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.