Pandemic disrupts faith formation

Sunday school as we have known it may never look the same. Is there still a market for Anabaptist resources?

Will you resume Sunday school when regular services resume?

As schools have reopened amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a different educational landscape than anyone has seen before. This is true in the church as well.

In July, MennoMedia surveyed congregations in Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA on their reopening plans. At that time:

  • Most churches were meeting online (58%) and were unsure (55%) when they would resume in-person services.
  • Some 36% of congregations were not offering any classes for children.
  • Only 17% of churches said they would resume Sunday school when regular services resumed; 25% said they would not; 58% were unsure.
  • Nearly 40% of churches did not plan to offer nursery services when their regular services resumed, while 11% planned to resume those services. The remaining 51% were unsure.

What does this tell us? It indicates a sea change in the role of children in the church and suggests Sunday school as we have known it may never look the same.

At MennoMedia, we see the biggest impact in sales of our Shine children’s Sunday school curriculum. It’s very likely our Shine revenue for the year will be one-third or less of what it was last year.

This significant loss could have many explanations. Perhaps churches are focused on worship and haven’t yet figured out their children’s programs. Perhaps giving is down and churches are not able to purchase what they normally would. Perhaps they are using products other than Shine. Perhaps churches are ordering late as they wait to see how the pandemic develops. Perhaps there aren’t enough volunteers willing to teach in hybrid or digital formats.

The reality we must face, however, is that when churches do not provide faith formation curriculum and programing, the work falls on parents and families.

There are many reasons why this shift from congregations to families for children’s faith formation is a welcome change, and just as many reasons why this is problematic.

Parents can and should use the language of faith and building up the faith of their children in the home. For many families, this happens through regular conversations, prayers before meals and bedtime, and family devotionals. It is good for parents to have the most active role in their children’s faith formation. Studies have long shown that a parent’s active faith is the highest predictor of whether or not children will have faith.

And yet many parents feel ill-prepared to do this on their own and exhausted by life amid a pandemic. One of the main reasons parents attend a congregation is because of what it offers for their children — ranging from nursery care during worship to children’s Sunday school classes. If, suddenly, congregations stop providing these supports, we will begin to see families leaving our churches. Church- growth experts remind us that these services really matter. As one pastor said to me, “The church is cutting off its own foot right now.”

Who shoulders the responsibility for children’s faith formation? It’s neither all on parents nor all on the church. How can congregations reimagine faith formation to meet the needs of children and families in such an unusual time? How can we equip already tapped-out parents with the language and habits of faith?

In March we hoped the world would go back to normal by fall, but now we recognize the pandemic has sped up seismic, generational changes throughout the church. The products we developed last year to be used in Sunday school classrooms this fall with teachers teaching in person just aren’t what much of the church needs right now. The church expects different kinds of products and new methods of delivery.

There is no quick fix. At the moment, MennoMedia staff are doing everything we can to revamp existing products to make everything as online and Zoom-friendly as possible (Shine Connect) and to create new digital products for family faith formation (Shine at Home).

And yet, is there enough of a market to sustain us? If Shine’s sales numbers continue their downward trend, it is difficult to imagine it would be sustainable to keep producing Shine for the long term.

And that would be a huge loss for the church. Shine privileges certain biblical stories and themes, such as using a heavy dose of the Gospels and continually naming the love of God, the goodness of this world, the value of life and the ability to work toward a better future.

Ultimately, though, the church needs to decide what the long-term effects will be if our denomination no longer has use for Anabaptist children’s Sunday school curriculum. What will fill the void? What is the impact on the church if we lose this tool to teach children our unique Anabaptist ways of talking about Jesus and God?

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