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December 2, 2013

42

Why is No One Talking About This?

by tbuegler

Slide1A few months ago, I came across a powerpoint slide that Beth Lewis, CEO of Augsburg Fortress Publishers had used as a presentation to a group of pastors at a conference in Florida.  (Thanks to Beth Lewis for the slide!)

When I saw the numbers, in all honesty, it took my breath away.

The slide presented a twenty year trend line for the number of children enrolled in Sunday School in ELCA congregations between 1990 and 2010.  The slide also showed the differential during the same time period in enrollment in Vacation Bible School.

The data came from the Office of Research and Evaluation in the ELCA churchwide offices in Chicago, and was culled from annual reports of ELCA congregations.

Here’s the data in a nutshell:  During this twenty year period, the number of children enrolled in our Sunday School ministries decreased from 1,007,774 to 400,375.  That is roughly 61%.

61% fewer young people were enrolled in Sunday School in ELCA congregations in 2010 than were in 1990.

Perhaps I’m overreacting.  But my gut instinct is that this is a pretty big deal.  No…it’s a really big deal.  We’ve heard talk about the shrinking church for years, but reading these numbers creates (at least within me) a new level of reality and immediacy.

Perhaps this just mirrors the membership trend in the ELCA?  Looking at ELCA data from the same source, membership over roughly the same time period decreased from 5.2 million to around 4.2 million.  Substantial…but roughly a 20% decrease.  Worship attendance over that period decreased by roughly 53%, much closer (but still less than)  the church school numbers.

Interestingly, the numbers of young people enrolled in Vacation Bible School have remained more stable than the numbers in Sunday School, decreasing “only” somewhere between 35% and 40%.  I’m not sure what that means, but it’s interesting that those numbers have not declined nearly as quickly as Sunday School or worship attendance.

But if these trends continue…we’re on a course towards ecclesiastical irrelevance (at best) and extinction (at worst).  Sure, we roll our eyes when we hear people say that children and youth are the church of tomorrow, knowing that they are the church today.  But we’ve got to be honest:  they also are the church of tomorrow.  And trends like this make it clear that our church is at risk.  I fear that the slogan of the future might be “God’s Work – No Hands.”

What most alarms me?  There is no broader conversation about this.  The conversation is taking place in isolated pockets…at seminaries…in local networks…at the Extravaganza…but why isn’t this a part of a larger churchwide conversation?  Why is there not a sense of urgency about these numbers?  The ELCA responds well to crisis.  When a tornado or hurricane strikes, the ELCA is present with the promise that we will accompany those victims for the long haul.

A 61% decline in young people participating in one of our foundational faith formation ministries is a crisis.  I’m not advocating that we continue on the same path we have been on.  Clearly our problem has been “business as usual”.  And the solution is more than just adopting a different model…or a new program.  I believe that the problem lies within our church’s very understanding of faith formation; it lies in our very DNA.

I don’t have a quick solution.  I’m not sure one exists.  But whatever the future looks like, wherever God is calling this church, we need to take on this crisis with the same level of urgency and commitment that we do when a storm hits.  And don’t get me wrong.  I do believe there is a solution.  I believe God is calling us to something new, something powerful and dynamic.  And I believe God has given us the gifts to figure this out.

I am hopeful that these conversations will move from the periphery to the center of our church. We are committed to push for,  and to create space for these conversations.

Please join us.

Networked in Christ,
Todd

42 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dec 2 2013

    We could hope that parents are finally forming their children’s faith at home like they did before the advent of Sunday school, but really….we know this is not true.

    Reply
  2. Dec 2 2013

    Todd,
    You ask a good question–and raise a critical subject. Of course, I travel across a number of denominations…and almost all are struggling…but this paints a particularly significant crisis.

    I would suggest this data of overall decline (“only” 20%) compared to the decline in SS attendance (61%) is part of the aging of the church. We are drawing fewer younger families and barely holding on to the elderly until they die.

    Also–my guess at the VBS notation is a sign of lower commitment to the church. VBS represents an “event” approach, ie: send my kid to a nice program. SS attendance shows something closer to engagement on a regular basis–and THAT is where we are dying.

    I agree that this issue should be a major discussion point for the ELCA–and other denominations. If we just keep on keeping on, the conveyor belt approach will be our downfall. I hope you and others can stir this conversation. Peace.

    Reply
  3. Brian Middleswarth
    Dec 2 2013

    This puts into concrete terms what many of us have known from our own experience of declining enrollment and sporadic (at best) participation in Sunday School. I have the same hope as Cindy(and the same skepticism). I also think Tiger has the right idea of what is going on. As for VBS, I know any number of families who use that as cheap day care during the summer, moving their kids from church to church.

    The congregation I belong to right now is struggling with Sunday School attendance (or lack thereof) even as it has had a boom in young children. The sporadic attendance of families (because of sports etc,, but also because they are going to grandma’s or a short trip out of town on the weekend) also makes sustaining something difficult.

    The question is can we have an honest discussion about this and other challenges.

    Reply
  4. Kathy Stevens
    Dec 2 2013

    This comment is from someone who is not currently active in a church but is a lifelong ELCA member. Who wants to be associated with the Christians we see in the news all the time? Not me. Granted they are not all Lutherans, but as an example, the church I thought we would join when we moved to our current location five years ago has had a big fight about openly-gay pastors and a large enough group left the congregation that a new Missouri Synod church has opened and just bought a property not far from our house. I don’t need to be included in that kind of stuff — I can find my faith connections in quiet solitude.

    Interestingly, one of the best hopes I’ve seen lately comes from Pope Francis. It’s been a long time since I thought the Roman Catholic Church was on the right track to anywhere, but his actions and publications remind me of the leadership that church gave in the civil rights movement in the sixties. His thinking that a few issues such as abortion and gay marriage have totally overwhelmed any other message is right on in my book. And surveying church members around the world for their views………signals a change.

    Reply
  5. Dec 3 2013

    I’m not convinced that Sunday School is the end-all-to-be-all of faith formation for children – in the course of the 2000 year history of the church, Sunday School has been a dominant model for only about 125 years – but the numbers don’t lie. Most of our congregations are *not* engaged in creative multi-generational or individualized or discipleship models of faith formation that don’t fit nicely into annual report statistics for Sunday School attendance. We have suffered a big decline in young people in the church.

    Of course, this is a problem because we have seen raising children in the faith as the primary way of growing the church. Yet, these numbers are a call for the church to reach out to all – from children to adults – in the name of Christ, and not simply to depend on birth rates to grow the church (birth rates won’t do it).

    Whether with children or with adults, we need a new, explicit evangelism that is grace-centered yet with elicits a newfound commitment to faith and to the mission of the church. A new discipleship, perhaps. We have an enthusiasm gap in our faith life, and by traditional metrics (attendance, number of congregations, financial support for mission, etc.) the church is suffering.

    It is time for new metrics, and a new concept of church. The way we do church (and Sunday School) these days is a model that is, for the most part, a 20th century model. We’ve seen some fresh expressions of church in the various “emerging” or “alt” church movements out there. In post-modern, post-Christendom North America, using modern, even industrial-era models of church (and of faith formation), is not going to cut it.

    I grieve the decline of our beloved institutions and traditions and familiar patterns for carrying out ministry, but I also see it as a possibility. From this Sunday’s Gospel, I hear good – GREAT – news that God will not let the promise die. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9). Even if we drop the ball, even if the church and its people do not pass on the faith, even if we are unfaithful, God will raise up stones to be children of the promise. With that Good News ringing in our ears, we should be so bold as to try new ways of being church, knowing that God – one way or another – will not let the church die. More and more congregations are trying, are being bold, are daring to do a new thing. And that is awesome.

    Reply
  6. krissylyn
    Dec 3 2013

    I believe the decline has to do with how we raise our children now. We live to give them all we possibly can. We’ve got the money to do so, so we do. It makes us happy to provide so much for them, and it makes them happy to be involved in so many things. A typical elemnetary age child is involved in a multitude of things at once – hockey, dance, music lessons, etc. These activities cater to their interests and make them happy. And if they’re happy, then we’re happy.

    Not many children would list “going to Sunday School” as a favorite activity, thus, when chosing what to do on Sunday morning, hockey or dance will win out every time, thus participation declines.

    As parents, if church is that important, we can, and should, get a little pickier about what our children are participating in. We can look for programs/teams that don’t hold games/practices/recitals, etc. on Sundays. But as long as making sure your child in happy is more important than raising a well-rounded child (well rounded children go to church, Sunday School AND soccer), it’s not going to happen.

    Reply
    • Dec 3 2013

      Unless hockey, dance, music and soccer are where our kids are learning to do ministry by caring, welcoming and affirming others. (see “The Youth Ministry Rant” )

      Reply
      • Lyle Griner
        Dec 3 2013

        I’ll try the link again…. Otherwise go to Peer Ministry.org and click on Blog.

  7. Dec 3 2013

    Random morning Lyle thoughts

    Coffee house mantra – “I am spiritual but not religious.” I think we need to listen carefully to what people are telling us as the hunger of spiritual connection is being named. I think as a church we are a bit scared of the more spiritual, mystical part of our faith. People are asking, “How do I connect with God?” As Lutheran leaders we were trained in theology. (Yes, theology is essential.) But, we are not very good at spirituality.

    A somewhat self-serving quote, but also illustrates a group that is discovering how to help participants enter into spirituality. ––– “I had a meeting with my Children’s Ministry Leadership Team tonight and asked them what is the most impactful aspect of Children’s Ministry at St. Andrew. They all said – Candle Time. Bam. Holy Moly.” – Arlene Flancher”

    Candle Time… is a prayer resource I put out a few months ago. Behind the resource represents my desire to invite people to light a candle and learn various ways to connect with God. (Maybe my overall goal in life is simply to get people to light a candle, sit around it, listen to each other and listen to God.)

    Sunday School? I’m not your expert… but I would opt for an overall look at how we invite children, youth and families to learn and practice various spiritual rhythms. “How do I pray?” “How do I pray with my kids.” People will only do in their homes what they have first practiced, hands on, face to face, heart to heart in their churches.

    Enough random thinking for now!

    Reply
  8. Chris D makes a good point. I had to fill out parochial report forms in the past – and it’s hard to put various-shaped multi-aged ministries or worship formats into the round holes given on the report. I haven’t taken a good look at them for a couple of years now…so maybe they’ve changed? Either way – it’s a good idea for congregation leaders to give on-the-ground feedback to the folks in the Office or Research and Evaluation.
    That being said…bravo to you Todd for shouting out about these stats….and asking what does this mean?!

    Reply
  9. Dec 3 2013

    1. A lot of people would say this is a good thing. I don’t know that I agree, and I’m certainly turned off by the inflammatory and judgmental rhetoric of many in the “Killing Sunday School” crowd, but there it is.

    2. Maybe if Sunday school is dying like this, the right answer isn’t to go into panic mode and invest enormous resources into trying to revive it. Maybe we need to resist the knee-jerk reaction and let it die.

    3. Given the general lack of people within +/-10 years of my age in the church (I was a sophomore in high school in 1990, the first year of the graph), maybe Sunday school wasn’t doing such an awesome job of faith formation to begin with.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I’ve seen some truly awesome Sunday school programs out there, and I’ve seen some that were just painful to look at, let alone take part in. Part of me thinks we need to really get serious about this “looking like the church in the book of Acts” that we’ve been talking about for ten years and focus our faith formation and evangelism efforts on marginalized teens and adults.

    Reply
  10. tbuegler
    Dec 3 2013

    I’ve appreciated the conversation. A couple of thoughts…

    I’m a believer in Sunday School. (I’m also a believer in confirmation…but that’s a separate conversation.)

    I’m also a believer in change…growth…evolution…meeting needs…

    Families are willing, on Sunday mornings (or whenever…) to open a window into their lives and allow for faith formation to take place. How we do that…how well we do that…well, that’s up to us who are called to lead these ministries.

    But it’s not a reason to throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. The issue is how do we engage children, youth and families in meaningful and dynamic faith formation.

    That, I think, is the conversation we need to be having.

    Reply
  11. Dec 3 2013

    Thanks for raising the question, Todd. I share this slide (and some others that are also fairly depressing) because I think it is critically important that church leaders see & face reality….not to bemoan it, but to do something about it! As you know, we are investing heavily through Augsburg Fortress & sparkhouse in researching the needs of congregations and families in today’s culture as they strive to be people of faith. Then, we invest a lot more in the creation of innovative faith formation resources for children, youth & adults to help meet those needs. We are grateful for our partnership with leaders across the Church, including those of you in this network. Please share with us your ideas for ways that our ministry of publishing can support your ministries on the ground! Can we reverse these trends? I don’t know. But, many people told me that AF was doomed when I joined the organization 11+ years ago. My colleagues and I didn’t believe it then and we continue to be called to proclaim the Gospel today. Call me an optimist, but I believe that we can work together to at least flatten the declines indicated in this slide, if not reverse the trajectory. Blessings! Beth A Lewis, President & CEO, Augsburg Fortress @bethalewis ceo@augsburgfortress.org

    Reply
    • tbuegler
      Dec 3 2013

      Thanks Beth, I also responded to your comments on this post on Paul Amlin’s page, so I won’t repeat myself here. But I do know that I’m grateful to Augsburg Fortress (and for your leadership.) Augsburg Fortress has shown an willingness to move, change and innovate. AND, on top of that they’ve been a good partner. What I have most appreciated is that the research that you have done, largely market in nature, can inform congregational work and the larger conversations that need to happen. The slide you shared is a perfect example. That research is something that those of us who are in congregations don’t have the capacity to do. Sharing it (as you have repeatedly done) is a gift to the broader church.

      I am hopeful. I believe we will continue to dip, but that it is going to rebound and the trajectory will grow. But it’s going to take the church in all of its manifestations learning how to do church differently.

      I’m glad to be an optimist alongside you. And I’m grateful for your ministry.

      Todd

      Reply
      • Dec 3 2013

        Amen! to learning to be church (and the ministry of publishing!) differently, Todd.

      • Catherine Bengson
        Jan 1 2014

        Having been in Christian Education for over 40 years, I am not surprised at the figures. Though I have lots of ideas about the “cause” I want to mention just two right now. Our society of “convenience” tells us that if something better comes up; do it. Parent do not hold their kids accountable unless it is something they are paying for (for the most part).
        I am a part of a young and vibrant congregation in Ohio. Most of our young parents did not grow up in the church so they themselves are not certain about their own faith beliefs. We have a difficult time recruiting and training teachers because they are unsure of themselves or unwilling to commit to sharing with our young people. Even intergenterational learning experiences are not well attended because there is “so much to do”. I am planning an event for “Transfiguration” and noone other than the pastor on our Chris. Ed. team had any idea what that meant.
        With many pastors not doing lectionary or seasonal preaching even active members do not have some faith basics. Folks buy books that are popular theology that they hear about from friends or the media or the local Christian bookstore.
        Reading the scriptures is vital, but one must be a part of a community to discern. Faith development is a process and we can empower and encourage that process through enthusiasm and providing resources.

  12. John Wiliams
    Dec 3 2013

    The elephant in the room that nobody is talking about is the very meaning of “faith formation.” Because we have talked about and taught Christianity as if it were a hobby, instead of a reality, then of course any interest has faded along with macrame and tie-dying. Until we return to teaching Christianity as an integrated reality of world history, personal and civic ethics, and life-renewing power, all centered on Jesus Christ — well, the Global South can continue to witness to us that Christian vitality did not end with the book of Acts. The difference then, now, and always, is teaching Christianity as if our lives depended on it. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby.

    Reply
  13. mamaoffaith
    Dec 5 2013

    Church hasn’t changed, but the make-up of family has altered. I’m sure accurate statistics can be found, but let’s just imagine what they are: What is the percentage of single-parent homes in America? What about dual-working parents who can’t afford quality baby-sitters in order to go on ‘date nights’ to keep their marriage solid? As a church, we talk so much about wanting to teach faith, but maybe we should put into practice BEING that faith for someone. God’s Work. Our Hands. Right? I am one of those single moms who used to be a youth minister (seems another life ago). Now, I hold 2 jobs in order to make my and my young childrens’ lives function. By the time I reach Sunday morning, my prayer the night before was for the kids to stay asleep a little later than usual so that I can also rest (after all, I stayed up well after midnight doing laundry and cleaning). What is it I need? How can someone BE faith to me? A woman who has time to patiently instruct my daughter in sewing lessons, as this is her passion. A willing person to tutor my kids in math, as I cannot afford a private tutor and struggle with math myself. And if I even dare say, I would LOVE for someone to come take my children to Chuck E Cheese without me so that I can spend an evening at home alone! What I need is… A ministry that connects people’s gifts to other people’s needs. Many churches have tossed this concept around, but I have yet to see one that truly functions. And I also believe my kids and I have gifts to offer the community. What are my family’s gifts that we can use to ‘pay it forward?’ I am an excellent listener and help people with finding insight. My kids make great little entertainers to homebound individuals. You want to reach young families? You need to reach me, as I represent many, and I can say this honestly: I am begging for the church to become God’s hands to our families in the homes, not just in the church building.

    Reply
  14. Dec 7 2013

    That chart only shows two decades. I don’t think people can really get their heads into the reality of decline unless they take a longer view. The ELCA has been in a trend of unbroken decline as a percentage of the population for over half a century. You can see the chart here: http://bit.ly/DeclinePost

    The first thing that chart suggests to me is that the factors driving decline were *already in place* and affecting us as far back as 1960. (Even earlier if you allow that much of the growth before then was probably an artifact of the baby boom etc.) So we can stop blaming youth sports and the secular encroachment on “our Wednesday nights.” I’m sure those things make it worse, but I think they are secondary factors – icing on our unpleasant slice of cake.

    I suspect that our core paradigm of congregational life is where the real problem lies, and if the core is failing it’s to be expected that all the linked aspects – like Sunday school – would decline as well. Sort of a domino theory.

    The core paradigm, as I see it, is Pastor; Property; Programs and Presentational Worship, together with the assumption that we have to gather the entire community every week. I think we won’t see a significant change in our trend until we make significant changes in at least one of those five components. And that may be why “no one is talking about this.” Many people have a hard time even imagining church without all five of those features in place. And if they can, they’re likely very uncomfortable with the alternatives.

    Reply
    • ann
      Dec 23 2013

      Tim, the core paradigm has nothing to do with your four “P’s.” The core paradigm is Jesus Christ, or more importantly, his lack of importance in the modern ELCA paradigm. Without Jesus you have nothing; which is why so many are turning away from the ELCA…

      Reply
  15. Art Dale
    Dec 8 2013

    No one is talking about it for a number of reasons: demographic shifts are blamed for the decline of the ELCA. The structure that has disconnected from congregations is another reason given. The key is the way ELCA people believe. I’m not talking about leaders and theologians. I mean the people of God in congregations. They are blocked by what they believe about God and God’s people. When there is death one looks not to the works but to the faith behind the works. Blame increases both the pain and the tragedy of dying. This is a time to teach every member in every congregation of the ELCA the core of the Gospel and adjust or dump dysfunctional beliefs standing in the way. That is not hard. Art Dale from the Yellow House in Soudan Minnesota

    Reply
  16. drjeffreyp
    Dec 9 2013

    The answer here is simple, but it’s one that few in the ELCA want to hear. Look at what’s happened in the ELCA and other denominations. The decline was predicted when they took the path they did, and this is the result.

    Irrelevancy and extinction is on the way. Fortunately though the ELCA will not alone in these depths.

    Reply
  17. Kindy
    Dec 9 2013

    Todd,

    Perhaps the fact that the Sunday school enrolled youth of yesterday have become today’s undergrads and graduate students has something to do with the decrease?
    The expectation these days is that kids finish their education before starting a family- so one explanation of the decline might be that there are simply less children to be enrolled in Sunday school?

    Reply
    • Ben
      Dec 12 2013

      Could you link data to support this?

      Reply
      • ann
        Dec 24 2013

        Ben, you should not need data. Unless you are living under a rock, it is pretty much a known fact that American’s are having less children than ever before in our history. White Americans (historically most American Lutherans were white) are having even less than non-Whites so the Lutherans are declining at a much faster rate than say Catholics (buoyed by Hispanic growth-rates).

  18. Dec 10 2013

    I am wondering what is causing the drop off. I had seen those numbers as well. I do notice that there is a steady decline and then a sharp drop off. I know in my community Sundays are not as sacred as they once were. Soccer games and other secular and school activities are creeping into our once hallowed time. It seems most of that should be parents’ responsibilities, but I would argue the sports culture that is invading the mindset of communities. We are more happy when our youth win state championships then developing morales.

    I also wonder what percentage of those are from the recent departure of ELCA churches into newly formed Lutheran denominations, i.e. LCMC. I know my former church in Nebraska, which averaged around 300 children in Sunday School, left the ELCA and joined the LCMC.

    What we need to do is look at all the reasons why this is happening and address the isuues. Just looking at the numbers and then reacting does nothing but stick our heads in the sand.

    Reply
  19. Dec 19 2013

    Todd, and all,

    I am grateful you have started this conversation and I am adding my voice late but I have three thoughts:

    1. There is an underlying demographically related point that correlates – the ethnic groups served by most Lutheran congregations is also no longer the majority population for people under age 21 in many parts of the country. In Texas, for example, 70% of people under age 21 are Latino. There is a huge, growing Mandarin-speaking population in this country and 2 ELCA Mandarin-speaking pastors! Yikes! However, one bright spot is when local congregations embrace their changing neighborhoods with a spirit of mission and a willingness to learn from their neighbor.

    2. We have not taken seriously the Christian leadership development or the faith formation of the adults we have entrusted with Sunday School, small group leadership, etc. This is something we could address together as a shared movement to deepen the discipleship of our adult lay leaders. There is nothing more contagious than a person who is growing in their faith.

    3. Sunday School is the canary in the mine shaft as others have pointed out. Yet we are people of faith! We can lean into our belief that God is ahead of us and trust that the Spirit is still moving. I am pretty sure the version of “church” as we know it is done but I am excited about the bright spots I see in unexpected places where “church” is very alive and looks different than it has in the past, with or without Sunday School. The next season of “church” could blow this one out of the water. I don’t think things are hopeless.

    Where will this conversation continue?

    Peggy

    Reply
  20. joe
    Dec 23 2013

    I can tell you why this slide is happening. The ELCA is a spiritually hollow shell of a church, little different than your local rotary club or other do-gooder organizations. Without Jesus, there is really no point to show up on Sunday as you can “do-good” just about anywhere. Aside from that all-important spiritual issue there are other pressures on church attendance: the mega-churches have better music, the house-churches have closer fellowship, and then there is that whole thing about German-Americans trying to disassociate themselves from their cultural heritage due to some German nutter in WWII. Finally, in the ELCA’s attempt to become “relevant” (non-Christian) to the secular community, the ELCA children became secularized and no longer felt the need to attend church.

    I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s with a youth group of maybe 10 kids at most. I remember looking in awe at the old photo’s of Luther-leagues gone past which clearly involved hundreds. I remember seeing the photo’s from my father’s church that had hundreds of children in sunday school in his day and being extremely confused by the realities of our modern situation. Ironically, my father’s lutheran church which had hundred’s in sunday school in the 1950’s and 1960’s has been turned into a secular community center – talk about generational self-destruction.

    Want a Church Revival? Begin by asking yourself what constitutes a Church. Don’t know the answer to this question? Then open up the Bible (God’s textbook for mankind) and look up the answer. After figuring out what constitutes a Church; keep reading to figure out what constitutes a Christian (think I’m wasting your time? Think again; Nicodemus and Jesus debated these same spiritual issues 2,000 years ago).

    Reply
  21. Debbie
    Jan 26 2014

    A little late to add this to the conversation but the ELCA is becoming very secular. It’s only following what the secular culture is doing. The ELCA’s motto should now be “if it feels good, do it.” They veered way off track. That they support abortion is unbelievable for a church. God’s plan for us is written in the Bible and it doesn’t support abortion, gay unions/marriage, etc., and don’t get me started on “bound conscience.” Just another ELCA thought up “excuse” to say the sin God says is not okay the ELCA overrides God and says the ELCA now says it is okay. Until the ELCA starts following God’s plan and not a “human” plan, it’s got no chance. I am glad my kids are grown and not in Sunday School anymore. I can’t imagine what they might be teaching them today. On my way out.

    Reply

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