“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
In many churches, Sunday School has become a time of fellowship for believers, studying the Bible and caring for each other. We are missing some very important components, as Sunday School was birthed out of an experience of missions, social ministry and evangelism around 1790 by Robert Raikes in Great Britain. He discovered that many children from poor families had to work during the week instead of going to school. He also noticed that many needed clothing and food. He began a “Sabbath School” to teach them how to read, provide social ministry and help them read the Bible to discover the Gospel for themselves.
Evangelism was essential as part of the original Sunday School in North America around the time Raikes was beginning Sunday School in Great Britain. In America, the first national Sunday School effort began in 1824; its stated purpose was to organize, evangelize and civilize. We have lost the missional and evangelistic fervor of the Sunday School movement. Today’s culture needs to retool in understanding the importance of evangelism and how to share the Gospel in more effective ways. Though the street preacher may win a few to Christ, building relationships with the lost is essential in this day and time. George Hunter in The Celtic Way of Evangelism is a great place to start understanding the cultural shift and effectiveness of evangelism for today.
According to Hunter, the typical church today is similar to the Roman church in the time of Saint Patrick (the early fifth century A.D.), in that it ignores two populations:
- The people who aren’t “refined” enough to feel comfortable with us.
- The people who are too “out of control” for us to feel comfortable with them.
To put it another way, many church people today are like Jonah from the Bible in that they assume the “Ninevites” do not deserve God.
The Roman model for evangelism consisted of presenting the Christian message, inviting them to decide to believe in Christ, and welcoming them into the church and its fellowship if they decided positively, similarly to the Western church in the modern era. The Celtic model for evangelism, on the other hand, took this in pretty much the opposite order, allowing them to belong before they believed. In other words, the first step was to establish community or bring them into the fellowship of the community of faith. Then, within the fellowship, the next step was to engage in conversation, ministry, prayer and worship. Finally, in time, as they discovered that they now believed, they were invited to commit themselves.
The supreme key to reaching the West again is the key that Saint Patrick discovered-involuntarily but providentially. The gulf between churched people and unchurched people is vast, but if we pay the price to understand them, we will usually know what to say and what to do; if they know and feel that we understand them, by the tens of millions they will risk opening their hearts to the God who understands them.”
Brian McLaren in More Ready Than You Think says, “Post modern evangelism is relational. In essence, Christians are converted first in authentic spiritual friendship. Good evangelists are people who engage others in good conversation about faith, values, hope, meaning, purpose, goodness, beauty, truth, life after death, life before death and God. Good evangelism is the process of being friendly without discrimination and influencing all of one’s friends toward better living, through good deeds and good conversations. Engaging in spiritual friendship will not only help others become Christians, it will help us become better Christians, who love God more than ever.”
For Sunday School to move forward in evangelism it is about building non-judgmental relationships with the unchurched, understanding their reality and helping them see a God who loves them and wants to provide an abundant life. Are you pointing them to the abundant life in Christ?
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10 NIV)