(RNS) – Sunday School and other Christian education programs have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, with half of congregations surveyed saying their programs had been halted.
A March 2022 survey from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that large churches with more than 100 people were more successful in maintaining their educational programs for children and youth, often using in-person or hybrid options. Smaller churches, especially those with 50 or fewer participants, were the least likely to say they pursued religious education without interruption.
Scott Thumma, principal investigator of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project, said the findings echo concerns about the general education of schoolchildren, where researchers have seen a decline in learning over the past two years.
“My feeling is that people knew what a good, solid Sunday School was or what a successful Vacation Bible School was,” Thumma said, drawing in part on open-ended comments from the survey. “And they couldn’t parallel that using Zoom or using live streaming or using take-out activity boxes. It just wasn’t the same. And so when they evaluated it, it just didn’t measure up to what they previously knew was the standard for a good quality religious education program.
The results are the third part of the five-year project, a collaboration with 13 denominations of the Faith Communities Today Cooperative Partnership and institute staff.
The new report, “Religious Education During the Pandemic: A Story of Challenge and Creativity,” is based on responses from 615 congregations from 31 denominations.
Comparing data from 2019, churches surveyed in March 2022 reported that attendance at their religious education programs had fallen by an average of 30% among children under 13 and 40% among young people aged 13. at 17 years old.
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“Analysis showed that those who closed their programs experienced the largest drop in engagement even after restarting,” the new report says. “Similarly, churches that moved religious education online lost a higher percentage of attendees than churches that modified their efforts with security protocols but continued to meet in person, either outdoors. , or in small groups.
The report notes that it’s no surprise that smaller churches have experienced the most disruption in their religious education, given declining volunteer numbers and additional strains on clergy during the pandemic.
“In the smaller churches (1-50 attendees), pastors were most likely in charge of religious education programs, while for those with 51-100 congregants, volunteers had the bulk of leadership responsibilities,” according to the report.
Overall, evangelical churches reported experiencing the least disruption to their educational programs, while mainstream churches reported the most, followed by Catholic and Orthodox congregations.
Vacation Bible School, long a staple of congregational outreach to local communities, has also been rocked by COVID-19. More than a third (36%) of churches offered such programs before the pandemic. This number fell to 17% in 2020 and rose again to 36% in the summer of 2021. Just under a third (31%) declared VBS plans for 2022.
While children’s programming has been heavily impacted by congregational change during the pandemic, adult religious programming has seen the smallest declines from pre-pandemic levels, with a quarter up since 2019 and a percentage almost equal (23%) remaining equal.
But, as with children’s programs, churches with 50 or fewer members experienced the greatest loss in adult religious education, while those with more than 250 members increased their adult programs by an average of 19%.
Some congregations have reported moving Sunday School activities to weeknights or vacation Bible Schools from weekday mornings to later hours, with mixed results.
“One said they had ‘dropped from a typical number of 200 children to about 35,'” the report notes, and they “”shortened the number of days and moved VBS to the afternoon “”.
Thumma said innovations, including intergenerational and child-friendly programs, have helped maintain programs for people of all ages in some congregations. These included rearranging children’s message time during worship to be more inclusive or older members greeting children running around during Zoom sessions. Some churches called their activities for all ages “messy church” or “Sunday Funday” because they used interactive educational events.
“It becomes, by necessity, cross-generational because it allows you to have robust energy and a lot of people there,” he said. “But it’s really for kids who are engaging in congregational life in a way that’s not, like, ‘OK, you go to your class’ and ‘you go to your classes,’ and the courts don’t ever mingle.
It remains to be seen whether creative steps such as new intergenerational activities will continue, Thumma added.
“I think it should be because it’s a valuable strategy,” he said. “One of the things we’ve found in a lot of research is that the more intergenerational the congregation, the more diversity it has in any degree, the more vital and thriving it is likely to be.”
The conclusions of the new report from the project, which is funded by the Lilly Endowment, have an overall estimated margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
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