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Sunday School Looks Different Since Pandemic’s Start: From Monthly to Missing

Youth participate in a combination vacation Bible school and summer camp at Crossroads Community Cathedral in East Hartford, Conn., in July 2021.
Courtesy of Crossroads Community Cathedral

The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story by Adelle M. Banks was published on Dec. 21, 2022. It has been edited for length. Paragraphs 19 to 21, with context for the Christian Reformed Church, have been added.

Children’s Sunday school, adult forums, and other Christian formation classes in U.S. churches, already affected by declines in worship attendance, have been further challenged since COVID-19 shuttered churches and sent their services online. A study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research said more than half were disrupted in some way. Other research shows religious education for adults has bounced back more than for younger church members.

“For some, it continued without any real major disruptions, and for others, it basically collapsed,” said Scott Thumma, the institute’s director, summing up its 2022 pandemic-related research during an October event at Yale Divinity School. “And the easiest way to make it collapse was to keep religious education for children and youth online. If you kept it online, you probably don’t have a religious education program now.”

The Rev. Scott Zaucha is pastor of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the Chicago suburb of Woodstock, Ill., a mostly white congregation with about 50 attending on Sundays. He said its Sunday school had ceased to exist before the pandemic because of its aging congregation. Wondering how to begin it again, Zaucha learned that online Christian education was not the answer because it seemed like “another thing to try to keep up with” when regular schooling was online.

Zaucha found that meeting one Sunday a month in person—what the church calls “Second Sunday Sunday School”—was the best route, realizing that even if families choose St. Ann’s as their congregational home, they might not be weekly attenders.

“When you have only a few families with kids at your church, and you have two kids on this Sunday and six kids on that Sunday,” he said, “they’re all sort of spread out. But if you say, ‘Hey, families, we’re going to have Sunday school once a month.’ Then it lets them know when is the best Sunday for them to come if they’re only going to choose one.”

In Orthodox churches, research shows that the parishes that never ceased holding in-person religious education classes for their children and teenagers fared better than those that halted the Sunday school lessons, with some even increasing the number of attendees. The combination of attending worship as well as Sunday school and seeing other youth on a regular basis became crucial for their participation.

“For them, it has become even more valuable through the pandemic for those parishes, which kept young people together,” said Alexei Krindatch, national coordinator of the National Census of Orthodox Christian Churches, in an interview conducted at the Religious Research Association conference in November. “It was an excuse to get together.”

At Crossroads Community Cathedral, an Assemblies of God church with about 1,500 gathering each weekend in East Hartford, Conn., online campus pastor Luke Monahan has tried numerous options to keep adults and kids engaged since the start of the pandemic. In 2020 there were daily adult devotional videos and two a week for kids. Online options appealed more to the adults than to the kids—Monahan’s own youngster, at age 6, “shut the little laptop and ran away,” he said. An online kids’ church video he had developed gained little traction.

“One month, I didn’t put it out and didn’t notify anyone on purpose,” said Monahan, who also directs IT and education at the multicultural church. “Nobody said, ‘Where did that video go?’”

Thumma said in his presentation at Yale that adults have had a much more positive reaction to religious education that is not in person. “Adults seem to love religious education online,” he said. “And we’re hearing stories about all kinds of Bible studies, all kinds of prayer meetings, all kinds of education events that are happening online for adults, but not for children and youth.”

Publishing companies are seeking to respond.

Urban Ministries Inc. has found that adults, even those who aren’t tech-savvy, are interested in its digital platform, Precepts Digital, which launched in 2022. The video-enhanced Bible study is meant for individuals or small groups.

“We have been encouraged by the oldest members of our audience embracing digital,” said UMI CEO Jeffrey Wright, whose Christian education publishing company primarily serves African American congregations. “You expect pushback from nondigital natives. And in one focus group, a person commented, ‘Well, you know, it’s harder, but it’s worth it.’”

After the pandemic caused a significant drop—Wright estimates a 60% to 80% decrease—in requests for materials for children and youth in the African American community, the company is working on a children’s version of its digital Bible lessons.

“We have a crisis of catechism going on in America right now,” Wright said, expressing concern for the religious upbringing of the youngest generation.

“If you think about it, a 4- or 5-year-old kid, say, born in 2017 or 2018, has never been in an Easter program or a Christmas program and given that little speech you gave when you were a little kid up in the front of the church. Hasn’t happened. Children aren’t being served.”

Illustrated Ministry, a 7-year-old publishing company that aimed at progressive Christian congregations, also has sought to provide materials to churches as they shifted from in-person to online and, sometimes, back and forth again, depending on the stage of the pandemic.

Adam Walker Cleaveland, who founded the company in Racine, Wisc., said he is seeing a greater demand for resources that provide stand-alone lessons for those who may not be attending Sunday school week after week.

“Since COVID, we have seen increasing need for curriculum and resources that are extremely flexible, extremely adaptable,” he said.

Jill Benson, coordinator of Dwell Curriculum in Faith Formation at the Christian Reformed Church in North America, saw the same need to provide churches with materials that can adapt to whatever situation they are in. “We created Dwell Flex in response to the pandemic,” she said, noting that the simplified sessions minimize leader preparation, “recognizing that churches have fewer volunteers and that those volunteers they have are busy.” Benson gave examples of the program’s flexibility, saying “one church plant is using these materials with ages 3-12, having the older children act as helpers. A lot of churches are using Flex to hold several age-specific Sunday School classes, knowing that if they have a low attendance week, they can easily combine those classes into one group since everyone is using the same materials”

“As we emerge from the pandemic, many churches are wanting to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic,” said Mimi Larson, a ministry consultant for children's ministry with the CRCNA. “The problem is that the world has changed. The family's behavior has changed. So for many, the old ways of doing ministry are just not working.” Larson suggests adaptation. “If we are depending on consistent Sunday School attendance as a key way to disciple children, then we have a huge problem right now. It's important that churches rethink how they do things.” And it won’t necessarily be online. “Adults have an easier time engaging online and digitally. Kids are more holistic learners than adults. They need to move. They need to involve their whole beings,” Larson said. “Online or digital resources can be helpful in engaging kids, but they can't be the only way they learn.” 

Robin Basselin, co-director of English ministry at ReFrame Ministries, has noticed the shifts in family behavior. “Since before the pandemic, a shift to center children’s faith formation in the home had begun—a shift supported by faith formation experts and parents alike,” she said. “Parents and caregivers are seeking resources to help their families grow in faith and our Kids Corner and Family Fire programs in particular seek to come alongside parents and families with resources they can use together to grow in faith and live more fully into their roles in God's story.” Basselin said ReFrame also offers its digital resources to CRCNA congregations “in hopes that they can be of help as churches respond to the changing landscape of church-based children and family ministry."

©  2022 Religion News Service


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