|CURRICULUM: Serving the Sunday school ministry|
|Written by Aaron Crisler|
|Wednesday, 07 January 2015 04:43 PM America/New_York|
Fostering a ‘solid connection’ with churches can pay off in Christian retail sales
Church leaders have spent time at conventions, in blog posts and in Internet articles in the last couple of years discussing the state of Sunday school. Is it dying? Is it a dinosaur? Can churches revive their dwindling Sunday school programs?
Statistics reported annually at the Southern Baptist Convention show that Sunday school attendance has declined each year in the last decade. But is Sunday school really going away, or is it just changing with the times? And what does that mean for Christian retail stores who count on their faithful church-curriculum buyers?
“Over 80% of all churches today still provide Sunday school for all age levels,” said Courtney Harmon, marketing manager for Standard Publishing. “The numbers increase to over 95% when you look at children’s Sunday school offerings. One of the most important opportunities for churches is Sunday school. It offers a consistent ministry focused on age-appropriate faith development, and is one of the most effective tools in the church for building and maintaining community.”
Churches still offer Sunday school, but many are struggling to find the right time slot, content and format for their busy congregations.
“Sometimes it does seem hard to make the time for Sunday school,” said Rick Hegwood, owner of Agape Christian Book Store in Goose Creek, South Carolina. “I do really well selling the Standard Commentary at my store, and I do believe Sunday school is important, but I am guilty myself of not doing it sometimes.”
David Wilke, marketing manager for Gospel Light, doesn’t see much change on the horizon.
“The state of Sunday school in the church will remain the same, in our view, for 2015—struggles with budgets, volunteerism and finding solid biblical content,” Wilke said.
For retailers, the fact that Sunday school is in a state of flux presents a two-fold challenge: 1) How can they still get churches to buy curriculum? and 2) How can they get churches who do order curriculum to buy it from their stores instead of ordering online?
“Our Sunday school sales, especially of children’s, have changed probably over the last five to six years,” said Yvonne McCollough, owner of Dove Christian Supply in Dothan, Alabama. “The big churches now create their own Sunday school curriculum. The smaller churches sometimes come here to buy it, but many of the bigger churches make their own or buy it direct.”
“More and more people view themselves as being a part of more than one church,” Standard’s Harmon added. “This makes the purchasing of resources for Sunday school more challenging for church leaders. That is why stores will see the trend of fewer per-student purchases and more sharing of student materials.”
One of the biggest changes in the post-millennial Sunday school is the desire to go digital. Now that the Internet is part of daily life, many contemporary church leaders find the Web to be a valuable tool when they need resources or extra classroom materials.
“One area that is changing right now is a higher demand for digital downloads of leader’s guides, student lessons and activities/games,” Wilke said. “Price and convenience are the chief drivers for this change. This poses a real challenge to resellers who are selling VBS and Bible curriculum in traditional print formats.”
Keith Kemerer, marketing services manager, children’s ministry, at Group Publishing, sees great benefit in digital curriculum.
“The desire for digital content is growing, I think, because of its flexibility,” Kemerer said. “Teachers can easily print an extra lesson or send a lesson to volunteers or substitutes.”
Group will be adding free digital copies of teaching materials to all of its dated curriculum programs by fall, including Hands-on Bible curriculum, Living Inside Out and Buzz.
“We first introduced digital copies with FaithWeaver NOW in 2013 and added KidsOwn Worship, FaithWeaver Friends and Hands-On Worship in 2014,” Kemerer said. “These downloads have been tremendously popular with our curriculum buyers due to their convenience and flexibility for directors and teachers.”
Kemerer said Group is trying to incorporate digital in a “trade-friendly” way, so downloads are only available to those who purchase a printed copy first. With each printed curriculum purchase, buyers will receive a code to go online (group.com/digital) and download a digital copy as well.
Other publishers are selling digital-only curriculum, such as David C Cook’s Tru (tru.davidccook.com), which will be available on a fully digital platform by June 1. That means leaders don’t have to download, work with PDFs or burn DVDs. Tru also unveils by June 1 a lower pricing structure, a new age level for middle-schoolers, full quarter delivery and simpler lessons and preparation as part of its “You’ve Spoken, We’ve Listened” campaign.
Church Internet resource company ShareFaith (sharefaith.com) offers digital curriculum, with churches paying monthly to subscribe. Churches can pay for curriculum only or get a deep discount if they also let ShareFaith host the church’s website or manage its media needs. Along with the curriculum is a ShareFaithKids app, with features like ParentShare that helps parents see what their child is learning each week and even gives them push notifications when memory verses are due.
“We do find that we compete against the digital world,” said Tom Lacey, church program director for Cedar Springs Christian Stores in Knoxville, Tennessee. “It does hurt and affect sales some, especially when a publisher offers something that is completely digital, something we can’t sell even if a church wants to buy it through us.”
Although some digital features have a “cool” or convenience factor, retailers like Lacey say there are many church customers who remain faithful to the quarterly printed curriculum from companies such as Standard Publishing, David C Cook and Union Gospel Press.
“We still find that the quarterly Sunday school curriculum is important for the churches in our area,” Lacey said. “We still do pretty extensive business in that category. David C Cook is our strongest quarterly curriculum.”
Kad Lewis, Sunday school buyer and assistant manager for Christian Supplies in Orlando, Florida, finds the churches she deals with to go with what they know in Sunday school curricula.
“I have been here nine years, and for all the time I have been here, our churches have used the traditional teacher and student books in the quarterly curriculum, mostly,” Lewis said. “We have some Sunday school materials on the shelf, but most of our Sunday school business is quarterly materials. Churches have standing orders with us for Union Gospel Press and Standard commentary. Maybe it’s because of our clientele’s age or just not liking change, but our customers seem to stick to the traditional and come to us rather than order online.”
“I do well with adult, but I think most of the kids curriculum stores just order direct,” Hegwood said.
The Standard Lesson Commentary and Standard Lesson Quarterly are newly updated for the 2015-16 curriculum year and will explore the following themes: The Christian Community Comes Alive (Acts), Sacred Gifts & Holy Gatherings (Pentateuch, Song of Solomon, Hosea, Micah, Gospels), The Gift of Faith (Mark, Luke) and Toward a New Creation (Genesis, Psalms, Zephaniah, Romans). This year, the English Standard Version translation is also available for the commentary, in addition to the New International Version and King James Version editions.
Union Gospel Press’ Winter Quarter 2014-2015 curriculum focuses on Acts of Worship, while its Spring Quarter 2015 edition is titled The Spirit Comes and teaches Sunday school students about the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers.
While Sunday school once evangelized children through bussing and outreaches, today’s version is more about teaching the Bible to adults, youth and the children of the already churched. But evangelism comes through relationship, not by simply getting new people into the church. Sunday school curriculum is also expanding to meet the needs of every member of the church—from infants to seniors, and from busy moms to special-needs kids.
In his online article “Does the Sunday School Have a Bright Future” (pcacdm.org/does-the-sunday-school-have-a-bright-future), Elmer Towns wrote that: “Sunday school is changing from its image of children only to a balanced ministry to children and adults.”
Towns goes on to state that before 1971, 39% of the Sunday school population were adults. Today, more than 51% of the Sunday school population are adults.
“You can no longer think of Sunday school as only a place for flannelgraph stories for children,” Towns wrote. “You must think of it as a place for adult Bible classes and fellowship groups. Now that there are more adults, we should not minimize our emphasis to children but balance our endeavors to reach and teach both children and adults.”
Towns suggests that churches evaluate their resources. If a church is spending the majority of its budget, staff and educational space on children, it might consider doing more for adults, without minimizing its efforts to children. Retailers can tap into this shift by suggesting more appropriate adult resources, trade books and other add-ons to church buyers.
One emerging curriculum type that encompasses adults and children is family ministry curriculum, where all ages study the same Bible books or topics.
“We continue to see a desire for family ministry materials,” Kemerer said. “Our best-seller is FaithWeaver NOW, and I think the key is that the message is the same for everyone. All of the church studies the same topic at the same time, and that way families can go home and continue the conversation in the car and at the dinner table throughout the week about what they learned in Sunday school.”
Kemerer said whole-church curriculum like FaithWeaver NOW can encourage parents to take ownership of the faith training of their children instead of relying on the church.
“What a great influence parents have on their kids’ faith,” he said. “We want to give families the ability to have more faith conversations.”
One popular component of FaithWeavers NOW is the “Family Connect” take-home page, which includes questions for parents to ask their kids to spark conversation about the Bible and the lessons they learned in Sunday school.
In 2015, Group will be adding printed student books to the FaithWeaver NOW curriculm, including My Bible Snuggles for Infants, Toddler and Twos, a collection of all the reproducible coloring pages and take-home pages from the quarterly Teacher Guide; a Senior High Handbook that includes the weekly “Taking It Home” handouts and any other reproducible sheets found in the quarterly Senior High Leader Guide; and adults can receive the FaithWeaver NOW Adult Handbook, a guide to the “Adult Talk Topics” used during class, a list of Scripture readings for daily devotions and space for journaling throughout the week.
Standard aims to reach each member of the church by offering new special-needs resources this fall in its HeartShaper children’s curriculum for ages 1 to 12. HeartShaper claims to be the only Sunday school curriculum that promotes biblical literacy by taking kids through the Bible five times by the time they reach 6th grade. Special-needs activities have been added that are easy for teachers to identify and use and are marked in the lessons by a “Special Needs Friendly” symbol.
“Standard is as excited as ever to partner with Christian retailers to continue selling our materials to churches,” Harmon said. “It is our goal to give the churches what they need to minister to the communities surrounding them.”
Retailers finding success with Sunday school say the key is to be proactive. Even when a church is designing its own curriculum or relies on digital platforms, the local Christian store can become the church’s go-to resource for additional materials like student and gift Bibles, certificates and other add-ons.
“We still sell curriculum pretty aggressively and have about 400 accounts,” said Chuck Wallington, owner of Christian Supply in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “It’s actually growing slightly. We’ve found the vendors are very supportive in helping us promote curriculum. We do extra mailings and special offers several times a year. I think some of the vendors are more interested in selling it through dealers (retailers) than in the past.”
Cedar Springs’ Lacey is aware of what seems like “Sunday school cycles,” he said. “Churches try something new, then come back to quarterly curriculum again. Sunday school is very important because it brings church customers back into our store at least four times a year. It’s our job to try to find ways to make that a solid connection.”
Lacey said he strives to work closely with churches and develop personal relationships, as well as reach them through email blasts and digital reminders that it is time to order curriculum.
“I want to give them lots of incentives to come back to our store,” Lacey said. As the web gets bigger, we have to be very proactive to meet the needs of our churches, which can be our best customers. They’re our future.”
Dedicating one staff member to develop church relationships and providing ongoing training to frontliners so they can help churches get the right resources is vital to a store’s Sunday school success, retailers seeing growth in this category say. And success in this category can be crucial to a church’s success, many retailers feel.
“Sunday school is important because you get in closer with your Sunday school class than you ever will with someone who just sits next to you in the pew on Sunday,” Hegwood said. “When you get to know each other better in Sunday school, you will pray for that brother or sister or more. That’s where you will get to know people and really learn to do life with them. That’s why it needs to be important to us.”