There is an ongoing debate about the validity of Sunday School in the present time. Many believe, because of the decline in numbers and inept function in some churches, that Sunday School is dead. I must admit that Sunday School and discipleship in many churches have lost focus and needs serious revamping. Here are the problems and what I believe the current solution to be:
Sunday School has lost its original purpose. Sunday School, over time, was the outreach, missional and evangelism work of the church. Around 1780 (in England) Robert Raikes began a Sabbath School for children who were poor and unable to read. Sunday was their only day off from work. His purpose was to teach them to read, become healthy, productive citizens, and the Bible was one of the textbooks. They provided other basic needs for these children, and it was very much a missions’ experience. Some would suggest a similar movement was going on in North America at the same time. Either way, Sunday School was a missional venture to help children in need of physical, emotional, social and spiritual growth.
Soon evangelism and outreach became the focal point of Sunday School for all ages. In America, the first national Sunday School effort began in 1824; its stated purpose was to organize, evangelize and civilize. Arthur Flakes took it to another level in the early 1900’s as he helped Sunday School become the outreach, organizational and evangelism arm of the church. Sunday School was to reach the lost, provide a care ministry for them and teach God’s word. Over the years, however, Sunday School classes moved to a tradition of fellowship and Bible knowledge for existing members with little emphasis on outreach and evangelism.
Discipleship lost its place for churches. Meanwhile, Training Union/Discipleship Training developed as a Sunday evening program to educate members on polity, doctrine and leadership. (Sunday School focused on a less intimidating way to reach the unchurched and provided a way to lead them to faith.) Sunday evening became the place to go deeper in discipleship. Unfortunately, most churches (due to time constraints for members) stopped having discipleship training, or they had fewer members present to disciple than Sunday mornings.
So what do we do? We have a couple of choices. We can continue to allow Sunday School to remain as it is and see the numbers continue to dwindle or revamp Sunday School to become vibrant again. Here are my suggestions:
Use Sunday morning for discipleship and the traditional Sunday School class. Classes that have been existence for five or more years with little growth would best be served as discipling and training classes. Keep the fellowship, ministry to each other, but add the discipling piece instead of the traditional SS literature. Allow these classes to move to small group studies that will deepen their faith and hopefully their motivation to reach people. Offer different studies where people have options but keep care groups as part of the ongoing ministry to each person. I have discovered that a parenting class or marriage enrichment class has been the perfect tool to get people in the pews back to Sunday School. Find out the needs of worshippers for deeper study.
Have a couple of adult classes use the traditional Sunday School curriculum with the purpose of reaching newcomers, the unchurched and visitors. These classes after a year will have as their mandate to start new classes. This will require each teacher to mentor someone to take their class or start a new class on Sunday morning or at a new time and place. A new class done well will bring an additional 10 people to Bible study in the first year.
Develop Sunday School classes at a different time and possibly a different place. 20% of the adult population works on Sunday. Why not offer classes at other times? Seek places in the community to start a Sunday School class (remember Biscuits & Bible blog.) Why not check with your local police department about showing the movie, “Courageous” and then form a Sunday School class one night at the police station based on their schedule? You could do the same with the movie, “Fireproof” at the fire department. You get the idea! If Sunday School is going to bring the unchurched closer to God and faith, we need to begin thinking outside the church walls. Have a Bible study in your home for the neighborhood.
If we don’t make some changes to our existing Sunday School structure, our critics will be right…Sunday School will die. Begin creative ways to do Sunday School and discipleship or see the numbers continue to decline. It’s your choice!