(RNS) — Sunday school and other Christian education programs have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, with half of congregations surveyed saying their programs were disrupted.
A March 2022 survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that larger churches with more than 100 people were more successful in maintaining their educational programming for children and youth, often using in-person or hybrid options. Smaller churches, especially those with 50 or fewer attendees, were least likely to say they continued religious education without disruption.
Scott Thumma, principal investigator of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project, said the findings echoed concerns about general education of schoolchildren, where researchers have seen declines in learning over the last two years.
“My sense is that people knew what good robust Sunday school was or what a successful vacation Bible school was,” said Thumma, drawing in part on open-ended comments in the survey. “And they couldn’t parallel that using Zoom or using livestreaming or using take-home boxes of activities. It just wasn’t the same thing. And so when they evaluated it, it just didn’t measure up to what they previously knew as the standard of a good quality religious education program.”
The findings are the third installment in the five-year project, a collaboration with 13 denominations from the Faith Communities Today cooperative partnership and institute staffers.
The new report, “Religious Education During the Pandemic: A Tale of Challenge and Creativity,” is based on responses from 615 congregations across 31 denominations.
Comparing data from 2019, churches surveyed in March 2022 reported that the attendance of their religious education programs had decreased an average of 30% among children younger than 13 and 40% among youth, ages 13-17.
“Analysis showed that those who closed their programs had the greatest decline in involvement even after they restarted,” the new report states. “Likewise, churches that moved religious education online lost a higher percentage of participants than churches who modified their efforts with safety protocols but continued meeting in person either outdoors or in small groups.”
The report notes that it’s not surprising the smallest churches experienced the most disruption in their religious education, given the decline in volunteer numbers and additional stresses on clergy during the pandemic.
“In the smallest churches (1-50 attendees) pastors were most likely in charge of the religious education programs, while for those between 51 and 100 worshippers, volunteers bore the bulk of leadership responsibilities,” according to the report.
Overall, evangelical churches reported experiencing the least disruption to their educational programs, while mainline churches reported the most, followed by Catholic and Orthodox congregations.
Vacation Bible school, long a staple of congregational outreach to local communities, has also been shaken by COVID-19. More than a third (36%) of churches offered such programs prior to the pandemic. That number decreased to 17% in 2020 and jumped back to 36% in the summer of 2021. Slightly less than a third (31%) reported VBS plans for 2022.
While children’s programming was greatly affected by congregational change during the pandemic, adult religious programs saw the smallest decreases compared with pre-pandemic levels, with a quarter growing since 2019 and an almost equal percentage (23%) remaining even.
But, as with children’s programs, churches with 50 or fewer worshippers saw the greatest loss in adult religious education, while those with more than 250 in worship attendance increased their adult programs by an average of 19%.
Some congregations reported moving Sunday school activities to weeknights or vacation Bible schools from weekday mornings to later hours, with mixed results.
“One said they ‘went from a typical 200+ kids to about 35,’” the report notes, and they “’shortened the number of days and moved VBS to the afternoon.’”
Thumma said innovations including intergenerational and kid-friendly programming helped sustain programs for people of all ages in some congregations. These included revamping of the children’s message time during worship to be more inclusive or older members greeting children who run by during Zoom sessions. Some churches called their all-ages activities “messy church” or “Sunday Funday” as they used interactive educational events.
“It becomes, out of necessity, intergenerational because that allows you to have robust energy and lots of people there,” he said. “But it really is directed at the kids being involved in the life of the congregation in a way that isn’t, like, ‘OK, you go to your class’ and ‘you go to your classes,’ and the classes don’t ever mingle.”
Whether creative steps such as new intergenerational activity will continue remains to be seen, Thumma added.
“I think it should because that’s a valuable strategy,” he said. “One of the things that we’ve seen in lots of our research is the more intergenerational the congregation is, the more it has a diversity of any degree, the more likely they are to be vital and thriving.”
The findings in the new report of the project, which is funded by the Lilly Endowment, have an estimated overall margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.) announced today that its founder Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr., died on Saturday, February 13, at 86. Dr. Banks launched UMI in 1970 to provide African American churches and individuals with images reflecting their congregations and relatable, Christ-centered content from an urban perspective.
“Dr. Banks was a revolutionary publisher and giant for the African American church and community,” said C. Jeffrey Wright, CEO of UMI. “He was the first to create contextualized content that portrayed positive images of African Americans in the Bible. Because of his innovation, UMI has reached millions of Black churches and individuals with the Gospel.”
For the last 50 years, under Dr. Banks’ leadership, UMI has developed Christian education resources, including Bible studies, Sunday School, and Vacation Bible School curriculum, websites, magazines, books, and videos for its 40,000+ strong customer base. He wrote a number of books and devotionals and hosted a two-minute daily podcast called Daily Direction. In 1995, he brought on Mr. Wright as CEO to take on the day-to-day management of the company. Many evangelical organizations have recognized his pioneering work, including the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), which presented him with its inaugural Kenneth N. Taylor Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
“So many people have been introduced to the life-changing message of Jesus because of Dr. Banks’ ground-breaking initiatives,” said Terri Hannett, Vice President of UMI. “For 50 years, UMI has produced discipleship content that was intellectually rigorous and uniquely relevant for the Black experience.”
Dr. Banks was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1934 and made a commitment to salvation at the age of 9 years old. He graduated from Moody Bible College in Chicago in 1955 and attended Wheaton College, earning a B.A. degree in theology in 1958 and his master’s degree in biblical studies in 1960. After graduation, he took a job at Scripture Press Publishers, where he struggled to sell euro-centric Sunday School content to African American churches. This experience led him to create contextual resources for African Americans with imagery and stories unique to their culture. After a few years, he left the company to start his own to expand the publishing content for Black churches.
Dr. Banks had served as board chair since 1994 after the passing of Tom Skinner, the founding board chair of UMI. On February 14, 2021, the UMI Board of Directors voted to appoint Dr. Stanley Long to the role of Chairman after serving as Vice Chairman for the past 45 years.
“Dr. Banks has been one of my closest friends for nearly 50 years,” said Dr. Stanley Long, Chairman of the UMI board. “I will miss him beyond what words can describe. He and I have shared the same vision and burden for as many years as we have been friends. As board chair, I will invest as much energy as he did to continue the work of UMI in the same direction it has journeyed from its inception, to impact the lives of as many men, women, and children as possible.”
Dr. Banks also planted the Westlawn Gospel Chapel church in Chicago and co-founded the Urban Outreach Foundation to reach pastors, lay leaders, and Christian educators through conferences and other resources. He also co-founded Circle Y Ranch, a Christian camp and conference center for urban youth. Dr. Banks received an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Wheaton College in 1992 and served as a Board Trustee.
Dr. Banks died from a month-long illness and is survived by his wife Olive and his three children Melvin Jr., Patrice Lee, and Reginald. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to Circle Y Ranch Bible Camp c/o UMI 1551 Regency Ct., Calumet City, IL 60409 or donate via the website: https://circleyranch.net referencing Dr. Banks. Resolutions and tributes can be sent to [email protected].
For the past two weeks, we have been featuring some of the speakers and panelists of the upcoming UMI Christian Writers Conference that will be held on Friday, April 22-23. Up next is a brief Q&A with Author and UMI’s Vice President of Editorial Dr. LaVerne Tolbert, Ph.D. In addition to being a best-selling author of her book Teaching Like Jesus: A Practical Guide to Christian Education in Your Church, Dr. Tolbert is also a former editor of Family Circle and Bride’s Magazine. Find out more about Dr. Tolbert and her journey to become a successful writer below:
When did you discover that you had a passion for writing?
During my early childhood years, my father required me to read at least 5 books every summer. I loved reading and found that I also loved writing.
Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
When I was a magazine editor, I focused on writing non-fiction, and today this remains as my preference. I enjoy writing “how-to,” and my classic text, Teaching Like Jesus, explains how to teach.
What are you looking forward to most about the UMI Christian Writers Conference?
I’m looking forward to networking with and meeting new writers who are interested in working for Urban Ministries, Inc.
With so many other genres and styles of writing, how did you make the decision to pursue a career in Christian writing and publishing?
I’m a former professor of Christian education (Talbot School of Theology). Since my masters and doctoral work are in this field, it’s natural for me to also write for a Christian audience.
Do you have one piece of advice that you’d like to share with someone who is interested in pursuing a career in writing?
My advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in writing is this…write! Often, people say they want to write, and they think about writing, but they don’t actually sit down and write. At the conference, I’ll share my easy-to-follow steps for beginning this process.