Skip to main content

Increasing and Improving Sunday School attendance has been a perennial subject here at In many ways, this entire site is devoted to helping increase or improve Sunday School attendance by improving the lesson experience.

  • Increasing = adding more kids and/or increasing their participation
  • Improving = improving the quality of their participation and learning

Your ideas and stories about "what works" welcome!

Facts About Attendance to Chew On:

1. Some attendance factors are out of our immediate control.

These factors can include pastoral leadership, worship, adult education, and the demographics of a congregation and its neighborhood.

As we like to say around here, "kids don't drive themselves to church." So if you attract a parent, you usually get their kids.

2. The quality of our Sunday School atmosphere and teaching is are contributing factors to attendance.

While kids don't drive themselves, today's kids DO have a larger influence on their parent's attendance behavior.If walking into your church and Sunday School isn't a kid-friendly experience, you need to change that.

The Workshop Rotation Model was created in part, to address the children's "experience" of Sunday School -- to help them both learn AND want to return. Decades of boring Sunday School have now created two or more generations of parents who don't want to subject their children to the same thing. We need to change that opinion in both the kids AND the parents.

3. The world has changed.

But none of these changes is an excuse for abandoning the regular Bible teaching to kids, they just make it more challenging.

  • More adults are working weekends.
  • Kids and parents have more options and activities competing for their attention.
  • It's easier to find things to do (and find peers doing them) on Sunday morning than it was 40 years ago.
  • The definition of "regular attendance" has changed from "nearly every week" to 1 or 2 times a month. This change parallels the trends in attitude regarding spirituality and "institutional church" among younger generations being measured by research groups such as Barna and Pew.
  • Growing secularization of society. Simply put, churches have lost many "nominal" or "notional" Christians.
  • Some churches have been substituting children's worship for Sunday School in part or entirely (and the two are not the same thing).
  • Many of today's adult Christians did not grow up with a dynamic children's ministry experience, and thus, don't understand its importance.
  • Your "change" here.

4. Worship and fellowship are not substitutes for teaching and learning.

Faith in Christ requires a working knowledge and understanding of his teachings and life story. You don't get that by junking Sunday School and switching to a 20-minute "verse + craft" model of instruction during the sermon (which also only appeals to the little kids). You don't get that by making children's worship the only learning experience.


5. A "Monolithic Approach" to Reaching and Teaching Kids Won't Work (and probably never did)

"Back in the day," we had the luxury of regular and good attendance and could create a singular learning experience on Sunday morning. Continuing to teach that way as if nothing has changed is the road to extinction. Worse, it doesn't reach and teach the kids about Jesus -- which is the only thing that should not change.

One of the "proof-texts" for teaching children creatively here at has been Acts 2 when the disciples were given the gift of speaking in MANY languages to the crowd gathered outside our upperroom. But now in most cases today, the crowd no longer gathers outside our door. Instead, we have to hit the road like Peter and Paul did AFTER Pentecost. We have to "go where the kids are" in both a literal and figurative way. Today, that includes reaching out to them as individuals, instead of always expecting them to gather as a group.


Images (1)
  • worship-teaching-circles
Last edited by Wormy the Helpful Worm
Original Post

Replies sorted oldest to newest

A Few Ways to Promote Sunday School Attendance

Here are some of the things that have worked for me in churches of various sizes. Feel free to comment and make your own suggestions.

Make sure your facility and classrooms are attractive and inviting to kids and visiting parents. Beige and boring, dim and musty are unacceptable.

Make sure your approach to teaching is attractive and inviting. 45 minutes in a chair with a worksheet and a pile of pipe cleaners is a great way to make kids disappear.

Create "points of re-entry" for those who need a reason to "get back into the habit."  These points of entry can be special events, Sunday School service projects. They can also be as simple as asking a parent to come help.  (Conversely, planning a constant stream of events creates the impression that nothing is special.)

Have a plan for shutting the "back door" on attendance loss. Be aware of who's not there and why. Sometimes people just need to know they are missed.

Have a plan of regular communication with parents (not blurps buried in the emailed newsletter or tossed away with the bulletin).  If you are not using text-messaging, you are living in the past.

Promote "what's happened," not just "what's happening," and do it through visuals and social media. Help people see what they've missed, and remind those who attended that they were glad they did!

Have a thriving family ministry and young families ministry. This is probably the single greatest way to help families feel connected and responsible to each other. Doesn't have to be fancy or complicated.

Create "rites of passage."  Parents respond to special events where their children will be recognized. This can include "promotion Sundays," gifting Bibles, communion education.

Create events that attract the attention of neighborhood families.  Bouncy houses. Water game days. Free concerts and ice cream, and VBS-like programs that include something that gets non-church parents to stay and mingle. When parents start to feel a connection, they are more likely to send their kids. 

Organize and equip key families to identify and invite their friends and neighbors. Research shows that it's your members' connections that are the best way to recruit new members. This is an especially good strategy if your congregation's demographics are aging.

Make sure your church's "presence" along the road and in the community is KNOWN. When people start looking for a church, you want yours to be visible to them. 

When visitors with children come to your church, make sure the kids leave with something fun in their hands other than a piece of paper (a cup with a crazy straw for example, and the church's name on that cup).  And don't forget to follow up on visitors.

Take control of your church's webpage for children's ministry. Supply them with exciting photos of past events and "what it looks and feels like" to attend.  (Most church websites are completely boring.) Avoid the boilerplate "blah blah blah."

Bond your kids to each other. Friends attend to be with friends. One of the best things I ever did to boost Sunday School attendance in a small church was to start a children's fellowship that met once a month. Our teachers also helped (many of them were parents.)

Here's an easy way teachers can help us follow up on visiting kids:

Have the visiting kid write their mailing address on an envelope. Then after class fill that envelope with three things and mail it:

(1) A fun "thank you" card for the child.

(2) A coupon for a free scoop of local ice cream.

(3) A flyer for the parents.

Don't' forget to give a copy of the address to the church office!

Children's ministry mag has this free printable postcard you can use to get started. The image could be your "fun thank you card." Before you use it, edit the pdf/image to add your church's logo, website and class and worship times.

[Yes, kids still love to get "real" mail. Adults are jaded with real mail because of all the junk and bills, but who doesn't love to get a handwritten note in the mail!]


Images (1)
  • mceclip0
Last edited by Neil MacQueen

"Investing in children’s ministry is a way for churches to pursue not only discipleship, but also outreach."

According to one recent Barna study: "More than half of engaged Christian parents chose their current church primarily because of the children’s program (58%)."


Barna Research has been surveying and studying church habits and attitudes for several decades. Sometimes they confirm what we suspect to be true, or challenge it. Often they provide the research data to backup what we need to tell others.

The graphic was provided for free by Barna's (not free) report on Guiding Children.


Images (1)
  • Barna-Research-Childrens-Ministry-Attendance

7 Ways to Respond to People Who Attend Church Less Often

Rev. Carey Nieuwhof, the popular Canadian pastor and church consultant has written, "7 Ways to Respond As People Attend Church Less Often." It echoes many long-held opinions here at about the quality of church offerings. Nieuwhof gives them fresh language with new insights.

I think they work both for members who are attending less often, and those looking for a church.

Here are his 7 Ways to Respond...

1. Create an Awesome Online Presence
Keeping in mind that kids need adults to bring them to church, this one is mainly aimed at offerings to adults. One of his main points here is that many things that attracted adults to church, like great sermons, messages, and music, are now available online.

Kids are a bit different -- they will naturally compare us to every entertaining thing, which isn't fair, but it's real. I also think our biggest comparison is with their feelings and experience with "going to school" (which isn't great for many kids). We need to be different.

What's also true is that our online presence is the way MOST VISITORS first encounter and evaluate churches these days.

2. Elevate Personal Relationships
3. Love People

I put these two together because as Nieuwhof points out, people will always value and act on personal relationships, and that's something congregations and Sunday School can foster.

4. Create an Irresistible Experience
Of course! But how? Well.... this is one of the reasons we created the Workshop Rotation Model!  It provides an ongoing organized approach to STAYING creative, rather keeping the special stuff for VBS and special occasions. The Rotation Model also helps with irregular attendance. Learn more

5. Offer Offline Surprises
This is another way of saying make Sunday a "don't miss" experience. Do special and surprising things that reward people for showing up.

6. Create a Culture of Serving
Churches are uniquely positioned to give people opportunities to serve, do justice, be kind, tackle problems. Humility and gratitude are two things many parents hope their children will develop.

7. Prioritize Kids and Teens
This one is so broad as to be unhelpful, but reading Nieuwhof's breakdown I think what he's driving at is helping parents see that we care about their children and have what most parents want for their kids and teens, which is caring and trustworthy "other" adults in their lives. The challenge is to actually do it and how to let new or visiting parents know that we are doing it.   

Here's a Test for Your Church:

  1. If I were to visit your church website right now (like many visitors will do), will it show me that you are DOING THESE 7 THINGS?

  2. If visiting parents show up in your worship service next Sunday, would any of these 7 things be obvious to them beyond mere words?

These are my opinions, and not necessarily those of Your feedback and insights are welcome. ~ Neil

Last edited by Neil MacQueen

Is it possible that the "ATTENDANCE" kids need is OUR OWN?

Where You Go I Will Go Ruth 1:16

In the past, "Sunday School" was a time to gather at church. Moving forward, it can continue to be that, but it can't continue to be only that.

"Sunday School" is a need, and a desire, and a commitment to reach and teach kids. It cannot only be a single location or time.

Not anymore.

Our definition of Sunday School can begin to change when we STOP viewing "their attendance in Sunday School" as the only option, and START thinking about all the other ways WE can become "attendant" in their lives.

The Rotation Model and this site have tried to change how we teach and the classrooms in which we teach. But the great work ahead of us is also WHEN and WHERE ELSE we can teach.

Teaching groups in a classroom at church can still be a wonderful thing. But if it's the only place we teach, then Sunday School is likely headed for extinction. In many churches, it is already extinct -- having been replaced by a pale imitation called "children's church," "kids leaving during the sermon," "teaching-lite" fellowship groups, or simply no children's program at all. There's a case to be made that all of those things are opportunities, but they rarely produce the kind of encounter with Bible stories good teachers would recognize.

Lately, I've been steeped in Book of Ruth lessons with our Writing Team. And the more I've been in that story, the more I've marveled at Ruth's commitment to Naomi. Ruth left behind her homeland, and as a young woman, made a dangerous journey to a completely new place where she had to glean the leftovers in a stranger's field to survive.

God doesn't appear in the Book of Ruth, but throughout its pages, you can see the hand of providence acting through good people. I have every confidence that this is still happening today -- especially with those willing to make the difficult choices and journey with those we are called to go serve "where they go." I also believe God has not brought us this far only to have us survive on the leftovers.

The Parable of the Sower is also helpful here. It's not a picture of limited resources only being aimed at the most fertile ground, though some of the seed definitely makes its way there too!  It's not a parable about one Sunday morning basket of seed, but seed going EVERYWHERE -- even on the hard and thorny ground.

Parable of the Sower Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:1–20, Luke 8:4–15

At my family's cabin, we are in a battle with thorny ground --  thorny bushes, spikey locust trees, and other invasive species. It got that way because the previous owner didn't keep it cut and culled and let the invasives move in. But we're making progress -- one patch of ground at a time. We're also planting tree seedlings -- hundreds of them.


We didn't just plant them in the "good" ground. We specifically targeted some of the hard and thorny ground, knowing that the trees we tend there will eventually restore the area on their own. They may not look like much now, but someday, many of those seedlings will give shade, shelter, and food, and drop seeds of their own.

When Ruth married Boaz, they didn't bring forth a King, but their grandson Jesse and his wife Nissabet did. This is the kind of faith and hope and planning we need now on the thorny ground and hard path we find ourselves on.

So how can we increase OUR "attendance" in the lives of the kids who are NOT gathered around our feet on Sunday morning?

And what part of our reaching and teaching of children has grown thorny and hard for them because we not been "attending” to it ?

FYI: I generated these Parable of the Sower images using Bing's Artificial Intelligence art engine "AI Creator." Click them to enlarge. I chose the style of "Van Gogh" because his skies remind me of the active presence of God in our toil.

AI-Sower2Parable of the Sower Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:1–20, Luke 8:4–15


Images (5)
  • Where You Go Sunday School - from Rotation
  • pineseedling
  • AI-Sower1
  • AI-Sower2
  • AI-Sower 3
Last edited by Neil MacQueen


Sensory Overload, Social Anxiety, and Introverts

How not to push away a third to half of our kids and parents

Thoughts, definitions, and ideas from Neil MacQueen

In "the old days," we could unwittingly ignore or excuse a percentage of our kids and parents as "low participation," back-pew," and "unengaged" members. We could do it because 50% attendance looked very good back when we had bigger rolls. Sure, we occasionally cajoled the 30% who weren't engaging the way we wanted them to, but if we're being honest about the past, most of our efforts went toward the ones who were engaging in the ways we wanted (please note my confessional tone). We created worship experiences, events, groups, schedules, and styles of engagement that worked for 70% of the people -- for the extroverts leading those events, and for the congregational leaders who wanted to see "numbers."

Now by the grace or judgment of God, we have to do better, especially in churches where "doing better" will now be the difference between vitality and mortality. We also need to do better with the 30 percenters because it is the RIGHT thing to do -- and we have a better understanding of issue. And for me, the issue of "the 30 percenters" also hits close to home.

Who are "the 30%" I'm talking about?

The "30 percenters" are the cumulative percentage of the population that has some form of:

  1. social anxiety disorder
  2. sensory input issues
  3. or they are simply introverts**

--or combinations thereof, that make participating in church problematic for them, and for us.

In brief: As many as 1 out of every 3 of your church members and their kids have needs that may be being hurt by your church's outgoing, extroverted, a-little-bit-too-exciting, and loud offerings. (Like we needed to figure out more reasons why some people don't go to church.)

According to various health stats, 30% could be a little low due to under-reporting or how you define the issue. But no matter how you define it, we're talking about a lot of people.

And we're not just talking about the people already on our rolls. We're talking about upwards of one-third of the population whose needs are not being addressed by the average congregation.

**Being an introvert is not a disorder, but it does make it more challenging for some to feel comfortable in gatherings, particularly those geared toward and run by extroverts. Read on.

Let's break that down and then look at some ways "the church" can help
"the 30%."

1. Social anxiety disorder

According to the NIH, 12% of the population has clinical social anxiety disorder. The numbers are higher among certain (younger) age groups, and it is estimated that this issue is way under-reported. The official 12% estimate does not include the less than clinical forms of anxiety brought on by stress, depression, and physical ailments that people deal with from time to time. Together, we could be talking about 20% of our church members at any given time, and 20% of the people we are hoping will join our church.

anxiety and Sunday school attendance

Social anxiety disorder can make a person feel physically and/or psychologically un-well when they think about, travel to, and attend social events -- or are called on to participate in such gatherings if they do get there. They tend to prefer smaller groups, familiar surroundings and people, and comfortable, quieter, and safer feeling settings. Knowing what's going to happen, not having any sensory triggers to deal with (like loud music), and having something that helps them cope (like food or their favorite toy), can help control their anxiety, but it's still there. For those who don't have the disorder, it's hard to imagine how disabling it can be, but for those who do have it, it's no only a problem, it can become a fear that keeps you home.

Put lightly, "going to church" is not fun or uplifting for many people, including many children. It's a gauntlet -- if they ever make it from their door to ours, which increasingly, they are not. And even when they do make it to the door, their reasons for NOT wanting to be there are primed long before the loud music and long sermon take over.

2. Sensory input issues

Various studies estimate that up to 16.5% of the population has some form of "sensory input" disorder. This can run the spectrum of being sensitive to noise, commotion, cacophony, bright or moving lights, large crowds, loud music, or jarring voices.  These sensory triggers can cause anxiety, imbalance, a feeling of being physically ill, sweating, hyperactivity, withdrawal, and "flight" responses.

As we know, many people with some level of autism and/or Attention Deficit or Hyperactivity disorder can ALSO experience sensory input issues, but anyone can have sensory input issues all on their own.

As you can imagine, attending today's church is especially challenging for anyone with a sensory input issue. It makes them disinclined to want to go, and more likely to appear uncomfortable (or unfriendly) when you see them. They are likely to "sit in the back" and leave as soon as possible. They are more likely to say "I'll think about it" or "I'm busy" when you ask them to do something.

I know quite a bit about "sensory input disorder" because three of my extended family members struggle with this issue -- and none of them are autistic or hyperactive. In fact, they are otherwise so bright and well-adjusted that you'd probably never guess they feel uncomfortable sitting next to you in church. In our family, we call it "the gene" because their grandmother had it, too.  One interesting thing about having a "sensory input" issue is that it can also produce social anxiety and turn you into an introvert (whether you already were or not). I've seen it in action.

It has also affected the "style" of church we attend. As much as we enjoy contemporary-sounding music and church bands, the "loudness" makes some in our family feel anxious and uncomfortable, so we can't go to those types of churches. This is true of traditional music too, by the way, and crowds, and feeling packed in -- all of which sound like the church I grew up in and loved.

3. Introverts

*Being an introvert is not a disorder, it's simply a personality trait, often inherited, and frequently celebrated in the Bible.

Between 25 and 40% of the population primarily leans "introverted" (stats and signs), though most people haveBOTH introverted and extroverted needs and capabilities.

Being introverted means a person tends not to seek out social or "group" situations or derive a primary sense of well-being from participating in them. They may function just fine in them, but prefer being by themselves, or with one or two familiar people. Introspection and alone time is what charges their batteries.

Introverts don't necessarily feel anxious about "extroverted" events, but often they don't participate in their energy, seek out such experiences, or respond to extroverted leaders. They are not "sad," or "withdrawn," or "in their own world." In fact, many introverts are just as engaging as an extrovert. They just tend to prefer quieter, more contemplative opportunities.

I wonder how many introverts feel like fish out of water at church? Or worse: they are made to feel spiritually "less than" in worship and a church that is geared for and led by extroverts?

I wonder if our Sunday School atmosphere and activities can be designed to appeal to both extroverts and introverts -- nurturing both outward participation and expression and inward contemplation?  I think the Rotation Model's variety of workshops certainly helps give us that opportunity for variety, but we could do better with the balance of energies and tone.

I wonder how we can train our teachers to make sure they aren't excluding the 30% by the way they conduct class and interact with the kids?

BTW: "Extroverts" can have social anxiety too. (article)  The very thing they seek can also create anxiousness and cause them to walk away or seek out other experiences. What some may describe as "burn out" may actually be unresolved anxiety created by a lack of balance and an under-nourished inner-life.

[4.  Depression and "Worriers"]

[According to experts, one in twelve people suffer a major depression event in any given year, and one in fifty suffer from ongoing depression disorders that disable their social lives.  And according to a recent study from Baylor, 17% of the population are "worriers" (anxious) are much less likely to join a church or attend if they do. Keep in mind that when the parent is the one with depression or clinical worrying, an entire family's participation can be affected.]

[I did not include depression or "worriers" in "the 30 percent" but could easily have done so. In addition to pastoral care and education, many of the suggestions below can help those with depression and "worrying" (anxiety) feel welcome and connected in the church.]

What the church can do to help:

Here's a "starter discussion" list of things that can help those with social anxiety and sensory input issues and those who happen to be introverts. It doesn't address other health issues that might get in the way of participation, so feel free to add those if you wish.  I've included some suggestions for both kids and adults, worship and classrooms.

Feel free to add your comments by replying!

  • Embrace diversity and don't accidentally shame or push away those who need to participate in ways that are different.
  • Stop the subliminal and not-so-subtle messaging that tells them "you need to be here to be a member." Christ's body is not your building or attendance chart. Learn how to be with them.
  • Don't count heads, count hearts.
  • Turn down the volume, literally, and figuratively, too. Don't do things that make people more anxious.
  • Don't create a light show; in fact, turn down the lights from time to time.
  • Create space, don't crowd people.
  • In worship and classrooms, don't do things like play music during the prayers or have music blaring when people arrive.
  • Lead prayers quietly and contemplatively. Add breathing space.
  • Don't pressure or shame people to "sit up front" or participate in every activity.  Let them sit in the back row or sit it out if they need to.
  • Let children "go up front" with a parent or not go up front at all until they are ready.
  • Work with parents to have a less anxious experience of preparing to go to church.
  • Don't funnel everyone through a busy door or into a large congregating area; provide alternative points of entry.
  • Revise your "energetic" "get the kids moving" approach to worship and fellowship to offer more balance and encourage 30 percenters to participate.
  • Have more comfortable seating in worship and classrooms, including chairs with arms (which give many a sense of protection and balance).
  • Create "side rooms" in worship space for those who need them.
  • Organize and advertise "quieter and chill" events and services -- and notice who comes to them.
  • Hold studies, worship, and committee meetings on Zoom for those who don't always feel comfortable attending but want to participate.
  • If your worship service is energetic and loud, offer a quieter "unplugged" version from time to time.
  • Create cozy sitting areas around the periphery of busy areas (slightly away from intense fellowship zones).
  • Make sure you offer events and group experiences and sizes that are "cozy" without feeling "closed in."
  • Provide for more contemplative opportunities, including quiet times in worship, fellowship, and the classroom.
  • Slow down your pace of leadership and talking, don't be in a hurry.
  • Take it outside more and into nature -- God's original anxiety buster.
  • Let your humor flow, it's a great anxiety buster.
  • As a leader, learn to identify and speak gently to those who might find your energy and enthusiasm more "noise" than help.
  • Realize that some people become more introverted due to their health or life circumstances and will need different ways to connect.
  • Reach out to "the 30%" outside of events so that they feel comfortable with you and heard.
  • Know who their friends and "calming presences" are in their family and congregation and ask those friends and family members to make a special effort to help and keep an eye on our"30% friends."
  • ASK those you know who have input and anxieties what works for THEM.
  • Ask "the 30%" to minister to each other and keep an eye out for others.
  • Visit them in THEIR element.
  • Raise mental health awareness and invite experts to education the congregation.
  • Investigate starting support groups.
  • Embrace Christ's message of hope. Beating the political and cultural drums makes many people more anxious and depressed.
  • Embrace a little bit of introversion, sensory-underload, and stress-reduction in your own life, then let it rub off on others.

In a former church, they put a comfortable chair with arms in the sanctuary for a family member with a stressed-induced balance issue. She immediately asked for it to be put in the back near a wall so it wouldn't stand out. (People with needs don't like to appear needy.) When some other members saw it, they asked for chairs like that too! In that church, we also had an "overflow" side room that looked out onto the worship service through a door. We soon discovered that even when there were plenty of empty chairs in the main room, there was always a group of people who felt more comfortable in that side room.

I look forward to your thoughts...


Neil is a PCUSA minister specializing in Christian education. He is also one of the founders of the Rotation Model and this site.

There are many good resources on these issues, including advice and practices for churches. Here are a few of note:


Images (6)
  • NEILsig
  • mceclip0
  • sensory input
  • anxiety
  • introvert
  • herokid
Last edited by Neil MacQueen

More Ways to Improve Sunday School Attendance


"You're Not Really Teaching As Many Lessons As You Think"

(and kids are attending fewer of them)

The honest math and what to do about it

an article with specific suggestions from Neil MacQueen

There are 52 Sundays in a year, but the number of Sundays available for Sunday School teaching is far fewer than you think.

Due to special Sunday morning programming, unexpected cancellations (like for weather), and scheduled cancellations (like the Sunday after Christmas), MANY Sunday Schools are lucky to have 40 quality class times available per year.

If you don't teach during the summer, subtract 10 more and you're making available only 30 Sunday School lesson times a year for students to attend.

And because your kids don't attend every single week (whose do?), the number of actual lessons the average students will attend is MUCH LOWER than 30.

Read on for more about these numbers and what we can do about them.

Here's the "Available Sundays" Math...

There are four types of "cancelations of Sunday School" that take our 52 potential Sunday morning class times down to as few as 30 every year.

ClassCanceledDoorScheduled Cancellations: (5 a year):
The Sundays that fall on or just before/after Christmas and New Years, Easter, July 4th, and Labor Day weekend.

Unscheduled Cancellations: (3 to 5 a year):
A weather or building-related cancellation. A teacher doesn't show up and the substitute is unprepared. The teacher comes unprepared or punts the lesson plan. The adult class cancels their class, depressing attendance in children's classes.

Cancellations Due to Church Programming:  (
3 to 5 a year):
Choir and play practice, Church Picnic Sunday, the Sunday School party, a special Advent service. And when worship runs long, making the teachers punt their lesson plan.

Canceling Summer Sunday School. (10 to 12 a year)
Read some thoughts about this type of "cancellation" below.

Some people will consider such cancellations "inevitable" and "unavoidable," and a few probably are. But in a time of diminishing attendance, reducing the number of classes we offer, if they are awesome, is unacceptable.  We need to make the most of every opportunity and rack up more attendance per student, not less. To do that, churches will need to change some of their old habits and ways of thinking, and there's no better place to start than with some simple math.

40 Available Sundays become 30 without summer classes

SadSundaySchoolSunSubtract 10 Sundays from your 40 available Sunday mornings if your church doesn't hold summer classes. Whether or not you think your church should be doing summer Sunday School, it's important to realize that the decision to cancel 25% of your potential Sunday School classes every year is not without teaching consequences. It may have made sense back when kids attended more often, but eliminating 25% of our teaching and points of contact in these diminished days doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Even if your summer attendance is half or a third of your regular season, in an era of reduced overall attendance, for those who DO show up there is an opportunity for teaching God's word and for relationship building.

POINT: In an era of diminished and irregular attendance, EVERY SUNDAY MATTERS MORE -- especially to the children who show up.  (As long as you're not boring them! 25% more of what's not working isn't a good idea.)

Some will say they "can't" or "we tried that." Love them, but don't necessarily believe them. I've been in churches where we successfully challenged the  "can't" attitude and turned our summer teaching into something special.

Now... If you have very FEW elementary-age kids enrolled in your Sunday School, then I get why you don't think you can do a "normal" Summer Sunday School if only 2 kids show up. But to those 2 kids, it IS important. So let me suggest you redefine "normal" and do something special for "whenever one or two are gathered." Then consider redefining when and where else you can teach during the summer. Whatever you do, don't give up 25% of your year without trying something different, and trying again.

Even your "regular attenders" are attending less than you think

Some churches have more regular attendance than others, but almost all are facing fewer numbers, increased irregularity, and a new definition of "active." Times and demographics are changing. So for illustrative purposes, I've simply divided attendance into two halves. Your numbers will vary (and for some they will be worse.)

If HALF of your students attend three-quarters of the time (wish) that means they are, at best, attending 30 lessons out of a possible 40. And if you're in a church where "the new regular" means "2 out of 4 Sundays," then they are attending only 20 lessons a year.

If you do NOT have summer classes, and only have 30 or so available September to May, then your three-quarter time attending students are only getting 20 to 23 lessons a year.

Averaged together, the HALF of your students who are only attending 0, 1, or 2 times a month are only attending an average of 10 lessons per year out of your 40 available. TEN. (And as you will read below, they could attend those 10 and entirely miss the major stories of the Bible. )

If you do not have summer classes, then the low-attending HALF of your kids could be getting just 7 lessons a year.


Your regular attenders are showing up for 23 to 30 lessons a year

and your lower & irregular attenders are only getting 7 to 10 lessons a year most.

We've got our work cut out for us, but let's start with "clawing back" a few of the Sunday teaching opportunities we've given up.

7 Ways to "Claw Back" 5 to 10 Sunday School Lesson Times a Year  (which will also increase the number of lessons your kids can attend)

More quality classes per year certainly benefit regular attenders, but they also give infrequent attenders more learning opportunities to plug into -- and that gives you more opportunities to connect with them and their parents.

1. Hold a VBS -- it's easily worth 5 full classes a year. In the "old" days, VBS was seen as an outreach to the community. In this new era, VBS is also an important "make up" for declining and irregular Sunday School attendance. A surprising number of churches don't do VBS anymore. The trends and the math should change that.

(Aside: Given the numbers, why are we only holding one VBS per year? Why not consider an additional scaled-back "VBS" over Christmas break, for example?)

2. "Claw back" one or two scheduled and unscheduled Sunday School cancellations. Have a substitute teacher with a plan. Don't give up lesson time to the special Advent programming (like ornament-making "events" and adult-choir concerts). Buy a portable AC unit for your un-cooled classroom(s). See "how we won back Father's Day attendance" below.

3. Insist that Adult Classes follow the same schedule as the Children's Sunday School and that they include offerings that attract parents. Kids don't drive themselves.

4. Redesign your Sunday School special events, such as fall kickoff, parties, and picnics, to include Bible learning.

5. Attack one of the "Annual Low Attendance Sundays" with special efforts. See my "Father's Day" suggestions below.

6. Stop wasting class time and "claw back" 5 minutes every Sunday. This will result in an additional 100 minutes (2 to 3 class times!) over the course of 20 attendances. See the article about "Time Stealers" and ways to optimize shortened lesson times.

7. Extend Sunday School another week into the summer and start it a week earlier. People generally will start and stop Sunday School when your schedule decides it will so don't be so quick to end it in May and start it later in August (or after Labor Day). Even if your attendance is lower on those "cusp" summer Sundays, you will get some attendance -- and in this era every Sunday attended counts.  (Better yet, add a summer Sunday School.)

Let the math work for you, instead of against you.

If you can only "claw back" 3 Sunday School lesson time per year, over the course of a child's "lifespan" in our Sunday School it would be like adding half a year of Sunday School attendance -- and who wouldn't pray for that!

These "claw back" suggestions won't necessarily IMPROVE FREQUENCY of ATTENDANCE. They are mostly focused on creating more available Sundays to teach. Adding more of the "same old Sunday School" that kids won't really enjoy or learn much in is a waste of their time AND YOURS. That's why I love the Workshop Rotation Model -- because it makes every attendance an awesome lesson experience. See some animated presentations about the Model.

Other places and times to insert "lesson time" outside of Sunday School:

  1. Insist that your children's fellowship teach Bible lessons, not just "values" lessons, and do so in memorable ways (including how much time they spend actually teaching a Bible lesson).
  2. Sing! Singing our faith is one of the best ways to build it. If you don't have a children's choir or Bible musical/play component to your programming, start one. And make sure the content of your songs gets discussed.
  3. Insert Bible lessons into intergenerational and family ministry events.
  4. Have your children's sermons follow the stories being taught in Sunday School (rather than the random approach most pastors use to decide what to say). And if you don't have children's sermons, bring them back and include older kids. Children's sermons don't replace lesson plans and a teacher, but they do support them.

I want to encourage you to read "The Top Ten Low Attendance Sundays" by Thom Rainer. What he didn't write about was "what to do about them," and in some cases, the answer is "plenty." In the article above, I mentioned the "Christmas VBS" idea. Below is how one of my former churches turned traditionally low attendance on Father's Day into one of our most looked-forward to Sundays.

How we increased attendance on Father's Day Sunday -- One of the Ten Lowest Attended Sundays of the Year

Dad-Fathers-DayFather's Day Sunday is one of the ten lowest attended Sundays of the year across the Church. I knew this from experience, and Thom Rainer at ChurchAnswers confirmed it in his poll of pastors. It's right up there with the Sunday after Christmas, and the Sunday of Labor Day. But why?

The answer is three-fold.
(1) It comes in mid-June when schools are letting out and many families go on vacation.
(2) It's often the first Sunday (or near it) when "regular Sunday School" has ceased and the summer schedule has begun.
And (3) it has to do with Dads who already attend church less, and on that Sunday families want to be with Dad.

Here's how we made Father's Day Sunday a "Must Go" Sunday

1. Every year, we did something that celebrated "dads" and let everyone know what was coming.

One year we invited a local Christian coach to talk after worship during a Dad's Brunch (to which families were invited, then kids went to a special lesson time). He talked about struggling to spend time with his job and his kids. We also got unexpected insights from him about how he mentors players whose fathers were not in their lives. (Elevating being "coach dads.")

Another year we celebrate grandfathers too and all the "men" who had mentored children (and how to do that).

Another year we celebrate (and discussed) "Moms and their sons" including hearing from moms.

One of our guest speakers was a local therapist who spoke about "losing his dad," and one of the dads spoke about "losing a child." (That class was incredible.)

Sounds sexist, but we got HUGE SUPPORT from the women of the congregation. Offering a "Dad's breakfast" as part of the event was important.

2. Every couple of years we invited Dads to a special Sunday School class with their kids -- at which we had several dads and grandpas dress up as "men from the Bible."

We narrated their stories while the actors "posed" and silently reacted to the good, the bad, and the funny things said about them in their Bible story. We also had some teens dress up (including sons Jacob and Esau). It was a massive lesson about grace and forgiveness. At the end, they all came together to pray out loud for each other and for the kids, and then they signed autographs with the kids!  (Which was hugely funny because we told the kids to treat them like rockstars.) This group was really easy to recruit because of the comradery it fostered, and they said "yes" to doing Sunday School dramas at later times.

After the second year of doing something special on Father's Day, the Women's Association started something for Mothers and Daughters, but not on Sunday. Everyone seemed to recognize the special needs here. In the long run, it made our Adult Ed offerings more attuned to family needs and to the baggage many adults carry from their upbringing. The direct payoff for Sunday School was that the adults brought their kids on those Sundays.

There are two responses to these "low attendance Sundays." One is accept the way it is and do nothing. The other is to try something different. In these days where every attendance matters, it's time to lead, follow, or get out of the way.


Images (4)
  • 52Weeks
  • ClassCanceledDoor
  • SadSundaySchoolSun
  • Dad-Fathers-Day
Last edited by Neil MacQueen


Things We Can Do to Boost "Low Attendance Sundays"

In the article above, "You're Not Really Teaching As Many Lessons As You Think -- and what to do about it," I reference a poll of the Ten Lowest Attended Sundays. Like many polls, it didn't suggest solutions for improving attendance on these "lowest" Sundays, so I've tapped my own experience and put on my Christian education and pastor thinking cap to suggest several.

While the poll was about worship attendance, there's an obvious correlation to Sunday School attendance. And in keeping with the intent of the previous article, the following suggestions are mostly about increasing the number of teaching opportunities we have each year with our kids, and the attendance at those opportunities.

Here are "The Ten Lowest Attended Sundays" ranked by frequency of response. It's from a poll of hundreds of pastors shared in Thom Rainer's blog.  The list lines up with most of the churches I've served or been part of, and I'm guessing the same is true for you too. Below the list are my suggestions. Consider them discussion starters

  1. Father’s Day.
  2. The Sunday after Thanksgiving day.
  3. Memorial Day weekend Sunday.
  4. Labor Day weekend Sunday.
  5. The Sundays before and after Christmas.
  6. The Sunday nearest the Fourth of July.
  7. The Sunday nearest to New Year’s Day.
  8. Time changes: spring forward.
  9. Spring and fall break Sundays.
  10. Summer Sundays, particularly in July.

My suggestions about what to do about each of the Ten Lowest Sundays to boost Sunday School attendance (which may also help worship attendance)

1: Father’s Day

See the END of the article above this one where I describe several things one of my congregations did to attract Dads on Father's Day. Some churches "run" from this secular holiday. We embraced it with Biblical fervor.

2: The Sunday after Thanksgiving Day

In the last church where I served on staff, we made the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend the "Hanging of the Greens" Sunday, which included a shortened service followed by a special "soup lunch." The service and lesson for everyone that day focused on an Advent story and theme which led to a quick "decoration making" project while people ate lunch, and then they hung their decorations on the trees. These themes/lessons were quite unique. One of the most memorable themes was "angels come in all colors" -- which was especially appropriate in our multicultural congregation. Another was "Magi putting their treasures (promises) on the tree." These decorations were saved  and hung each year. Instant fond memory and lesson reinforcement!

3 and 4: Memorial Day and Labor Day Weekend Sundays

According to various estimates, 1 in every 5 Americans travels more than 50 miles away from home during Memorial Day weekend, and the number doubles over Labor Day.  But let me ask this... rather than "punting" on these Sundays, what if we did something that attracted MORE of the HALF who are staying home?

One of the activities that people look forward to on these two holiday weekends is picnicking and getting outside. So why not go with an outdoor picnic theme and meal for your worship and lessons?

5 and 7: The Sundays before and after Christmas and the Sunday nearest to New Year’s Day.

Holding Sunday School on these two Sundays sounds reasonable to me, except if Christmas falls on Sunday. But there's a bigger opportunity here. In the preceding article, I suggested that Sunday Schools hold a "Mini-VBS" after Christmas. This would add more learning time in a popular format during a time of year when parents need something for their kids to do. Keep in mind that the dates for this Break vary widely, and most travelers return home on Dec 26th and 27th. I can easily see this "mini VBS" being an intergenerational event as well.

In one church, our young adult group hosted an all-church "tree burning" bonfire on an evening before New Years Eve. After roasting some weenies, people were invited to toss their trees on the fire (or help someone else) to "burn their past failures (etc.) and start afresh." It was an intensely memorable and visual teaching event disguised as fellowship.

6. The Sunday nearest the Fourth of July

People still talk about the time we wheeled an old pew down Main Street in the 4th of July parade. On it were signs like "Thank God for Freedom." It was led by a "church ladies brigade," kids with flags, young adults pushing strollers, teens passing out flyers, people carrying signs like "Social Justice is the American Way." Lastly, the pastor brought up the rear carrying a sign that said "The End is Here" on one side, and the pun "Church: It's What's for Sinners" on the other. We organized it the Sunday before the 4th, talked about how we were representing God and all the churches, and prayed for the town.

8. Time changes: spring forward.

How about a special "Sleep in Sunday Morning" and instead, create a special Sunday evening service with a lesson time, meal, and special attraction.

9. Spring and fall break Sundays.

Again, some people are traveling, but not everyone.

This suggestion is for Sunday School only: Do some special event during the Break with teaching. Why? Because many working parents need childcare help during the break (or something for their kids to do). You could plan and practice something for the kids to present in Sunday worship (to boost attendance there, too).

10. Summer Sundays, particularly in July.

Doing the same thing all the time is ritual, not worship. How about targeting the last two Sundays in July with something special, such as a "Water in the Bible" set of lessons (kids bring your swimsuit!) and worship.

Doing things differently isn't easy. That's why so many of our Sunday mornings look the same, and perhaps why some people don't feel they'll miss anything if they stay home.  What would happen if your last two Sundays in July were known as "The Different Kind of Worship Sundays" ?

Attendance can have very LOCAL issues. Where you live, what denomination you belong to, and your congregation's demographics and socio-economics can all play a role in creating the "lows." But habits, traditions, and expectations play a role too, and those take time and experimentation to change.

Case in point: As a young pastor, I served in a church that went from 200 to 30 in worship in the summer because, they said, "it was a lake community," and because many people "said" they attended the large ecumenical summer-only, celebrity-preacher-led service at the lake. In fact, many people used the lake and service as cover for simply taking the summer off from church. Years later, I learned that one of the likely reasons for the habit of taking the summer off probably started with the long-time Senior Pastor who took every August off.  It took a couple of years, but we eventually got summer attendance up to around 75. Old habits and attitudes die hard. In retrospect, I definitely think we could have done better had the service not been a "mini me" of what people got Sept-May (but I wasn't in charge of that).

In another era, churches like the one I previously served in could look the other way during the summer and on certain Sundays. Needless to say, this is not that era.

No matter what you do, there will always be 10 Sundays with "the lowest" attendance.

In a time of diminishing attendance, the goal of making changes is not merely to decrease the "severe lows," but to teach us some new ways of being together, to increase the opportunities to care and be cared for, to learn and teach, and to praise and encounter the presence of God. Complacency and complaining isn't leadership.

I hope "the list" and some of my suggestions stir your own. Feel free to leave a comment below by "replying."



Images (2)
  • NEILsig
  • BoostLowAttendanceSundaysLogo
Last edited by Amy Crane

In these days of lower and more irregular attendance, it is not only important to improve THE QUALITY OF EACH LESSON when students DO show up, we need to PAY CLOSER ATTENTION to the stories we are teaching them.

Simply put, not all Bible stories are created equal. Some are more important to know, especially for children, and especially for those attending less often.  You can debate WHICH are more important, but you can't debate that we only have so many lesson time slots, so we have to choose wisely.

Good Samaritan > Man with the withered hand
Ten Commandments > Ten Plagues
Beatitudes, Sermon on the Mount > Letters of Paul
Cross and Resurrection > Minor and Major Prophets

And yet, Lectionary-based curriculum gives each story the same amount of class time, with little or no consideration for how well-attended certain Sundays really are. And Lectionary-based curriculum schedule what most educators would consider "second and third tier" stories for children at the expense of more important first-tier stories. See examples below.

Here's why Lectionary-based curriculum is a bad idea for today's Sunday School attendance patterns:

If you are using a Lectionary-based curriculum that changes the Bible story EVERY WEEK...

  • Up to one-quarter of the stories they think you should be teaching every year will go unused because you don't have 52 Sunday School classes a year. As the math in the previous article demonstrates, you've got something closer to 30 or 40 classes a year to spend with your students.

  • Your low and irregular attenders will probably only hear 10 of your Bible stories each year. (Which begs the question: "Which 10?" See more about that below.)

  • And with a Lectionary-based curriculum, even your REGULAR ATTENDERS can miss many of the more important Bible stories.

Real Examples from Lectionary-based curriculum:

Irregular and Regular Attenders in a Lectionary-based Sunday School can be showing up for Rahab instead of Ruth, or Judges instead of Jesus stories.

Instead of learning Jesus' parables about the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son, your Lectionary that day has them learning what Jesus said about paying taxes or paying the workers in the vineyard.

And if you're following the Lectionary in the curriculum example below, most of your kids could be missing Luke 2's Birth of Jesus and the stories of the Empty Tomb, which the Lectionary schedules on low attendance Sundays (What else they miss gets worse -- read on.)

Proof of the point.

Attached are screenshots of the three-year Lectionary cycle of a MAJOR denominational and ecumenical curriculum publisher (who shall remain mercifully nameless). I've added comments to the screenshots.

Click to enlarge



If you don't want to view the screenshots, then just soak this in:

Nowhere in this three year "Lectionary-based" scope and sequence of lessons do they teach the stories of:

Moses and the Exodus, Ruth, David, Elijah, Daniel, Esther,
Parables of the Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, or The Sower.

(and yet they teach some stories that are "third-tier" at best)

They also schedule some "major" stories at some very strange times. The only time they schedule Luke 2, the Birth of Jesus is on Christmas Sunday -- when most Sunday Schools are closed. See the screenshots for more comments and remember to think kind things about the well-meaning people who created this mess.

The question marks on the screenshot are me wondering why they'd pick that story over so many other more important stories for kids.

  • For example, why does this Lectionary-based curriculum teach kids about "paying taxes" in November of Year A? ( I'll tell you why -- because preachers want a text to help them with the annual pledge drive.)
  • And why are kids learning about Mattias the Disciple in Year B when there's not a single lesson about the Exodus, Passover, David, or Daniel?
  • The sequence of stories is also baffling. Spring Year A starts Lent with the sin of Adam and Eve, then jumps to Abram's Call, then to the Woman at the Well because????

Even if we excuse Lectionary curriculum's eccentricities, their failure to schedule both quality and quantity teaching time on the stories of the Exodus, Birth of Jesus, and Holy Week should disqualify them as curriculums for kids.

Here's a better idea for building a Sunday School "Lectionary"

In an era of lower attendance and more irregular attendance conspiring to give us only 10 lessons a year with half our students, we should ask ourselves this question:

Which 10 Bible stories do we want them to learn?

In the attached Lectionary-based curriculum example, it is entirely possible for a low-attendance student to never attend a lesson about a "major" Bible story, and only show up for the following  8 or 10 "minor" stories:

The Two Masters, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, The Sadducees' Question, Isaiah's Call, Flight to Egypt, Jesus Teaches about Anger, Woman at the Well, The Pool of Siloam, and Early Believers Gather, and God's House Has Many Rooms.

I love these stories, but they third-tier stories at best for children and new Christians -- especially if they are the only lessons that will be attended!

Those of us who CHOOSE the Workshop Rotation Model don't have "Lectionary-based" problems. We create our teaching schedules around the the MAJOR stories of the Bible, and don't "waste" precious Sunday attendances on minor stories. We also try to put key stories at higher-attendance times of the year.

We also spend more than one week per story -- up to 4 or 5 in most cases. This block scheduling creates two important results:

  1. Regular attenders get real depth on major stories by attending a different workshop each week about that same story for several weeks in a row.

  2. Low and irregular attenders are always getting major stories, not minor or obscure ones.

In Summary:

Without such major story scheduling as the Rotation Model provides, both your irregular and regular attenders suffer.

With a Rotation Model-like emphasis on teaching the majors in blocks, the teaching needs of irregular and regular attenders both get met.

And if the trends are true, the emphasis on "majors" will become even more important as the definition of "regular" attendance changes.

What's a "Major" Bible Story?

Surprisingly, there's large agreement among Christian educators about what the "major Bible stories" are! They include the stories of Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, David, Daniel, Jesus' Birth, Holy Week, Parables, Beatitudes, and various miracle stories. It's not hard to come up with 10 or 12 major stories a year for a three to five-year scope.

See's lists of major Bibles stories for kids submitted by churches, pastors, and Christian educators from many different denominations and types of churches.

What you WON'T SEE on those lists are about 1/2 of the stories being scheduled by Lectionary-based curriculum. Not that those stories are wrong, it's just that"if they don't know the majors, then the minors don't matter."

Who really likes the Lectionary approach?

Besides the paper curriculum publishers? Probably your pastor.

Many pastors think everyone, including the children, should be "learning the same stories I'm preaching about." And that's why your curriculum has your kids learning about paying taxes to Caesar when it's the sermon scripture. But are all your sermons following your own rule? (Doubt it.) And are you forcing the Adult classes to follow this rule? (Probably not.) So let's get real...

Children are not adults

...and if we had only 10 Bible stories we could teach each year so that EVERY student learned them, we Christian educators know which stories we'd pick (and so do you, so let's pick them).

Parting Shot

Even when attendance was more frequent and regular, changing the Bible story every week was TOO FAST for the kids and the teachers. It produced shallow memories and preparation exhaustion.

And it created some weird "jumping around" in the Bible, such as this incomprehensible gem from that Lectionary-based curriculum's Year A.


We can do better, and we must.

The "Revised Common Lectionary" is a three-year cycle of Bible passages that many churches follow to schedule which scriptures they will read and teach every Sunday. Most Sunday School curriculums follow a version of that three-year cycle -- putting upwards of 150 Bible stories on their 3-year "Scope and Sequence." Most modify what the Lectionary tells them should be on their schedule. But regardless of their list modifications, they're all teaching a new Bible story every single week.

And because they follow the "Church Year," the Lectionary unfortunately schedules certain important stories on Sundays when many Sunday Schools don't hold classes. Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, for example. It also schedules important stories, such as The Road to Emmaus, after Easter when attendance is very low. This kind of scheduling is evidence that the Lectionary was designed for preaching, not teaching. (I could make a case that it's not great for preaching either. Stories like Emmaus should be taught when attendance is higher!)

The argument that THE PACE of story change is educationally absurd has been made elsewhere at by Rotation Model enthusiasts. These same enthusiasts also point out the ridiculous proposition made by the Lectionary approach that The Man with the Withered Hand deserves as much lesson time as The Prodigal Son -- which it simply does not. There is a "hierarchy" of stories within the Bible, and in fact, the Lectionary itself creates its own. The problem is that "their" hierarchy was created for preachers, not Sunday School. So why do curriculum publishers insist on following it?  I'm going to stop here before I get in trouble...


Images (3)
  • Lectonary-Page2
  • Lectionary-Page1
  • Random-Stories-Lent
Last edited by Neil MacQueen

Add Reply

Post a New Topic
Lesson or Resource Inc. is a volunteer-run, 100% member supported, 501(c)3 non-profit Sunday School lesson ministry. You are welcome to borrow and adapt content for non-commercial teaching purposes --as long as both the site and author are referenced. Inc reserves the right to manage, move, condense, delete, and otherwise improve all content posted to the site. Read our Terms of Service. Get a free Registered Membership or become a Supporting Member for full access to all site resources. is rated 5 stars on Google based on 51 reviews. Serving a global community including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, S. Africa, and more!
Link copied to your clipboard.