The one question in churches that, since Sunday Schools, hasnt gone away.

What does the church do ‘next’ with the children in ………Messy church, or Youth Club, or Sunday School, ? 

How can we keep young people in churches? 

For anyone who works with children and young people in a church setting. Naomi Thompsons book contains a stark warning. A warning that it as current now as it was not heeded during a time when the most numerically successful ministry amongst children in the UK was at its peak and subsequently virtually disappeared without a trace. Today in children and youth ministry which is important that lessons are learned from the demise of Sunday Schools.

Records indicate that in the late 1800’s over 2 million children in the UK attended Sunday schools. As Thompson research indicates, this had dropped to just over 500,000 by the mid 1950’s and 60’s. (there is no data for 1970’s onwards) It was a movement that was responding to a crisis of uptake (less children are attending), and a crisis of progression (less children are staying).  Both of which continue to be questions for children and youth workers today.

The key responses to these crisis, within Sunday School Unions, as Thompson indicates, was to blame Sunday school leaders for lack of training, produce even more materials, or to set up follow on groups, such as early youth fellowship provision. In effect the crisis of progression in Sunday Schools was a contributory factor to the dawning of modern day youth ministry. What also is apparent from Thompsons research is that although regional or national strategies for Sunday Schools could be stated, and recommended, these depended on the local church for their implementation, and often this did not occur. A local decision (adopted from a national plea) to increase longevity, and focus on ‘church linked’ children , a strategy that local churches did adopt, may have increased the long term participation of pupils within the church (from 2% to 4%) but this coincided with the same dramatic reduction in overall attendance.

So, what about now? These two questions still remain for children and youth ministers across the UK. How to address the crisis of uptake , especially as Scripture Union suggest, churches only work with 5% of the UK population of young people, and the crisis of progression, once children and young people start attending – how does a church keep them – what happens next?

The amount of churches I go to when travelling around the country who say, ‘well we have children – but we lose them at 11’.. or ‘once theyre 9 they don’t keep coming to our messy church’. Looking around the country, it feels as though there are more opportunities that churches are creating places for initial interest and connection, from the explosion in churches developing ‘Messy Church’ , or after school provision led by volunteers, or youthworkers. Churches may not have regained the 2 million who used to attend Sunday schools – but the desire to provide spaces and connections with children and families again has become recently more popular, and  children and youth provisions has become part of diocesan and affiliation strategies.

So, if churches have cracked the ‘uptake’ question (relatively) – then what about the progression one?

The answer to the Sunday School progression question, (when children started to leave) was, to develop similar older groups, that still had the same feel and style to the ‘junior’ ones, writes Thompson. For a short time, a few young people retained interest, but they were generally a failure, for they didn’t change as young people themselves changed. A question stemming from this one is – When as an activity is planning for the future needed?

There is no rocket science as to when children or young people ‘start to get bored’ with the provision on offer. For some young people they are bored with it after just a few weeks, for some depending on the age they start it could be 2 or 3 years. It then does not matter how old a child is, it is their longevity in the activity that can determine how they feel about it. So – there is little point waiting until a child is 11 for the ‘next group for them to happen’ is , if a church follows a schooling year– as that be 2 years away.  It is funny how quickly the question of uptake is often usurped by the questions of progression.  We might celebrate 25 families coming to messy church – but theres an air of disappointment that ‘only one’ maintained an interest in the wider church community – or ‘started coming on Sunday Mornings’ . Uptake is often measured through a lens of progression, and can weigh heavily, distracting from the genuine good that is occurring in the moment of every interaction, activity and session.

For something like Messy church, or equivalent afterschool children/family orientated provision, there is significant learning from Sunday Schools that can be accessed. One of the key recommendations from the Sunday School Unions – that was never implemented locally- was to encourage person centred education methods within the Sunday schools. This was an approach back then ahead of its time, but because Sunday school leaders and teachers relied on materials and ‘school’ culture and curriculum had been established, this change was a difficult one to make in local churches. Often when children and young people are bored, they are choosing to reject the curriculum and culture and so adopting person centered approaches before this boredom occurs might delay this – and give children developed responsibility and ownership of their learning a critical aspect of long term discipleship. However, the question of progression never goes away. Not every child in messy church will want to ‘be a leader’ or have responsibility – some have a desire for learning about faith that might not be matched by the programme, for others they just want to be away from the ‘younger ones’. There are no simple solutions, because each young person has a uniqueness, gifting and possibility that our interactions with them needs to acknowledge, harness, and help them thrive within, so it might be persons rather than programmes that need to be makers of any future provision.

Thompsons insight into Sunday Schools is thorough, well research and provides ample questions for youth and childrens workers today, however it is most notable for its price, and a paperback copy should definitely be made available. In a way Thompsons book reassures that the same questions haven’t gone away, though at the same time is a realisation that cultural shifts in the way children and young people are formed through learning within churches are hard to make, as formal approaches – even more interactive ones, remain popular. It is noted that children in primary schools are given the responsibility to spend portions of school budgets through small committees, yet in churches they choices they often have in similar decision making might be the flavour of juice to choose at snack time. If their decision making and autonomy is awakened in one context, then as churches who have children attending groups, might we begin to reflect the potential of them to be deciders and decision makers of their own discipleship within the faith community?  Progressing children from one group to another is not really the question we need to ask, it is how might we help children use the full gifting, character and abilities they have in how they discover a long term life of faith?  And if this is the question – how might we plan for this through all the wonderful, creative spaces that churches current create that engage children and young people in Messy churches, youth clubs alike.

Thompsons book: Young People and the church since 1900, can be purchased here:

Christian Today also published the above piece, a link to that article is here: ‘How can churches retain children and young people’?

3 thoughts on “The one question in churches that, since Sunday Schools, hasnt gone away.

  1. Of course it’s worth remembering that in the 1800s Sunday Schools provided the basics in reading and writing as well as religious teaching, children from poorer families worked during the week so it was often the only access they had to any education until the 1870 Education Act. Using attendance figures before 1870 as a measure of slide is a bit pointless as a result as parents used them to help better their children’s chances. (Sorry, Sunday Schools and education was my dissertation, I can be v boring on the subject…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this response, you make a good point, theres a number of perspectives on the figures & the church did act to help parents and society through sunday schooling as the forerunner of much provision for children and young people. What cant be ignored i guess is the slide since the 1950’s….

      Liked by 1 person

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