Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it. By Ken Ham and Britt Beemer. Green Forest, AZ: Master Books, 2009. 192 pages. Softcover. $12.99.
The premise is chilling: Sunday School is actually harming our children.
It is a statement that should get the attention of every Christian in America. According to Already Gone, children who attend Sunday School are less likely to believe that the Bible is true than those who do not attend Sunday School. Already Gone has an impressive list of statistics to back up their claim: 13 pages of survey questions asked of a thousand young adults who once attended church, but no longer do so. As they note, these surveys are not from former members of mainline (i.e. liberal) churches. These were the sons and daughters of so-called Evangelical (i.e. conservative) churches. That is, these were “bible believing” churches.
There’s the bad news. What’s the good news? There really is none. This book is written to challenge Christian educators and to help move the church’s educational program in a better direction. So, should this be on the top of every pastor’s reading list?
To be honest, if you have read the first line of this review, you have already gotten most of the new information out of this book. It is such a sensational premise. It has such promise. And judging by the sales figures, it fulfilled that promise from a marketing standpoint. (4 printings – 75,000 copies -in four months, best seller ever for the publisher, it peaked at about 500 on the Amazon sales rank chart.) But in the sense of actually diagnosing and helping to solve a problem, does the book deliver?
It seems strange to say this, considering the co-publisher is a marketing researcher by trade, but the statistics never felt right to me. Not that there are irregularities in how the statistics were compiled. But I was never convinced that the statistics showed what they said.
Early on, I got a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. For example, in the first chapter, we are told that, of the 1000 adults surveyed, 95% of them attended church regularly during elementary and middle school, 55% during high school, and only 11% during college. They then claim that “40 percent are leaving the Church during elementary and middle school years!” But the data do not explicitly show that. The assumption is being made that, of those who did not regularly attend during high school, all of them stopped before middle school ended.
As anyone who is familiar with the Lutheran Church can attest, it is usually immediately after middle school that a large number quit attending. That is when youth are confirmed. Those who attended only during “confirmation classes” (The correct term is “Catechesis”, but “confirmation” is more familiar to most in Lutheranism) would have attended during middle school, but not high school. This does not mean, however, that they had left the church during middle school. And since most pastors don’t want to upset mother, father and grandmother, they don’t make too much of a fuss when junior doesn’t show up for more than two church services the entire year. That’s a statistic waiting to happen, and everyone knows it.
Once you start to consider the survey itself, other anomalies are evident. For example, this survey was of those who attended church, but no longer do so. Would the results have been different for those who attended and still do attend? That is, does Sunday School have a good effect on those who do continue to attend church?
The basic and allegedly shocking insight of the book is that Sunday School is not enough (in its current form) to keep children in the faith. This is news? In 1976 John Westerhoff published, Will our Children Have Faith, which claimed that the current model of teaching was inadequate to pass on the faith. Ham and Beemer basically just confirm what Westerhoff said thirty years ago, had anyone listened at the time.
The survey questions themselves are focused on how the unchurched view Genesis. Not surprising, since Ken Ham runs the Creation Museum and the Answers in Genesis website. But how different would the results look if two questions were added to the survey:
1) How often when you attended church did your mother attend?
2) How often when you attended church did your father attend?
Instead the only question about parental involvement is whether “your parents” attend church now, with no distinction given to the difference between maternal and paternal involvement. Given the large amount of research that has shown a direct correlation between paternal church attendance and continued attendance of children into adulthood, this seems a rather large omission. Indeed, it made this pastor question the entire premise of the book. After all, if (according to the introduction) 25% of those who attend church as children attend as adults, what percent of those had parents who actually attended with them?
Instead, parents are almost entirely written out of the book. In doing so, it becomes an apologetic for apologetics. Not surprising given Ham’s background, but disappointing for those who would like some way to relate this study to other studies and to the general trend seen by pastors today: Those who attend with their parents (specifically the father) are far more likely to attend as adults than those who are dropped off and picked up while the parents go for coffee.
In addition, the so-called “conservative vision” for education may not have caught on as well as one might hope at evangelical churches. 26.2 percent of respondents said that a pastor/Sunday School teacher taught them that the earth could be millions/billions of years old. This statistic alone may account for up to a third of the problem.
Ultimately, the book does not answer the problem posed in the subtitle. We are never told, nor did the survey address, why kids will quit church. It shows that there were doubts about the inerrancy of the scriptures, but it never links those doubts to the exodus from the church. The surveys actually asked why these people left the church and only 6.6 percent of respondents said that the reason was scripture. And only 1.6% claimed it was because the bible is not true.
There are some good ideas in the book, but they are hardly original. For example, Ham notes that the style of music/worship is not all that important to continued attendance. He does not note, however, that this was already established by Thom Rainer in his excellent book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched.
Similarly, he notes that preaching the Word needs to be given renewed prominence, also a significant point in Rainer’s book. Of course, it never does any harm to recommend better preaching.
In that vein, Ham makes a note that perhaps Missouri Synod pastors (especially those of the liturgical bent) should take to heart. In relating the story of a church visit he made, he notes that after much arguing, it was agreed that there would be “20 minutes of praise and worship, 20 minutes of message, and 25 minutes of worship at the end. The Word of God was put in second place.” Despite his total ignorance of the beauty and Word-ness of liturgical worship as seen in the Divine Service, he makes a good point regarding the length of sermons. Back in my seminary days, a professor noted the tendency among some to elevate the liturgy to the point that preaching was almost ignored, and sometimes omitted entirely. Given that many parishes today are surviving on a steady diet of sub 10 minute sermons, his criticism seems well founded. Pastors should not pad their sermons. But it is also well to keep in mind Luther’s advice regarding a young pastor. “In a quarter hour he was finished with the sermon… Dear God, men like this who knew nothing were supposed to have been rectors of the churches!”
One of the challenges today is that church services which go too long (because of sermons which run more than about 15 minutes) interfere with the “Sunday School” time. But the Sunday School should be in addition to a robust preaching of the word of God in the Divine Service, not in place of it.
Ham also notes that the parents must do their part (A point made numerous times in the Pentateuch, and echoed by Luther in his Small Catechism) , but spends only a couple of pages on this point. Given that the book is written for professional church workers, I suppose this is to be expected.
But perhaps given what we know from other studies, the role of parents and pastors together should have been the focus of the entire book. A refurbished apologetics curriculum is only the smallest part of the answer, yet this book makes it seem as if that is the largest change necessary. Better preaching, more parental involvement, and a move away from the idea of informational education and toward catechesis are the real time-tested answers. Revamping the Sunday School curriculum, while helpful, is not the ultimate answer. A change in attitude regarding the Divine Service, and the place of that service in the life of the people is necessary. For pastors, this means a change in preaching and teaching that models the historic church, rather than the “fast food sermons” and education of today.
Ham’s book can be useful, if read with discretion by those who are also familiar with other resources in this vein. But on its own, it is not all that useful as either a call to arms, or a blueprint for success.