Are you Ready to Canoe the Mountains of Sunday School?

I recently read a book that was recommended to me by a friend in the Christian publishing industry. Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger has quickly become one of my favorite reads this year. I’ve told others about it in dozens of training meetings I’ve led over the past two months. Canoeing the mountains (of Sunday School) is going to be required as our churches get ready to reopen groups on campus and invite people back for in-group experiences.

The book gets its name from the story of the expedition of Lewis and Clark. They were convinced they had the right equipment for their journey to find the Northwest Passage. They were convinced they had the most accurate information from the thought-leaders of the day. They were convinced they would be successful in their journey to find the route to the Pacific Ocean. And then they ran into these little things called mountains – the Rocky Mountains. Here is what the author said about that unexpected twist in their journey. These explorers had been told the topography of the country was going to be consistent with the topography in the eastern section of the country. They’d find the river that ran to the Pacific Ocean and ride it gently to the other side of the country, opening up a giant route for commerce. Here is what the author said really happened:

After fifteen months of going upstream they looked forward to letting the current swiftly whisk them to the Pacific Ocean. They would crest the hill, find the stream and coast to the finish line. They could not have been more disappointed. What Lewis actually discovered was that three hundred years of experts had all been completely and utterly wrong. In front of him was not a gentle slope down to a navigable river running to the Pacific Ocean, but the Rocky Mountains. Stretching out for miles and miles as far as the eye could see was one set of peaks after another (p.26).

The experts had been wrong. The mission was about to fail. All they had were some supplies, a few men, and canoes. Which led the author to ask this next question:

How do you canoe over mountains? YOU DON’T. If you want to move forward, you change. You adapt…We go from being river rats to mountain climbers. We keep on course with the same goal, but change absolutely everything required to make it through uncharted territory. We ditch canoes, ask for help, find horses, and cross the mountains. And when the time comes, we make new boats out of burnt trees” – Canoeing The Mountains, p.34.

And there you have it. A lesson for us today. The return to Sunday School is going to require that we “canoe the mountains” when we finally get to return to the church for that part of our Christian experience. The subtitle of this book is “Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.” That feels exactly like where we are right now – uncharted territory. All of us praying and trying to make the best decisions we can for our churches.

How might Sunday School be different? Canoeing the mountains of Sunday School requires us to change strategies, ditch things that don’t serve the organization well, add new things, and keep going in the mission of reaching and making disciples. If we are to move forward, we’ll modify and change some things. We can succeed, but we won’t do it in our old canoes. Here are a few things that could change when we get to regather for Bible study on our church campuses:

  1. The recovery of training – Too many churches have not had a regular cadence of training, and it shows in their Sunday School ministries. Online tools such as Zoom have empowered some savvy churches to pivot and begin online training. Keith Lowry, a friend at FBC Richardson, TX., has enlisted over 20 of us to lead weekly training for his group leaders via Zoom (I led mine last week on the topic of how to add zip to your Zoom meetings). For one hour I invested in that church’s group leaders. I didn’t have to travel two days to do the training, and I slept in my own bed that night – the entire event was a win-win for me and FBC Richardson. And they have many more weeks of premiere training ahead of them from Sunday School experts. If you are convinced that people won’t come to training, that may be the case with in-person on-campus events. But Zoom has made it possible and convenient for training to take place at times that make sense for each church’s Sunday School leaders. Experts can be brought in via Zoom to do some of the training.
  2. The rise in the value of curriculum – I work for a company that produces ongoing Bible studies for groups. That’s some of our primary work. During COVID-19 and the at-home sequestering we’ve experienced, some groups haven’t missed a beat because they have continued to read, study, and be discipled through the use of a curriculum series. Although alone, they are together in their journey through the Bible each week. It gives a sense of camaraderie. The curriculum provides systematic and balanced study plans designed to help believers grow as disciples. Churches have been creative and distributed these valuable tools to their members and guests. Drive-through distributions, porch visits, mailings, and handing out Personal Study Guides at the end of a worship service have all become popular ways to make sure people have their study materials for Summer 2020. My church has done all of the above to get materials into the hands of our people. Without a study plan to follow, and without material for my people to read and study between Sundays, we’d be adrift.
  3. The need for regular fellowship – It’s easy for something like regular fellowship fall off the radar of your group. People are busy, and we sometimes don’t think about the need for regular, rhythmic times when our groups can get together for the sake of getting together. Guests can be included, absentee members can be invited back, and regular attenders can enjoy the much needed relational time with fellow group members. If there is one thing COVID-19 has taught us it’s this: being alone isn’t what God intended for us. We all need relationships, and we all need one another. In the days after we return to the church campus, groups that will excel in the post-COVID Sunday School world will elevate their group’s cadence of fun gatherings.
  4. The emphasis on the unconnected – Attendance is up in groups and worship services. I reached out to a guest from yesterday’s worship service who joined us online. Bible study groups around the country are reaching new people weekly. COVID-19 has reminded us that there are many people who do not have a group or a church home. Assimilating people who find our churches and groups online will be one of the new challenges in a post-COVID world. Too many Bible study groups have turned inward (which happens when a group has been together longer than 18 months). We need a renewed and permanent reorientation to people outside our groups and congregations who are waiting for us to help them connect with God and with our churches. Remember that unconnected people typically are not the aggressors, seeking out places in which they can connect with us. Connecting the unconnected is our responsibility.

Lewis and Clark faced an important decision – turn back in defeat, or chop up their canoes, find horses, and continue their journey. We’re at a similar spot in the church. We thought we knew what the landscape of Sunday School looked like. Now we’ve run smack into our own “Rocky Mountains” because of COVID-19. Are we going to move forward? Is the mission worth it? Will we abandon our canoes that have brought us this far and find new ways of advancing, or will we do what many churches that don’t understand the changing landscape will do, and simply try to canoe the mountains?

To me, it sounds like it’s time to chop up some canoes.


  1. Ken, thanks for this post. I’ve been recommending the book for several months. I read it last fall having no idea about Covid-19 and the impact on churches. I do think it is right on about the need for adaptive leadership and rethinking how we “do” church. Your insights are helpful and right on. Miss you my brother. Blessings Dan Garland

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