The Failure of the Apostolic Movement
By Sarah k. Holland and Jason Ouellette
Sunday morning, I wake up at 8:30. And I have to tell you, every Sunday morning I look at my alarm clock and groan. I’ve never understood why I can so easily force myself out of bed at 6 a.m. on a weekday, but when Sunday rolls around 8:30 makes me want to “call in sick.” I move too slowly through the morning, and then finally, five minutes later than I intend, head toward the church for Sunday school.
It’s not that I don’t care about it, I really do, it’s just that it’s… Sunday school. I teach in the high school class, and really, for teenagers there are so many different facets of church. So many different things which contribute to a teenager’s church experience, and Sunday school is only 45 minutes once a
week. (Their favorite primetime dramas are longer than that!) It’s such a small portion of what the church has to offer them.
Okay, so that’s not how I actually feel about Sunday school, but that is the response I received over and over again to my survey questioning the success or failure of Sunday school departments around the country—“Sunday school doesn’t decide whether a young person stays or backslides after high school. Talk about the youth departments, talk about parents with no boundaries, talk about the influence of their friends. It’s just Sunday school.” And that’s when I realized our Sunday school classes were failing. Or rather, we’re failing our Sunday school classes.
The truth is that I’m not speaking to the primary and elementary departments, nor to the adult classes. My comments are aimed directly at the 7th-12th grade teachers. And I’m firmly convinced that we are failing.
Failing How? Taking offense to my comments, one friend responded, “How do you define failure?” I define failure as not meeting my goal. And the goal of every
Sunday school department should be to grow Christians, to take them from requiring milk to consuming meat. I just cannot be convinced that we’re doing
this, and I think there are several reasons:
1. We think of Sunday school as just—Over and over again in response to my questions, I was encouraged to look at other areas to find the answers I was seeking. If there’s a reason young people are backsliding, it’s not Sunday school, they all seemed to say. And while I know that a strong youth department
is vital, parents are the strongest influence, and a person’s set of friends absolutely make a difference in their life choices, I don’t think we give Sunday school enough credit. Someone once told me that preaching saves, but teaching keeps. If we don’t teach them how to handle problems, how will they know what
to do? If we don’t teach them how to pray, how can we blame them when they have no prayer life? If we treat Sunday school as just, how can we expect them to do any different?
And since it’s just Sunday school, we prepare as such. We wait until Saturday night to begin our preparation, and we teach lessons that haven’t been given our proper attention. We stumble through our words and are too busy trying to figure out what we’re saying to be really passionate about our message. We’re too busy staring at our paper to connect with the kids. One student recently complained to me that their Sunday school teacher began class by explaining that he was just as tired as they probably were and was going to teach sitting down that week. While I certainly understand the exhaustion, I wonder if he knew
what his lack of enthusiasm portrayed to the class. I suppose he figured it was just Sunday school.
2. It’s the Meat of the Matter—After reading the survey responses of one Sunday school teacher after another, I began to question students from around the country who are in Sunday school or who have graduated in the last five years. Almost unanimously they answered that Sunday school was painful and a waste of time. Besides their major complaint about the method of delivery, they most often complained that they wanted to learn real things. They wanted to be aptly prepared for real life, they wanted a deeper understanding of spiritual matters, and when Sunday school teachers were unwilling to teach them, they didn’t care about attending the class.They wanted to be consuming meat, and their teachers continued to offer them only milk.
3. We Think They Should Learn the Same Way We Did—Another reason I believe we’re failing our Sunday school departments is in thinking that they should learn the same way we did. We’ve now heard it enough that the words have become cliché—we have to be relevant. We know we’re dealing with a different generation, yet I think we view that as an excuse for their not paying attention. We have the mentality that kids are just lazy and we’re letting them
off the hook by not demanding that they be taught the same way we were. But the fact remains that they are different. They conquer video games that we can’t
figure out how to turn on. Their ideas and attitudes about life are different, even the material they learn in school is different. It’s not an excuse, it’s the truth; if we want to reach them, we have to use methods that they respond to.
When I think about what makes the Tuesday night adult Bible class at my church so enjoyable, it’s the attitude my bishop takes in teaching them. He treats the class as though they are special, constantly referring to the “Tuesday night crowd.” He shares the message with them as though he is letting them in on a little secret he can hardly wait to divulge. And they’re just as excited to receive the word as he is to share it. He has figured out the method that
reaches his people, and the result is immeasurable.
4. Taking responsibility—Second only to “it’s just Sunday school,” the answer I most often received was, “the Sunday school departments are failing, but not my class.” It seems we easily see the faults in the class before us, and the class after us, but we’re so sure that our class is doing a good job. And maybe you are. Maybe you are teaching them the meat of the matter, maybe you’ve figured out what reaches them, and maybe you do spend time in preparation and prayer. But what else are you teaching them?
· Are you teaching them that ministry is a priority—priority enough for you to be early, let alone on time?
· Are you teaching them that they are your burden, not just a ministry that you’ve fallen into?
· Are you growing them, and thereby achieving the goal of Sunday school?
The Good News. The good news is that dedicated, amazing Sunday school teachers fill our churches and volunteer their time to grow our young people in Christ. The better news is that young people are responding to this, and are building relationships with God that will keep them throughout their life.
So maybe we’re not failing entirely. We have the keys and the opportunity if we’ll see Sunday school for what it is—one more chance to give our young people
the tools they need to live a victorious life in Christ.
© 2005, Sarah k. Holland and Jason Ouellette
Sarah k. Holland is a high school teacher in Auburn Hills, Michigan, where she’s
passionate about youth ministry and ninetyandnine.com. Jason Ouellette is a
Junior High Youth Pastor in Wichita Falls, TX.