Sunday school looks different since pandemic’s start: From monthly to missing

Sunday school looks different since pandemic’s start: From monthly to missing

Youth participate in a combination vacation Bible school and summer camp at Crossroads Community Cathedral in East Hartford, Connecticut, in July 2021. Photo courtesy of Crossroads Community Cathedral

Republished from Religion News Service

(RNS) — At St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the Chicago suburb of Woodstock, Illinois, the once weekly Christian education program is now monthly, and known as “Second Sunday Sunday School.”

At Crossroads Community Cathedral, an Assemblies of God church in East Hartford, Connecticut, “children’s church” continues to thrive each weekend, and “The Little Drummer Dude” production was presented in early December, but Christian education for young people is described as “one of our greatest weaknesses.”

At Mattie Richland Baptist Church in Pineview, Georgia, the adults have been back in Sunday school and the kids led a Black history presentation, but the bus that picks up children for their education program will remain idle until January.

Sunday school, adult forums and other Christian formation classes, already threatened by declines in worship attendance, have been further challenged since COVID-19 shuttered churches and sent their services online. A study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research said more than half were disrupted in some way. Other research shows religious education for adults has bounced back more than for younger church members.

Scott Thumma address the conference in Nov. 2022. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Scott Thumma speaks during the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion on Nov. 12, 2022, in Baltimore. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“For some, it continued without any real major disruptions, and for others, it basically collapsed,” said Scott Thumma, the institute’s director, summing up its 2022 pandemic-related research during an October event at Yale Divinity School. “And the easiest way to make it collapse was to keep religious education for children and youth online. If you kept it online, you probably don’t have a religious education program now.”

The Rev. Scott Zaucha, pastor of St. Ann’s in Woodstock, a mostly white congregation with about 50 attending on Sundays, said its Sunday school had ceased to exist before the pandemic because of its aging congregation. He wondered how to begin it again and learned that online Christian education was not the answer because it seemed like “another thing to try to keep up with” when regular schooling was online.


RELATED: Half of churches say Sunday school, other education programs disrupted by pandemic


Zaucha found that meeting one Sunday a month in person was the best route, realizing that even if families choose St. Ann’s as their congregational home, they may not be weekly attenders.

“When you have only a few families with kids at your church, and you have two kids on this Sunday and six kids on that Sunday,” he said, “they’re all sort of spread out. But if you say, ‘Hey, families, we’re going to have Sunday school once a month.’ Then it lets them know when is the best Sunday for them to come if they’re only going to choose one.”

Crafts made by children in Sunday school classes decorate St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, Illinois. Photo courtesy of St. Ann's

Crafts made by children in Sunday school classes decorate St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, Illinois. Photo courtesy of St. Ann’s

In Orthodox churches, research shows that the parishes that never ceased holding in-person religious education classes for their children and teenagers fared better than those that halted the Sunday school lessons, with some even increasing the number of attendees. The combination of attending worship as well as Sunday school and seeing other youth on a regular basis became crucial for their participation.

“For them, it has become even more valuable through the pandemic for those parishes, which kept young people together,” said Alexei Krindatch, national coordinator of the National Census of Orthodox Christian Churches, in an interview conducted at the Religious Research Association conference in November. “It was an excuse to get together.”

At Crossroads, a multicultural congregation with about 1,500 gathering each weekend, online campus pastor Luke Monahan has tried numerous options to keep adults and kids engaged since the start of the pandemic. In 2020 there were daily adult devotional videos and two a week for kids. Online options appealed more to the adults than to the kids — his own youngster, at age 6, “shut the little laptop and ran away,” he said. An online kids’ church video he had developed gained little traction.

“One month, I didn’t put it out and didn’t notify anyone on purpose,” said Monahan, who also directs IT and education at the Connecticut church. “Nobody said, ‘Where did that video go?’”

Thumma said in his presentation at Yale that adults have had a much more positive reaction to religious education that is not in person. “Adults seem to love religious education online,” he said. “And we’re hearing stories about all kinds of Bible studies, all kinds of prayer meetings, all kinds of education events that are happening online for adults, but not for children and youth.”

Publishing companies are seeking to respond.

Urban Ministries Inc. has found that adults, even those who aren’t tech-savvy, are interested in its digital platform, Precepts Digital, which launched this year. The video-enhanced Bible study is meant for individuals or small groups.

An individual uses the Precepts Digital digital Bible study program. Photo courtesy of Urban Ministries Inc.

An individual uses the Precepts Digital Bible study program. Photo courtesy of Urban Ministries Inc.

“We have been encouraged by the oldest members of our audience embracing digital,” said UMI CEO Jeffrey Wright, whose Christian education publishing company primarily serves African American congregations. “You expect pushback from nondigital natives. And in one focus group, a person commented, ‘Well, you know, it’s harder but it’s worth it.’”

After the pandemic caused a significant drop — Wright estimates a 60% to 80% decrease — in requests for materials for children and youth in the African American community, the company is working on a children’s version of its digital Bible lessons.

“We have a crisis of catechism going on in America right now,” Wright said, expressing concern for the religious upbringing of the youngest generation.

“If you think about it, a 4- or 5-year-old kid, say, born in 2017 or 2018, has never been in an Easter program or a Christmas program and given that little speech you gave when you were a little kid up in the front of the church. Hasn’t happened. Children aren’t being served.”

Children color an Illustrated Ministry poster during Advent. Photo courtesy of Illustrated Ministry

Children color an Illustrated Ministry poster during Advent. Photo courtesy of Illustrated Ministry

Illustrated Ministry, a 7-year-old publishing company that aimed at progressive Christian congregations, also has sought to provide materials to churches as they shifted from in-person to online and, sometimes, back and forth again, depending on the stage of the pandemic.

Adam Walker Cleaveland, who founded the company in Racine, Wisconsin, said he is seeing a greater demand for resources that provide stand-alone lessons for those who may not be attending Sunday school week after week.

Adam Walker Cleaveland. Photo by Karen Walker

Adam Walker Cleaveland. Photo by Karen Walker

“Since COVID, we have seen increasing need for curriculum and resources that are extremely flexible, extremely adaptable,” he said.

Though many of Illustrated Ministry’s products, including children’s bulletins, children’s ministry curricula and pages to color, are designed for children, they can also be used in intergenerational activities around a table at home.

Walker Cleaveland said his organization is also keeping in mind the volunteer teachers — also in shorter supply since the start of the pandemic — who are preparing for Bible lessons, making sure the work is not too time-consuming.

“In terms of our materials, we try to make it so that there isn’t that in-depth prep required, there’s not a huge supply list,” he said. “So you don’t have to make a trip to Michael’s every week before Sunday school.”

Pastor Florine Newberry, who leads Mattie Richland Baptist, said its membership rolls have grown from 50 to 96 as the congregation shifted from predominantly Black to a more diverse group after welcoming people who stopped to listen to her outdoor sermons during the pandemic.

After preaching at her church’s front door to people who remained seated socially distant near their cars, the congregation is back inside and adult Sunday school started earlier this year. But formal Christian education for teens and children has been limited due to the pandemic and concerns about respiratory syncytial virus, commonly called RSV.

Youth give presentations on Black history at Mattie Richland Baptist Church in Pineview, Georgia. Photo by Ja'Qwan Davenport

Youth give presentations on Black history at Mattie Richland Baptist Church in Pineview, Georgia. Photo by Ja’Qwan Davenport

Instead, Newberry has picked up the phone and suggested particular Scriptures to encourage them when they told her of bullying that’s occurred at school.

But Newberry is looking forward to Jan. 1, when she expects to use her church’s bus to pick up children for Sunday school after deciding it is safe to transport them again.

“If you can get ’em while they’re at that age, you can really make a difference,” she said of the children who’ve been inquiring about when she’s going to pick them up.

“Once I get them back in Sunday school, I’ll be happy.”

Believe For It: A Look at CeCe Winans’ new book

Believe For It: A Look at CeCe Winans’ new book

Cece Winans is one of the most celebrated Gospel music artists of all time. She has won fifteen Grammys in addition to Dove Awards, Stellar Awards, and many others. As she surpasses the achievements of some of the great artists and exemplars of the faith she looks up to such as Andre Crouch and continues to push her contemporaries and fellow Detroit natives the Clark Sisters, you would think her most important legacy would be music. However for CeCe Winans, the greatest legacy any believer can have is passing on their faith to the next generation. CeCe Winans explores her journey of lifelong faith and her pursuit pass it on to the next generation in her new book Believe For It. 

CeCe Winans had an upbringing that most people could not imagine. She was raised in a home with ten siblings who formed multiple musical groups with faith in Jesus Christ at the center of their lives. She was raised in the Church of God in Christ, and like many of her contemporaries brought up in a strict but loving Christian home. She highlights that it was a very intentional decision by her parents to create a home filled with love and faith after neither of them had grown up that way. CeCe contends that it is the intentionality alongside the handwork of raising children to be strong believers that can make a difference for young believers today. 

In her book she does not simply tell stories of singing and success. She provides practical principles that she is applying in her own home and church today to ensure her faith in Christ is passed down. Each chapter is broken into easily digestible principles and interlaced with testimonies and stories from Winans’ life. True to her Sunday School roots she ties everything back to scripture as she talks about the importance of starting with faith in the home that translates into the world. 

What is fascinating about CeCe Winans sharing this testimony now is that she is the co-pastor of Nashville Life Church that her and her husband started in her living room that is filled with young adults. Churches across the country are struggling today with how to pass on faith to the next generation, how to do multigenerational ministry, and how to preserve the traditions that have preserved us for generations while remaining relevant. And through this book CeCe Winans gives simple and practical keys on how her and her family are doing it. She regularly engages in these topics on her  YouTube show Generations, but through the book we get the depth, structure, and narrative that helps us apply the lessons to our lives. 

One of the most important keys is relationships. CeCe Winans was shaped by her relationships with her family, church family, and community as a child. Her relationship with Jesus was profoundly shaped by her relationships with other believers. As we embrace new technologies, strategies, and demographics we cannot forget the value of relationships in helping us grow and persevere in faith. I love this book of wisdom. Wisdom is gained from experience and discernment, and as I read it I was able to do both as I consider the impact I have on my own children’s faith. Her legacy for music is also a legacy of sharing faith in God. There are many more keys CeCe shares and her voice through this book is wisdom the Church needs today as we share our faith with the next generation. You can find the book everywhere books are sold this week and check out her latest award winning music video below! 

Half of churches say Sunday school, other education programs disrupted by pandemic

Half of churches say Sunday school, other education programs disrupted by pandemic

(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.

READ THIS STORY AT RELIGIONNEWS.COM

UMI Mourns the Loss of Founder, Dr. Melvin E. Banks

UMI Mourns the Loss of Founder, Dr. Melvin E. Banks


Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr.

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].

Writer Spotlight: Dr. La Verne Tolbert, Ph.D.

Writer Spotlight: Dr. La Verne Tolbert, Ph.D.

Tolbert IMageFor 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.

 

For more information about the UMI Christian Writers Conference, visit the website.