(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.
It takes a person with a calling to work in children’s ministry. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences to realize that you can help develop the spiritual faith of a child. Statistics from the Barna Group suggest that if you minister to ten children, four of them will accept Christ by the age of 13. Sadly, research also shows that six out of ten children, who are active in church during their teen years, will become spiritually disengaged by the time they become young adults. One way to reverse this trend is to create learning environments that include games and interactive activities. This will help children develop a dynamic personal relationship with Christ and establish a foundation of faith.
Many churches have been content to let children sit in the sanctuary trying to make sense of a sermon or Bible study that was clearly prepared for adults. Or, in cases where efforts were made to set aside classes for children, the approach basically involved a chalkboard, and maybe a flannel graph or puppets. Some of these tools still work for preschoolers, but to engage elementary-age and tween students, you will get more results with interactive activities.
If you spend the majority of your class time talking to children, studies show that they will retain only 5% to 10% of what they hear. A teacher can increase effectiveness by showing them pictures, posters, and maps, for example. Children will retain 20% to 30% of what they see. However, if the leader really wants to have a lasting impact, he should introduce a hands-on activity or experience. Children retain a full 75% to 90% of what they do.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean just letting kids run around the classroom because you didn’t make time to plan your lesson. I am talking about intentional play, such as a game or activity, with a strategic purpose that is a part of the lesson plan.
Children engaged in interactive activities use more of their senses than just hearing, and we provide opportunities for them to fellowship with each other. While children are playing, teachers can reinforce virtues of cooperation, sportsmanship, encouragement, and Christ-likeness. This will encourage group dynamics that help to keep down distractions that crop up when kids get bored, and that keep the children focused on the task at hand.
Our goal is not only to meet the children where they are spiritually, but also to get them excited about the Gospel message so that they come back willingly. Plus, we want them to be so excited about what they are learning at church that it transforms their lives and they are inviting their friends to come with them.
Here are three activities you can introduce in your children’s ministry.
1. Scripture Memory
This high-energy game will increase Scripture memory and takes minimal preparation. You will need colorful latex balloons and two copies of the memory verse printed in a large font. Prepare the balloons prior to class time. Cut the verse into pieces, like a puzzle. Make sure that the cut pieces match their corresponding piece. Put each puzzle piece into separate balloons, blow them up, and tie them off. Then do the same thing for the copy. You should have two sets of balloons with a part of the memory verse inside each balloon. Divide the class into teams. A member from each team will run to a designated spot, turn and run back to two chairs you have set up. They will put the balloons on the chairs to pop them. Their teams will collect all of the pieces and assemble the memory verse. The team that assembles the memory verse and recites it wins. Stickers or small pieces of candy are good rewards.
2. Visual Prayers
This simple activity packs a powerful punch! Give the children sheets of paper and have them trace one hand. The thumb is closest to our heart—it reminds us to pray for our family. Have them write a prayer request for family on the thumb. The index finger points out things we don’t always see, or it instructs us. Write a prayer request for teachers. The middle finger stands tallest. Write prayer requests for those in authority such as government leaders, pastors, etc. The ring finger is weak and can’t stand alone well when you put the other fingers down. Write prayer requests for those who are sick, elderly, in prison, or in need of help. The pinkie finger is the smallest. Write a prayer request for yourself.
Then have the children exchange the sheets and place their own hands on top of the sheet they received and pray for their classmates. Or the teacher can collect the sheets and pray for the children throughout the week. (This activity was originally submitted to Children’s Ministry Magazine by Nancy Paulson.)
3. Lesson Review or Conversation Starter
Make a “Throw and Tell Ball.” Buy a basic inflatable beach ball. Write generic questions like “What is your favorite movie and why?” or lesson specific questions such as, “What happened to the main character in our story?” or “What Book of the Bible did our story come from today?” Cut the questions out and tape them onto each panel of the beach ball. Have the children lightly toss the ball or pass it around. When the teacher says stop, the child holding the ball can answer the question under his right thumb.
We can help children make Christ their own. The task is set to us as parents, teachers, and children’s ministry leaders to not only get them excited about who God is, but to help them see His connection to them. When children really know God themselves— not just know about Him or know stories in the Bible—then we will see children with deep roots that will last. They will be the illustration of Psalm 1:3, “They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.”