Does Attending Sunday School Lead to You Leaving the Church? June 19, 2009

Does Attending Sunday School Lead to You Leaving the Church?

If you (are forced against your will to) visit the Creation Museum, you will come across this sign:


There’s a joke in there somewhere about how 1 in 3 is not actually 30% and how they should really say “Almost 1 in 3…” or “Approximately 1 in 3…”

Anyway, museum founder Ken Ham commissioned a study (so take it as seriously as you do Ken Ham) which explains why all these people leave the church.

If you accept his findings — and again, you probably shouldn’t — it looks like Sunday Schools are doing something right:

Among the survey findings, regular participants in Sunday School are more likely to:

  • Leave the church
  • Believe that the Bible is less true
  • Defend the legality of abortion and same-sex marriage
  • Defend premarital sex

Reader Brian thinks this makes sense:

I fully agree. I went to Sunday school when I was younger and lost my faith pretty early on (plus, they didn’t let me choose Chewbacca as my confirmation name).

There’s gotta be more to this than just Sunday School, though, right? I can’t imagine many Sunday Schools teach kids to question/doubt what they learn in church. If anything, plenty of Sunday School teachers simply follow the curriculum set by the churches and help indoctrinate the kids with Bible myths even further.

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  • Desert Son

    I can’t imagine many Sunday Schools teach kids to question/doubt what they learn in church. If anything, plenty of Sunday School teachers simply follow the curriculum set by the churches and help indoctrinate the kids with Bible myths even further.

    In which case children are learning to question/doubt elsewhere, and simply applying the method when they get into Sunday school.

    I had years of Sunday school growing up. Somewhere in there, I began to think for myself, and eventually realized that, for all Sunday school’s insistence otherwise, there was no evidence of gods.

    Stories of the fantastic insistently presented as reality spurred me further along the road to atheism faster, if anything.

    No kings,


  • Ask these people ten to twenty years later, and you may get a far different answer. Many people return to Church later in life, so the survey alone is no indication of a coming Armadeggon.

  • Onotheo

    As a teenage, I complain that in weekends I should be allowed to lazy myself away and not wake up early in the morning to go to church or attend extra curricular stuff. I reason I am good student so give me a break.

    My friends and superiors of course was shocked to hear this from me. It is sacrilege!!! From where I was everyone seems to be so believing in these stuff. How I came to such line of reasoning and even defended it, I don’t know. I wasn’t an atheist back then.

  • Ron in Houston

    Sunday school teachers are typically lay people, it’s hard to talk about Noah’s ark when kids are raised learning about dinosaurs. They simply can’t come up with answers to the really tough questions.

    Kids also have an intuition when thing just don’t add up. I think that’s what ultimately leads to them leaving.

  • “Salvation is not conditioned on what you believe about the age of the Earth and the six days of creation,” Ham said. “There are many who believe in millions of years and are Christians.”

    Then shut down your abomination of a “museum”, you liar.

  • weaves

    I liked Sunday School as a kid. Granted, I didn’t believe the stories told to me, but I did enjoy colouring noah’s ark, making carboard christmas trees etc. it was a lot of fun.

    Then I was too old to go to sunday school :[
    My Reverend was great and talked about good things…but I don’t believe. My Dad figured I didn’t want to go anymore, and while he was deeply offended, I was relieved.

    Really, I stopped attending Church because I didn’t believe in the religion and I have no real interest in having it preached to me as if it were real every sunday.

    but yeah, sunday school was cool.

  • Sunday school teachers are often (not always) volunteers with no appreciable training in educational or rhetorical techniques. They are (usually) well-meaning, faithful people, but incapable of handling difficult questions from their students. It’s not surprising that given this, students walk away from Sunday school unimpressed with what they’ve been told.

  • Richard Wade

    I doubt that Ken Ham could know a properly designed study if it bit him like a Smilodon in the ass. It took a little digging, but I found a description of the book written by Ken Ham and Britt Beemerwherein the so-called study is published, “Already Gone.”

    I’d have to buy the book (and I’m just not willing) to see if the study compared a test group with a similar control group, what the sample size was, etc, etc, but this excerpt from the book description has some salient points: (emphasis mine)

    Their research concludes that “Sunday school syndrome” is contributing to the epidemic rather than helping alleviate it. Sunday School tends to focus on inspiration and morality of Bible stories, rather than how to defend the authority of the Bible. The “Bible stories” told in Sunday school are separated from “hard facts.” As a result, children will turn to school books for facts and answers, instead of the Bible. Already Gone argues that if a child is unable to defend the historicity and fact of Genesis, then he or she will quickly be disillusioned with the church. “Ultimately, if we are unable to defend Genesis, we have allowed the enemy to attack our Christian faith and undermine the very first book of the Bible,” the book says.

    Tick, tick, tick, it’s just a matter of time. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2007 Evangelicals comprised 28.6% of the U.S. population. If the 30% retention rate per generation is correct and holds steadily, then the next generation will be only 8.58% and the following generation will be only 2.57%.

    They’re going extinct faster than dinosaurs on Asteroid Day. I never thought that Ken Ham would say something that could make me happy.

  • Tom

    My grandmother was a sunday school teacher. She was highly intelligent and very articulate, quite capable of efficiently conveying information about the bible to her students, which is how she saw the job.

    At some point in my childhood she got upset about me not going to church and decided to do something about it. After unsuccessfully trying to talk my parents into it, she made an appointment for my mother and I to meet her for lunch one day… we were to meet up with her at the church, and then we would depart for lunch. What she didn’t mention is that she wasn’t planning to go to lunch for another hour or so, when we arrived I would be pulled into her sunday school class, and she was giving a test. A test on, well, everything; the bible in general. A test she promptly made me take.

    I figured out what was going on. Grandma wanted to be able to say “see! he knows nothing about the bible! You have to let me take him to church!” But what she didn’t count on was that, unlike her students, I’d actually become curious on my own and read much more of the bible than they had, and so I aced the test, unlike any of her actual students.

    Grandma was more than a little flustered. Profuse apologies were offered for “accidentally” mis-scheduling our arrival. And grandma never asked about my religious knowledge again. Little did she know that knowing does not equal believing.

    I didn’t believe in christianity partly because I hadn’t been told to, but partly because when I got interested in it and read about it, it was all so ridiculous. It was far less believable than any of the fairy tales I was told as a child. Had my grandmother got her hands on me at that age and put me in sunday school, she would no doubt have succeeded in teaching me more about the bible than I know, but she probably would only have re-enforced my disbelief. When you take a thinking child and expose them to biblical nonsense, they’ll reject it. You’re more likely to succeed with a lot of vague wishy-washy BS about morals that never gets specific enough to become glaringly false.

  • I think it’s the disconnect between what is taught in Sunday school, and what is actually believed by the church members themselves. This was the case for me at least.

  • KeithLM

    I can’t help but wonder if there is some correlation with Sunday school students being those that go to public schools during the week. Presumably if you go to a church school, you wouldn’t need Sunday school. Just a thought.

    I went to a catholic school from kindergarten through 3rd grade. After I switched to public schools my parents made me attend CCD, which was like Sunday school, but in the evening on a weekday. I recall our teacher said every student who completed all the assignments would get a statue of some saint at the end of the term. I was the only student not to get one. 🙂 I only had to go to that for a couple years fortunately. And it was sometime around 7th or 8th grade that I stopped believing.

  • Miko

    The conclusion of the study doesn’t even make sense. “More” implies a comparison between two things. “Among the survey findings, regular participants in Sunday School are more likely to…” doesn’t (explicitly) contain a comparison, and so is just bad grammar. More likely to do this than not do this? More likely to do this than those who don’t go to Sunday school are? etc.

  • zoo

    Kids learned quickly that when a question is asked the answer is “Jesus” or “God” often enough to always guess one or the other. Also the S. Baptist curriculum, if the church goes with the same company every year (as the ones I attended did), repeats itself on a yearly cycle. Sometimes they threw in an extra life application as you got older, but there is no thinking in these situations, just repeating the same thing repeatedly. Why would I want to continue that my whole life? Why would anyone who likes to think?

    Young adult classes aren’t much better, even (or perhaps especially in my case) if the teacher prepares his/her own lessons. Not relevant at best (though I will grant I’ve always been a bit off the average), but often contradictory to what I know as truth too (no excuse for this).

    “Presumably if you go to a church school, you wouldn’t need Sunday school.”

    I suppose it depends on the denomination, and the individuals involved, but in my experience kids in Christian school are also going to be in Sunday school. Their parents believe strongly enough that they feel they have to ‘protect’ the kids from public school and the world and they also tend to be (and have their kids in) in church whenever it’s open, plus workdays, VBS (because if there’s anything a churchy family’s kids need it’s to know how to be saved. . . there was a time when VBS was about different people and times and we’d get an unusual topic for once, but that’s no more), special visiting/door-to-door evangelism/distributing fliers, small group studies, etc., etc., etc.

  • CybrgnX

    At sunday school for 14 years I listened to the dickheads tell me how awful, sinful, disgusting I am and doomed to hell. At puberty I became even worse cuz I wanted SEX!!!
    Well I KNEW I never did nothin bad or horrible.
    gOd is perfect–it made me–I must be the way it wants. at the seminary I finally put it together, told gOd to shove its head up the popes ass 7 walked away. So sunday school and its similars shoved me out the church.

  • MV

    I think you will find the people who attend sunday school or a Catholic school(like me) are split into two very distinctive groups.

    On one hand, you will have the brainwashed kids who suck it all in. They are in the minority.

    On the other hand, you will have the bored ones wishing they could be with their friends instead of locked in for an hour or two. These are the majority.

    The second group can be sub-divided further into those who think and those who do not.

    The ones who do not are just generally apathetic. They are the people who just don’t care about religion. A fairly large number of these will turn to religion later in their lives, but a fairly large number won’t.

    The ones who think are your atheists. They listen to the stories, and dissect them. They ask the pointed questions that leave the teachers tounge-tied. This is what I was.

    I think it is very obvious that religious instruction will drive young members away. Not only are they bored, but the intelligent ones will tear the teacher apart. I think the 30% if about right for teens, but that number increases with age.

  • Justin jm

    The WND article referred to the public school system as “atheistic.” I must have missed something in high school; I don’t recall an intercom-led schoolwide Pledge with “in no god we trust.”

    If memory serves, the article is not the first time I’ve heard our public school system called “atheistic.” I’d ask why, but it’s probably unnecessary.

    There’s gotta be more to this than just Sunday School, though, right? I can’t imagine many Sunday Schools teach kids to question/doubt what they learn in church. If anything, plenty of Sunday School teachers simply follow the curriculum set by the churches and help indoctrinate the kids with Bible myths even further.

    Back when I used to go to Sunday school (although we actually held it on Monday) the teachers (I don’t remember if they were clergy or not) did not really teach apologetics; they gave the doctrine in a very take-it-or-leave-it way.

  • LKL

    I come from a Catholic family that never really attended church, except as my grandparents badgered us into it. At one point my mother felt guilty and started sending me to Sunday school, which was fun at first because there were other kids – but before the first ‘lesson’ was done I had been told to shut up and stop asking questions.
    -But what about all of the people in India who didn’t grow up Christian, it’s not their fault! Why should they go to hell? It’s not fair!
    -But how did all the animals fit on the ark?
    -But what about the whales?
    -She turned into salt? For looking back?!

    At first I honestly thought that the problem was mine, that I was just somehow misunderstanding what the teacher was saying; I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to get it right if I couldn’t answer questions.

  • I think the more you are exposed to church, the more you realize how vacuous and shallow the people are and how incredibly boring it really is. Most people who leave don’t become atheists, so boredom with the format is probably a decent reason. So far in what was my youth group in my more conservative church, we match the statistics right on. Most kids who dropped out cited judgment from other adults as the reason why. One girl said that everyone still treats her like she’s five even though she is married and in her 20s. One lady criticized everything about my brother, from the way he ran the sound to the way he wore his hair. In our church, every adult felt free to “parent” other people’s children, even when they were no longer children. Lots of people try to find new churches, but have a hard time getting to know people in them. I read a book once that said the number one reason people drop out of church is a lack of finding fellowship in them. Instead of solving the problems, my church’s response was to, for at least awhile, hold a prayer class for parents of wayward children.

    In my family, so far we are at a 100% drop out rate with one left to leave the nest. 🙂

    No, you mostly learn Bible stories in Sunday school. Heck, I used to teach it. Nothing there to cause doubt. I think it is an interesting correlation, but that there are probably there are other factors of causation.

  • mkb

    I like Zoo’s comment about the kids quickly learning that the right answer to every question is Jesus or God. I grew up in (and taught Sunday School in) the religious left. Our students knew that the right answer was always Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa because we were always asking them for examples of faith in action.

    I wonder if a factor in tihs is scheduling. When I was growing up everyone went to both Sunday School and church (and yes VBS, church camp, youth group and choir). Now, at least in main stream Protestantism, I think the norm is for kids to go to Sunday School while parents go to church, so that by the time kids are ready to leave home, if kids have been in Sunday School, they have had very little experience of worship.

  • 3D

    I am from a Jewish family and, thankfully, grew up with a non-religious upbringing. But, this seems to make sense to me — the more you’re exposed to the Bible, the more of a turnoff it is.

    1 in 3 sounds like a good expected fraction of the population that is insane and would take to Bible study. Isn’t that the average percentage of the population that supported Bush at any given time?

  • Indigo

    I can barely remember Sunday school. It seemed to mostly consist of Jesus-themed arts and crafts – Advent wreaths and gods-eyes and that kind of thing – since my parents belonged to a very liberal church. All I cared about was that it was boring; most of it didn’t seem to matter at all or connect to anything in my life. Possibly this is why my own spiritual journey started somewhere around age ten and ended abruptly in atheism at fourteen.

  • Steve

    Like many others, my siblings and I were forced to go to Sunday school as well as church. At the time I really didn’t think there was any other option and the brain washing began. It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 when I realized that being from a small, southern town, going to church was more of a social/business thing for my parents and I also began to have many, many doubts about what these people were talking about. At around age 16, I decided I wasn’t going anymore. I haven’t stepped foot inside a church since, save for the occasional wedding.

  • The teachers I had in Sunday School were careful to teach more than the text but culture, background to traditions, history, etc. I appreciate their hard work.

  • T

    There’s a joke in there somewhere about how 1 in 3 is not actually 30% and how they should really say “Almost 1 in 3…” or “Approximately 1 in 3…”

    Intelligence is not a common trait among people involved with creation museums.

  • Hemant,

    As a humanist and atheist who volunteers to teach in the Unitarian Universalist version of Sunday School (what we call “religious education” or “RE” for short), I’m not surprised to see the huge dropoff in adult attendance being reported by Ken Ham for adult who attended conservative Sunday Schools as children and youth.

    The same trend has been observed in Unitarian Universalist congregations for many years even though we:

    ** embrace uncertainty and doubt

    ** don’t teach our kids that Unitarian Universalism is the “one true religion”

    ** affirm freedom of belief including the freedom to be an atheist or a humanist

    ** are sexuality-positive (many UU congregations teach comprehensive sexuality education that affirms sexuality, sexual orientation diversity, allowing youth and adults to make their own informed choices about premarital sex, masturbation as a positive thing, and more)

    ** are supportive of findings of science like evolution

    Even though we are doing the opposite of what Ken Ham recommends (e.g. we are not indoctrinating children and youth with Biblical literalism), we still see the same dropoff in participation when our former children enter adulthood.

    And the UU trend is also present in other religious traditions including the moderate and liberal Christian denominations who atheists may find common ground with on church-state separation issues and other social justice issues.

    Generally, we are seeing children and youth who are raised in a religious community leaving and becoming “unchurched” as adults.

    I would suggest that something is going on here that is more sociological than theological.

    The US is moving from a society with a cultural expectation that people attend church to one that doesn’t. This trend started with the Baby Boomer generation and it’s not changing yet.

    Several months ago, Hemant mentioned the parents that were forming “atheist sunday schools”:

    It will be interesting to see if these groups morph into sustained communities where the former children raised in them maintain their involvement or if the former children leave when they become adults.

    Based on what we are seing with other religious groups, I’m guessing that the “atheist sunday schools” will also lose most of their members when they become adults as well.

  • Another Atheist

    I don’t think the dropoff in attendance has anything at all to do with WHAT is being taught. After all, Sunday School has been a pretty standard thing for decades, and the dropoff in church attendance is a relatively new trend.

    I attended a UU church and sent my children to their RE program for about a year and a half. They thought it was the most boring thing ever, and so did I. I only did it because I felt that it was my responsibility to ensure that my children had some knowledge about different religions.

    I think there is a massive failure of the entire church community to keep up with societal change. There is just nothing relevant going on there anymore. Walking into a church is like walking into a time machine that takes you back about 50 years or so. Every week I attended, I would enter the sanctuary and 90% of the people sitting there were over 60 years old.

    On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any replacement for church attendance in terms of community building, teaching children moral values, etc. Yes, there are couple of “free thinker” churches, but I do not expect that those will become widespread, because they are based on the same model as other churches. I only hope that within my lifetime, there will be some new movement or model or something that replaces the void left by churches in the community.

  • georgie

    In my case I think it’s true. I never took the catholic teachings seriously and in sunday school (wednesday for me) I had questions that the nuns had no clue as how to answer. I remember being told stupid things about dinosaurs and the age of the earth that made no sense, or just being told my questions were irrelevant. The nuns lack of intelligence and their willingness to call my thoughts on the matter irrelevant lead to me skipping most day’s by the time I was 10, I really wanted no part in it. I went through the motions because that was what was expected in my family. By the time I was confirmed at 11, I refused to go back to sunday school and by 14, I refused to go to church. I think sunday school was a big factor, that’s where they told me the bible was true and I just didn’t fall for it.

  • Fastthumbs

    I suspect the trend of becoming unchurched is invertly proportional to the ubiquity of the internet – Why go to Sunday School and church, temple or synagogue when any theological related question can be googled, looked up in Wikipedia or asked on numerous blogs/boards and get nearly instant answers and (sometimes expert) opinions?

    Like print media, TV viewership, strip clubs and music stores; Sunday schools and churches are going by the wayside.

    Anyone know of any study that shows such a correlation? (I suspose I should google this…)

  • cathy

    Approximatly 1 in three? Don’t you know math is a tool of the devil? Damn, Mehta, look at how you turned out with all of that math…

  • J. Allen

    In sunday school you are taught that your particular sect is the one true religion. But as a child, you have not invested time and money into the church because your parents really own your time, so when you come up against the rest of the world and want to learn about it, you begin to see the cracks.

    The main difference is that children today simply have better education materials than they did fifty years ago. Once I realized there were other religions as serious as Christianity I couldn’t stop reading about them until they all became ridiculous.

    Many kids read up on the heathens in attempts to reinforce their beliefs, but they see too many similarities and the questions don’t stop unless they use pure emotion to say ‘it’s just true’ and stop asking questions.

  • As a church going Mormon back in the day, Sunday School was always my least favorite of the whole thing. It may have very well added to why I left.

  • absent sway

    I was an obnoxious little Sunday School star! With a practically photographic memory, my Sundays were full of snacks and prizes, and I adore crafts; that didn’t hurt, either. I maintain that I was simultaneously brainwashed and thinking. I was raised on a whole lot of Sunday school and a whole lot of PBS and gifted classes. Church was pretty much my only social outlet. The things I was taught at church were reinforced at home and then of course wildly challenged at school. I learned about Buddhism in the second grade and was fascinated and swiftly assured that you can’t be a Christian and a Buddhist, and unfortunately those nice people are going to hell. I should have some sort of degree in engineering for brain compartmentalization.

  • Shae

    It’s probably just a correlation where being more involved in church (attending more than a sunday night service) = getting more sick of it = leaving.

    Incidentally, I’ve been to the creation museum and it’s good for a laugh. They say:
    * Plants aren’t alive (this is to justify how people ate before the Fall brought death)
    * Vultures ate “withered” plants before the Fall (not dead ones of course)
    * Weeds didn’t exist before the fall because they are a nuisance and thus of the devil

    … and so much more highly specific young-earth ad-hoc nonsense.

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