Unless your congregation is an anomaly, you’ve probably noticed that we are living in the midst of a significant cultural shift in church attendance. Church affiliation and Sunday school attendance peaked in 1959. For people who grew up in the 1950s, the 1970s, even the 1990s, the shift may seem startling. The days of here’s the church, here’s the steeple, opening the door, and seeing all the people are, for now, gone.
The reasons behind the culture shift are varied. Some don’t want to be part of church because of a bad experience they have had or learned about. (Surprise: the church is filled with sinful people.) Others feel the ideas inside the church are closed-minded or that religious participation is adversarial to thinking analytically or scientifically. There’s also more competition for time. Coaches and choirs schedule practices and competitions on Sunday mornings. The end of Blue Laws across the country means stores are open and that part for the toilet that needs fixing it ready to be picked up. Families are overwhelmed with kids’ schedules, so the chance to sleep in one morning a week seems like reasonable self-care. The odds are quite high that more than one parent works in a dual-parent household and one of those days may be on Sunday. The rise in single-parent or split-custody families can also complicate Sunday school attendance for kids.
While the researchers at the Pew Research Center assure us that the data says the majority of Americans still believe in God, their faith does not necessarily manifest itself in religiosity. And many a pastor has had a parent (who made promises to bring their child to church when they were baptized) explain with no hint of irony that the child will be allowed to choose what they believe about religion for themselves when they are older.
The problem with that is that most of us believe in God, attend church, and are able to articulate at least a bit about what we believe (or don’t believe) because someone brought us to church when we were small or invited us when we were a little older. Someone prayed with us at bedtime or told us now-familiar Bible stories. Without giving kids the tools to understand faith, it is much less likely they will ever step foot in a worship service, read scripture, pray, or have any understanding of how faith is woven into everyday discipleship.
Does that mean they can’t be good people? Of course not—we all know agnostics and atheists who are solid citizens and full of kindness and charity. But we don’t just come to church to be good people. Sunday school teaches kids the stories of faith. Stories that let kids know the issues we struggle with as children of God today have been wrestled with in some form throughout the ages. When kids learn about Jesus, they learn about radical welcoming and inclusivity. They learn about service, discipleship, and how communities of faith provide both challenge and support. And they learn, no matter what else is going on in their lives, that they are loved.
Keep the faith. There has been an ebb and flow to the church throughout the ages and it has always survived. In the meantime, keep teaching the kids who are there knowing that they will be the ones who carry the church forward for another day just as you are now. Thank God for you!