Growth: The Beginners

Growth: The Beginners
BY: Jason Arn


What are your early memories of Sunday School? I remember being in a classroom with eight other junior high boys, sitting around a small circle in a cramped, antiquated room. As boys of that age do, we pushed, shoved, punched, whispered, and talked … until the class was in constant bedlam. Our teacher, a middle-aged woman weighing over 200 pounds, with a warm expression and friendly eyes, always taught with a large, well-worn Bible open across her knees. We knew very little about her as a person except that her husband had died some years before and her only son had been injured in a high school football accident which left him a lifetime cripple.

Though I can’t recall a single lesson or illustration from the class, I do remember Sunday after Sunday being asked to sit beside my teacher, where I was assigned the task of holding her ruler, pencil, lesson sheets, Bible … anything to keep me occupied. Looking back, the special attention must have been founded on her conclusion that I was the chief troublemaker. Eventually, promotion time came and the class moved to another room and another teacher.

The next meeting with my junior high teacher came some years later and quite by chance. In the intervening years, I had completed high school, served as an officer in the military, returned to finish college, and at the time was in seminary preparing for the ministry. During my first summer as a seminarian, I was working at a Bible conference
center where one of my responsibilities was to meet incoming buses, welcome arriving passengers and direct them to their rooms.

The incident is still vivid in my mind! A large yellow bus arrived. The double doors opened and slowly down the steps came my junior high Sunday School teacher. She had aged, but her wrinkled face was still warm and friendly. Reaching the last step, she looked up and saw me. She remembered! With tears flowing down her cheeks, she hugged me with a 200-pound hug and between sobs kept repeating, “It was worth it all … It was worth it all.”

The Sunday School played an important part in bringing me to faith and discipleship, as it has played an important part in the lives of countless others. Who can deny that since its inception, some 200 years ago, the Sunday School movement has been greatly blessed by God for winning and nuturing people in the faith?

… Early Foundations

When you next meet in your Sunday School class, pause to reflect on your rich heritage. As a teacher or participant in your church’s adult or children’s classes, you are a part of a tradition dating back thousands of years.
The Old Testament and early Jewish records reflect the great emphasis the Hebrews put on teaching. The Shema, as the Hebrews referred to Deuteronomy 6:4-9, was God’s command to “teach diligently unto thy children” the words of Moses: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul and with all thy might.”

The spirit of the modern teacher stood with these early Hebrews, as
they sought to make the teachings of the law their guiding force in everyday life. The Jewish teacher, called Rabbi, was accorded great honor in every Jewish community. The rabbi and the synagogue are recognized today as having an important influence on the educational process of modern Christianity,, and many scholars believe the synagogue services distinctly foreshadowed the early Sunday School. =
Jesus of Nazareth also participated in the religious instruction of His day as He learned, and later taught, in the synagogue schools. The Jewish educational system, of which Jesus was a part, decreed that children ages 5 through 10 learn the law, beginning with Leviticus, and then the history of the Jewish people. From age 10 to 15, pupils were taught the unwritten Jewish traditions. At age 15, students were considered old enough to ask questions, to dispute with the doctors, and to attend the higher schools.’ As with other Jewish boys, Jesus’ early habits included attending the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16), and learning of His religious heritage through such instruction.
In His earthly ministry Jesus used teaching to communicate the truth. While John the Baptist is spoken of as a preacher, Jesus is most often recalled as a teacher.’ In fact, “teacher” is used 42 times in the Gospels with reference to Jesus, and another 47 times He is spoken of as “teaching.” The Sermon on the Mount is introduced by Matthew (5:2) with the words: “He opened his mouth and taught them . . . ”

Jesus always followed His exhorting and evangelizing with teaching.’ The very nature of His mission as the Messiah required that He teach concerning the Kingdom of God. Without such teaching, His Gospel would probably have been grossly misunderstood and His mission defeated altogether.’ Jesus’ command to his followers-to make disciples-was to be implemented, in part, by teaching: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe whatsoever I have commanded you . . .” (Matt. 28:19, 20). We often call Jesus the greatest teacher who ever lived-a teacher whose influence has exceeded that of all others.

The apostles were obedient to the command to carry on Christ’s teaching. They taught everywhere, using every possible occasion to make known the truth they had received. The rapid spread of Christianity was a direct result of both evangelizing and teaching. In spirit, the modern teacher stood with the great Apostle Paul as he taught believers and non-believers about the way of salvation. He and Barnabas spent much time in Antioch teaching (Acts 11:26; 15:35). Paul taught in Corinth a year and a half (Acts 18:11), and spent his last years in Rome devoting himself to “teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ …” (Acts 28:31).

… Into Later Generations

The roots of Christian education extend from the Old and New Testament periods, and continue on through the growth of the early church.
By the end of the first century, Christianity had grown so rapidly that new converts and children of the believers needed more systematic instruction in their faith. Perhaps the earliest formal school for Christian teaching was in Alexandria-a theological seminary for adults to learn more about the faith. One of the graduates of this seminary was a young man named Origen.

In spirit, the modern teacher was with Origen in 203 A.D. as he went into the city of Alexandria to gather children from the many churches and organize them into groups of instruction, called catechetical schools (schools teaching the principles of Christianity).’ The purpose was preparation for church membership, and the curriculum was the doctrines of the church and history of their faith. Some historians suggest that I Corinthians 15:3-5, and other similar passages, may have been the primitive creed used to instruct these young candidates for baptism, and then recited by new church members as their confession of faith.

These catechetical schools soon spread throughout Christendom. The excavation of many early churches indicates that provisions were often made for such classrooms. Records indicate that in the first centuries, during the rapid spread of the church, the teaching was often done by laity-both men and women.’ With this active involvement of the Christian laity, the faith continued to spread rapidly. Christian education of adults and children was a significant means of spreading the faith, both for instructing and for incorporating people into the church.

But as the Dark Ages rolled across Europe, the schools for religious instruction, found during the first centuries in nearly every church, began to disappear. Religious teaching gravitated to the cities, the great cathedrals, and to the monasteries. Education was limited to the monks and the clergy, and any religious learning by laity was looked upon with suspicion. In the eighth century, Charlemagne attempted to establish village schools taught by clergy, but many of the clergy, themselves, were sadly deficient in Christian knowledge. Only in the
monasteries was religious instruction preserved and passed on. Christian education for the common man had become almost non-existent.

… A Fresh Breeze

The Protestant Reformation brought a breath of fresh air to religious instruction, and ushered in the concept of “the priesthood of all believers” and the role of laity. In 1524, Martin Luther, the great German reformer, prepared his first catechism for children and called attention to the need for religious instruction for all. He saw that the young and old alike must learn the Scriptures if religious truth was to belong to the common man. Luther’s catechisms proved to be an effective way to communicate biblical truth to the people. Translations of the Bible into the language of the people, and the invention of the printing press were also major steps forward for Christian education and the growth of the church.

Across the Atlantic, in the American colonies, an increasing interest in religious instruction was growing as the catechetical method of teaching helped spread these new ideas of the Reformation to the laity.” Textbooks in American schools abounded with religious teaching. The recollection of a student who attended an early American school was recorded in 1642: “The teacher continually prayed with us and catechized us every week.”” The Rev. C. Howie, minister at Oxford, Pennsylvania, reported in May, 1738, that he “examined the children every Lord’s day in the church catechism.””

Such famous catechisms as the Heidelberg, the Westminster, and the Anglican Catechism represented the renewed importance church leaders were giving to religious instruction. Yet, even through the enlightened days of the Reformation, it was still the clergy who were the instructors. Religious education was limited to the catechetical method, and instruction was restricted to the bounds of the parish and the availability of a local clergyman.”


Perhaps readers of this book would never be in a Bible study class taught by a lay person if a providential event had not taken place 200 years ago.

In a back alley of Gloucester, England, in 1780, Robert
Raikes gathered a group of poor, uneducated children to hold the first session of a Sunday School class.
Considered the father of the modern Sunday School, Raikes was a man to whom the sight of pain, poverty, misery, and hunger was a constant burden. The physical, intellectual, and moral conditions of the people in Raikes’ day were deplorable. In the industrial cities, such as Gloucester, conditions were especially bad. The poor tried to survive on inadequate diets, they lived in inadequate houses, they wore inadequate clothing. Few common people had the privilege of any formal education. No public schools existed, and most of the poor people were totally illiterate.

For years, Raikes championed the needs of these people, but saw few results. After nearly 25 years of failure to eliminate the problems, he decided to try what he called “a new experiment.” In Gloucester, the neglected, ragged children worked in the factories during the week. On Sunday they played, quarreled, cursed, and fought in the streets. Realizing the uselessness of appealing to the parents, Raikes decided the vice, filth, corruption, and poverty could and must be combated through teaching children.

In 1780, he opened his first Sunday School in “Sooty Alley,” named because of the chimney sweeps who lived there. His pupils were from the lowest levels of society and from places of the worst reputation. Some were so unwilling to go to Sunday School that he marched them there with logs tied to their feet so they could not escape.

The first Sunday Schools in England were established and conducted by people outside the church, and were designed to teach basic reading and writing skills. Any religious value of the Sunday Schools was incidental; their purpose was moral and educational. As the movement spread and some of the schools sought to meet in chapels and church rooms, they began to attract the attention of the clergy. Many clergy regarded such use of their buildings to be an “act of abomination.” The Sunday School, in particular, was considered a dangerous and demoralizing agent of the devil. The Gentlemen’s Magazine called the Sunday School “subversive of … that peace and tranquility which constitute the happiness of society; and that far from deserving encouragement and applause, it merits our contempt.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury called his bishops together to consider what should be done to stop the movement. William Pitt thought seriously of introducing a bill in Parliament to suppress the Sunday School. In Scotland, teaching on the Sabbath by laymen was pronounced a violation of the Fourth Commandment. Those who fostered schools among the poor were condemned and their teachers persecuted by the church.
But the opposition only served to attract attention to the Sunday School movement and the great need which existed for the work it was doing. John Wesley, one of the few churchmen who openly supported Raikes and his new Sunday School, recognized this new institution as “one of the noblest instruments which has been seen in Europe for some centuries, and will increase more and more.”” In this confidence, Wesley, the founder of Methodism, adopted the Sunday School as an integral part of his own great undertaking and thus assured the growth of this new institution.

A few years after Raikes’ “new experiment” had gained the attention of Europe, and a slow-growing degree of support from the church, the concept of the Sunday School was brought to America. Conditions were so different across the Atlantic, however, that the schools were much different from those in the English cities. For one, the appalling conditions of destitution and neglect were not found in American villages. For another, the Sunday School concept was introduced in America under the auspices and support of the church.
Wesley continued to espouse the Sunday School in America and was a major force in successfully transplanting it to the New World. In The American Magazine, he wrote, “Perhaps God may have a deeper end thereto than men are aware of. Who knows but what some of these schools may become nurseries for Christians?’ 116 Wesley’s foresight doubtless had much to do with the fact that Methodist churches in the United States were among the first to formally adopt the Sunday School as a regular part of their church work. This emphasis on the Sunday School undoubtedly contributed to the rapid growth of the Methodist Church, and resulted in the denomination becoming, at one time, the largest Protestant body in America.

One of the first official unions between the Sunday School and the organized church was in 1790 when the Methodist
Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, formally placed the Sunday School in the care of the church. It was ordered that there should be established

… Sunday Schools in or near the place of worship.

Let persons be appointed by the Bishops, Deacons, or Preachers
to teach gratis all who will attend and have capacity to
learn, from six o’clock in the morning till ten, and from
two o’clock in the afternoon till six, when it does not
interfere with public worship.”

The last ten years of the 18th century witnessed the formation of many Sunday Schools in cities of the United States, nearly all connected with churches. It was during this brief period that the concept of a teaching and writing school on Sunday according to the vision of Raikes, became distinct from the “Sunday School,” recognized and adopted by the Church for the purpose of Christian instruction. This new approach to religious instruction meant that the Sunday School became, not a temporary expedient to rescue poor and ignorant children, but a permanent institution, discharging a specific and important new function in the life of the church.

Between 1827, when the Methodist Episcopal Church created an official Sunday School organization, and 1857, when the Southern Baptists incorporated the Sunday School into their denomination, most major Protestant groups endorsed the Sunday School and formally established organizational structures for its encouragement.

In modern times the Sunday School has become an important part of the transfer of the faith from generation to generation, providing personal growth, strength, and maturity to children, youth and adults.

The Sunday School movement was the opening of a new chapter in church history and a great new force for Christian education. Prior to the Sunday School, most clergy regarded themselves as the only qualified leaders for spiritual instruction, and were loathe to have “ignorant” laymen do any teaching at all. But modern concepts of the laity and their important role in Christian education have been immeasurably enlarged because of the “new experiment” called the Sunday School.

This view of active lay involvement in the Body is much more in accord with the vision of Christ and the practice of the early church than the clergy-dominated environment between A.D. 300 and A.D. 1800, prior to the rise of the Sunday School:

In the New Testament church, the church was never under stood as being led by the clergy, with the laity as second class members . . . . There are some who, of necessity, must give fulltime service in the church. But this makes them no more ministers in terms of quality or kind, than
the so-called “Layman.” Is the Sunday School brings unique advantages to the health and vitality of the local church. In American Protestant denominations today, 96% of all local churches have Sunday Schools, Sabbath Schools, or Church Schools.

Christian education in your church is built on a rich heritage. If you are a teacher, you carry the torch held by tens of thousands of teachers before you, who have joyfully taught the faith to young and old. If you are a participant, you are one of millions who have been nourished and have grown through the inspired (and at times perhaps not-so-inspired!) teaching.

This book is especially for the teachers and Sunday School leaders who carry these great traditions into a challenging new age. It is a book dealing with tomorrow’s Sunday School, Christian education, and church growth. It will help you look creatively and insightfully at how the ministry of teaching in your church can be effectively and significantly used by God for new growth and outreach in obedience to His command to “Go … teach … and make disciples!”