Home Children's Ministry Leaders Articles for Children's Ministry Leaders Sunday School Dropouts: Debunking a Bad-News Myth About Kids

Sunday School Dropouts: Debunking a Bad-News Myth About Kids

In 2008, church attendance among evangelical 20-somethings returned to the same level as 1972. What’s more, a 2008 study from the Pew Forum found that 39 percent of adults who were raised disconnected from any church have become Protestants.

So what can we conclude about the infamous dropout numbers? The rates of dropout and return are far less bleak and more complex than we’ve been led to believe. The claim that 90 percent of kids drop out after high school clearly needs to be left behind.

The Bigger Lie

A 90 percent dropout rate isn’t the only mistruth that we’ve accepted. I suggest an even bigger lie, one far more insidious than false statistics. The bigger lie is that the effectiveness of your ministry depends on how many people you attract and retain.

I’m not suggesting that church involvement and retention don’t matter. Jesus loves the church and he gave his life to “present the church to himself in splendor” (Ephesians 5:25-27). But numeric retention can never constitute a sufficient standard for assessing ministry effectiveness.

When a ministry’s faithful to Jesus, the results often include numeric gains and stellar retention rates. But at other times, faithful ministry produces negligible results as far as the human eye can see. The same Word of God that yields manifold fruit in one heart may be rejected as repulsive in another.

Spiritual growth often unfolds less like a series of figures on a ledger sheet and more like seeds sprouting inside the earth or like yeast seeping through a lump of dough. That’s why the standard for ministry effectiveness isn’t, “How many participants have we retained?” but “Who’s glimpsed the truth of Jesus and the gospel in what we’re doing?”

Walk Away From the Lie About Sunday School Dropouts

Walk away from the bigger lie that the value of your ministry depends on how many people you retain. If retention rates define ministry effectiveness, Jesus of Nazareth was an abysmal failure. At one point, a crowd of over 5,000 was so wild about Jesus that they pursued him all around the Sea of Galilee (John 6).

Then, after one difficult teaching session, attendance took a nose dive from several thousand to a single dozen—an attrition rate of well over 99 percent! Later, on a Passover eve amid the olive trees, those dozen deserted him, and his dropout rate veered close to 100 percent.

Yet, in all this, Jesus remained the beloved one in whom God delighted. And, inasmuch as you trust Jesus, so do you. So be faithful in proclaiming the gospel. Create a context where those who’ve strayed can freely repent and return. Most of all, rest in the goodness of God, not in the strength of your retention rates.

Timothy Paul Jones is a Sunday school teacher, author, and associate professor of leadership and family ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also editor of The Journal of Family Ministry.

This article about Sunday school dropouts originally appeared here.