Sunday school successes seen in midst of sobering statistics

Published January 1, 2000

When the congregation at St. George’s Anglican Church in Victoria sings the Lord’s Prayer on Sundays, many of the 300 plus parishioners require more than the average amount of elbow room.

As the organ swells and voices are raised in song, the hands of adults and children alike dance through a series of actions that tell the story in a special kind of sign language.

Originally taught to the congregation by enthusiastic members of the Sunday school, the exercise has been embraced by many as part of the weekly ritual.

Ruth MacIntosh, co-ordinator of children and youth ministry for the parish, said the song is just one example of an inclusiveness that makes the youngest members of the church feel valued, and helps create a dynamic and growing Sunday school program.

Not all Anglican church school programs are as healthy. A recently released Statistics Canada report examining children’s attendance at religious services paints a less than rosy picture.

Using data collected on more that 22,500 children, researchers found that 36 percent of Canada’s children under 12 attend religious services at least once a month. But in the case of mainline faith communities such as the Anglican and United Church, just half as many 18 per cent attend.

Girls were found to be somewhat more regular attendees than boys and Atlantic Canadians more vigilant than counterparts in Quebec or western Canada. But religious affiliation accounted for the biggest differences. The highest weekly attendance occurred among Jehovah’s Witnesses (90 per cent), among smaller Christian denominations (60 per cent) and among Baptists (60 per cent). Lowest rates were found in the mainline faith communities.

Linda Grenz, publisher of Journey to Adulthood, a Christian education program for youth used across Canada and the United States, said the results are neither surprising nor satisfactory.

“It’s pretty consistent with what we’ve seen over the last few decades. The more conservative the denomination, the more likely they are to have higher attendance for both adults and youth,” she said.

“It may be a fact now, but I don’t think it’s one we have to feel saddled with forever. It’s not something we can’t change.”

At least part of the reason for anemic attendance rates today can be traced back to the mid-1960s. Ms. Grenz said in the 1940s and 1950s, mainline churches focused their programs for youth on the four to 14 set and expected teens to drift off following confirmation “to find themselves.” Once they married, they would return to church and fill Sunday schools with their children.

“But in the ’60s, they stopped coming back. The baby boomers didn’t return after confirmation. It should be their kids filling the Sunday school classrooms, but it’s not happening, because many never reconnected with the church.”

In his influential 1993 book, A Generation of Seekers, U.S. religion professor Wade Clark Roof found boomers didn’t walk away from God, just from church as they had known it. Far from becoming atheists, he wrote, they believed in a God that was more down-to-earth.

To promote growth, Ms. Grenz said there has to be an effective youth ministry that is inclusive and provides something of interest from the time a child can talk, through the time they graduate high school.

“You can’t put them in a little room down by the boiler with some crayons. We have to treat them as full members of the congregation and spend time and energy on them.”

Rev. Wilfred Langmaid of the University of New Brunswick, a former chair of the Diocese of Fredericton youth committee, said the problem is money.

“The reality in the Anglican Church in this stage of its history is that there are all sorts of valid ministry that may be suffering because of a lack of finances. In most Anglican churches, it wouldn’t matter if Sunday school was their top priority. There’s only just enough money around to keep their physical structures from crumbling.”

Mr. Langmaid said the importance of youth ministry was acknowledged in New Brunswick two years ago when the diocese agreed to hire a consultant to facilitate Christian education. However, the money wasn’t available and no one was hired.

Archdeacon Jim Cowan of the Diocese of British Columbia called the attendance levels in the Statistics Canada report unacceptable. A recent needs audit in his diocese identified “a demonstrated need for youth ministry.”

Four years ago the diocese had a youth worker, but he resigned to do doctoral work. Since then, many parishes without their own youth worker have found it difficult to access resources and training.

A new position is in the works, but Archdeacon Cowan said care has to be taken not to focus exclusively on youth or the value would be minimized.

“The Anglican Church has ignored Christian education at all levels,” he said.

Back at St. George’s, Ms. MacIntosh agrees low attendance is directly related to the people and financial resources invested into the schools.

“We can do way better,” she said. “There are congregations doing better and they are the ones putting serious resources into programming.”

But money isn’t everything. Simple things like creating a stronger comfort level for parents with small children who haven’t been around the church could go a long way.

“Many parishes still need to work on the idea of an acceptable noise level. If we expect children to be in our midst we have to accept they are going to giggle and be moving around.”

She contended churches should stop putting children on parade. Too often children are herded into a church, asked to perform a nice song and then sent away. “We never get to know them as people.”

An advocate of more intergenerational worship, Ms. MacIntosh said at St. George’s some six- and seven-year-olds have served as readers, using a children’s Bible and words that make sense to them.

“First and foremost, the experience of being in Christ’s community is about belonging. We have to set up situations where there are spark points for everyone.”

Ms. Grenz suggested attendance might improve if we expected more.

Evangelical faiths present the value of their church experience clearly and constantly. Messages like “the family that prays together, stays together,” appear constantly in their newsletters and magazines.

If Anglicans also made clear the value of church or church school every Sunday, she believes attendance would rise.

“If we simply assume people are busy and have valid reasons for not coming, they will find reasons not to come.” Steve Proctor is the Truro bureau chief at the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

Percentage of children attending religious services

Weekly Monthly Occasionally Not atall
Roman Catholic 22 18 31 29
United Church 18 18 30 34
Anglican 18 16 30 36
Presbyterian 39 10 23 29
Lutheran 29 28 29 24
Baptist 60 10 2 17
Islam 44 39
Jehovah’s Witness 90 0 0 0
Other1 64 10 16

1Smaller, mainly Christian faith communities

Source: Statistics Canada, National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, 199495


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