The Sunday school landscape has changed, according to a new study by The Barna Group, but it may be premature to sound the alarm.
Based on telephone interviews with a national random sample of 614 Protestant senior pastors, the study found there are fewer pastors who claim Sunday school is their top priority.
Furthermore, fewer churches are offering Sunday school for children under six or for teens, and there has been an increase in the customization of the curriculum.
Two other changes in children’s ministry are a drop in the number of churches offering Vacation Bible School and a drop in midweek programming for children.
David Kinnaman, director of the study, explained that these statistics do not necessarily spell Sunday school's demise and warns against exaggeration. It seems that Sunday school is being replaced with other types of programs, though the report did not mention specifics.
"The changes facing Sunday school seem to be more about the form – not the function – of Sunday school. It appears as though churches are moving toward a ‘label-less' future," said Kinnaman.
Still, "Every weekend more than 300,000 churches offer some type of systematic religious instruction in a classroom setting – and those programs are attended by nearly 45 million adults and more than 22 million youth and children," he mentioned.
The research showed a drop in the number of senior pastors who consider Sunday school to be the highest priority - from 22 percent in 2002 to 14 percent in late 2004, when the study was conducted.
Also, the youngest and the oldest children receive less programming than previous years. Teens and children under two are affected by this change.
Since 1997, programming for those under two years old dropped from 79 to 76 percent, for children ages two to five, 94 to 88 percent, for junior high students, 93 to 86 percent, and for high school students, 86 to 80 percent. About 20,000 fewer churches are providing Sunday school for each age group.
However, Sunday school programs for elementary age children and adults stay at a steady rate of around 90 percent of churches, which has been true since 1997.
Kennaman suggests that the change could be due to increasing realization of children ministry's importance, as this is the time humans are most impressionable, coupled with greater diversity and flexibility in new programming.
Evidence is the move towards "customized" curriculums, (churches that used this new customized curriculum doubled since 2002), and data show that younger pastors and those in the West – often viewed as pace-setters – are among the most likely to customize, suggesting this is the beginning of a trend.
Commented Kinnaman. “There are also increased expectations placed on churches for personal choice and for multimedia relevance. Without compromising the Gospel, Sunday school and other forms of Christian education must continue to adapt to be effective in this ever-changing environment.”