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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Drawing Adults to Sunday School

Our question this week is one that I think a lot of congregations struggle with - how to keep adults engaged in the Christian Education offerings of the church. Our colleague writes:

I serve a fairly large congregation with very sparse adult participation in Sunday School. Currently my colleague is teaching the adults; I'm up next starting in a few weeks. It's hard to be motivated for the handful who'll turn up no matter what. I've been trying to think of something that might draw in some new folks; namely parents who currently bring their kids to Sunday School and may or may not be a part of the worship life of our congregation. I want something interesting and engaging and don't know where to turn. Any suggestions?

Jennifer writes:

I’m a big proponent of asking people what would draw them to attend a class or participate in an event. Perhaps you could ask some of those parents of youngsters if there are themes or issues that would interest them. Not knowing what the current format of your adult class is, I’d caution you to consider the folks who show up “no matter what” and reflect upon what it is that they enjoy about the class, so that you can incorporate their likes and continue to draw them as you try something new. Maybe they, too, have some thoughts about what would be compelling and interesting. In the church I serve, parents enjoy a format that we offer occasionally called “open mic” where parents can talk about whatever is on their minds, from raising children to Sabbath time. We had an interesting conversation with some clips from a tv show on vacations that involve service or mission to the community. We’ve offered classes on great books for children and families related to a particular season of the liturgical year, have tackled the influence of the media on values, have done intergenerational classes on everything from bible study to social justice issues. Bottom line: it’s really good to do some advance work and see what people might attend, if offered. Then you’d be making decisions based on data, rather than on hunches or what works well in another setting that might not be the same as your own…

And Ruth offers:

I don’t wish to sound facetious and it’s hard to comment in details without knowing your set up. I have four small churches so I do understand the small numbers/motivation issue, believe me.
This may sound simplistic – but have you tried asking those who have dropped kids off what they would like?
Eg A chance to look at current issues in the Sunday papers from a Christian perspective; a chance to learn more about what their kids are doing; a chance to this about some of the ‘awkward’ questions kids sometimes ask’’ ; a look at parenting from a Christian angle...
Hope this is some help.


I want to add something about motivation. Our questioner says, "It's hard to be motivated for the handful that will turn up no matter what." I know how frustrating it is to work hard on something and then have only a few people show up, but I try to view those few people as offering me a sacred opportunity to minister with intimacy and more personal attention. The first four-and-a-half years of my ministry, I served an extremely small church in a small rural town. I felt very strongly about the need to give as much time and effort in my preaching and teaching there as I would for a congregation 100 times its size. While I agree that it's important to do whatever you can to draw more adults into the Sunday School program, I think it's equally important to try to maintain a high level of motivation for the work you do for those currently engaged in the program. You may never reach those who choose simply to drop their children off and go. But you have a holy opportunity to touch the lives of those who are going to come no matter what.

What about the rest of you? What are your experiences and thoughts? Please share! And as always, send us your questions at

- earthchick


  1. Perspective from a professional theologian who occasionally teaches and rarely attends adult ed at church:

    1. Make sure that your classes have lots of discussion and little lecture--which also makes your job easier if you are the teacher. Laypeople have virtually no voice in worship/liturgy and creating a safe place where they can share their faith and wisdom with their community and learn from each other is a tremendous gift. I attended a church where the weekly bible study was very interactive--the pastor allowed lots of sharing and even included some of it in her sermon at times--and thus very popular and well attended three Thursdays a month. The fourth? She insisted on speaking or bringing in a speaker on some topic she thought was important, disenfranchising the people in favor of "the expert"--and they voted with their feet, to her frustration.

    2. Try to find good folks to lead it who aren't you--almost every congregation has someone with some formal theological study, or lots of experience and knowledge, or you may be able to bring in someone from outside from time to time (many local spiritual directors, whom you can find on the Spiritual Directors International website, would be happy to teach a one time class or series on prayer practices, mystics, etc. in exchange for the publicity and chance to hand out their cards). You may need to mentor the second category a bit at first but this is definitely in the category of equipping the saints for their ministry and a great service to them as well as those in the class. I'm sure you have great things to say, but people spend lots of time listening to you already in the sermon, and perhaps the children's sermon as well, and they might be more interested to hear a different voice and perspective. Again, this also gives you a break in a schedule that is way too busy.

  2. and (w00t, I'm SECOND?) others have found that REALLY GOOD COFFEE, not Special Church-Dishwater Blend, makes an amazing and humbling difference.

  3. I think sometimes it's easier to attract new people to a *new* class. This isn't to say there's anything wrong with the class/attendees that you have now, but it's more comfortable to be recruited to a class that's just forming instead of joining one that is already established.

    Perhaps offering a special 6-week session on Christian parenting (in addition to the regular adult class) would draw in the people you are seeking and also give them a chance to talk about what they would like at the end of the short-term commitment.


  4. One of the things I have done in two parishes is a "First Sunday Spirituality Series" where we ask one person to share their spiritual/life story. In both places it was the favorite adult forum Sunday. They love it!

  5. I am of no help, but thought you would be amused.
    In my first congregation either the doctor or his wife (stay at home mom of two) would always drop kids off. When I inquired about them not coming to SS, I was told they used the hour as "their private time!"
    TMI. Always be careful of what you ask and how you ask it.

  6. Sophia has expressed my thoughts beautifully. Thank you!

    One other comment: most adult Christian ed curricula are so light weight and, occasionally, quite condescending. Stay far, far away from using this.

    From someone quite active in the church at local, regional, and national levels who also rarely attends adult ed at church

  7. Revkjarla, that sounds like a great idea!

  8. Revkjarla, that sounds like a great idea!

  9. LOL at 1-4 Grace's story!!!!!!

  10. I agree with the comment about the good coffee. And perhaps one "in" with at least some folks would be an informal coffee/discussion time rather than a "class." Very low key.

    I actually find that classes/small groups meeting NOT on Sunday can be more sucessful, but it really depends on your population. If you have enough time and/or staff offering more than one topic or type of class may help too.

    And the reality is, not everyone, or even the majority will attend, no matter what you do.


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