Are we better off without Sunday school?

A couple of weeks ago I was given a book to read.  The book, Already Gone, was written by Ken Ham (Answers in Genesis founder) and Britt Beemer.  It explores why so many children who are raised in the church end up leaving by the time they are adults.  According to statistical studies, 60% of regular church attenders will leave.

The study examined by the book draws on information gathered from interviews with 1000 twenty-somethings who regularly attended theologically conservative churches as children, but who no longer (or rarely) attend today.  Of the 1000 people interviewed, 61% said they regularly attended Sunday school.

One may suspect that those who attended Sunday school would be more likely to remain in church over time.  One may also suspect that those attending Sunday school would have greater confidence in the Bible and a better opinion of church in general.  Here are some surprising results uncovered in the survey:

 The research showed that students who regularly attended Sunday school are:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Did you read that correctly?  That is right.  Those who regularly attended Sunday school are more likely to express the views above than those who did not attend.  What are we to make of this?  Below are some more specific numbers to consider:

When asked these questions, here are the responses from each group.

1.  Do you believe that premarital sex is wrong?

  • YES. 40.8% of Sunday school attenders
  • YES. 47.7% of those who did not go to Sunday school

2.  Do you feel good people don’t need to go to church?

  • YES. 39.3% of Sunday school attenders
  • YES. 28.9% of those who did not go to Sunday school

3.  Do you feel that church is relevant to your needs today?

  • NO. 46.4% of Sunday school attenders
  • NO. 39.6% of those who did not go to Sunday school

4.  Do you believe that you have become anti-church through the years?

  • YES. 39.1% of Sunday school attenders
  • YES. 26.9% of those who did not go to Sunday school

This is a very intriguing study.  What are we to make of it?  Are we better off sleeping in on Sunday and forgetting Sunday school altogether?  What are your thoughts?  What should we do to correct the problem?

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14 Responses to Are we better off without Sunday school?

  1. internet elias says:

    Tim…interesting numbers. Wow! I’ve been aware for some time now that the younger generation is P-R-E-T-T-Y smart as recognizing the ole ‘do as I say do..not as I do.’ And I’ve talked with MANY people who were turned off by their ‘holy ghost filled’ church mentors who assured them they were going to hell if they made one mistake. Many raised in church carry around lots of baggage. That should not be the case. But then again, church is not God. Ephesus was gettin it on…but Christ had been left out of His own church. Too many of us are ‘Lord Lorders’ and have a form of godliness ‘but deny the power.’ Nothing but the REAL DEAL works. Also, many Sunday School instructors that I know..over the years…are not really ‘deep’ in Bible meaning. They are compelled to go with the writer of the Sunday School lesson in the particular quarterly. Kids KNOW better. They can’t explain what they are seeing. But they know the double standard when they see it. The stats may show that Church-wise…we may, indeed, be reaping what we’ve sown.

    Tim…’seek’ Truth..and you WILL find. God promised. But, too, in current times, we seem to be to a time mentioned in scripture where ‘they won’t endure sound doctrine.’ Stay faithful to your heart and to the Word…God will provide. And do not be discouraged when Truth may turn away even those who set within its hearing. Speak Truth (seed) and God will control how and where the ‘seed’ lands.

    My desire for you, your family, your church is ‘thy will be done.’

    Good post. Thanks. Gotta go. We’re in for an ice storm of some degree here in parts of the south. Gotta get ready.

  2. Little Frog says:

    I read the book, and how about if we call it “Bible History” instead of “Bible Stories?” I think even this subtle change can only help. And then, analyze the curriculum (some is just light on theology and long on experience). And then, live authentically! (The big thing!)

  3. Tim Farley says:

    internet elias: I have to admit, I also thought about the impact legalism may have on a survey like this. If a child grows up in a legalistic home where they go to church every time the door is open, but have nothing but bad experiences with Christianity, it will lead to anti-Christian feelings down the line. These same kids would be more likely to think of Christianity as hypocritcal since they would see the inability of their family to live by strict rules associated with legalism. Obviously, the chance of a child being raised in a legalistic home is much greater for the group who identified themselves as “attending Sunday school regularly” than those who did not.

    Little Frog: I agree that the curriculum needs to be evaluated. However, we have to be careful we do not read too much into this survey. This study does not tell us what impact Sunday school has on the 40% of children who end up staying in church! The survey only addresses those who left. Sunday school may be instrumental for the other 40%. Besides, this study only measures corrrelation, not causation. Did poor Sunday school experiences cause people to leave or was it something else (probably multiple things)?

    I have not read the whole book, but as I continue I will post more thoughts. Right now, I feel the problem should be addressed by evaluating curriculum to make sure it is meeting the needs of the children and by equipping parents to better educate their children (through instruction and modeling) while at home.

  4. Davo says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily be too put-off if people think the church is hypocritical. I think everyone can be hypocritical at times, the church included. The only time I have a serious problem with being hypocritical is when one is claiming to not be. Churches (or individuals) with the humility to admit that they are hypocrites are actually very appealing to me. It’s unrealistic to demand perfection from any person or community of people.

    Regarding the issues with Sunday School, I think that one of the major challenges is communicating complex and abstract concepts in ways that children can understand. If concepts are deep enough for people to write thousands of volumes on over two millenia, it’s going to be difficult to boil it down to a 20 minute Sunday School lesson. Presenting them as patent, cookie cutter lessons that fit in a nice little box discourages interpreting stories with creativity and imagination. As children get older, I think that these explanations no longer satisfy the intellect, and they get disillusioned with the church.

  5. John says:

    I teach statistics. So I’m well aware of how people can come up with misleading stats (both intentionally and unintentionally). The raw data is important, but I would need to see more info. How statistically valid is the sample? For instance, if you want to convince people that Sunday School is a negative, elicit responses from those who’ve left the church, and include enough churchgoers to make it look unbiased. No, I’m not suggesting that’s what was done, rather to point out that if it could be done intentionally, then it could happen by accident. I mean, where did their responses come from. In the market place, you assume that if you ask people to respond on their own, it’s those with complaints who are more likely to respond. So that method is not statistically valid, but can be a large sample. There are websites with titles like, where X is some well-known company or product. If you got your information about X from one of those websites, you’d think that X was terrible. Think about how many people are anti-government at the moment. Yet it’s not government that is bad: it’s the people we put in in our place! We’re the ones at fault. (I could go on with that but won’t.)
    So what I would like to have seen in the book would be more information on how they elicited responses, as well as more questions that were not asked. It might have been useful to have several hundred responses from Presbyterians, from Baptists, from Methodists, from Assembly of God, and other big churches, and at least a hundred from smaller churches: Mennonite, Brethren, Quaker (Friends), etc. And for all of them, some way of learning who was from a more fundamentalist, evangelical, liberal, etc, version of their chutch.
    I could go on, but I think you could take this further the way it should go.
    To summarize, I learned very little from this book.

  6. Chad Maxson says:

    John makes some good points about the limitations of statistics. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on the book or the study. I’m responding to the interesting question raised in this thread. I was raised in a conservative denomination, grew up in Sunday school, became rather ambivalent towards Sunday school, quit going to Sunday school, became a professor of theology, and now I am a Sunday school teacher (for an adult class, not kids).

    With that in mind it seems to me that questioning how Sunday school is approached, what is taught, how it is taught, and keeping an eye on what happens to the people who go through our Sunday school classes seems quite pertinent. I refuse to use the curriculum provided by my denomination because that’s the reason I quit going to Sunday school after high school! Davo said it well–the cookie cutter theological solutions are limiting and very brittle. They are very neat and tidy. The real world is much messier. Sunday school has not done a good job of creating expectations of God that are capable of being fulfilled in my ordinary, daily life.

    I appreciate Davo’s way of urging us to exercise more creativity and imagination in Sunday school. I think this is right on. It is my experience that we often limit God by our imaginations. Each denomination conditions us to view God according to its standards. This is normal but not always helpful. We form an image of God as we grow up in the church. We obscure the fact that, as one theologian said, “Mental images of God can be just as idolatrous as metal images of God” (Lodahl 1994, 109). The more Sunday school helps us to expand our imaginations of God the more those mental images are contested. (And yes, I am aware that our imaginations still have to be faithful to God’s self-disclosure in Jesus.)

    I’m just not sure most Sunday schools work to contest images. Most that I’ve encountered only continue to create images. (Keep in mind that my context is adult Sunday school. I do not pretend to be able to offer advice for childrens’ Sunday schools.)

    So setting aside whether the author of the book conducted an adequately scientific study (which is a fine question to pose), I’m willing to consider that Sunday school is not what it should be and look for ways to improve it. Thank you Pastor Farley for offering us the opportunity to discuss this issue. I look forward to responses.

    Michael Lodahl, The Story of God: Wesleyan Theology and Biblical Narrative, (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1994).

  7. Tim Farley says:


    I agree with much of what you and Davo said. Our curriculum does seem to over-simplify theological truths and offer “cookie-cutter” solutions. When I teach, I too abandon the curriculum and do my own thing. However, I am not sure many Sunday school teachers would be comfortable and/or capable of doing the same thing (nor would I feel confident in the ability of every teacher to do the same). As you said, “our imaginations still have to be limited to God’s self-disclosure in Jesus.”

    So, here are a few questions: How do we allow for the creativity you mention, without allowing people to cross into dangerous beliefs/teaching? How do we do this while also allowing our volunteer Sunday school teachers to lead? Even large mega-churches rely on lay volunteers to fill their needs for teachers. By nature, these lay volunteers are going to be less comfortable with, and less capable of, veering away from the curriculum.

  8. JTS says:

    “When I teach, I too abandon the curriculum and do my own thing. However, I am not sure many Sunday school teachers would be comfortable and/or capable of doing the same thing (nor would I feel confident in every teacher doing the same).”

    “By nature, these lay volunteers are going to be less comfortable with, and less capable of, veering away from the curriculum.”

    Pastor Tim…..
    Some of your teachers might beg to differ on their ability or your lack of confidence in their capability. 😉

  9. Tim Farley says:

    JTS: You are right about some Sunday school teachers. They could handle moving away from a planned curriculum. However, I am not making a statement about those teachers. I am making a generalized statement that is sure to be true about many Sunday school teachers in churches today. As a pastor of a church, I have to consider the welfare of every person, which is why we use curriculum to begin with. I know curriculum may not be the ideal, but it protects from many dangers that could result from everyone doing their own thing. We do not have the same capabilities for teaching and leading a study available in every classroom. That is just reality. As I write this, I do not have specific teachers in mind, but I do realize that Sunday school teachers in churches are at very different levels of capabilities. I make my statement as a pastor of a church. Every pastor would have the same concerns.

    So, do we throw away curriculum and open the door to teaching that could be harmful because it is unbiblical? Or do we keep the curriculum even though it leaves us with over-simplified teaching?

  10. ADS says:

    Perhaps instead of questioning whether we are better off without Sunday School we should ask ourselves, “WHERE ARE THE PARENTS?” Who is failing here? Who is God going to hold accountable at the judgment? Sunday School programs won’t stand before Christ. Parents abdicate all responsibility in every domain and then throw blame. What does Scripture say? Parents are to train their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Perhaps if parents renewed a commitment to God and the children He has blessed them with, it would revolutionize families, the church, and the Sunday School programs. One hour of Sunday School a week does not a disciple of Christ make.

  11. Tim Farley says:

    ADS: Great point. I totally agree with you.

  12. Kimbal says:

    I believe that parental influence is the number one factor in whether a child grows up to be an active Christian adult. Sunday School is sometimes a hindrance because in many churches it takes place while the adults have “big church.” The tendency of Sunday School teachers to think they have to recreate Sesame Street with a Cross might cause some children to equate Jesus with Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. But probably any vulnerable young people who do not connect with Jesus before college will be so inundated with Evolutionary propanda that eventually Jesus gets discarded. If there were millions of years of evolution instead of six days of creation, then Adam and Eve are allegorical and Jesus Christ was not sufficient to restore a man-God relationship that never was…If your Uncle was a monkey, then your Father won’t be the Heavenly Father.

  13. Tim Farley says:

    Kimbal: You wrote, “Sunday School is sometimes a hindrance because in many churches it takes place while the adults have ‘big church.'”

    You hit on something very important and something that is, unfortunately, all too common these days. We tend to separate our kids from our adults and give them a “kids” version of church. Usually this means a different style of music, lots of energy, and lots of bells and whistles. This goes on all the way through high school (with special youth groups for teens) and, in some cases, all the way through college. Then, when the kids are too old, we send them to “real church” where they are faced with culture shock because it is so different and “boring” when compared to what they are used to. Then we wonder why they leave to go to another church that caters to their desires or leave church completely. When we teach our kids that they should be entertained, they will expect it when they become adults.

  14. Kimbal says:

    Our church has two morning services, thus providing opportunities for those who work in children’s ministries can attend “big church” as well. We had to require teens who work in children’s ministry to agree to attend church during the other service. We ended most teen and adult Sunday Schools. This was a pretty major change for us!

    Instead we have sign-up teaching modules on Monday nights for 6-8 weeks followed by a few weeks of respite. We have Tuesday nights for Junior High and Wednesday nights for Senior High. These youth groups include a period of time for teen small groups to meet. My small group is 11th grade boys. (I got them as Freshmen and “keep” them until graduation, then I get the new crop of Freshmen again). Finally, we have small groups that meet 2-3 times monthly, usually about four couples or 7-8 singles, in which we all work with a book or a theme and that seems far more effective that Sunday School. So we have Sunday School only up to fifth graders. The small group book we’ve just begun is “How We Grow” by Townsend and Cloud.

    In effect we have substituted small groups for Sunday School with a nominal leader but in the case of adults it is peers seeking to provide support and accountability while challenging our faith walks. Thus far I am enthusiastic about the changes!

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