What the strategic demise of Sunday Schools teaches us now; Young People and the Church (2018) : A Review

Young People and Church Since 1900: Engagement and Exclusion, by Naomi Thompson


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It is difficult to get past the fact that the most startling thing about this highly intelligent and accessible piece of work, is that is made inaccessible by its price. At just over £100, this is information that needs to be accessible by a wider audience, and not just via university libraries, therefore a paperback version is essential, for what Naomi has discovered and described within her research is valuable for conversations across churches, and affiliations. I am not on commission, but here is a link if you want to purchase this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Young-People-Church-Since-1900/dp/1472489780/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504884321&sr=8-1&keywords=young+people+and+the+church.  At a time when budgets in churches are slashed, and training and reading budgets maybe non existent, buying this book is nothing other than a pipe-dream for most. Hopefully university libraries and diocesan libraries might order copies.

As an overview Thompsons book charts in detail using statistics from the archives on the rise and fall of Sunday Schools since their inception in the late 1700’s through to the 1950’s, including how they became institutionalised, and the often fraught relationship Sunday schools had with the local church. Naomi then brings to this discussion a detailed analysis of Sunday Schools in Birmingham, from the perspective of archives of their union material, newsletters and meetings. Thompson then describes the response the church made to the challenge that older young people were leaving Sunday schools, this included uniformed organisations such as Boys Brigade, but in the main this section charts the beginnings of Christian youth work including the aspects of it that regularly contribute to its discussion, belonging, relationship and education, she follows up this with proposing a model for Christian youth work, based upon 3 domains, Social, Cell and Sunday Service. Her penultimate chapter brings into the conversation research into the development of Sunday Schools and youth Ministry practice in the USA, including contributions from participants, young people and youth workers within practices.

Emerging from her research Thompson identifies a number of themes that have particular relevance for current practices of childrens and youth work currently. Firstly that the way in which churches discuss the decline of children and youth attendance affects how they respond to the challenge, that churches themselves have agency, (capacity and responsibility) for their growth and decline. Thompson highlights the era when Sunday Schools withdrew from being open and available in their communities to being focused on the ‘family who attend church’, which may have been a decision made in individual churches, but also reflected from the Union (at the time) a desire that more young people statistically might join churches from Sunday schools, that the percentage of this occurance increase after this time is reflective of there also being a dramatic reduction in overall attendance of Sunday school. If only ‘church orientated’ families attend Sunday school, then this will put this desire in a better favour. Worryingly it was still less than 5%.

Desiring that attending church is not a new, that Sunday schools were barely successful, or at alternatively ‘church’ had opportunities to make and maintain connections with 95% other young people and did not, might give a clearer indication. Warnings of this ‘drop-off’ and strategic ideas to make significant changes to the Sunday school model are highlighted by Thompson, yet these were met by the then strong-arm of the Sunday school union, and enabling cultural change in established practices became challenging. A significant idea suggested in the 1950’s, that was mothballed, was the suggestion that churches should mentor young people in Sunday school and associated groups, building connections, and that child centered learning became part of practice. Even today, this idea is trialled in some churches, but would appear to be a shift in practice, as top down and leader led resources are youth ministry’s dominant educational approach.  What Thompson highlights is that as the Sunday Schools became locally operated and managed by the church, they at the same time lost their missional edge, it highlights that decisions made by churches sought to benefit the people within their faith community, than outside, ultimately heralding the almost obliteration of Sunday schools altogether.

Her research into the practices of the Sunday School Union in Birmingham (BYSSU) a significant city for the development of Sunday Schools, between 1955 and 1972 provides an illustration into how the ambitions and actions of an insitutiion (the Sunday School Union) become in tension with each local institution (a local Sunday school) and its linked church. The Birmingham Sunday school union had been created by Sunday school leaders in 1814, and via a number of changes was subsumed into Birmingham churches together in 2001, and it remained distinctive and active well into the 1980’s and 1990s. Thompsons research reveals that the principle concerns within the BYSSU were internal concerns, they include institutionalism (a change of BYSSU’s name took four years), Recruitment and Decline (concern over numbers of teachers, leaders and pupils was common), Scripture Exams (and how these were to be implemented), Changing Methods (the most significance was the move to ‘family church’ post 1965), Criticism of teachers and teacher training (this was seen as main culprit for teacher retention) and also the ongoing encouragement of the importance of the union (increasingly as it felt it needed to communicate, be useful and also be needed),  conflict between the church and the BYSSU (which seemed to be focussed on the relationship between the BYSSU and the church/Sunday school secretary ) and finally gender (in which criticism of women working in the 1950-60’s, women also received no recognition for their contribution to Sunday schools, and yet were expected to continue in their role).

A case study of BYSSU reveals the limited level of engagement and acknowledgement of its leaders, but as importantly and notable young people and their families. Strategies for changes in direction (such as the significant shift to ‘family church’) were implemented with limited acknowledgement of this effect, and without consultation. Acting as an affiliate to Sunday school leaders its methods showed a mentality of ‘attack is a best form of defence’ where they acted to defend their own significance and need, over an above the actual needs within each Sunday school.  What the case study of BYSSU indicates is an affiliate institution will ultimately lose its support if it continually attacks its members on their morality, commitment and training. Teachers and the Sunday school secretaries were left demoralised and de-motivated. It looks as if the secretaries may have been protecting Sunday school leaders from their own union. For those who are involved in the institutions of current children and youth ministry practice, and have similar supportive roles in denominations,  the example of BYSSU acts as a harrowing warning of the dangers caused by institutional survival, strategising and significance, over actually supporting, valuing and listening to its practice leaders and young people on the ground.

After a brief interlude into the development of Christian youth work as a response to senior pupil drop off in Sunday school and other principle concerns, Naomi turns her attention to the same Sunday school and youthwork scene in the USA. The principle difference between the UK and USA context was that in the USA there was a stronger competitive playing field that churches were in, young people who had grown up with the notion of choice, could make choices between sites of youth ministry programmes, whereas in the UK, young people were likely to have one experience and leave. The competitive, or open market, of Christian ministry is identified by Thompson who who argues that this profligates a consumerist race to attract young people through bigger, more inventive and exciting ministry programmes, and as a result aspects of formation such as theological understanding are sacrificed. Previous studies such as Christian Smith on MTD (Moral Therapeutic Deism) have highlighted this. Other similar factors were highlighted such as the limited transition from Sunday school to church, institutional barriers, and also the rare but fascinating actions by churches to develop ministries out of social care for their local young people such as the building of a purpose built youth club. The gradual moving away from church by young people is common. Thompson also noted a dichotomy between the literature and lived experience of Religious decline within local contexts, expressed by youth workers. Thompson suggests that there is a fundamental difference in the US and UK context in that choice in the USA means freedom to believe, in the UK it is likelier to mean freedom from belief.

Various other similarities are noted by Thompson, including young people belonging to church, institutional elements of church, developing social activities within the community, transition to adult church and maybe more notably the consumerist element recognised within American youth ministry, and how personal choice for young people is acknowledged, yet their voice can often be lacking in developing and shaping ministry.

Overall Thompson has identified, through research, that churches have to do more to connect with young people in their associated groups, clubs and activities. Young people face the risk of only connected with these activities on a social level, however good this might be, fostering belonging, a continual theme in youth ministry is essential. Thompson argues that her research shows that churches are just not welcoming into their community at all. She argues that churches could be accused of acting as consumers, who provide the economic investment for a youth worker, but offer little in addition to invest themselves in the ministry and practice that might have long term positive effects. This is an additional area where Thompson suggests that churches have choice and agency in their ministry, stemming potential decline through emotional investment in people. Local decline might not be as inevitable or something churches have no control over.

What I find particularly helpful about Thompsons book is that it ultimately offers simple suggestions for churches currently involved in youth ministry practice. It highlights the challenges of institutionalised religion, and also institutionalised affiliations and the effect of this within children and young peoples faith. As a youth worker, there is some reassurance in knowing that the challenge to culturally change how churches connect with young people has not been recent, and churches largely failed in developing from missed opportunities in the past, such as 2,000,000 children attending Sunday schools. Careful digging beneath the surface reveals how churches and Sunday schools contributed to their own demise. In her conclusion, Thompson suggests that churches either have to ignore the narratives around decline, or challenge them, in order that a mindset of defeated-ness and passivity does not inhibit churches in the future. The question is, and this is the important response to this book, do churches, children’s and youth ministry still feel as though they have the agency to contribute to their own revival? If the opportunity of connecting with children and young people presented itself in a local church, would it do all it could to take that opportunity? For these things are only borne out in the local context – each church has an initiative to take.

Unsurprisingly, Naomis book made it into my top ten theology/youthwork reads for 2017, to view the list of others click here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1aL  and view the others and a summary for each.

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