Forgotten Kids Return to Church

Sunday School

As COVID concerns continue to morph, one population is desperate to reclaim the relational and spiritual life that existed prior to 2020. This population is our children, who, during the pandemic, have often been sidelined by society’s institutions, including the church and Sunday school.

In our decades of work at Group Publishing creating ministry resources for churches, we’ve tracked how children’s lives have been disrupted, especially spiritually. Since churches shut their doors due to pandemic fears, many parents tried to fill the vacuum left from closed children’s ministries. But kids still yearned to join their friends and ministry leaders at Sunday school and vacation Bible school (VBS).

When summer came last year, many churches decided to offer nothing to the children in their communities, fearing the worst from the lingering pandemic. For those children, it’s like they lost a summer—and now a full year.

Now, families and church leaders are recognizing the need to re-focus, for the sake of our kids. Here are seven trends to watch as we emerge from the COVID cloak.

1. URGENT NEED. Children’s ministry is more important now than ever. Though we hear a lot about our senior citizens right now, our children are silently suffering in ways we did not imagine a couple of years ago. After months of closed schools and stay-at-home orders, today’s kids feel unprecedented mental and spiritual suffocation. They feel isolated, abandoned, and hopeless. They desperately need the hope and love that is found in Jesus and his people.

2. HIGH DEMAND. Though some churches have lost a focus on children since COVID, families with children have felt a heightened desire for support from their churches. Many parents have stepped up to bolster their spiritual guidance for their kids, but they’re exhausted. They want help. They want the quality, energetic, child-friendly, Jesus-centered touch that a good children’s ministry brings.

3. IN-PERSON EXPERIENCE. Parents, and society in general, are showing a growing acceptance—and demand—for in-person learning for children. Meanwhile the deficits of confining children are mounting. Everyone from psychologists to the Centers for Disease Control confirm that in-person learning is much better for children, and it can be conducted safely. So, it’s time for Sunday schools and vacation Bible schools to do what’s best for kids, while following recommended safety protocols.

4. KIDS’ SAFETY. Even as the vaccines roll out, health officials advise that the population needs to continue to take precautions. For many months to come, we can expect to see mask-wearing, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing. Even though last year some people predicted that children will never comply with these safety measures, kids generally adapted very well. In fact, children often complied better than many adults. So, prepared children’s ministries will stock kid-sized masks, and will adapt activities to enhance social distancing.

5. FASTER RETURN. The kids will return to children’s ministries. And they’ll return faster than the adults will return to church services. Researchers report that between 25 and 50 per cent of former church-going adults will not return after the pandemic passes. Over the past year they’ve formed different weekend habits that will become indelible. But as children return to school and re-connect with their friends and teachers, they will also yearn to return to children’s ministries. And their parents will expect churches to follow the example of the local schools. As they find comfort in sending their kids to school, they will do likewise with church.

6. GROWING NUMBERS. Since the beginning of the pandemic, some churches have closed altogether. Some will continue to resist restoring critical programs, such as children’s ministry. This will cause those churches’ families to look elsewhere for the kids’ best interests. They’ll migrate to the churches that are ready to meet their kids’ needs. This will lead to growing participation at the churches that open their doors. Simultaneously, due to other societal trends, churches with a multicultural makeup will see new growth. A proactive church that offers a quality VBS every year may see increased attendance this summer if other churches in the community hold back.

7. UN-CROWDING. The COVID quarantine mentality has elevated the desire and need for human interaction, fellowship, and participation. Passively sitting and watching others has lost its patina. And wedging into a crowd to passively watch the person at the microphone has really lost favor during these contagious times. Plus, kids today want to be noticed, named, and known, according to research. If your church is primarily a spectator show, expect steady decline. Churches and children’s ministries that rely on stage performances will weaken. Hands-on, participatory experiences will reign, along with breaking crowds into smaller relational groups.

How we treat our children right now has eternal implications. The impact of children’s ministry, Sunday school, and vacation Bible school affects lifelong faith vitality.

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Thom and Joani Schultz are pioneers in Christian education and church ministry. They’re the creators of curriculum, books and films, including the best-selling book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, and the documentary When God Left the Building.