The shrinking Sunday school is something that many churches are dealing with these days. This is largely due to changes in our culture and in most cases is happening despite the best efforts of those in children’s ministry. Although churches should continue to work at growing their Sunday school by offering a quality program and reaching out to families in their community, they should also consider adjusting their program to deal with the changes that occur due to fewer children attending.
For many seasoned Sunday school teachers and superintendents, it is difficult to imagine a different model than the age-based one they are used to. Publishers of Sunday school curriculum continue to offer material that is targeted for limited age groups, based on secular educational models which group by age so as to be able to teach what is developmentally appropriate. However, leaders in faith formation today are suggesting that we need to rely less on the formal or schooling model of spiritual formation, which emphasizes intellectual knowledge of the Bible and church teachings, and focus more on a formational model which includes learning from experiences and practice. The formational model does not depend on grouping by age and is actually more effective when people of different ages, even different generations, are learning together.
For this reason alone, churches should consider going to a multi-graded or even a one room Sunday school. Also, if a church is maintaining age-graded groups in separate classrooms and finds that they are getting only a few children in each group, a one room Sunday school is a more efficient use of resources, both human as well as physical ones. Rather than having a number of teachers preparing lessons each week, there can be one lead teacher who does the preparation for the whole group. The preparation can rotate each week so that volunteers might only have to do lesson prep once a month or less. Volunteers who enjoy working with children but don’t want to do the actual teaching can be available to give children individual attention.
This type of transition in a Sunday school takes some planning and there may be much trial and error before the best set-up is found. Depending on the number of children and youth you have, you may want to divide up into one or more groups or keep everyone together. One option is to have a large group/small group format, where everyone is together for some initial activities, such as the telling of a Bible story, and then can work on more age appropriate activities in smaller groups. If your Sunday school attendance varies from week to week, this set-up provides the flexibility to stay together the whole time when only a few children are there or to break into groups if more children are in attendance.
In this new format, teachers will need to be aware of the age level characteristics of a wider range of children. It is also a good idea to look for activities that appeal to children of varying ages. Activities such as drama, painting, or working with clay can be enjoyed by 3 year olds as well as 13 year olds. Sunday school superintendents should offer suggestions for these types of activities and have supplies available.
A one room or multi-graded Sunday school can help alleviate difficulties in getting enough adult volunteers. Having two adults present should be observed at all times and this can be done more easily when everyone is together in one central space. If a large room is shared, then breaking into small groups will only require one adult leader for each group.
There will also be an adjustment period for the children and youth as well, but there are unexpected benefits to have younger and older children together. Most children enjoy being in a larger group rather than being in a classroom with just one or two others, and a larger group lends itself to more activities such as games and drama. The older children can assist the younger ones and serve as role models as they work on their leadership abilities. Only children or those with siblings close to their own age often enjoy being with children of varied ages.
Children learn from each other. Certainly an older child has much to teach the younger ones, but a cynical teen can also learn from the simple faith of a preschooler. In a group of children of different ages, children who are developmentally advanced or delayed are better able to work at their own pace without feeling the pressure to keep up with their age group. A group of mixed age children also can create more of a family feeling and inspire cooperation. For instance, an activity such as acting out a Bible story or organizing a mission project allows for participation of children with different abilities as each one contributes according to their interests and talents.
There are many curriculums available for one room Sunday schools as well as for a large group/small group format. Those transitioning to this type of format might also want to consider working with the worship leaders of the church to coordinate what the children are learning with the liturgical year and what is happening in worship, so that the children are more connected to the rest of the church. Since Sunday school attendance is sporadic in many churches, it’s also important to strengthen the church-home connection and this is easier to do when everyone is learning the same things. Making a radical change in the way Sunday school is organized can bring about many positive changes in churches that are willing to have their children and youth all together.