Is Sunday School Going Extinct? or…

Is Sunday School going “extinct”?
…or are some churches merely suffering from their own ineptness, uninspired leadership, and the accumulated effect of bad habits?

According to a recent Barna Research Study,  more than 9 out of every 10 churches offer Sunday school for elementary grades (92%) and adults (91%) These levels are statistically only slightly less than they were in 1997. (See link below for source.)  While Sunday School is declining in attendance in many declining churches, it is also true that Sunday School is THRIVING against the odds in many churches.  (And yes, you can thrive with lower numbers. We saw big attendance back in the 60’s and 70’s BUT they did not produce a “thriving” adult populartion of Christians in the 90’s and 2000’s. No, instead, many left the church.)

There are many local issues and situations which any single church might point to for reasons of its own decline. And there are definitely some denominational declines and a trend towards a secular society. But I believe the “decline” has been self-inflicted. Decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in many churches because they decline to do the things that make for long term success. But rather than do the hard work of change, they cop-out. It’s easier to blame “cultural trends” or “parents these days.”

In 2009, I was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article about “the decline” of Sunday School. The writer had seen an article I had written about Sunday School and called me for some quotes.

When I saw the completed article, I was disappointed for two main reasons:

a) It selectively quoted statistics. See the section below for the stats they reference.

b) It offered very little in the way of analysis or strategies for success.

The article was boldly titled “Why Sunday Schools are in Decline” and the author told me over the phone that she was raised in Sunday School but no longer goes.

The WSJ article DID quote some Barna Research stats about Sunday School that are VERY interesting, but the WSJ DID NOT PROPERLY QUOTE the statistics. You’d think the WSJ would fact check! (see link below).

The WSJ article says, “The decline in Sunday schools appears to be gradual but steady.” Yet Barna’s 2005 study which the article refers to says, and I quote: “Church reliance upon Sunday school has remained stable: 19 out of every 20 Protestant churches (95%) offer “a Sunday school in which people receive some form of planned or systematic Bible instruction in a class setting.” Nearly the same proportion of churches – 97% – offered Sunday school eight years ago, when the tracking research began.” Here’s the link to the study the WSJ misrepresented:

[Update: Recent studies suggest declining attendance has accelerated somewhat through 2015.]

It cannot both be “in decline” and “steady.” In fact, what the stats DO say is that youth classes are in a slight decline. But could this be due to a greater reliance on youth groups as the place where teens are expected to gather and discuss. Is this a demographic/population trend? The article and research don’t go into it, but somebody should.

I’ve written about Sunday School issues in several other articles, but want to say this in this particular article — which the “going extinct” folks don’t seem to understand. Most Americans attend small churches of under 200 members. This stat has remained largely unchanged for 100 years. Even in the age of mega-churches, it is still true. What’s changed for those small churches are two important things which are adding to the “decline” of Sunday School:

  1. Fewer children being born. Families in small churches are getting smaller through no fault of the church.
  2. Small churches are struggling to afford leaders. Pastor salaries and benefits have risen (which is good) but the rise has priced small churches out of the leadership market. Many are now only part-time staffed, and that affects all sorts of ministries, including Sunday School.

The most INTERESTING statistic I read in the Barna Report was this:

Only 15% of ministers regarded Sunday school as a leading concern (!!!)

And…the younger the pastor, the study showed, the less emphasis they placed on Sunday school. Yet once, again, the Wall Street Journal writer gets it wrong. This stat only indicates that 85% of minister might think that maybe Worship and Mission are higher priorities than Sunday School. Can’t argue with them. Read the Barna Report! …it clearly ALSO says that 95% of minister rate Sunday School as an “important” concern.

So the issue which the WSJ SHOULD have pointed out was that it is YOUNGER pastors who are part of the decline, and in smaller churches who typically have to hire less-experienced (younger) pastors, this statistic is a bit more alarming.

Here’s why I think some younger pastors have a lower opinion of Sunday School:

a) They remember their own boring S. School experience and “10 foot pole” the program.

b) Most young pastors during their training years concentrate in youth work, and not children’s ministry.

c) Most young pastors are too busy doing other things to focus on a program they grew up disliking.

I have no doubt that Sunday School is in decline, –but mostly it’s to the culture WE have created in the church, –it’s due to the people who decline to do it well.

Case Study: I was a volunteer in a small church that had a thriving Sunday School in the 80’s. They held classes for te kids DURING worship. So if mom and dad brought their kids to church, the kids went to class while the parents stayed in the sanctuary. Then in the early 90’s that church moved Sunday School to the hour BEFORE worship, …which is a great idea. Kids belong in worship with their parents as much as possible. And for the next two years attendance was pretty good. But attendance started to decline, and here’s why…

The switchover to a Sunday School hour required PARENTS to attend Bible study classes, and the church did a poor and inconsistent job of offering such. And because don’t drive themselves to church, their attendance started to decline.

They did TRY on occasion, but it was haphazard. The pastor rarely taught a class, and rarely promoted them from the pulpit. They didn’t form an adult education committee or consistent group of leaders. The class would meet, and then stop meeting. They didn’t bring in outside speakers to occasionally attract new attenders, -though there were plenty of speakers to be found in the metro area.

And they did some foolish things. One fall they tried to start a new Sunday morning study with this approach: whoever showed up would be given the lectionary reading for the day. They’d read the verses and everyone would take turns saying what they thought it meant. The class lasted a couple of weeks.

They DID have an ongoing older-adult study that had 6 or 7 regulars. But it was known to be so conservative that some people who gave it a try literally walked out of the class. Parents who brought their children didn’t want to go to these “classes” and so ended up WANDERING in the hallways. Eventually, they stopped coming.

They did offer some other creative fellowship events, such as, an inter-generational VBS’. But one of the secrets to successful Sunday morning Bible study is CONSISTENCY and QUALITY of effort. And it just wasn’t there.

I did offer to help. I had led a successful Adult Ed program in a previous church. I offered to teach some series of Sunday morning Bible studies. But in 10 yrs of attending there, they never took me up on that offer. They said they wanted me to keep teaching the kids. And perhaps, just maybe, they didn’t really want help. This is one of the other problems with some leaders, they’d rather let something die than ask for help, or let someone else try and succeed where they have failed.

Fast forward several years, and now you have a Sunday School “Declined,” and a membership that doesn’t take it seriously, or increasingly want it. Over that same 10 year period , they were taking in small numbers of new members each year who were not joining the church because they wanted Adult Sunday School. They were joining a church that didn’t expect them to come study the Bible. Within a few short years, that small church had a growing group of adults who didn’t care and didn’t miss Sunday School for themselves, let alone for their children. And their overall numbers continued a slow decline.

Attendance is a habit easily broken, and difficult to create or fix.

–break for an advertisement!–

How to turn around a “failing” Sunday School … a couple of thoughts:

Leadership is one obvious answer. If your pastor is one of the 85% who thinks Sunday School isn’t that important, you either need to:

*Not making the “same ol’ mistakes” is another part of the answer. Failure is usually accompanied by a lack of passion, creativity, and long-term commitment. But in my experience failure is also the result of a hundred small mistakes along the way: Dirty rooms, boring lessons, a dirty improperly staffed nursery, lack of quality communication, poor planning, poor execution, lack-luster leadership, lack of quality oversight, etc etc.

I’ve dedicated the last 20 years of my ministry to reinvigorating Sunday School for the kids AND teachers through my work with the Workshop Rotation Model for Sunday School ( and Sunday Software (

Other keys: This is a blog, so I’m going to end this post here, short of the goal. But I encourage you to read more of my thoughts on The Future of Children’s Ministry over at  where I lay out the “characteristics” of such a healthy Christian education ministry, and offer many more suggestions.

Incompletely yours,

Neil MacQueen


This entry was posted in Christian Education ~ Ideas and Advice, Ideas for Changing the Church and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Is Sunday School Going Extinct? or…

  1. Neil,
    Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention. I agree with your assessment that the decline in our Christian education programs lies in the hands of leadership. And in many cases the lack of the program being promoted, supported, and continually uplifted as “vital” by the Pastor and/or the congregation.
    And of course, the necessity of having an energetic, committed team to lead !
    Blessings, Debbie

  2. Cathy says:


    I am an educator teetering on the edge of burnout, for reasons you’ve explained beautifully above. I’m also VP of the National Association for Episcopal Christian Education Directors and learned of your blog from the NAECED listserv.

    I almost copied and pasted this link to send to “the powers that be” in my parish. But thinking about what you said saved me from continuing to beat my head against that wall. My head hurts enough as it is, and that purple lump on my forehead is so unattractive. 🙂 At some point, it’s soul-saving to accept what can and cannot be changed in a particular setting, and move on from there.

    So thank you for this ministry! And blessings on your day.

  3. Neil says:

    Thanks Cathy for your comments. I believe almost every situation can be changed, -if those in charge WANT to change. But unfortunately, change requires confession of one’s deficiencies that have contributed to the problems, opening yourself up to new ideas, letting go so that others can lead, and the ability to help create a vision and implement it over the long haul. And these are qualities which are not often found among pastors or lay leaders. The other truth is that some pastors simply don’t know how to teach or lead. They are priests –equipped for worship leadership and pastoral care, and little else.

  4. Josh Hunt says:

    Great article. I work with lots of Sunday schools that are doing well; yet there is that perception that they are few doing well.

  5. Neil says:

    Thanks Josh. “Doing well” needs examined. Sunday Schools and youth groups were doing GREAT in the 60’s and 70’s in many churches. But where are all those kids now? Statistically speaking, church attendance has slid since then.

    And in some churches, class attendance is “well” because the church is in a growing area, or they have a dynamic pastor or adult ministry.

    Rather than “great program and attendance growth”, the only measure of success we can afford is “growing children into adult disciples”.

  6. Boogog says:

    Great information.
    I live in a small town, 10,000. Lots of churches. Our church has a very old congregation. At least 4 are 100 or over. The same loyal people are there, until they die. Some younger adults have joined over the years, but the decline due to death has far outweighed the increase of young adults attending. Since the 70s I have seen a decrease in church attendance from 220/250 a Sunday to 110/115.
    2 and a half floors (13 classrooms I think) including a nursery located in a wing that was built exclusively for education and Sunday School were always full when I was a child in the 70s. Now, we consistently have 4 children. Yes, 4. Two 5th graders and Two 2nd graders. When i was a kid we literally broke the classes up by grade, just like in public school. Now, we have 1 class of 4.
    I understand that your article is different in that it is addressing those scalable, global strategies of planning, implementing and especially quality and quality measures as related to the church and what it can do to boost Sunday School attendance.
    But, what happens when, as described above, there is a direct correlation between a lack of a process to consistently attract new members and the decline of Sunday School attendance? Basically, just shift your ideas to a solid membership process to attract younger adults as a start, and the kids will follow?
    We no longer have any children in the church. Possibly 3-6 regularly attend the Sunday worship service.

  7. Boogog says:

    One last thought, though, about the cultural impact, because we can’t assume that we are in a vaccuum removed from its effects: 1. In my town we have lost most industry over the past 3 decades. The greater percentage of all the children I went to Sunday School with have all moved away, so their children are not available to attend Sunday School or worship services, even though they may be doing so elsewhere. 2. Society-wide we became a nation that moves and does not stay in a town, let alone a region. These 2 cultural changes have significantly impacted my church’s specific situation. The 1st scenario above, especially, has been a catalyst to, at least, help in our current situation. If our families had not had to leave due to socio-economic reasons, I believe that we would not be so far off the mark in attendance, because those children I grew up with in the church would still be here with their children attending regularly.
    Thanks for listening.

  8. Neil says:

    Boogoog, you make a valid point about the demographics of certain areas. Yet they can also be an excuse in SOME areas, like where I live. Some of the PCUSA churches here in Florida have real problems attracting young people, –some having almost none. Yet, they are in neighborhoods that have families.

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