Sunday School Syndrome
Part 1: An Epidemic on Our Hands
Everything I Know I Learned in Kindergarten
—title of a best-selling book for adults.
This Sunday morning a familiar scene will play itself out at churches from coast to coast. Minivans and SUVs will open like pop cans in the parking lots of various denominations, spewing forth their contents of kids. With Bibles in one hand and car-seats in the other, parents will herd their excited children toward the doors. In the hallways, the kids will split up by age and be welcomed into classrooms full of laughter and life and hope. Teachers will embrace these kids as if they are their own for about 45 minutes. They will pour their hearts and souls into the children and teens with the help of videos, various curricula resources, Bible stories, crayons, crackers, CD music, computer graphics, flannel graphs, white boards, cookies, cotton balls, popsicle sticks, prayers, and pipe cleaners. . . . It all looks so safe and so healthy—an inseparable part of the fabric of spiritual life in the western world.
“Did you often attend Sunday school?”
- yes. 61%
- no. 39%
In our survey of 1,000 20-somethings who regularly attended church as children and teens, we asked the question, “Did you often attend Sunday school?” In reply, 61 percent said yes; 39 percent said no. That’s about what you would expect, isn’t it? After all, not everyone is committed enough to make the effort to get to Sunday school, right? Only those who are more concerned about the spiritual and moral health of their kids, right? Because we all assume that Sunday school is good for them, correct? The ritual of Sunday school is so interwoven into American church life that it’s hardly worth mentioning, right? Wrong. Our research uncovered something very disturbing:
Sunday school is actually more likely to be detrimental to the spiritual and moral health of our children.
Now before you react to this, please hear us out and consider the research—real research that is statistically valid and gives us a true look at what is going on.
Compared to the 39 percent who do not go to Sunday school, contrary to what many of you may believe, the research showed that students who regularly attend Sunday school are actually:
- more likely NOT to believe that all the accounts/stories in the Bible are true/accurate.
- more likely to doubt the Bible because it was written by men.
- more likely to doubt the Bible because it was not translated correctly.
- more likely to defend that abortion should continue to be legal.
- more likely to defend premarital sex.
- more likely to accept that gay marriage and abortion should be legal.
- much more likely to believe that God used evolution to change one kind of animal into another.
- more likely NOT to believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old.
- much more likely to question the Bible because they believe the earth is not less than 10,000 years old.
- more likely to doubt the Bible because of the secular dates of billions of years for the age of the earth.
- more likely to have heard a pastor/Sunday school teacher teach Christians could believe in millions/billions of years.
- more likely to question the earth is young and the days of creation are 24 hours each.
- more likely to believe that dinosaurs died out before people were on the planet.
- more likely to view the Church as hypocritical.
- much more likely to have become anti-church through the years.
- more likely to believe that good people don’t need to go to church.
Read that list again. No, we don’t have it backward. Yes, you’re reading it correctly. These results are extremely alarming—in fact, quite shocking. (I had to look at it several times before I could believe it.) They are so contrary to what we would have assumed that they should feel like a rude slap in the face. And remember, these findings were the result of probing questions by a leading researcher who knows how to gather data and statistically analyze it to give us a true picture of the situation.
This was our most stunning and disconcerting result of the entire survey. First, we found out that we were losing our kids in elementary school, middle school, and high school rather than in college. Then we found out that Sunday school is one of the reasons why. The “Sunday school syndrome” is contributing to the epidemic, rather than helping alleviate it. These numbers are statistically significant and absolutely contrary to what we would expect. This is a brutal wake-up call for the Church, showing how our programs and our approaches to Christian education are failing dismally.
Before we investigate this further, however, I want to say a few words to those of you who are committed to Christian education inside and outside of the church. My hat goes off to you. I thank you. I sincerely commend you for taking action and giving your time, skills, and best efforts to invest in the future generation. We are not questioning your dedication, intentions, or passion. In fact, we believe that your efforts are far too often taken for granted and never thanked enough. We don’t question your integrity and we certainly don’t doubt your sincerity. In our survey, less than half of the students said they came to Sunday school to see their friends. That means that you were their contact point. You are the ones who are sincerely trying to build a bridge for them into a healthy spiritual adulthood. The problem is that, by and large, what you are doing isn’t working. We need to ask some hard questions here. We need to be willing to swallow our pride, if necessary, as we find the answers. And we will offer solutions—real solutions—if the Church will take these findings to heart and be prepared to face the challenge head-on.
Three out of five individuals in our survey said they “often attended Sunday school.” Of those who attended Sunday school, over seven in ten said Sunday school lessons were “helpful.” Our results, however, disproved that perception.
In many situations, Sunday school didn’t necessarily hurt, but it certainly didn’t help. When asked, “Does the Bible contain errors?” sadly, Sunday school made no difference. (About 39 percent of each group said yes to this question.) When asked, “Do you believe you are saved and will go to heaven upon death?” there was almost no statistical difference— which really is very disconcerting. In most of the categories, there was such a slight difference between the “yes” or “no” answers of these two groups that the “I don’t know” answers became a big factor. The results show that Sunday school is actually having an overall negative impact on beliefs, even though these differences were often quite slight in a number of instances. The obvious conclusion is that Sunday school really had no impact on what children believed in these critical areas.
For example, when asked if they believed in the creation of Adam in the Garden of Eden, Sunday school had no significant effect on the answers. The same can be said for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s wife. The same can be said of Noah’s ark and the global Flood. Belief in the Tower of Babel was nearly identical. In these areas Sunday school did nothing—it wasn’t a help or a detriment. The numbers indicate that Sunday school actually didn’t do anything to help them develop a Christian worldview. In several other areas, as shocking as this sounds, the reality we have to face is that Sunday school clearly harmed the spiritual growth of the kids. Consider these questions:
“Do you believe that God used evolution to create human beings?”
- yes. 24.6% of those who attended Sunday school
- yes. 18.5% of those who did not attend Sunday school
“Do you believe that God used evolution to change one kind of animal into another?”
- yes. 27.2% of Sunday school attenders
- yes. 18.8% of those who did not go to Sunday school believed in this type of evolution
Toward the end of this chapter, we will give you an explanation as to why we believe such a situation exists.
It’s safe to say that Sunday school attendance is tied to higher percentages of belief in evolution. The same can be said about important moral issues.
“Do you believe that premarital sex is wrong?”
- 47.7% of students who did not attend Sunday school believe that premarital sex is wrong
- 40.8% of Sunday school attenders believe that premarital sex is wrong
And what about the main issue we are concerned about in this book? Why are our kids leaving the Church?
These next three findings may shock you because you would naturally feel those who attended Sunday school would have deeper religious convictions. However, we found the exact opposite.
“Do you feel good people don’t need to go to church?”
- yes. 39.3% of Sunday school attenders
- yes. interestingly, only 28.9% of non-attenders
“Do you feel the Church is relevant to your needs today?”
- no. 46.4% of Sunday school attenders
- no. Only 39.6% of those who did not attend Sunday school felt like church is not relevant to their needs today.
“Do you believe that you have become anti-church through the years?”
- yes. 39.1% of those who attended Sunday school
- yes. 26.9% of those who didn’t go to Sunday school
This should cause us to gasp. When compared to those who never went to Sunday school, more Sunday school attenders believe that good people don’t need to go to church, more feel like the church is less relevant, and more have become increasingly anti-church over the years.
The brutal conclusion is that, on the whole, the Sunday school programs of today are statistical failures.
I know that’s going to hurt many of you who are devoted and dedicated to these programs—as well as those of you who are depending on these programs to properly influence your children. I’m sure various Sunday school curricula publishers will want to become defensive about their resources. But listen, if you are depending on these programs to properly teach and influence your children, it is just not happening.
Out of the 1,000 interviews, 606 were former Sunday school students, and the Church failed these people miserably. As children and teenagers they were there almost every Sunday; they were committed and they were present; they heard the lessons and they nodded their heads . . . and it had a nominal and even negative effect on their faith.
If I were a church leader, I would first sit down and cry and pour my heart out to the Lord. And rightly so. I would then find a new Sunday school curriculum that better prepares young people to maintain their faith. These numbers would be telling me that I need to earnestly look at some radical changes, and I would be working hard toward doing what is needed to reverse this situation.
Taught but Not Caught
All of these numbers would be a little bit easier to accept if we had surveyed a broader cross-section of Christian churches. If these numbers included all of the nominal, liberal churches (particularly those that don’t even claim to stand on the Word of God), then these results would be a little bit more understandable. But they don’t. Remember what we said at the beginning about the type of person we identified for this survey. These results have come from the Christian education programs of the most dedicated, Scripture-affirming churches out there—imagine what the situation must be in the Church as a whole!
Is it a problem of not being taught? Considering these people came from conservative church backgrounds, consider these numbers from our research:
- Of those who attended Sunday school, over 9 in 10 said that their Sunday school classes taught them that the Bible was true and accurate.
- Only 1 in 10 said their pastor/Sunday school teacher taught that Christians could believe in Darwinian evolution.
- One in 4 said their pastors and Sunday school teachers taught that Christians could believe in an earth that is millions or billions of years old.
- Over 4 in 5 said their pastor or Sunday school teacher taught that God created the earth in six 24-hour days.
- Only 1 in 16 said their pastors or Sunday school teachers taught that the Book of Genesis was a myth or legend and not real history.
- 2/5 said the Bible contains errors.
- Less than 2/5 said they believe all the accounts and stories in the Bible are true and accurate.
Actually, as we will explain later on, there is a major problem with how they were taught. These people who went to conservative churches heard many of the right things for the most part (though the situation would be much less so on the whole), but did they “hear” in a way that equipped them to believe in their hearts what the Bible clearly stated, and were they equipped to be able to defend this teaching in the real world they live in?
Clearly, we do have a problem on our hands. The causes for the problems are many, but one thing is for sure: Sunday school isn’t solving it. High school is when we lost nearly half of this group; a big group was lost even earlier in middle school due to doubt in the accounts and stories in the Bible being true. Of those who don’t believe all the accounts and stories in the Bible are true and accurate, four in nine said they had their first doubts in high school.
As the astronaut exclaimed, “Houston, we have a problem!” We will look at our “problem” in great detail in the chapters ahead. Several major concerns will become evident: the concern over biblical authority, the history behind our descent into this abyss, and the great disconnect this has caused when people try to make a connection between their spirituality and reality. What are we going to do?
You will see later in the book that much can (and must!) be done. Great debate is raging right now about the future of Christian education programs. What are some of the ideas?
1. Should we eradicate?
This is a very extreme suggestion, but since we have an extreme epidemic on our hands, it needs to be at least discussed. A growing number of people within the evangelical church are suggesting that we do away with children’s and youth ministries altogether. Consider these thoughts from the Reformed Baptist Church blog site The World from My Window:1
It seems as if we are always trying to fix what is broken with youth ministry. Has it crossed anyone else’s mind that maybe youth ministry shouldn’t be fixed because youth ministry IS a major part of the problem?!
. . . Just in case you were wondering. I am not anti-youth or anti-youth pastor. My two brothers function in the role of youth pastors (including the famous Ken Fields). I was a youth pastor for six years and I am greatly concerned with the future of our younger generations.
Is that idea too radical? Could it possibly be an improvement to get rid of Sunday school and youth ministries altogether? That almost sounds blasphemous. After all, aren’t our concepts of “church” and “Sunday school” inseparable? Not necessarily. Just because our generation has always done it that way doesn’t mean that we have to continue to do it that way. George Barna and Frank Viola note that Sunday school isn’t even historical:
The Sunday school is also a relatively recent invention, born some 1,700 years after Christ. A newspaper publisher named Robert Raikes (1736–1811) from Britain is credited with being its founder. In 1780, Raikes established a school in “Scout Alley” for poor children. Raikes did not begin the Sunday school for the purpose of religious instruction. Instead, he founded it to teach poor children the basics of education. . . . The Sunday school took off like wildfire, spreading to Baptist, Congregational, and Methodist churches throughout England.2
Part of the concern is that the mere existence of youth ministry and Sunday school allows parents to shrug off their responsibilities as the primary teachers, mentors, and pastors to their family. The other part of the concern is that, again, what we are doing just isn’t working. If the existence of our Christian education programs in their current forms are certainly not helping—and in some situations even doing harm—why not dump them altogether?
However, we are not advocating eradication! We want to be solution-oriented, as you will see, so that we can effectively reach these young people with the truth of God’s Word.
This recommendation isn’t quite so extreme—and it is one we recommend. Our children need more training, more nurturing, more teaching than ever—but we need to turn things around so Sunday school isn’t doing the opposite.
We believe it’s possible that the current Christian education programs within the Church don’t need to be eradicated, but they certainly need to be renovated. Churches need to appraise the teachers teaching Sunday School and ensure they know how to answer the skeptical questions and know how to teach apologetics—and know how to teach the age group being entrusted to them. It’s one thing to tell students what to believe, it’s another thing to teach and communicate that in a convincing and gripping way.
Churches need to totally reevaluate the curricula they use (including their VBS programs), and at the very least supplement at all age levels and all years with good apologetics curricula. And we are not just talking about creation apologetics—we mean general biblical apologetics as well. Most church-going adults cannot adequately defend the basics of their Christian faith or basic doctrines, let alone defend the faith against the skeptical questions of this scientific age. How many can really even properly answer questions such as: Where did the Bible come from? What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean that the Bible is inspired? Aren’t there other books that some say should be in the Bible? How do you know Jesus is God?—just to name a few. More and more curricula (such as VBS programs and supplemental curricula for different ages) that is apologetic in nature is being produced to begin to fulfill the above need. Some resources are described in the bibliography.
When we talk of “renovating,” we mean something much more aggressive than simply “redecorating.” A little updating isn’t going to do the job. The entire structure and focus of our programs need to be reconsidered; we need to be willing to make radical changes in the format and the style of these programs to determine how they can be most effective in teaching truth to our children and overcoming the issues that are undermining biblical authority in their thinking and driving them away from the Church.
Let’s be honest. Our entire culture (including secular schools) is aggressively teaching the apologetics of evolution and secular humanism. They teach our students how to defend a humanistic worldview, and they model that worldview. They show all the reasons that what they are teaching is supposedly true. The secularists are teaching our children how to defend the secular faith, and connecting it to the real world—and here we are in churches teaching wonderful Bible stories and reinforcing in their minds that they can believe the secularists and that the Bible is not really connected to the real world. No wonder we are losing them. (See the section for the Christian educator in chapter 7 which deals with solid curriculum for more details on the problems with Sunday school lessons.)
Unless the facts behind the Christian faith are clearly and convincingly communicated in a way that students can learn and remember, their faith will not stand the assault of doubt from the world. It’s not enough to just tell students, “Believe in Jesus!” Faith that is not founded on fact will ultimately falter in the storm of secularism that our students face every day.
In many cases, when we look at what is being taught in the Sunday schools, we’re just teaching on an inspirational or a moral level. The Sunday sermon usually dishes out more of the same. Neither one is providing the necessary support and education students need. In many cases, they are getting two lessons on a Sunday, and neither are really relevant to them. It’s not just the Sunday school, it’s the sermon, the VBS, it’s most of the teaching programs—they are not helping them in this postmodern culture where it is becoming the norm to attack and marginalize Christians. They are not coping—they are not able to cope—they haven’t been trained to cope.
Perhaps you agree with us that it’s going too far to eradicate, but hopefully you will agree it’s certainly time to renovate. Radical renovation is needed urgently. We are losing the next generation—we are losing the culture.
3. Don’t delegate
Listen carefully. We’re certainly not saying that Sunday school can’t be effective in teaching the truth about God’s Word. We’re just saying that in its current form it isn’t. If nothing else, a parent should look at these data and feel a rush of sober realization. If you, as a parent, have been putting the responsibility for the religious education of your child on your church’s Sunday school, you need to realize that the statistics say the job isn’t getting done. As we have seen, in many cases and for many different reasons, it’s not helping, it’s hurting. So this coming Sunday, don’t feel like you have absolved yourself of responsibility when you drop your child at Sunday school. This is your job. Do not totally delegate it to someone else—as, sadly, many parents seem to do.
Deuteronomy 6:4–10 and Ephesians 6:1–4 clearly exhort parents to teach, disciple, and train their own children. Regardless of what’s happening in the Sunday school youth groups, pulpit, and Bible studies of your church, the responsibility for ministry to our kids has never been removed from the parents. It’s time to pick that ball up again and jump in the game. James H. Rutz, in his thought-provoking book The Open Church: How to Bring Back the Exciting Life of the First Century Church, has the heart and the courage to take an honest look at the Sunday school ritual and test its effectiveness:
Take Sunday school for example. God’s plan for religious education is Dad. It’s a 4,000-year-old plan that’s worked like a watch since the days of Abraham. But if your weekly gathering doesn’t equip Dad to open his mouth at home and be a teacher of the Word—well, Sunday school is your next best bet. (Programming Dad would be easier.)3
I understand what this author is saying, but we would say it is actually a 6,000-year-old plan, going back to the first dad, Adam.
If your parents shirked their responsibility for training you spiritually, you will need to break the chain of biblical illiteracy and spiritual irresponsibility in your family tree. If your church hasn’t been stepping up to the plate to equip you, I would suggest a book I wrote with my brother Stephen, Raising Godly Children in an Ungodly World—Leaving a Lasting Legacy.4 Steve and I had a great blessing of being raised by a father (and mother) who took creative and determined responsibility for teaching their kids from God’s Word, and living a biblical life. Our father, as the spiritual head of the house, stood uncompromisingly on the Word of God, determined to be equipped to answer the skeptical questions of the age, setting an example for his children that prepared us for the ministries we are involved in today. We would gratefully pass on to you what he passed on to us so that you can pass it on to your kids. Again, don’t delegate this. It’s one of the most rewarding and important aspects of being a parent. And do it right now. There’s no time to waste.
What is interesting to me is that a person who has not heard of the research being reported in this book, and who has never heard me speak on this topic, wrote to my brother Stephen after reading the book referred to above and said:
I read your book Raising Godly Children in an Ungodly World. . . . I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt greatly challenged as a Sunday school teacher. I just realized how many people went through Sunday school in Australia and came out of it, and never come back to church again. It makes me reevaluate the role that I played at our Sunday school, whether I am playing my part right, drawing children to know God or pushing them away from God without even knowing it. Your book came in just as a wake up call!
Not a Simple Epidemic
This Sunday, the ritual of Sunday school and teen ministry will again repeat itself. Through the data collected by Britt Beemer in this survey, we now know how typical Sunday school programs have affected our children. The Sunday school syndrome is a serious contributor to the overall problem of students exiting the Church. A true and urgent commitment to address the problem is probably more important than the specific solutions that are eventually implemented. Again, when 60 percent of our kids are leaving the Church, there will be no single solution to the overall problem—there is no single inoculation that will make us immune. The truth of the matter is that the epidemic affects each of us as individuals, because each of us is part of the greater Body of Christ. Together, working as a body, a multifaceted response to the disease can materialize. Lord willing, the mass exodus can be slowed, if not reversed, and be transformed into something new and more powerful than the typical, traditional forms we are now using.
Imagine if we started (in our homes and churches) raising generations of children who stood uncompromisingly on the Word of God, knew how to defend the Christian faith, could answer the skeptical questions of this age, and had a fervor to share the gospel from the authority of God’s Word with whomever they met! This could change the world.
In the next chapter, we will look deeper into the lives of those who are leaving the Church. What the numbers taught us about them will be essential as you move into the future and discern what you can do to address this problem. Let there be no mistake, it’s time to do something—it’s time for you to do something. If not, you might as well sleep in this Sunday. The statistics show that not going won’t hurt your kids one bit. In fact, they might be better for it.
Britt’s Bit: Not by Chance
You have to be careful with numbers. People often say, “You can prove anything you want to with statistics,” and they are partially right. As a consumer researcher, I’ve seen people use every trick in the book to try to prove their point no matter whether the data supported it or not.
For example, what if a politician told you that “70 percent of students in the country scored above the national average”? Would you believe him? Could you believe him? No way. The law of averages says that half the country will be above average. (The other half, of course, will be below average.)
A news anchor recently said, “Over half of Americans approve of abortion.” The truth is, only 38 percent approve of abortion, but 13 percent are still undecided. So by adding the undecideds with those who oppose it, they conclude that 50 percent accept it. A few years ago I was hired to conduct a study of 1,000 consumers across America. When we finished the survey we realized that we had omitted a question that the client really wanted. So, at our expense, we interviewed another 1,000 consumers with the original questions, plus the one new one. Amazingly, when I reviewed all the data from the two different surveys conducted within a week of each other, no answer varied more than 1.8 percent, well within the 3.8 plus or minus statistical error factor.
In this study, when we say that there is a difference between two numbers, we can prove that mathematically. When you hear statistics from other people, you’ll just have to be careful and double check to make sure that they aren’t twisting or fabricating what they are saying!