups of people you can count on to attend each week, but if that's your only model for engagement both you and they will lose out.  (Even Jesus moved from town to town.)

If you're one of the lucky churches with a good preacher who attracts people and a nice facility in a growing area, you might be able to use the old definitions of renewal. But for many, "renewal" probably won't mean an increase or renewal in attendance.

Renewal will first mean a renewed sense of purpose and commitment coupled with some new ways of reaching out, discipling, and equipping.

Ten Things Sunday School Leaders Can Do to Prepare for the Future

  1. Fear not. Like every other wilderness, God is with us in this one. The wilderness has a way of clarifying and strengthening.

  2. Believe that "Sunday School" is a concept, not only a day of the week. It's about the importance of teaching the Bible, and that can happen in many ways on any day.

  3. Reimagine and renew how you teach based on the kids you WILL have and results you need, and not the attendance you no longer have or may never again achieve --and do it now before the expectations and spirit of your kids, teachers, and parents gets any lower.

  4. 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.

  5. Equip and resource parents to do Bible teaching through their parenting. This long-standing goal is now more important than ever. (Note: Sending home flyers and coloring sheets is not the answer.)

  6. Establish an outreach & teaching program for non & infrequent attenders. This will include online opportunities and the use of social media, as well as equipping their parents and establishing a personal relationship with your kids outside of the classroom. Create something that works for them on their schedule and needs, instead of what used to work for the church's schedule.  (Why haven't we been doing this all along?)

  7. 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.

  8. Help your church make Bible study a priority and hallmark of your congregational life. 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.  Just please don't schedule it all at one time or place. Today's people need options.

  9. Be cautious about OVER 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.

  10. 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.

  11. What would you add here?

Tall order.

I'm hopeful because I believe that crisis is often the mother of invention. I have helped turn around dead and dying Sunday Schools and I know that Christian educators are some of the most creative people on earth. When this website was started, most people weren't yet online and few people were online talking about Sunday School. Things can change.

I'm also hopeful because wilderness experiences are part of our faith DNA. They help us to clarify, discover, rethink, prioritize, and hear the voice of God leading us.

I'm also not overly nostalgic about the past when attendance was "good." (Where are all those kids now?) Time to put the past in our rear-view mirror and set some new goals.



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Church fills empty pews with photos of parishioners during COVID-19 crisis - 6abc Philadelphia

Church growth guru Pastor Carey Nieuwhof has been posting challenging articles and predictions about what the "post-pandemic church" and attendance is going to look like." Below I've excerpted TWO of them.  Keep in mind that the trends, stats, and experts are saying that the pandemic did not create these issues, it merely accelerated them.

While his comments are mostly directed at worship, I think they apply to Sunday School as well. Nieuwhof is basing his predictions on surveys, research, and the work of other experts in the field of church growth and decline, such as Barna Research, Lifeway Research, and Pew (many of whom he interviews in his podcasts).

Here's an excerpt from Nieuwhof's first article titled:


But could have just as easily been titled:


1. The Leaders Bet Everything On A Physical Return To Church

2. Success Is Still Measured By The Number Of People Who Attend Physical Locations

3. Online Ministry Is Still Seen As An Afterthought Or Lesser Form

4. All Feedback Comes From Their Echo Chamber

5. They Quickly Went Back To Their (Same Old) Format

The second article of his that I've excerpted below is titled:


I would encourage you to read the entire article. Below I've added my comments appro pro to Sunday School.

  1. In-Person Doesn’t Necessarily Mean In Your Facility

    • This is similar to #3 but speaks more to the idea of alternative gathering spaces instead of viewing the church building as a "life center." The article mentions why this "shift" fits younger generations.

    One corollary is, "Sunday School doesn't have to be on Sunday and doesn't have to be taught like you're in a public school facility.

  2. In Person Attendance In The Building Will Only Be A Percentage Of Your Real Church

    Increasingly, people will participate via other means, both virtually, and by time-shifting their consumption of your message and teaching --if you provide them those options. (And if you don't, many will go to a church that does fill their need.)

    • Lots of ways to go with this observation, but the implication here is that we need to change our "measures of success" when it comes to group learning versus individualized learning. BOTH are more natural options than "you gotta be here in person at 9 a.m."

  3. You’ll Use The Building To Reach People Online, (instead of using) Online To Get People In The Building

    • Using online to get people inside the building is old thinking. The new thinking is that online IS a place to learn and meet, and call people to meet/serve in locations outside of the church building. How can our Sunday Schools reach and teach kids outside our buildings?  Where can Sunday School "go" instead of always meeting in the building?

  4. In-Person Church Attendance Will Probably Become More In-Frequent Church Attendance

    We've already seen this. And those attending less frequently don't automatically equate "less" with "less faith." We need to start encouraging being a 24/7/365 Christian, and not just a Sunday church-goer. Had enough of those already.

    • See my notes on "infrequent" in the post previous to this one. Does spending a lot of money on graded curriculum that changes the story every week sound like a good idea if half your regular attenders will miss HALF of the curriculum you're paying for? Nope.

  5. Digital Church Will Be More Of A Front Door And A Side Door Than A Back Door

    • This is similar to other observations based on research that I've read. A church's online presence is the new front door and sign along the road.  Younger adults are much more likely to "look you up" before they walk through your door.

    So tell me, what do they see when they visit your church's website? Would YOU want to go there?

These predictions are scary and depressing to some people, particularly those in charge who lack skills and experience in these areas. It's going to be a lot of hardwork, trial, error, and dealing with naysayers.  What I'm keeping my eye on are THE FORERUNNERS -- those who are already succeeding in these areas and can teach us. That's how the Workshop Rotation Model spread in the 1990's -- people watched what and how we were doing Sunday School. We also took it upon ourselves to share our "how to" via

Find those who are doing what you'd like to do or haven't yet thought of and learn from them.

Then become a teacher so that others can learn from your experience.


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Article: 7 Trends to Expect in 2021 Children’s Ministry

I thought this article from Group has some interesting thoughts for ministry as the pandemic continues as well as into the future.

The author points out the urgent need for children's ministry to help kids deal with stress and isolation and depression that have come out of the changes necessitated by the pandemic.

In many parts of the country, schools are back in-person, and churches that can provide in-person ministry will attract families from churches that have not been able to get restarted.

Here is one of the things in the article that really caught my eye:

"The COVID quarantine mentality has elevated the desire and need for human interaction, fellowship, and participation.

Passively sitting and watching others has lost its patina. And wedging into a crowd to passively watch the person at the microphone has really lost favor during these contagious times.

Kids today want to be noticed, named, and known, (according to the research). If your teaching is primarily a spectator-show, expect steady decline.

Churches and children’s ministries that rely on stage performances will weaken.

Hands-on, participatory experiences will reign, along with breaking crowds into smaller relational groups.

Even children’s ministries that continue to offer online sessions will need to incorporate active, participatory, relational, hands-on elements."

Once again I can see how the relational and experiential aspects of our Workshop Rotation Model are exactly what our kids needs --especially now!

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Article: Look! I’m Doing a New Thing

More hopeful food for thought from the folks at GenOn Ministries


"... we should think about “how we are moving forward” rather than “getting back to normal.” Meaning: 2021's new normal is going to be a little (or a lot) different than our 2019 normal, and better than 2020.

Followers of Jesus Christ live by hope. And through that hope in Christ, we have confidence that God is doing a new thing. That God is right there with us in our “coming along.” Our moving forward."

The pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to experiment, even if just for a season. It's taught us what we can do without, and what we need to do better.

What have you tried and learned that will become part of your "new normal"?

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Children's Ministry as a Way to Reactivate Adult and Family Attendance

In his recent article, church growth expert Thom Rainer reminds us that it is often through CHILDREN & YOUTH that families find their way back to church, parents meet and make friends in the church, and adults are evangelized.

Of course, this is something children's ministers have known forever.

a. Kids don't drive themselves.

b. Adults are much more inclined to say "yes" when it's for their children's benefit.

c. Many adults crave fellowship and children's ministry can offer many opportunities to meet and get to know other adults in the congregation. (Indeed, we should create such opportunities!)

Challenge #1: In my experience, pastors and church leaders outside of children's ministry are largely UNAWARE of this potential, or dismissive of it.

Challenge #2:  Coming out of the pandemic, the connection between attracting kids and also attracting their parents means that we're going to have to have our "A" game going, or we may miss the "window of opportunity" of so many people returning to look for what they think they've been missing.

the "window of opportunity"
members returning to look
for what they think they've been missing


The psychology behind the concept of "Windows of Opportunity" is that the human brain is wired to "move on" from past behaviors once they are stopped, or no longer meet our needs, or get replaced by something new and different.

This is why diets don't work once you stop them, and why AA does if you keep going to the group. This is why "former" members are the hardest to reactivate, and why church membership experts remind us of the importance of caring for and feeding our members, instead of taking them for granted.

For most churches, the "window of opportunity" will be Fall 2021 when the pandemic is (hopefully) behind us and "fall programming" starts up with all of its expectations and excitement (hopefully). And because of our psychology, it's a window that won't stay open forever.

It's also a wide open window!  Read Barna's Research quoted below in this forum about "What People Say They Miss About In-Person Church," --especially YOUNGER adults. It's not the sermon or choir music.

according to Barna what the parents of our Sunday School kids (Millennials) have really missed during the pandemic are the social aspects of going to church, being with people like themselves.

The challenge may also be greater than expected, in part, because the pandemic has likely accelerated church disengagement trends that have growing for decades according to researchers and pollsters (many of which I've quoted and linked in this forum). What this means is that some of our impending challenges, if not outright "losses" were in the works BEFORE COVID and that offering "more of the same" isn't going to help.

So let's take seriously what we know works and what people say they want -- meaningful relationships through meaningful participation, learning, and leadership opportunities.

The time to begin addressing the fall and coming "window of opportunity" is now.


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What might people want to renew and recommit themselves to?

Here are some fascinating stats from a 2020 Barna Research poll about what people said they "missed" about going to church when they couldn't attend during the pandemic.

What did our church members "miss" about coming to church?

Barna Research has been polling church members and pastors throughout the pandemic.

Their March 31, 2021 newsletter about what church-goers "miss" includes a poll from back in September 2020 when the pandemic was getting worse. Fortuitously, they broke it down by "generation" so that we can see what parents of children might be thinking. While no specific question is asked about children's Sunday School, the poll clearly shows that our children's parents are missing many of the social aspects of their participation at church.

Boomers are those born between 1946-1964 (currently 57-75 years old). Gen X were born between 1965-1980 (41-56 years old). And Millennials are aged 25-40 years old (born 1981-1996).

(Click on the image to see it larger.)

what churchgoers miss about in-person services by generation

While the differences between generations don't appear to be great, according to Barna the parents of our Sunday School kids (the Millennials) miss more of the social aspects of going to church than older members.

  1. The chance to connect with like-minded people
  2. Connecting with church leaders in person
  3. Corporate Worship
  4. Chance to meet new people
  5. Sunday School, small groups
  6. Volunteering (at the church)

Interestingly, those "social needs" do not include socializing before and after worship. So much for coffee hour.

I think it's also interesting that 9% of Millenials and a whopping 17% of Gen Xers (parents of our teens and college students) miss "None of the Above."


If you want children's attendance to return and grow, you need to meet the social needs of their millennial parents by doing more than offering them coffee after worship.

What else might "what we missed" be telling us?


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Here's another insight gleaned from our COVID exile about attendance patterns.

Once-a-Month Churchgoers Are Becoming More Common

Excerpts from church growth guru Tom Rainer's 5/24/21 blog post.

  • Prior to the pandemic, the twice-a-month church attendee was considered active by most church members and leaders.
  • But one of the trends emerging from the pandemic is the increasing number of once-a-month attendees.
  • Is this trend temporary, one that will improve as COVID concerns wane?
  • Are these members re-establishing themselves or are they easing themselves out?
  • What are the motivations for such infrequent attendance?
  • Why is church not the best family time possible?
  • The once-a-month church attendee is not as much a function of culture winning as it is the church surrendering.

What if they don't come back?

Insights from Barna Research as reported by Pastor Jason Koon in The Baptist News

Baptist News reported a Barna Research statistic that signals part of the problem:  pastors and younger people/families are NOT on the same wavelength:

"nearly 70% of pastors believe they are meaningfully engaging their congregations on issues of social responsibility,

(but) only 30% of 18- to 35-year-olds see it the same way."

That's a 40% different in perception, and one of the reasons why pastors often "just don't understand" why young people aren't coming to their church.

Instead of blaming those who are leaving, we could step back and take a long, agonizing look at the expressions of faith they’re leaving behind.

  • Why don’t they miss it?
  • What about the way we do church falls so flat that committed Christians just don’t see the point anymore?
  • Is it possible this exodus is not a culling of the churchgoers who are walking away, but an indictment against the expressions of faith they’re walking away from?
  • What's easier to change? A pastor's behavior and skillset or the needs of a generation?
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Helping God's Sheep

This post is about managing expectations

Increasing Sunday School attendance has always been the goal of teachers and leaders. We've put a lot of heart and soul into the effort. Because we care, and because some have made it their livelihood, it's personal.

But "increased attendance" is simply not going to happen in many churches. Personally, I would trade away higher attendance for better discipleship every day of the week.

That's why I want you to read "5 Ways Tracking Church Attendance Can Mess With Your Soul" from Pastor Carey Nieuwhof. It's a word of grace to all of us who count heads on Sunday morning, or who have bosses who count our heads for us.

And while he doesn't mention Sunday School, his pastoral advice still applies. Only please read it to the very end where he addresses the uncomfortable paradox about the need for counting.

(and why you still need to do it)


One of the great blindspots of Christian education has been the need to minister to the low attenders and non-attenders. We don't view them as a priority, or at least, pretend not to have the time for them (we're so busy, yada, yada).

I get it. Who wants to make that phone call asking "where were you?" I hate those kinds of phone calls, emails, and postcards when I get them, don't you?  (After moving out of town, a former church continued to send me their generic "WE MISS YOU" emails and postcards for TWO YEARS.)

Encouraging more attendance is hard. People are often set in their ways and attitudes (including the leaders ).


How to Engage Non-Attending and Low Attendance Members

In my experience, what often works is finding "that thing" that will get them involved somewhere, somehow. And "that thing" may not be your Sunday School right now (or ever). It will likely be some "simple "ask" that helps them get back into the habit and attitude of participating.

A few simple "asks"

  • Can your family help pour drinks next Sunday?
  • Can you help collect the offering next Sunday?
  • Can you help with fellowship snacks next Wednesday?
  • Can you help me be a game leader Sunday night?
  • Can I sign up your family to walk in the CROP walk?
  • Can I help you with transportation?
  • I hear you like to ___________(local ball team, ski, sail, kayak, fish), wanna go sometime?

    Works about 25% of the time in my estimation. The other 75%?  Maybe they're just not ready yet, and that has to be okay with us.

Just be aware of what THEIR "asks" may be of you.

What's going on in their life right now? What are their needs, hurts, concerns, joys, scheduling issues? Do they have transportation needs, clothing needs, childcare needs? What faith issues are keeping them away?  etc.

They often feel judged or embarrassed. Some are even hostile. Approach them covered in fruit not judgment! (the fruit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control).

And be equipped to care and respond...
Can't tell you the number of times I've poked my nose into a non-attending family only to discover dysfunction and real pain, and they weren't always welcoming. It can be sad, which is another reason we probably don't want to do it. And sometimes you discover that it was YOUR attendance that they needed, not theirs.

Don't lose heart. Instead, be steadfast. It may take months or years for someone to feel part of your church's community. And we're not called to "win people for Christ." they are already his --the sheep of his pasture, remember?

We're merely the assistant shepherds.

Looking forward to your thoughts...


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That's the provocative title of church futurist and growth guru, Pastor Carey Nieuwhof's August 6, 2021 blog post.

In it, he analyzes the current pandemic and attendance situation in the church, reminds us of pre-existing statistical trends, and explains why we have a natural nostalgia for the past (which can cripple our future). His "nostalgia" observations alone are worth the read.

His article in brief:

  • Things aren't normal and won't be for a very long time.
  • Focusing your resources on facility-based gatherings may leave you doing nothing well.
  • Thinking about "the past" doesn't make you panic like thinking about the future, which is why people yearn for the past.

Some of my reactions and applications:

  • "Normal" in the church wasn't usually that great anyway.
  • Teaching the Bible to kids doesn't have to be "in-church" but it does have to be "teaching" and not just "gathering."
  • "Creative people don't panic about the future, they get busy tackling it." As teachers, we are "agents of change" like Jesus is --not Guardians of the Old Order.
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The United Methodist Church's "Ministry Matters" online magazine has published an article with numerous links to other articles dealing with "the attendance question" --how churches are preparing and changing.

Here's a quote from the article:

The answer to the anxious question for leaders--Will the people return to the sanctuary?--is necessarily delayed until the delta surge burns out. However, before the surge, anecdotal observations registered alarm concerning low worship attendance in June and July (which applies to in-person or a hybrid online environment). It’s summer, with vacations as a factor, but the challenge for the return is still obvious.


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Are they coming back ?

Pastor Carey Nieuwhof provocatively suggests we focus on those who DO come back rather than worry about those who don't.  (Fall 2021)

Gallup: Church Attendance in 2021
compared to previous years

Gallup Quote: The pandemic's effect on Americans' practice of their religion has been significant. Church membership in 2020 fell to its lowest point in more than eight decades of Gallup's tracking, and overall religious service attendance (the combined percentage in-person and virtual) also reached an all-time low. The latest data show that even as in-person attendance has increased with fewer closures and capacity limitations, overall attendance remains lower in 2021 than in 2019. As Americans gradually resume their pre-pandemic lives, their participation in religious services may increase further. But as the trend shows, attendance has generally been declining over the past two decades, so a full rebound to what it was two years ago (in 2019) may not occur.

Gallup Religions and Church Statistics from the first half of 2021

as reported in Christianity Today

Who are the people who are not attending, not joining, or not coming back?

  • Many Americans don’t see it necessary to join a church in order to attend services regularly
  • Older Christians are Just as likely to be nonmembers as younger ones
  • 1 in 10 church attenders are non-members
  • Non-attenders are largely NOT agnostic or atheists. What many are is anti-institutional.

How and with whom do you communicate what's going on in Sunday School?

Neil Note: I've been thinking about churches I've been part of over the years and how poorly equipped we/they were to stay in touch with visitors and non-members who attended with some regularity. Our passive "data collection" relied mostly on visitors filling out the pew pad and a secretary entering them into a database, or hoping the teacher or leader got the visitor's contact info when they dropped their kid off in class or fellowship. Or worse --hoping the pastor remembered names and details.

Moving forward, we simply can't operate like that anymore.

If your Sunday School does NOT have the capability or interest in gathering the contact info of visitors and non-members who are attending, then they are missing a big informational and outreach opportunity that is more important these days than ever before.

Church Visitors Data Collection

Improving Our Data Collection So We Can Reachout and Keep Non-Members and Recent Visitors Informed

  • Getting visitors and non-members to give you their contact information is important and challenging.
  • Passive "walk up tables" and pew cards are weak approaches.
  • For Sunday School, at least, info collection is a sign of safety and care that many parents will appreciate, but schedules and church architecture can make it challenging. (See some suggestions below.)
  • We need to do a better job of "discovering" the contact info of visitors and non-members who did not give it to us in person, or give incomplete info. The internet and various search companies make it easier these days. (It's not "creepy," it's evangelism.)
  • Options for collecting contact info will vary depending on your church's schedule, building, and number of visitors/non-members attending at any given time.

IMHO, the best information you can collect these days is a cellphone number and email address for immediate "was great to meet you today" contact. Sending out "welcome letters" is old-fashioned and impersonal. If you do snailmail people, write personal notes.

The second best info is a mailing address so you can send them your newsletter and Sunday School info AFTER you've made your more personal contact. People want to know you noticed and appreciated their participation, and they need to know what's coming up.

Some ideas for "good contact collection practices"

Here are some ideas. What are yours?

1. Requiring "parent drop-off or pickup from classes" to create a face to face contact with the teacher. In churches that let their kids "roam" the building, this would be a big culture shift. A lot to think about here, but requiring some sort of "hand off" not only creates a data collection point, it's a good safety practice that parents will understand.

Church Visitor Gift Bags2. Requiring the use of nametags in Sunday School and having the teacher collect the nametags at the end of class. The nametag creates a data collection point and a good memory. The teacher can ask for the address of the child and write it on the nametag, then collect it at the end of class. If parents are doing drop off, they can write their cellphone/email on the tag as well that gets collected back by the teacher. Electronic sign-in options are nice too if you can afford them.

3. New Student Gift Bag with Detachable Contact Card
Some churches give "welcome bags" to the adults --if the adult approaches a table, but kids are much more likely to be interested and impressed by free swag! The bag can come with an information card attached to it that the teacher fills out and keeps before giving out the bag. Even if all the child knows is the name of their street, a volunteer can take it from there to discover the rest of the address.

4. A "Church Cam"
A former church where I suggested this hated the idea. (They also thought their website wasn't important.) But as a staff member, I was often put in a position to NEED to know about visitors who attended but whom I wasn't able to physically greet (which is difficult in some churches due to size and building architecture).  Having a photo of people in the church service I could review (or use to jog my memory) would have been nice, or a camera aimed at the front door (in that church it would have caught everyone). I believe that here in 2021 people feel differently about cameras and such, and they are a lot easier to conceal if you feel uncomfortable with them. They can also serve a security purpose.

In another church, I would have loved to have a video camera recording the area where I greeted parishioners as they exited the worship service.  It would have been easy to review, and I could have used it to hear myself repeating names and needs. Years ago attending a Catholic church I noticed an older member standing behind the priest at the exit door taking notes. Same thing.


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Most have come back (to worship)


Lifeway Research has released the results of their August 2021 "return to worship" poll of Protestant churches:

98% of churches are open for worship

By August 2021, the average church had 73% of their church members in person on Sunday morning. That number was 63% in August 2020.

91% of churchgoers told Lifeway Research they planned on attending church services as much as they did prior to the pandemic or even more once COVID-19 was no longer an active threat to people’s health.

On average, small church attendance in worship is higher than big church attendance in worship. Said the Lifeway researcher: “It’s possible small churches are aided by perceived safety of a naturally smaller gathering, differences in technology options for gathering online, or the strength of relational connections. But regardless of the reasons why, in-person worship attendance trends currently look promising for small churches.”

African American pastors are 12.5 times as likely as white pastors to say their attendance is less than 30% what it was before COVID-19 (25% to 2%).

Still no polls about the return to "small groups," or children and youth ministry.

There's certainly a lot to cheer in these latest stats, but it's important to note that the poll results are "averages" --meaning, some churches are doing better, and some are doing worse. As well, some prognosticators are concerned about the long-term impact of losing 10% of members and the trend toward less "regular" attendance.

I'm in the process of preparing a SURVEY about Oct 2021 Sunday School attendance. Members should watch for an email about that soon!

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Assessing the Health of Our Leaders

It's not just our programs that need special care...

Barna Research has just published its October 2021 survey results about the "health of ministers" before and during the pandemic, and for many, it's not good.

Coming out of the pandemic, we need healthy, energized pastors, but 38% have seriously considered QUITTING THE MINISTRY in the past year. And that's an increase of 9% from January 2021.

I would suggest this same problem afflicts other church staff too, and perhaps a good deal of our volunteer staff.  See my suggestions at the end of this post for promoting staff health.

I hope the following information leads you to check-in with your pastor and staff. Please also share it with your church's personnel committee to address any potential issues.

The Barna survey also looks at various aspects of a pastor's health, including spiritual, emotional, and physical. See the full report.

From Barna:

“We started seeing early warning signs of burnout among pastors before COVID,” says David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group. “with initial warning bells sounding in Barna’s The State of Pastors study in 2017. Now, after 18 months of the pandemic, along with intense congregational divisions and financial strain, an alarming percentage of pastors is experiencing significant burnout, driving them to seriously consider leaving ministry. This is a growing crisis for church leaders in America."

Ten Ways to Promote the Health of Your Church Staff and Pastor

  1. Make sure staff take time off from church duties to recharge their batteries.
  2. Publicly support staff in the face of opposition/naysayers and other stresses.
  3. Commit to pay them appropriately.
  4. Encourage staff to take time for continuing education and time with peers.
  5. Encourage staff to have mentors outside the congregation they spend time with.
  6. Encourage leaders and members not to talk "church work" with the pastor and staff on Sundays and their day(s) off.
  7. Shorten meetings and hold fewer of them to honor personal lives.
  8. Let your encouragement and appreciation be known and tangible.
  9. Be a good listener.
  10. Be an example of someone who balances their family & work life.


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What if the "after effects" of the pandemic
become a permanent reality?

7 Implications for Churches
(and Sunday School)

Tom Rainer, the church consultant, pollster, prognosticator, and pastor at Church Answers (and formerly from Lifeway Research) posted an interesting article about the long-term implications of the pandemic on how churches and groups will gather in the future. Keeping in mind that the experts are saying that the pandemic accelerated already existing trends and problems, the advice in this article can help any renewal effort.

Rainer and many health officials believe the following:

(1) LIKE THE FLU, the COVID virus will become "endemic."* That means it will become a "normal" part of the annual illness landscape that we will continue to need to take seriously --especially given the church's habit of regularly gathering in close quarters and the prevalence of older peoplle.

(2) The COVID pandemic has "permanently changed" the way many people view social gatherings and physical contact. In other words, masks and elbow bumping will become normative for some, and many will eschew crowded gatherings in small spaces.

Here are several of Rainer's "implications" with my thoughts on how they affect Sunday School in particular. I've put his words in quotes.

1. "The new ideal capacity for worship space is 60% or lower. It used to be 80%."

This drop means fewer kids in Sunday Schools that run concurrently with worship.

2. "Most churches should not combine existing worship services that were created to reduce social contact. Social distancing in some form is here to stay."   

Yeah it is, and it also means that the SIZE of your potential pool of new members (with kids) may be defined by how seriously (or not seriously) your congregation takes issues like social distancing and virus-safety. Many parents are extra cautious these days, and this new awareness is likely to linger for the foreseeable future.

3. "Home groups will become a more significant challenge. We have been surprised to see the resistance to returning to home groups in many churches. Members do not desire the close confines, and the hosts are hesitant to bring different people to their homes every week."

This speaks to the "lingering wary-ness" some people, myself included, will have toward traditional church group gatherings. We don't need yet another reason for people to stay away or reduce their attendance.

4. "If your church is not clean and sanitized, it will likely decline and die."

I've been complaining about the "turn off" of dirty nurseries and classrooms for decades. Many churches will now face parents who equate cleanliness with the safety of their children at a whole new level.

7. "Small foyers will be detrimental to growth. Again, the long-term COVID effect means people don’t like close proximity to each other in crowds."

I particularly think of the last church where I was an interim. Small entryways, small hallways, small rooms, and wall-to-wall people. I think of my first pastorate where everyone filed through a small vestibule to shake my hand after worship. This may not be so much as a health reason as a psychological barrier to some. I know I won't be shaking the pastor's hand anymore. Having hand-sanitizing stations can help with the threat and psychology.

Some more thoughts on the new normal:

The pandemic has changed how many people perceive and act with regard to gatherings and social contact. I know it has made my family and other families I know more wary of their social surroundings, including participating in worship and church events. Even with the vaccine, people can still get sick.

This new wary-ness about gathering will undoubtedly impact the decision-making of some potential visitors and members. How they perceive their "safety" at our church will get added to their church shopping list.

In the post-pandemic era, we're going to have to pay closer attention to how people perceive us and our spaces (regardless of what we ourselves think or the church's guardians of the status quo want to hear.

Our Safer Sunday School discussion here at has a good starter list of things to talk about and get done.

Link to Rainer's blog:


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Why Committed Church Members are Attending Less

The reasons and impact of emerging attendance trends --and what they might mean for Sunday School

The 2020-22 COVID pandemic upended a lot of things, including how and where many people work, and how, where, and how often people worship. Habits were broken, trends accelerated, new concerns are with us. And all of this was taking place in a church attendance landscape that was already under pressure and heading south.

As you can read above in several of this post's topics, we've been thinking forward about what all this means for Sunday School --and what we can do to adapt.

Clarity around the challenge is always helpful, and in that respect, I continue to find church consultant and pastor Carey Nieuwhof's wisdom very helpful. In May 2022, he published this follow-up titled, "10 Reasons Even Committed Christians Are Attending Church Less Often." I'm posting my highlights with some comment below. You can read his full article here.  You may also like his article on "Embracing Infrequent Attenders."

1. People have more options than ever before.
Options are not a bad thing. Lack of priorities is. Nieuwhof attributes these options to increased affluence. I would also attribute "more options" to everything being open on Sundays. Some of us oldsters can still remember when almost NOTHING was open on Sunday.

2. More focus on kids' activities
Nieuwhof attributes this to the growing number of sports activities, however, I believe its more likely the result of the decades-long campaign by good people and churches to "make kids and family a priority." Careful what you wish for, huh?

3. More Travel
One simply has to look at the rise of B&B, AirBnB, and the airline industry to see this truth. These schedules affect the time and energy of families, whether the kids are doing the travel or not.

4. More Blended and single-parent families
More kids are split between parents these days, and that means different priorities and transportation needs.

5. Online Options
I doubt this is a major effect on attendance, but it does speak to the "more options" issue. Today, your high school class has to compete with kids wanting to just browse the internet and watch tik tok.

6. The cultural disappearance of guilt
I personally think this is a MAJOR contributing factor, and see it in a two-fold way. (a) We've property taught that attendance does not equal salvation --and they've heard us. (b) Taking a Sunday off from church is so common that people don't feel embarrassed to be seen doing something else on Sunday morning. Nobody is afraid of the "devil" anymore.

7. The rise of self-directed spirituality
We've encouraged generations to seek God in their daily lives, and that has also translated into "don't need it from the church as much."  This "spiritual but not religious" statistic has been increasing for several decades. Maybe if the church became more of a training ground for seeking God outside its wall?

8. Failure to see direct benefit
To which I would add "and less tolerance for negative benefits of church life, like judgmentalism and church battles. When you aren't growing, why keep going?

9. Valuing attendance over engagement
I'll say it again, "when you aren't growing, why keep going?" As a society Americans have become less tolerant of what doesn't seem to be working, and more likely to change things to find something that does (whatever your needs are).

10. The inability (or unwillingness) of congregations to change in response to change.
The time to make changes is before things fall apart. This is especially true in smaller congregations where change is no longer an issue of vitality, but mortality (that's Neil saying that).

(11.) Losing Trust and Respect for Institutions
Not sure why Nieuwhof didn't include this one, but several research surveys point to the increasing distrust of "institutions and authorities" especially among younger Christians. They see the Church as hypocritical and judgemental. The coarse political and social media landscape hasn't helped. How would consistently emphasizing joy, humility, and diversity send the RIGHT message and change the tone in our congregations?


7 More Things Sunday School Can Do to Emerge Renewed

Here are a few suggestions related to Nieuwhof's findings.

1. Make your case "why" learning the Bible and being part of a Christian peer group with adult role models is a GOOD thing. Good parents prioritize "the good" for their kids. Don't take it for granted, and make sure your teaching is not LAME.  Lame doesn't get attendance anymore.

2. Give parents options. "Sunday School" needs to be a program of learning opportunities, not just a day of the week.

3. Beef up the learning and equipping aspects of your fellowship events. Let no gathering go untouched by prayer and sharing, even if is a "pull the weeds" day.

4. Plan more learning opportunities that parents and kids can do TOGETHER. They covet their "together time," so don't force them to give it up.

5. Make worship more kid-friendly. Heck, make it more adult-friendly too! Children don't drive themselves to church.  (...and don't rear-guard this by telling me "worship isn't about us." Almost everything we do in worship was originally designed to appeal to human beings --the seating, the singing, the smells and bells, the windows. So those things can be changed to go with the flow.)

6. Become a neighborhood-also church.  Many churches attract families from "the region" and ignore the people within walking distance of their church. This can be especially true for some churches who's identity doesn't match the socio-economics of where they are located. Yet... parents want safe neighborhoods. They want their kids to know other kids in the neighborhood, and they want safe nearby things their kids can go do. You have a godly role to play in the life of your church's neighborhood. Don't turn your back on it (as so many churches have done).

7. Spend more time on the MAJOR most important stories of the Bible and LESS on the more "minor" stories. I.E. Use the Rotation Model for Sunday School. Instead of changing the story every week such that more than half your kids never hear it, spend three to four weeks on every MAJOR story of the Bible. That's the Rotation way. Learn more!

Funny thing is... we've been saying these things for YEARS --long before the pandemic. So perhaps the problem is lack of enthusiasm or execution. Crisis is more than the mother of invention, it's often a much needed kick. I've been in churches that couldn't get out of their own way, or would only go half way, or burnt their leaders for trying. I've also been in congregations where the leadership "got it" and stopped listening to the naysayers and deck-chair arrangers. Those will be the churches that emerge renewed.

This 2-minute video introduces the Rotation Model to those unfamiliar with it.


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Thom Rainer at Church has been focusing on the "renew" theme for a long time and especially as we come out of the pandemic. Their conclusions and advice is based on research that they do and research/polling others are doing (such as Barna).

In their August 15, 2022 newsletter, they share

"The Top Ten Post-Pandemic Reasons Guests Do Not Return to Church"

Here is an excerpt. I've added my thoughts as they relate to SUNDAY SCHOOL are in BLUE.

In our conversations with people visiting churches, the reasons guests don’t return remain the same (as they did pre-pandemic).

1. “I will not return to a church that has a stand-and-greet time.” (sometimes called "passing the peace")
We heard from over 1,000 guests, and 90 percent of them gave us this response. If you are thinking about bringing back this activity to your worship service, think again.  Anxiety in groups affects parents and kids as they try to discover the schedule and classroom locations. How can we reduce this?

2. “The people are unfriendly.”
Most church members think their church is friendly because the members are friendly to each other. Many guests felt like they were treated like unwanted outsiders. We need to look at how we are actually practicing "hospitality" and reducing stranger-anxiety from the parking lot to the front door of the church to the inside of the classroom.

3. “I could not leave my child in the children’s area. It was filthy and unsafe.”
This concern has grown since the pandemic.  I've seen so many dirty Sunday Schools in my travels. Smells, lighting, colors. Remove the clutter and think about a new rug and paint job.

4. “I could not find any information on the church.”
Even though most of these guests visited the website, they were still looking for an information center or persons to give them more information. I routinely look for children's ministry and Sunday School info on church websites and routinely find outdated and too little info. Today's parents WANT TO KNOW what to expect before they go.

5. “The church website was terrible (or did not exist).”
This issue is more of a first-time guest issue than a second-time guest issue, especially in the post-pandemic world. For most guests, if you have an inadequate website, your church does not exist.  See my comment for #4 above. No excuse for this.

6. “The signage was terrible.”
The primary complaints were about inadequate parking signage and directions to the entry of the church.  Speaking of signage, at one church I used to attend, they had a "no guns allowed" sign greeting everyone, and no directions to the sanctuary or classrooms.

7. “I heard a lot of insider language in the worship service.”
Please avoid acronyms.  This includes when you're talking about your children's programs. Visitors don't know what "Kids Kamp" or "Explorers" mean unless you tell them. Or who "Miss Suzie" is and how to get in touch with her if you don't include her phone and email.

8. “The service was boring, and I did not understand what was happening.”
Guests have choices. They will not choose a boring church. The first-time guest will not become the second-time guest. Same thing with Sunday School.

9. “Someone told me I was in their seat.”
Yes, it still happens.  Kids do this to other kids in classrooms too. Make sure new kids are greeted and sat next to!

10. “The church facilities were messy and dirty.”
A lack of attention to the facilities communicates loudly that the church does not care. Walk into your nursery and look at the floor, take a big sniff, and check out the quality and cleanliness of the toys. (Do this in every classroom and hallway too.)

Though the rankings of the reasons may have changed slightly since the pandemic, the reasons have not. And any church should be able to find ways to overcome these challenges.

Last edited by Amy Crane

Thom Rainer over at Church Answers, and formerly of Lifeway Research, has been checking the pulse of churches coming out of the COVID pandemic. Like a number of other "prognosticators and pollsters," he has been watching church attendance trends since long before the pandemic. I've been posting some of their findings and thinking about what they mean for Sunday School.

In my response below, I apply their findings and recommendations to thinking about our classrooms.

In his late September 2022 newsletter titled, Five Reasons Why Decreasing the Number of Worship Services Might Be the Best Move, Thom Rainer's own polling has confirmed what others have predicted and many have experienced:   

Post-Pandemic Worship Attendance is Down by 25%.

Further, Rainer and others are not characterizing this as "25% are slow to come back." They are seeing this as 25% are NOT coming back, Your own numbers may vary for a lot of reasons, but this trend is affecting churches of all denominations.

Among many suggestions in his article, Rainer suggests CONSOLIDATING the number of worship services because nobody feels energized by a half full room. We've all hear this "room science" many times over the years: "80% full" feels full, and any less feels like "where is everybody?" From personal experience as both a pastor and pew-sitter in a number of churches, I know that the 80% rule is generally true. "Where is everybody" is also certainly something every Sunday School teacher has heard kids express when attendance is down. I've even heard teachers say it out loud in front of their kids! But I think the real negative effect of "where is everybody" happens at home when the student complains that "nobody goes there" (least of all, their friends who have stopped coming to church).

The 80% effect can be especially detrimental if your classrooms were built for 1970's attendance and were already "too big" or poorly designed for the attendance you HAD before the pandemic and are experiencing now. So maybe now is REALLY a good time to take a closer look at our classrooms. Not so coincidentally, the Rotation Model has been doing this for a long time, but even Rotation Sunday Schools have experienced "the drop" and need to rethink how the size and configuration of their classrooms and program make kids and adults feel good about being there. (You can read and see more Rotation "workshop" ideas here, just keep in mind they weren't written with the "80% full" issue or post-pandemic attd in mind. Hence, the following suggestions.)

I've shared a lot of ideas for renewal elsewhere, but let's just focus on some PRACTICAL and immediate things any church can do NOW to get ahead of this "where is everybody" issue that will eat away at future attendance too.

Changes for Sunday School:

  1. Consolidate your Sunday School. If you offer two times, consider just one. We say it a lot around here, but "less is more" certainly applies to scheduling -- especially if it helps kids feel the energy of a better-attended lesson, rather than subject them to poor attendance at two offerings.

  2. Combine grade groups to create more of a "full feeling" in the classroom.

  3. Work to renew and build new relationships between attenders whose friends have not returned.

  4. Redesign your classrooms to feel "cozier" for smaller groups. This is something every "smaller" Sunday School should do right now.

  • Remove unused furniture. Empty chairs don't encourage attendance. (See the article on the 80% rule linked below.)

  • Fill empty classroom space by splitting up where in the classroom you do different things and adding things like a discussion area away from your art table. (Look at some photos and "workshop" design suggestions in our Rotation Model "Classroom Design and how to" forum.)

Read this fascinating article from the Alban Institute about the  “80% Capacity Rule” and "comfortable capacity and design rules." They apply to children too!

More about the 25% drop off...

25% is concerning not only because of the loss, but because it continues a two-decade downward trend in statistics. Rainer and others like Carey Nieuwhof, are telling us that, for a variety of reasons, many who left us before the pandemic and since the pandemic are simply not coming back, and that we must learn how to reach out to those who have (a) not left, and (b) have yet to come. And on that subject, those of us in Children's Ministry have a lot to offer!

Children's Ministry of-a-sort is exactly what many un-churched people are seeking:

  • A safe place to help raise their kids.
  • A place that will teach them to be unselfish, caring, and respectful.
  • A place that will get them out of the house, help them make new friends.
  • A place that will encourage them to be citizens of the world (a big issue among Millennials).
  • A place that will encourage their creativity (another big issue among Millenials).
  • A place parents can drop off their kids to get a little "me" time.
  • And yes, even develop their sense of spirituality and faith (without the judgment and fear)

For a very long time, we've been marketing Sunday School as the place to "Grow faith" and "Get Bible knowledge." And yes, those things are central to our mission. But they are not the only thing Sunday School is good at or will appeal to today's parents. Like the disciples at Pentecost, we have to be open to some new languages if we're going to reach the people out on the street.

What many outside the church DO NOT WANT is for us to pressure, cajole, "convert," and otherwise make them or their children feel judged. Today's younger generation doesn't have a high opinion of the church, and we need to take that seriously as we design and carryout our children's ministries.

For more on what millennials want for their kids, read this article.

Read how judgemental Christianity repels today's younger generation (and what to do about it).

For a fascinating study on parents and their kids' spiritual and morality, read Barna's report, especially the part about "opportunity for churches."


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