Sunday School Domination & Decline

Back in the 1950′s the Southern Baptist Convention was on the cutting edge of church growth techniques. We had a program that married evangelism and discipleship resulting in some of the largest churches in the history of the world (up to that point anyway). The method was Sunday School Growth.

Years ago the Southern Baptist Convention released a filmstrip, The Laws of Sunday School Growth, that reflects the Convention’s strategy for growth. These laws were restated by J. N. Barnette in his study book The Pull of the People, Convention Press, 1956. Many Sunday School authorities outside the ten million member Southern Baptist Convention look to the laws of Sunday School growth as expressed by the Southern Baptist as an infallible guide to Sunday School expansion. (Towns, Elmer. 1969. Ten Largest Sunday Schools [PDF])

While LifeWay still promotes this approach (here and here) to building a church, most of the church growth movement has moved on. But what ever happened to the mega-Sunday schools of the 1950-60′s?

Sunday school attendance in Southern Baptist Chruches

SBC Sunday School Decline?

With all the talk about declining membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, I thought I would do some checking to find out about the strength of our Sunday school attendance. The data above compares Sunday school attendance and total number of churches to calculate the average Sunday school attendance per Southern Baptist church. It comes from the Annual Church Profile, a voluntary self reporting tool used by about 90% of SBC churches each year.

What Do You Think?

I’d be interested to hear your responses. I find these averages interesting for a number of reasons.

  • The total convention wide Sunday school attendance numbers have increased consistently.
  • From the high in 1976 to the lows in the 1993 the percent change is around 15%. That doesn’t seem too bad considering the massive shifts in American culture and church practice.
  • The rapid drop in the early 90′s makes me wonder if there was a change in the way the results were gathered. My other theory for that drop would be the rise of the “Seeker Church” approach that saw Sunday school as outdated.
  • I’m not certain how home based small groups are included in these numbers, but I think they are counted elsewhere on the ACP.

Data Table: Southern Baptist Sunday School Attendance

Year Average Weekly
SS Attendance
Number Of
Churches
Average Weekly
SS Attendance
Per Church
1972 3,635,203 34,534 105.3
1973 3,687,590 34,665 106.4
1974 3,722,537 34,734 107.2
1975 3,841,299 34,902 110.1
1976 3,887,436 35,073 110.8
1977 3,760,254 35,255 106.7
1978 3,698,023 35,404 104.5
1979 3,701,316 35,605 104.0
1980 3,792,177 35,831 105.8
1981 3,828,970 36,079 106.1
1982 3,859,813 36,302 106.3
1983 3,813,760 36,531 104.4
1984 3,791,345 36,740 103.2
1985 3,856,217 36,979 104.3
1986 3,880,629 37,116 104.6
1987 3,850,939 37,286 103.3
1988 3,822,326 37,567 101.7
1989 3,802,216 37,785 100.6
1990 3,851,340 37,974 101.4
1991 3,915,991 38,221 102.5
1992 3,917,798 38,458 101.9
1993 3,934,283 38,741 101.6
1994 3,752,057 39,910 94.0
1995 3,742,631 40,087 93.4
1996 3,776,149 40,613 93.0
1997 3,907,703 40,887 95.6
1998 3,901,868 40,870 95.5
1999 3,945,189 41,099 96.0
2000 3,999,149 41,588 96.2
2001 4,041,569 42,334 95.5
2002 4,101,173 42,775 95.9
2003 4,119,732 43,024 95.8
2004 4,160,955 43,465 95.7
2005 4,146,337 43,699 94.9
2006 4,183,237 44,366 94.3
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22 Responses to Sunday School Domination & Decline

  1. Matt Svoboda says:

    I am glad Sunday School is on the way down. I personally believe that they are low impact. In home small groups are much more productive when it comes to making disciples than Sunday School. If I had it my way Sunday School and Sunday Night service would cease to exist. Sunday mornings and Sunday nights are usually pretty much the same thing. Sunday School should be replaced with in-home community groups(cell groups, house churches, etc.) The way the traditional church is set up today is very consumeristic. People come to get fed in Sunday School, Service, and Sunday Night service. When are they doing all of the ‘one another’s in Scripture?

    Matt Svoboda’s last blog post..“Crazy Love” by Francis Chan

  2. Todd Benkert says:

    Matt,

    You may be right in many contexts. In others, however, home based groups may not fit the culture. Each local context will be different, so blanket prescriptions are probably not best. I believe each church should study the culture where they are and devise methods and strategies that are most effective in their particular context. For many, the best approach will still be Sunday School. For others it will not.

    Blessings,
    Todd

    Todd Benkert’s last blog post..A Second Look At The ACP

  3. With the addition of 10,000 churches in 25 years, this could simply indicate a significant amount of persons shifting to newer congregations, dropping the per-church average while maintaining overall growth. Obviously, this does not provide complete explanatory power, and it remains true that our church growth has not kept proportionate pace with population growth—but it may explain one significant portion of the equation.

    And, well, let’s be honest for a moment: No ACP tells the complete truth, even if the persons completing the ACP are attempting to be truthful (which is probably not always the case either). In the church from which I came to this seminary, there were approximately 80-120 persons involved in the church but who didn’t show up on ACP because some of our gatherings simply didn’t fit any ACP descriptors.

  4. Jason Lowe says:

    Matt,

    I currently serve as a Sunday School Director of a local church in Louisville while attending seminary, and I must say that I respectfully disagree with your assessment of Sunday School. While I have no problem with in-home community groups, I believe that these groups should come and walk alongside Sunday School, rather than replace Sunday School for a number of reasons.

    First, on-campus Sunday School facilitates worship, simply for the fact that class members are already at the church.

    Second, we have a much higher chance of assimilating people into the life of the church if they are actually on-site. I am not implying that we assimilate nonbelievers into the life of our church without first converting them. The mission statement of our Sunday School is to see souls saved, lives changed, and God glorified. First and foremost, the person must be saved. Then, we move them through the process of a changed life through discipleship, ministry service, prayer, etc.

    Third, Sunday School is meant to be an “open group” in which guests are open to joining the class at any time, rather than a closed group discipleship study that is working through a specific book or curriculum.

    I understand that there are advantages to in home small groups as well, such as the non-threatening nature of a bible study in the home, much more freedom to choose curriculum, there’s less of an “institutional” feel, more time for fellowship, etc. I’m all for these things. Like I said, I don’t have a problem with this type of ministry, I just don’t agree that Sunday School should be abandoned.

    As I’ve heard Dr. Lawless say many times, Sunday School works when leaders work Sunday School. I would wholeheartedly agree with that statement. In the past year, the Sunday School attendance has grown by 15% at our church, which in turn, has contributed to the overall growth of our church. While some of this growth has been transfer growth from other churches, there has definitely been evidences of conversion/kingdom growth, and for that, I give God the glory! Therefore, I am passionate about Sunday School because I have seen the high impact that it has had on the lives of God’s people. So, I would just encourage you not to abandon a ministry that has historically played a major role in the growth of the SBC and the kingdom of Christ.

    A couple of resources that I would encourage you to read whenever you have the time:

    • “Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur” by Ken Hemphill
    • “Ten Best Practices to Make Your Sunday School Work” by Hemphill and Bill Taylor
    • The Sunday School Revolutionary blog

    God bless you as you continue to serve Him!

  5. Keith Price says:

    TPJ:

    It could mean that there are the same number of people being spread around to more churches, but think about the implications of what you have just said…

    Since 1991 Am worship attendance has increased about 1,500,000, SS attend about 260,000, membership about 1,000,000 and we have baptized 6,500,000 people. Look at these numbers for a second and see if they add up for you. They don’t for me. I know it is shameless, but tomorrow morning I try to do some anaylsis on these figures on a post at SBC Impact.

    Tony, I think the increase of about 500,000 people attending SS (15%) since 1972 is incredibly saddening. Since that time we have baptized about 15,000,000 people. Where are they? I think you are giving us a hint to one of the real problems of the so-called decline: discipleship.

  6. Matt Svoboda says:

    Jason,

    I think where we are going to disagree is our philosophy of ministry. Look at your first two points. Both of the talking about people being at ‘the church’ and having them on-site makes it helpful.

    Now I know that you would say that ‘the church’ is the people of God and not a building, but why does your philosophy of ministry contradict that?

    I love the church I attend right now, but I think it has a weakness in discipleship making and I think the problem would be greatly helped by having in-home small groups and not Sunday School. Everything traditional churches do are in a ‘centralized location’ and they all offer the same thing, more spiritual food. There usually isn’t any time for sin confession, accountability, eat together, etc.

    Maybe it isn’t Sunday School that should go, maybe it is Sunday evening worship or maybe it is both. I don’t think you can show me one context, in America, where Sunday School would be more edifying and beneficial than in-home small groups. In other countries I can see there being more benefit in a ‘Sunday School’, but that is only because they have the aspect of community in there culture and that is something the American church needs to work on.

    [edit by Tony K.] Comment author is concerned that some LifeWay Church Resource employees are committed to Sunday School because of their business model. [end edit]

    I think it would be wise for some of our traditional churches, and I’m not talking about music at all, I love hymns, to look at there programs and see if they are fulfilling the commands in Scripture given to the church(the one another’s) and I think they would see they are not. It is all about come and get fed, but I do see this making disciples very well.

    Matt Svoboda’s last blog post..“Crazy Love” by Francis Chan

  7. Jason Lowe says:

    Matt,

    Thanks for your kind response. I usually don’t get involved in these type of online discussions due to the numerous rabbit trails that can be chased, but I will simply offer one more response to encourage you to re-evaluate your views of Sunday School.

    Allow me to re-iterate that there are clear advantages to in home small groups, but I do believe that there are also advantages to Sunday School as well. Allow me to summarize some of the commentary from Hemphill’s “Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur”. As he begins his discussion regarding in-home groups vs. Sunday School, he states, “I find this debate amusing because, in truth, the traditional Sunday School accounts for a significant number of the people who are involved in the small-group movement. I have frequently defined a Sunday School class as ‘a cell group that meets in your church building on Sunday morning’ and a cell group as ‘a Sunday School class that meets outside your building at some other time.’ Why must we set these in opposition to each other?” (87).

    He then lists the possible advantages of cell groups:
    1. Cell groups cost the church less money than Sunday School because they do not require the church to construct classrooms.
    2. Cells provide more time for prayer and fellowship.
    3. Cells sometimes benefit from the intimacy provided by a home as opposed to a classroom.
    4. Many cells have proven to be effective for evangelistic outreach.
    5. Cells that focus on special or felt needs may be more effective at meeting that special need than a traditional Sunday School class.
    6. Cells may involve more of their participants in service than the traditional Sunday School class.

    He then lists possible advantages of the Sunday School:

    1. Sunday School is easier to organize and manage than cells.
    2. Sunday School tends to become less personality centered than cell groups.
    3. The Sunday School structure makes it easier to safeguard doctrinal integrity than the cell-group structure.
    4. The Sunday School structure reinforces the value of the worship service by making attendance more convenient.
    5. Sunday School integrates total family education.
    6. The Sunday School can be designed to incorporate all the functions of the effective small group.
    7. Sunday School involves a higher proportion of the church’s people than cell groups in a North American setting.

    Hemphill concludes the discussion with the following paragraph: “Is it possible to utilize both cell groups and the Sunday school structure? I think it is not only possible but also expedient in the church of the twenty-first century. Many churches have already adopted such a strategy by establishing need-centered cells to meet unique situations, such as parents without partners, Alcoholics Anonymous, and separation and divorce groups. These can supplement the traditional Sunday School structure. Many of our Sunday School classes have established smaller cell groups that meet during the week for prayer or fellowship.” (91)

    All of that to say that there are advantages and disadvantages to both in-home small groups and the Sunday School structure. From my own experience, I have seen Sunday School, when it is conducted in the proper manner, can be very effective in evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, worship, prayer, and service. I have also seen in our church a Sunday School class create a smaller in-home small group that meets every other Friday. I would just pray that you would be open to using both, as we want to make as many disciples as possible through any and all means that are not contrary to Scripture. If that means through Sunday School, may God get the glory. If that means through in-home small groups, may God get the glory. If souls are saved and lives are changed, may God get the glory!

    God bless you as you continue to serve Him!

  8. Matt Svoboda says:

    I must say I greatly enjoyed your response! There are pros and cons if both. I just seem to like the ‘in-home cell group’ more.

    Matt Svoboda’s last blog post..The Pastor and Evangelism

  9. RE: Keith, “Look at these numbers for a second and see if they add up for you. They don’t for me. ”

    No, I wasn’t trying to suggest even for a moment that the numbers add up—they don’t add up, and I agree that inadequate discipling relationships is the primary culprit. It does seem, however, that the redistribution of persons in new church-starts represents a portion of the equation that needs to be explored.

    Even if such redistribution is the case, though, there’s still a significant problem: To wit, new churches should be reaching and discipling new believers more than providing a venue where believers from other congregations transfer. It appears to me—based not only on the stats but also on experience in four different church starts—that too much of our much-touted rapid growth in new church starts actually stems from dissatisfied persons moving from established churches into the new church starts.

  10. Keith Price says:

    TPJ:

    Agreed.

  11. Tony Kummer says:

    Dr. Jones – I appreciate your observation about newly planted churches. That would dilute the average Sunday school attendance of the more established churches. Aside from the issues of methodology, I would expect the facilities of these churches to play a role as well. If your church plant is renting a high school cafeteria or other meeting room, then it may not be possible to have a traditional age graded Sunday school structure.

  12. Matt Svoboda says:

    “[edit by Tony K.] Comment author is concerned that some LifeWay Church Resource employees are committed to Sunday School because of their business model. [end edit]”

    Tony,

    I don’t really know why this was edited. I told a true story of what someone working at Lifeway said. My point wasn’t that I think he was committed to SUnday School because of his business model. My point was showing how pathetic it was to not consider another style of ministry because you might not make as much money. Doesn’t that sound pathetic to you?

    Matt Svoboda’s last blog post..The Pastor and Evangelism

  13. Tony Kummer says:

    Matt,

    I don’t want to make a big deal out it. I was uncomfortable with this blog repeating second hand information, especially of that nature. I do not question the relevance of what your wrote, I just felt like it was hearsay to repeat it here.

    I do agree that putting money making over disciple making would be a problem. It may be possible that is happening at LifeWay, it seems the case with many other publishers too. But I’m not ready to entertain that based on what someone overheard someone say, then told someone else, who threw it up in a blog comment. You may not agree, but I think we should give LifeWay the benefit of the doubt.

    Perhaps that was a situation where your friend should have confronted the brother who who he overheard? Or perhaps you could have corrected your friend?

    Thanks for clarifying your intent and contributing to the conversation.

  14. Matt Svoboda says:

    Well, it was better information than a friend overhearing a convo or a friend’s friend hearing a conversation. But nonetheless, I agree with you. This was probably not the best place for secondhand info of that nature. Sorry, that I did not use wisdom before commenting, I do it all too often. I am thankful for your discernment on what is and isn’t appropriate for your site.

    matt

    Matt Svoboda’s last blog post..The Pastor and Evangelism

  15. Todd Benkert says:

    One other factor in the “which is better?” discussion. Which is better at what? Is the primary focus of your SS/Small Group discipleship or evangelism (or both)? The answer to that question, along with the contextual and pragmatic concerns already mentioned in this comment stream, should be a factor in a church’s decision-making.

    – Todd

    Todd Benkert’s last blog post..A Second Look at the Annual Church Profile (ACP)

  16. Tandy says:

    I see the decline in SBC Sunday school as part of a larger, more serious problem. It is interesting that while membership was growing in the SBC(see chart here ), Sunday school, average worship attendance and baptisms were all in steady decline. Even membership has plateaued in the last five years and we all know that membership is a profoundly unreliable statistic. Rarely do SB churches purge membership roles.

    So, what are we do say with all these other more reliable stats in decline (Sunday school, average worship, baptisms)? Given that the Church is growing exponentially on the mission fields of our world and the American church is in decline across denomination lines, I think it points to a bigger problem i.e., we in America have lost our evangelistic compassion for the lost. We trade members between churches and pad our membership roles and call that growth while the world goes to hell. The answer is not better literature or better trained teachers or even discipleship, the answer is compassion for the lost. “Look the fields are white unto harvest, but where are the laborers?”

    I remember an evangelistic song from the past that went like this. This is my prayer.

    “The crowd was so tired and wiery, people scattered everywhere. To the master they looked just like sheep without a shepherd’s care.

    Lord please move me with compassion for the lost I pray, for the millions who are lost and cannot find their way. Lord please move with love no matter what the cost, Lord please move me with compassion for the lost.”

    At this rate the SBC will be dead in another 30 years from lack of compassion and it doesn’t matter what steps you take to revitalize Sunday school if you don’t have Christ’s compassion for the lost.

  17. Santiago says:

    I’d be interested in seeing the percentages of Sunday school attendance to worship attendance and if there is any correlation over time between the two.

    As for church models, I think culture has a lot to do with it. It’s not that we need to be culturally relevant, per se, but our pews are adorned by products of a local culture that are inculcated with the array of popular philosophies of the same. The methods for addressing matters of faith in each community must differ accordingly and in many places, Sunday School, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services can help produce the sense of community within the church focused on the worship of God, study of His Word and ministerial outreach to the unreached community that can serve as an agent of counter-cultural visibility of the gospel. In other words, participation in church activities over and against the culture at large normalizes fidelity and draws the attention of non-Christians.

  18. Keith Price says:

    Santiago:

    Since 1991 the ratio SS Attend/AM worship attendance has been in steady decline from 86% to 68% (about a 20% decrease).

    Keith

  19. Santiago says:

    Thanks, Keith.

    That is a more significant figure, I think, and speaks of a decrease in a sense of value in the teaching of the church by Christians, many of whom I suspect would watch Idol before they would come to Sunday school.

    -Jim

  20. Santiago says:

    I just thought of my own Sunday school class (I’m not the instructor), which goes against the grain: We have over 150 on the roll of the class and average 130 any given Sunday. However, we have several “visitors” to my class who come each week to Sunday school but go back to their own church for the service. The difference I would say is in the solid teaching in the class: we get meat, potatoes AND dessert. Lesson: be willing to prayerfully study, learn, preach and teach the hard truth with diligence and love. That’s the key above all, I think, to any church programmatic structure.

    -Jim

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