A culture of blame – Sunday school teachers, youth workers and the decline of young people in churches


Stanton, N. 2014. A culture of blame – Sunday school teachers, youth workers and the decline of young people in churches. Crucible: The Christian journal of Social Ethics.
TitleA culture of blame – Sunday school teachers, youth workers and the decline of young people in churches
AuthorsStanton, N.

When the Sunday School pioneers saw a need in their communities in the late eighteenth century, their response gave rise to a 200 year movement, the remnants of which still exist today. Robert Raikes, disputed founder of the first Sunday Schools in 1780 (but certainly one of the early pioneers), found that the young people in his Gloucestershire community were lacking in basic education and the community did not like these young people ‘hanging around’ on the streets on Sundays, their day off from work. The early Sunday Schools met a clear social need and they were a lay movement not attached to specific churches. Young people met in the homes of their teachers on Sunday afternoons. However, by the twentieth century, Sunday Schools were highly-structured, centralised and attached to churches and Unions, with their original purpose made redundant by the growth of mainstream education. They faced rapid decline in the 1960s; a rigid institution amidst societal change.
Over recent decades, Christian youth work has emerged as a response to youth decline within churches. Many youth workers engage with young people’s self-identifiable needs by delivering open access youth provision in their local communities alongside more specifically-Christian activities. Tensions emerge over whether the youth worker’s role is to serve community or church needs, with churches often emphasising the desire to see young people in services. This echoes the discourse of Sunday Schooling where religious education and church membership became prioritised at the expense of social need.
This article considers the criticism of Sunday School teachers during the twentieth century by both churches and Sunday School Unions. Sunday Schools had their peak in attendance in the early 1900s and the blame for the lack of young people in church was laid at the feet of the teachers who were successfully engaging them, usually on a Sunday afternoon. As the century progressed, Sunday Schools did decline and faced their most crucial downfall during the 1960s. The 1950s and 60s were also when, on a national scale, churches moved their Sunday Schools from the afternoon to the morning to fit with church service times; a move entirely premised on the needs of the church rather than of those they were serving. This internal factor is often ignored in talk of Sunday School decline in the 1960s as families, and even teachers, are viewed as having been drawn away from church by external distractions.
In the post Sunday School era, youth work is the most comparable form of church outreach to young people. There are echoes of the criticism thrown at Sunday School teachers levelled at these youth workers when young people are not in Sunday services. This article draws on my research into Sunday Schools in the 1900-10 and 1955-72 periods as well as my research into Christian youth work today. It considers how the criticism of Sunday School teachers and youth workers both distracts churches from considering the reasons why church is not welcoming or accessible to young people and serves to destroy the enthusiasm of those who are successfully engaging young people.

PublisherHymns Ancient and Modern
JournalCrucible: The Christian journal of Social Ethics
Publication dates
PrintOct 2014
Publication process dates
Deposited04 Aug 2015
Output statusPublished
Accepted author manuscript
Copyright Statement

Permission granted by the publisher to include the author's accepted manuscript on open access in this repository. The final published article appears in the journal ‘Crucible: The Christian journal of Social Ethics’, October 2014 (Education, Education, Education issue), published by Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Additional information

October 2014, Education, Education, Education

Page range32
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