SMS: Killing Sunday School?

Want To Kill Your Sunday School Program?

Before your Christian Education Committee organizes a blog-ban or a book-burning bonfire in my honor (or before you invite me to a celebration bar-b-cue on my behalf) let me explain…

Busy students don’t need more, they often need better.  Sometimes less is more.

Again, this is not a call to kill Sunday School, in fact, it may be that you need to really put some great effort into improving it.  It could be that you actually need to kill your mid-week program in order to offer deeper connection and community through small groups? Or perhaps your small groups are so small they can’t even be measured, maybe it is time to retire these?  Bottom line, as I have examined the Student Ministry landscape, a lot of Youth Leaders are struggling with student-commitment levels, and we may be part of the problem.  Rather than just blaming the likes of parents, clubs, sports, school, facebook, gaming and premature dating, I’d suggest we look to be part of the solution.

One key find in my research is that Youth Ministry programs that concentrate on two of the major three elements are typically finding a greater percentage of student participation than those offering all three.

What are the Majors?

Sunday School, Youth Group (mid-week) and Small Groups seem to be the most common elements that make up a Student Ministry program (so these are the three I call “majors).

In my quick study for this post with 10 youth ministry leaders, I found that 90% who were offering all three wanted to get rid of Sunday School.  The other church does not offer mid-week “youth group.”

“A Dead Horse Can’t Race”

One person (who asked not to be named) said, “I’m under a lot of pressure from people to ‘educate’ our students about Christianity, but the Sunday School model is not working… it’s like trying to get a dead horse to race in the Kentucky Derby.”

I faced a similar situation in my last Youth Pastorate.  We were offering all three majors. However, upon my arrival it was evident that students were very inconsistent in attendance at all three.  Instead of making the ask that everyone (including an overworked youth staff) make the commitment to be at everything, we decided to place our largest emphasis on two elements.  Though it wasn’t the most popular decision, I placed our emphasis on Sunday School and on mid-week small groups (and developing my leadership team to disciple students).

Our Sunday School Program (we called “The Gathering”) had a group discipleship emphasis (essentially it was “church for teens”).  Our small groups were grade/gender specific discipleship groups that had an emphasis on accountability, sharing, praying together and studying the Bible so that we could live out our faith.  Our mid-week program was our “outreach” time where the Christian students could freely bring their unchurched friends so those who have not heard the Gospel could be presented the Good News.

Christian Entertainment Industry

In the years I served at this specific church our small groups grew dramatically (as did our youth staff).  Our Sunday School grew even more.  However, our mid-week program needed to be killed.  We shut it down, it had become a gathering of Christians (the same kids who were at Sunday School and in our small groups). Our students were not inviting non-Christian friends to come and hear the Gospel. I felt we were simply entertaining the masses.  We’d have students say, “it seems like the messages are always the same, it’s always about the cross, we’re bored, we need to go deeper” (keep in mind the purpose of the mid-week program was to present the Gospel to the lost).  Any time a staff member did change up his or her message and went “deep” we were bound to have someone say, “see, this is why I can’t bring my unchurched friend, that message would have been over his head and would have offended him.”

What Would It Look Like?

Dream a little.  What would it look like for you to help students, family and staff by placing an emphasis on two of the majors (you decide which two) and see if you may not be able to still accomplish the major goals of your program?  For the sake of suggestion, here is what I could see happen if you cancelled any one of the majors:

  1. Mid-Week Youth Group. Students are busy with sports, clubs, family commitments and homework.  In fact, many students are already involved with para-church youth groups (FCA, Athletes-in-Action, Young Life, Youth For Christ, etc.), what if you supported them and pushed them to be involved with these things as their outreach outlet?  Being free on a weeknight might allow you more contact time, allow you to go to a small group with other adults, or give you valuable time to raise your family.
  2. Small Groups. If you are one who struggles to recruit adult leaders getting rid of your small group ministry may free you up to pour into individual students rather than coaching leaders who really aren’t ready to be leading (or free you up for a season to get leaders ready to lead).
  3. Sunday School. Not having a Sunday morning traditional Sunday School would often allow students the opportunity to serve in the children’s ministry program, music program, attend service with family, or (if offered) participate in an adult Sunday School class.

Of course there are many other tweaks and possibilities.  I have seen Youth Groups successfully transition to Sunday mornings being the time for student small groups (or even outreach).  I have seen groups make their mid-week Youth Group a time for outreach to be followed by an hour of small group for those who want to go deeper. You need to take into account what will work best for your group, your leaders and the parents of your teens.  The answer may be to simply re-focus each of these elements or even to add something new.

For those who are struggling with the low or inconsistent attendance; to those of you who are contemplating making a “major” change, let me conclude by saying, don’t do this on your own.  Dream, scheme and pray with others about these decisions.  The key is to get better by possibly offering less.

Be free, let’s go kill it!




10 thoughts on “SMS: Killing Sunday School?

  1. I feel like we just talked about this Brian. We tried to kill our Sunday School program to free our Sr. High students up do more service and it just about put me over the edge when it didn’t work. I love these suggestions, but at the same time, I am not sure if I have enough clout to pull it off. What kind of timing would you put into some of these major change plans?

  2. All of these ideas are wonderful. Then you throw in people! If we just weren’t human it would be so much easier.

  3. Hi Brian; interesting thoughts. I fully agree that some students are very busy and do need the extra time for homework, sports, etc. I also would call on the leadership laystaff to take advantage of the time they may have to connect with kids one and two at a time. I feel this is a great opportunity to share one on one with them find out what and how you can be praying for them. As well as actually praying together with them. Many students tho christians have never been shown what that communication with God is about. You know as well as I that years later you get calls e-mails and drop in’s from kids you shared with years ago. So I would encourage part of the change if any to be an effort by adult leaders to reach out for that deeper communication as God uses you in His ministry.

    Prayers goin up.

  4. No not controversial – just truth. For what it worth, I absolutely agree. It goes a long with what our new pastor is teaching through the “It” class this fall. We don’t need more – let’s be over the top intentional with less. Thanks for posting.

  5. Brian,

    This topic must be the hot topic issue this week; I’ve read three different posts all along the same lines.

    My internship congregation did not have Sunday School at all. There were a total of eight kids in the congregation. We know correlation does not equal causation, and I only have that one church to go by.

    There is a balance to be had here. This is something that I’ve been struggling with over the past year. I’m partial to the family ministry model; working with families to build up faith from the home. I think somewhere along the way, the church in general stopped training families and became the sole teachers of the faith. We need to go back to the church and families working together. I can’t say what that will look like because it will differ from church to church.

  6. Thanks for the thread so far all… couple follow ups:
    Jan… yep, humanity sort of messes it all up…as I’ve said before “ministry would be great if it weren’t for the people…” Ha.
    Rich… great advice to the adult volunteers… go deep!
    Wes, to answer your question “How much time would you put into these major changes…” It’s not as much about time as it is communication. You need to have support in these decisions. Staff members (volunteers), church staff, parents, students and even the children’s ministry people would need to be communicated with on the Sunday School decision. One thing I could see go horribly wrong is to have your high school students be invited to serve, but then be nothing more than glorified baby-sitters in the children’s SS classes. They, like all staff members, need ownership. These young adults can/should serve, and be given real responsibility. They need to feel like they are part of the team as well and it needs to be about using your gifts/skills and not just warm bodies.
    As a whole, I’d say the “time” issues that should generally be observed for Youth Pastors and the idea of making “major” changes:
    No MAJOR changes in the first 6 months after arrival… take your time to get to know the culture.
    For existing Youth Pastors who are about to make Major changes, 3-4 months from the time of planting the seed, discussing it, getting feedback and then finally making the change (and celebrate that change).
    Craig… I love your thoughts/struggle, I think there is a lot of validity to the family ministry model, yet a lot of people who are resistant to it at the church level. Bottom line, discipleship does need to take place in the home.

    1. Brian,
      That has been one of my biggest challenge: Overcoming the perception that I alone am responsible for discipleship and that discipleship needs to be programmed (I’m beginning to hate that word). The other one is that I am “the Youth guy.” There are days I wish I could change my title from “Director of Child, Youth, and Family Ministries” to “Director of Faith Formation” or something similar.

  7. Brian,

    I guess I should have worded it better, but I meant the timing of when you decide to make these changes and not necessarily how much time you put into making them. You do touch on that a little towards the end. I waited for 10 months before making ANY changes at all, figuring having me as the New Guy was change enough. I guess my question is more aimed at the timing within the yearly cycle of ministry. Is it better to do it with a fall kick off? Or with the New Year? Is there ever a good “timing” to do something like that?

  8. Wes, you named the two most natural times to do a change of a major. I am more in favor of the fall kick-off, simply because I believe this is when most people set their yearly calendar (revolving around the school year).

  9. there is a ton to think about in here. I have been to struggle with pushing all three but also been the guy that tries to fit all three in one. (which doesn’t work either).

    There has to be a balance and a focus for each of your ministry targets. 2 of the big three. 🙂

    Thanks B.

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