I hate writing this kind of blog post. Refuting someone else’s well-thought out opinions isn’t in my DNA. But the article “Sunday Schooling Our Kids out of Church” has been gaining some traction in mainline circles and I’m compelled to counter because if the conclusions it offers are taken seriously, the current declines in church will not only continue, but we can expect to see an escalation of church closures for lack of participation by younger generations.
If you haven’t read the article, it was a well-written piece by Tim Wright, an ELCA Mission Developer (church planter), and it was published by Patheos.com. In summary, the article suggests that, following the exodus of the church in the 1960s by the Baby Boomers, innovative pastors in the ’70s and ’80s surmised that offering an alternative to adult worship for children would allow parents to more fully engage in worship, causing them to return. The author’s contention is that the separation of children from adult worship has been a significant contributor to the current cultural reality, viz., “We have raised the largest unchurched generation in the history of our country” (¶ 6). To his credit, the author concedes there are other factors that have contributed to the churches’ losses, but then he returns to the absence of children from adult worship as a key to the puzzle.
The remainder of the article includes anecdotal stories about families torn from each other during worship and parents wistfully wishing for times gone by. The emotional argument is powerful and reflects sentiments I hear at nearly every consultation I lead.
The problem is, his argument is built on anecdote and conjecture rather than on research and logic.
There are two points that bear examination.
1. The Practice of Removing Children from Worship
Wright contends that the practice of removing children from worship has resulted in the increase of the unchurched population, and specifically it has greatly contributed to the increase of those who left the church and have not returned. He is correct that during the ’70s and ’80s this practice found a foothold in churches across the nation. Congregations such as Willow Creek Community Church that launched in 1975 both modeled and advocated the separation of children from adults. WCCC and other mega churches became the spokes-churches for seeker sensitive and seeker focused worship services and in short order, there were plenty of copycat congregations.
But it’s exactly there that Wright’s argument is, at least in part, lost. Although no one can or should minimize the influence these churches had (and are having) on our church culture, the reality is this: in the grand scheme of congregational life, only a handful of churches embraced the practice of expelling the children from adult worship. Indeed, many churches in the US did not remove the children from their midst for any of the adult worship service (actually, most US churches currently do not have – and did not have – a separate worship or Sunday School for children during the worship hour because the average-sized church in the US simply doesn’t have enough children to warrant a separate service). Granted, many, if not most of the larger churches did offer “children’s church.” However, those churches that dismissed the children from adult worship tended to do so after the music, prayers, and typically a “children’s moment.” In these churches, the only thing the children tended to miss was the sermon, the closing hymn, and the benediction. Families certainly were not rent asunder by the great worship divide.
The point is this: the practice of removing children from adult worship during the years in question was practiced by a minority of congregations – and practiced by even fewer mainline congregations with whom change often occurs painfully slowly. The practice of barring children from worship was simply not widespread enough to have the extensive consequences for which the author contends.
2. The Practice of the Formerly Churched Who Removed Themselves from Worship
According to the article, one of the key reasons for the increase of the unchurched generation is that they attended Sunday School during the worship hour rather than remaining in the worship center with their parents. The implication is that the children weren’t exposed to “adult worship” and thus never learned to appreciate it or appropriate it for themselves.
The problem with this implication is that it’s based on projection and conjecture rather than research. Asking those who are active participants, even marginally so, about why their unchurched contemporaries do not engage in corporate worship or support institutional religion only invites anecdotal opinions. It does not provide enough useful information on which to build a reasonable response.
One of the landmark studies over the past few years was the work of Ken Ham, Britt Beemer, and Todd Hillard published in Already Gone: Why Your Kids Quit Church and What to Do About It. Unfortunately, the study was marred by its premise as well as its conclusions; however, their research methods were competent and the breadth of the study exceptional (22,000 interviews with adults in twenty-five separate surveys (Ham, Already Gone, Chapter 1)). The raw data gathered by the study provides us answers to the underlying reasons why the unchurched population has swelled, especially by those who had been raised in the church.
And what reasons do those who have left the church cite for their lack of interest and participation in the church?
The top reason: boring worship services.
Of these, 94.6 percent attended worship during elementary and middle school. That number drops to to 56.1 percent in high school. And of course, it tapers off to 0 percent attending now (since the study was done among those not attending church).
The contention might be that if these children had been required to attend adult worship services all along, they would have come to appreciate “big church” to the point that they’d appropriate it today.
Unfortunately, as we saw in point 1, the fact is, the majority of these children did attend adult worship and, according to the study, they internally made the decision that they were through with church while yet in elementary school – even though mom and dad insisted they continue to attend.
Thinking that children will learn to appreciate worship designed for their parents (or grandparents) is tantamount to thinking that the progression of music appreciation begins with rock-n-roll and naturally progresses to classical music when they reach adulthood. To date, the purchase of classic music is still under 3 percent – apparently only jazz music is less popular at 2.3 percent. In other words, just because we get older doesn’t mean our tastes are going to radically change.
The progression of children who attend adult worship services in church today, especially those who are progeny of parents who do not regularly participate in church, goes something like this: (1) Bored – while mom and/or dad try to keep them entertained, or at least quiet. (2) Restless – they’d rather be somewhere – anywhere – else. (3) Resentful – they begin to get angry about being forced to attend. (4) Resistant – they begin arguing with mom/dad about going to church. (5) Rebellious – they quit, or decide they’re never going back as soon as they have a choice.
The fact is, the old adage is as true today as it was a generation ago: “Mom decides where the family is going to church, the children decide if they ever go back.” Most families today rarely see the 2–5 stages of rebellion because only rarely do unchurched families return to churches that don’t offer an option for both nursery and childcare for their young children.
With all my might, I wish the phenomenon that we called “church” back in the 1950s could also be the future of the church. But wishing and nostalgia and even powerful anecdotes won’t bring our past back. And so we must deal with what is rather than what we wish or prefer. The future for churches that don’t provide an indigenous discipleship opportunity for children during the worship hour is that the congregations will continue to age as visitors come and choose not to return, especially as the demographic of never-churched adults continues to swell.
Question: What was your response to the article? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
Thank you for your insight
I currently attend Spirit of Grace mission center in Holdrege Nebraska and am a leader in our children’s worship service called Spirit Kids. Being a mother of two I will admit to being apprehensive when the idea was first given to me. In the past year I have not only embraced this structure but have concluded that it is the most healthy and correct faith building I can do for my children and the future of the church. My oldest leads the children and shows maturity in her faith far ahead of mine at her age. My youngest at 9 already speaks of when he can lead not only the children but also in adult worship. It is worship they are learning. Their form and their faith just for them. I feel in will carry them into the future and be never ending. God is Good.
Great stuff! Thanks for sharing. I don’t disagree with the data and your take on it but I have a questions about how to fix the problem. Other studies (See here – Pathos of all places! http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2014/11/discovery-of-how-to-keep-young-people-in-the-church/) have shown that kids are most likely to return to church because the parents had an active faith life and talked about faith at home regularly. Just curious, would children appreciate worship (the old way) if we had more parents actively talking about their faith at home – discipling their kids? In other words, is children’s church the answer or is it just a band aid to a bigger problem?
One noticeable trend I see in the church is that fancy programs may attract people to church for a while, but they don’t have long sustaining value. Why? Because most people were attracted to the program, it’s quality, flash etc. what it did or does for them etc. but they weren’t actually connected to Jesus in a substantial way. In the end, churches change programs every 5-7 years because the new wears off and the people attracted to the program and not Jesus need change.
Wondering if the same couldn’t happen for children’s church and if not having CC is the actual problem? Is church boring because we were attracted to the programs that are now stale? Jesus should never get stale!!! Would it be boring if my faith, and the faith modeled for me by my parents at home, is why I was actually there? Not trying to stop the idea of CC but instead, wanting to dig deeper and see if boring worship is the actual problem and if CC therefore is the fix we actually need! My fear is that while the church discipling children is better than no discipleship at all, are we missing the greater point of parents discipling their kids at home. If they did, would we need CC in the first place?
The difference between that study and the studies I’ve cited is that the Patheos cited study (ARDA) largely interviewed people who stayed in church (and it’s a rather dated study – 2007-08 that’s suddenly found a lot of traction). That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t account for the 60 percent who left and have not returned … and say they will never return (and so far have largely been true to their commitment).
The fact is, those who left have similar stories about parents taking them to sit through worship – but instead of being influenced to stay, they got out of there as quickly as possible. Why? Because adult worship is boring and irrelevant to a child – or for youth in most churches for that matter.
On the other hand, I think Children’s Church as it is practiced in most churches should be flushed. For one, most are run as if the kids respond and learn with 1955 teaching methods. There’s often little technology and little participation in the lesson time. Second, most Children’s Churches begin after the kids have endured twenty minutes of boring and irrelevant church activities and only get to leave after they’ve been exposed to a children’s message (that is rarely a quality disciple-making message).
And so, I don’t disagree with the findings completely. Just mostly.
But is it possible that because the 60% sited in your surveys weren’t really discipled in the first place (in this case by their parents) that it might have an impact on their answer to the survey question? And if they were discipled at home, would their answer…even their behavior to leave or not to leave….be different? What’ I find interesting is that those who stayed in church according to Patheos didn’t say, “I stayed because worship wasn’t boring.” Instead they cited a very real and Godly biblical value!!! Parents modeling the faith at home! And I think the date range of the study is still right in the mix of our new culture of the nones to have some value for us.
Did the research you have sited ask of those 60% who left if their parents actively shared their faith and lived it at home? If not, then I think my question is still valid. And that’s because the 60% who left because church was boring were never discipled in the first place. Of course someone is going to be bored if they’re looking for entertainment and the worship is not entertaining. However, if someone is looking for Jesus because their parents discipled them, maybe a different answer to the study question. And that’s really where my curiosity lies. Does that make sense?
Luke, If someone is looking for an excuse to stop doing children’s church, they’ll find it in research such as this.
However, here’s the reality. Kids were raised in the church in the 50s and 60s – and that’s when the nation’s largest exodus from the church took place. There were very few churches back then that did children’s church so the pundits can’t point to that as a reason for the loss of literally millions from the church.
The church has been … and continues to be … very poor at discipling adults so that they disciple their children. If suddenly there was an actual shift in that, as opposed to a “Well, we’re going to try something else this year” then perhaps we’d have some actual data after some time. But since that’s not been the case – and isn’t likely to become the case – then canceling children’s church in the hopes that the parents will pick up the slack is actually pretty irresponsible.
My real question about most of these churches is this: Do they really prohibit children from remaining in the adult worship service or do they simply offer children’s worship as an option? If it’s a mandate, then we have an issue (in my 10 years as a consultant, I’ve never worked with a church that forced kids out of the adult worship service). If it’s optional, then the whole house of cards falls apart anyway – since those “disciple making” parents aren’t discipling their children even though they have the opportunity to do so.
Thanks again for all of the great thoughts. I agree with you so much.
I guess what I’m having trouble seeing is that with the Patheos article we have people surveyed who actually chose to stay in church and listed why they stayed. Why is that not helpful evidence? Could their reasons for staying in church have an impact on the other research that states why others have left and won’t return? To me there is some validity to that. Chances are good, those who decided to remain in church didn’t have CC either. So we know why people stayed, we know why people left, but we don’t necessarily know why people were bored – because worship was actually boring or because parent’s didn’t’ do their job with the kids?
I totally agree with you, CC isn’t the problem. I’m just curious if we actually know enough about what the problem is to determine IF CC is the answer we need.
Also, has any research been done on those churches who did successfully implement CC?
Luke, it’s not that the reasons for those who have stayed aren’t important … but think of it this way. Our churches are filled, by and large, with people who are 70 years-old and older. If you surveyed and ask why they have stayed, would you use that data to design ministries that would attract and retain those outside of the church? (The answer is that many churches are doing exactly that … and they are dying because what keeps people who have been raised in the church or have been in church for a long time does not translate into an effective plan for attracting and retaining others).
Is there validity to the study? Yes, if you have high-commitment discipleship making parents, their children are more likely to stay than if the children are raised with those who drop their children off at Sunday school and then go to Starbucks to do the Sunday Times Crossword. I’m not sure we needed a research project to prove that.
As for why children are bored … please make plans to attend a Greek Orthodox church – or any language church that you don’t understand – for the next 12 Sundays. The first Sunday or two you might enjoy it because of the novelty, but once that wears off, you’ll discover that when the worship service is totally foreign to you, not written or directed to you, and is totally irrelevant to you, that you will find yourself reading Facebook posts during the sermon (that is delivered in Greek or Spanish or German or Latin). Boredom comes with irrelevancy – there’s no rocket science in figuring that out.
Secondarily, please set up a video camera in the worship center and record the congregation – not the worship leaders. Zero in on families with children, especially young, elementary school aged children, and watch both the children and the parents (I have scores of these videos from churches I’ve worked with). With very few exceptions you’ll see children coloring, playing on tablets or smart phones, etc. and you’ll see parents constantly distracted by their children’s activities and questions and showing off their Candy Crush scores (or Angry Birds or showing their artwork or …).
I only put so much stock in surveys and polls. Instead, I monitor what is actually happening when parents have no options but to keep their children in worship. Here are the results that I’ve seen for the vast majority of churches we work with:
I can nearly always “prove” my point in most churches – because most small churches do not have children’s church (perhaps there’s a reason they’re small churches …). I simply ask the empty nest parents and grandparents in the church how many of their children are currently active in church. Some will be. The vast majority will not.
As for your question whether research has been done on those churches who have successfully implemented children’s worship, the answer is “Not that I know of” but primarily because most successful children’s worship services are being done in very large churches (because smaller churches, by and large, cling to the ways of 1955 – both in basic practices as well as in their pedagogy) and so there may not have been enough time to engage a study.
But even without the study, we can be sure of one thing: What we’ve been doing over the past fifty years has failed us – we close 41 churches every day, the average age of church participants continues to climb, and the average number of those who claim to be Christian continues to plummet. Something has to change – and if we have to experiment to get there, then that’s what we’ll have to do. I’d rather err on the side of developing effective disciples of children than hoping they’ll figure it out in adult worship – or depending on their parents. Both seem to me to be recipes for more of what we already have.
Great thoughts. I understand now and am sorry for all the back and forth. I really don’t want to be argumentative. Your last statement tells me that we are on the same page when it comes to the hope that churches start discipling kids. I think we’re just thinking differently on which one (CC vs leaders equipping parents to disciple kids) will have the best sustainable impact. And since I’m not opposed to CC, I’ll take either. I do hope though that more churches will see the importance and Biblical support for equipping parents to disciple their kids. CC can certainly disciple kids as well, is not at all un-bibilcal, and I’m all for it. I just think that equipping parents to disciple their own kids is actually commanded in Scripture and may have better long term results. And that’s why I’m continuing to seek your expert advice on the issue. Thanks again, this helps me understand so much more clearly.