That Empty Feeling: What To Do When Nobody Shows Up for Sunday School

That Empty Feeling: What To Do When Nobody Shows Up for Sunday School

“Feelings of resentment bubble up inside you. What do you do? Well, don’t pack up your book bag and head out the door. God has a plan, even if you need to scrap your own.”



That Empty Feeling
You know the feeling. You’ve spent several hours reading the coming week’s curriculum session, putting together a lesson plan, gathering materials, and arriving early to make sure everything is in order before your class arrives. They might be children, youth, or adults. You’re ready for them. And then… one or two participants show up – or no one does…

You wait awhile, hoping others arrive before you begin. You try to make adjustments quickly in your mind: That group game is not going to work … My own child is one of the two kids (here we go again) … Should I go find some coffee?

It’s frustrating. Your time is valuable. This happens too often. Feelings of resentment bubble up inside you. What do you do? Well, don’t pack up your book bag and head out the door. God has a plan, even if you need to scrap your own.  Here are three practical suggestions.

1. Focus on the human factor
Breathe and remember Matthew 18:20, “For when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Sometimes the best “lessons” come from one-on-one conversations and the sharing of God’s Story. Remember, YOU are the curriculum, not the actual nuts & bolts of the lesson plan, or an activity or project. Your relationship to the participant/s is what matters the most.

2. Go deeper
Hopefully you have a theme or biblical story that served as a basis in your lesson preparation. Go with that. With such a small group, each of you can share your personal thoughts on the topic without others competing for your attention. You will also enjoy getting to know each other as you share.

3. Make the most of your time
If no one shows up at all, reflect on what you learned yourself in your preparation. I always feel I learn so much more than what I “teach” when I am preparing a lesson or presentation. Think of this new found hour as a gift from God for some quiet reflection time. Or, if you can’t sit still, take time to refresh the bulletin board, write notes to send to your class letting them know you miss their smiling face, or help out in another class. And then there’s always the option of praying for those who may not be present physically, but certainly in your heart and mind.


But this shouldn’t happen all the time, right?
If there seems to be a pattern to absences or low attendance, it may be time for a little evaluation of what may be going on in the context of a bigger picture.

  • Do families take off during three-day weekends for mini-vacations?
  • Is it spring break?
  • Was there a major event in town (or at your church) the day or night before?
  • What’s the weather like?
  • What is your church’s attendance pattern at different times of the year?

Make a plan 
Some things are beyond our control. But we can plan in advance and think creatively to decrease the likelihood of having a room full of no-shows (and the resentment that this can generate).

  • Change up the schedule if your congregation’s attendance pattern tends to have a “low” Sunday (on three-day weekends, the Sunday after Easter, the weekend before school vacation). You can always have these resources available in your back pocket for last minute changes such as teacher absences.
  • Merge several classes together. This works very easily if you follow a lectionary-based curriculum or a resource in which all ages are studying the same theme or story.
  • Plan these days as intergenerational Sundays when all ages come together. Faithful Celebrations offer plenty of seasonal ideas.
  • Do some “pick-up service projects” – write cards to the sick, home bound, college students, or military personnel; decorate table centerpieces for a local nursing home; pick up trash or debris on the church grounds or surrounding sidewalks; put together bag lunches to hand out to the homeless.
  • Schedule “Special Church School” for those off-Sunday weekends. Gather all the children together in one classroom and tell a Godly Play story or tap into a picture book with ideas from StoryPath.


Sharon Ely Pearson is an editor and the Christian Formation Specialist for Church Publishing Incorporated (CPI). She is the author/editor of several books, most recently The Episcopal Christian Educator’s Handbook (Morehouse, 2013) and forthcoming Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Theologies of Confirmation for the 21st Century (Morehouse, 2014). When not traveling for work or pleasure, she enjoys tossing tennis balls to her year old black lab, Chobe.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Wanda Stahl

    Dear Sharon, I was afraid we wouild lose your insights, wisdom and encouragement with your promotion. I am always pleased when I see your name on an article in Building Faith. And this one is indeed right on. Fifty years as a Christian educator has taught me many lessons is this.The relationship built between teaher and class participant is what formation is all about. We work together exploring God’s plan for us and the world. we are both teachers and learners. One on one is not failure it is a chance to grow more.

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