WHY SUNDAY SCHOOL?
BY THOM S. RAINER
Editor’s Note: So far we have examined the importance of preaching and prayer in the health of a church. This is the first in a series of four in-depth articles dealing with Sunday school, which ranked third for
evangelistic effectiveness in churches.
Our journey so far has been a long one but I hope it has been beneficial. Let’s remember where we’ve come from and where we are going on this last leg of the trip.
In a study of almost 600 highly evangelistic churches we discovered that as varied as they were, there were three main factors common to all of them.
The first of these was the pulpit. Repeatedly the leaders of these evangelistic churches told us that preaching is one of the most effective means of reaching people for Christ.
The second factor was that of prayer. Though the forms of prayer ministries vary, the leaders of these evangelistic churches stress that their personal prayer lives and the prayer ministries of the church are
inevitably tied to the winning of souls to Christ.
The third factor is the subject of the next four articles, Sunday school. If any program-based methodology proved to be a dynamic tool for these evangelistic churches, it was the Sunday school program.
What is a Sunday school?
Part of the problem for those who criticize Sunday school is perceptual. For some, Sunday school means sitting in an uncomfortable metal folding chair in a room with peeling paint, listening to a long and boring lecture on the Bible.
We asked the leaders of these evangelistic churches how they defined Sunday school. Their responses focused on four general characteristics:
• Sunday school includes systematic teaching of Scripture. Leaders have some level of accountability and organization in place to insure that such teaching is offered to everyone.
• Sunday school gives regular Bible teaching for all ages. This is the “cradle to grave” concept advocated by many leaders.
• Sunday school provides small group ministry and fellowship within each class. Multiple small groups may be necessary in larger classes.
• Sunday school ensures regular outreach beyond the people in the class.
Note that they did not define Sunday school as an organization meeting at a certain time, day, or place. Though most of the church leaders preferred on-campus classes for accountability, they did not limit the
Sunday school to a room in the church building. To the contrary, many churches were quite innovative with their times and locations.
What about small groups?
Only 2 of the 576 churches indicated that they had replaced Sunday school with in-home or off campus small groups. There was some confusion, however, concerning the definition of small groups.
Several mentioned that the location (home or off-campus) was the deciding factor, though they were willing to call their off-campus groups Sunday schools. Others spoke of the “intimacy factor” afforded
by small groups, but then quickly responded that care groups in Sunday schools were just as effective.
A minister of education in Georgia said, “Sunday schools have had small groups meeting in the homes for decades. We have called them fellowship groups, care groups, and other names, but they essentially served the same purpose as small groups do today.”
Many church leaders indicated that they had struggled with the debate of Sunday schools versus small groups. Should they lead their churches to begin small groups to replace Sunday school? Or should small groups supplement Sunday school?
The leaders did not think they could expect their people to be fully committed to two open-ended groups. Consequently, most of them chose to keep the Sunday school. Nearly one-fourth, however, indicated that
short-term small groups had done well in their churches. The key, they told us, was for the small groups to have a clear termination date and a specific purpose.
What about the Southern Baptist bias?
Many Southern Baptists have perceived that Sunday school’s effectiveness is waning. In fact, everyone on our research team was prepared for what we called “the Southern Baptist bias.” But we were surprised at the intense loyalty these evangelistic churches have to Sunday school. The most evangelistic churches in the denomination responded with a resounding affirmation of Sunday school.
Since we studied Southern Baptist churches, we might expect a better response to Sunday school methodology than we would have received had we studied another group. Sixty-three percent ranked Sunday school as a major factor in their evangelistic effectiveness. Nearly 90 percent of the churches in the follow-up interviews identified Sunday school as their most effective assimilation tool. The statistical results
Because our survey was only concerned with matters related to evangelism our initial survey asked only one question about Sunday school: “Rank your Sunday school in terms of its contribution to the evangelistic effectiveness of your church.” (More information about other facets of Sunday school came through in our follow-up interviews. We will address those issues later.) Sunday school as a methodology for evangelistic effectiveness ranked only third, below preaching and prayer.
We were somewhat surprised to find that larger churches (more than 300 in attendance) use Sunday school as an evangelistic tool more than smaller churches. Even in the largest churches (1,000 and above), over 60 percent ranked Sunday school highly as an evangelistic methodology.
WHY SUNDAY SCHOOL? PART II
Sunday school ranked third, behind the pulpit and prayer, as an effective method for P evangelism. The survey results from nearly 600 churches in our study indicated that Sunday school is an effective evangelistic tool in most of these churches.
With the exception of smaller churches (0 to 299 attendance), more than two-thirds of the churches responded enthusiastically about Sunday school’s evangelistic effectiveness. Our follow-up interviews revealed more about the level of enthusiasm for Sunday school.
Leaders have not been oblivious to comments by experts about the prospective demise of the Sunday school. They expressed bewilderment that a method so effective in their churches was declared terminally
ill by pundits.
Several pastors shared that they had listened carefully to the critics, trying to determine if they and their churches were about to be left behind in a future methodological wave. But ultimately all came back to
the position that Sunday school is neither ill nor dying nor dead.
On the contrary, Sunday school, done well, is one of the most God- blessed methodologies in the recent history of the church.
So we asked these pastors and other leaders to share with us how they use Sunday school in their churches. Their responses actually reviewed many of the basics of Sunday school.
Sunday school lessons
Two-thirds of the churches identified Sunday school as a contributing or main factor to the churches’ evangelistic effectiveness. We made a special study of these churches to learn in greater detail how they
used Sunday school. We have categorized their responses into four “lessons” in this article and four “keys to success” for the following article.
Lesson #1: A healthy Sunday school is evangelistic
At Cana Baptist Church in Burleson, Texas, Minister of Education Matthew Leilich told us that their Sunday school evangelistic outreach is alive and well. Class members are taught to mark their Bibles and
“go out with the Paul and Timothy model to do one-on-one soul winning.”
Each Sunday school department meets for dinner on Monday nights; they then go to the homes of prospective members and unchurched persons. Accountability takes place through the minister of education.
In Laurinburg, North Carolina, Pastor Lewis McLean told us a similar story about Stewartsville Baptist Church. This evangelistic church, with an attendance of 400, conducts its outreach through care groups in
each Sunday school class.
Each care group has five members, one of whom is the leader. On Tuesday nights, two of the five members visit prospects for their classes. In the actual Sunday school classes, the plan of salvation is presented on
a regular basis.
There were many more such stories. I confess that I was surprised at the level of intensity with which evangelism is carried forth through the Sunday school in many of these churches.
In 1987, R. Wayne Jones offered a prophetic voice on the future of Sunday school: “The most important task that keeps the Sunday school as a viable organization in the world today is the task of reaching people
for Christ…. No matter what else the Sunday school does, no matter how appropriate or good it may be, if churches fail to reach people for Christ, they have failed.”
Church growth literature of the past 25 years has offered churches many ways to grow and to reach people for Christ. While these methods captured the attention and excitement of many Christians, Sunday school
methodologies continued to be used effectively without much fanfare.
Leaders of the churches we studied were keenly aware of the latest developments in church growth tactics. Many regularly attended conferences and read the latest church growth books. They had tried many of the innovative techniques and approaches to outreach, some with great success, others with less success. Yet most of the pastors and staff members kept returning to the basics of Sunday school outreach as one of their key evangelistic tools.
Why has the traditional Sunday school maintained its usefulness in these evangelistic churches? A pastor in California explained, “We simply have found no other way to train all age groups in Scripture; to
have small groups in place without creating a new organization; to have outreach accountability; and to have groups which naturally provide ministry to one another within their fellowship.”
Lesson #2: A healthy Sunday school provides biblical education to all age groups
In “Giant Awakenings,” I cited a study about mainline churches by mainline authors Dean Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald Luidens. The surprising conclusion of the study was that mainline churches were
declining because they had failed to provide or emphasize regular biblical training for all age groups.
Thus an entire generation grew up in the church without comprehending biblical truths, the uniqueness of the Christian faith, and the demands of discipleship. Without an anchor to hold them, millions left mainline churches.
Evangelical churches affirm the total truthfulness of Scripture. But mere affirmation of the trustworthiness of Scripture is of little value if these churches fail to train their members in the complete revelation of the Bible.
One reason these evangelistic churches continue to place a strong emphasis on evangelism is because they are equipping members in God’s Word.
“As we study different books of the Bible,” a Mississippi layperson told us, “we are regularly reminded of the good news of Jesus Christ which must be shared with others.”
After listening to hundreds of comments about the vital importance of ongoing biblical training, I see clearly now the significance of the Hoge study mentioned earlier. The church that fails to educate all
generations in the totality of Scripture is headed for decline and possible death.
Lesson #3: A healthy Sunday school provides means and opportunities for ministry
In more than half of our follow-up interviews, the pastor or other interviewee indicated that the Sunday school was a primary instrument of ministry. While the emphasis of this study was the outward focus of
the Sunday school; we were told repeatedly that a healthy Sunday school has ongoing ministry to its own members as well.
Lesson #4: A healthy Sunday school assimilates church members
No other aspect of Sunday school received more comments than its role in assimilation and discipleship of new members and new Christians. Part of the reason for the overwhelming response we received came from a simple question we asked in our survey: “What specific measures do you take to ensure that the people baptized remain involved in the church?”
Hundreds of churches told us that their specific measure for assimilation was the Sunday school.
Over 90 percent of the assimilation and discipleship methodologies of these churches were directly or indirectly related to Sunday school.
An Ohio pastor told us, “We have tried closing the back door a dozen different ways, but it seems like we always come back to Sunday school.”
The mere existence of a Sunday school organization does not guarantee effective evangelism, effective assimilation, effective ministry, or effective teaching. Indeed, the leaders of these churches expressed
concern about the ineffectiveness of many Sunday schools they had observed.
What are the keys to doing Sunday school well? Join us next week as we look deeper into this critical methodology.
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