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Reality Check

Missing children

By David Ewart

September means back to school, as well as the start of a new cycle of church programs for all ages. But September is also the month when church elders once again tell younger members about the good old days of flourishing Sunday schools, and offer puzzled anxiety — or accusations — about what’s gone wrong.

In the United Church, Sunday school membership rose with the postwar baby boom, peaking at 757,000 in 1961 as the first of that generation graduated from Grade 6. The decline that followed was not because Canadians stopped having babies. From 1965 to the present, births have hovered at around 375,000 per year.

By 2012, Sunday school membership had declined by 90 percent to 61,000, with half of all Sunday schools having 25 children or fewer. The threshold to be among the 10 percent of largest Sunday schools was 60. And 20 percent of pastoral charges were already facing a future without any children in Sunday school.

Adults can bring energy, curiosity and enthusiasm to church. Adults can learn, play and grow. We don’t need children for these. And churches, like other volunteer groups, can thrive as adult-only organizations.

But we know in our hearts that a church community doesn’t feel right if all generations aren’t fully present. Children embody — in a way that only children can — the conviction that all are precious in God’s sight; that the world is created to be good; that everyone has a place at the table; that all should be treated with justice; and that we need to build healthy bonds with others if we want these values to be realized.

If there are no children, we are missing the truth that Jesus saw: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Adults need children to show us how to enter the state of grace that Jesus called God’s kingdom. A church just can’t really be a church without children.

Rev. David Ewart is a United Church minister in Vancouver.

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