The Misnomer of Sunday School and How to Overcome It

Do you really have an international airport if almost all flights are in-country? What about starfish? Kids on beach vacations with their families love to find them, but although a starfish looks like a star, it’s not a fish. And then there is the titmouse; it’s not a mouse at all, but rather a small North American bird related to chickadees. Don’t get me started about buffalo wings.

What’s in a name? Well, in some cases, a name will contain an error, a misunderstanding, or a mislabeling. Historians have long noted that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. The Battle of Bunker Hill was actually fought on Breed’s Hill. And the Pennsylvania Dutch are actually of German ancestry. For such cases we have the term “misnomer,” which comes from the Anglo-French verb mesnomer (“to misname”) and ultimately from “nomen,” the Latin word for “name.”

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/misnomer

Sunday School is a misnomer like cat burglar, jumbo shrimp, and white chocolate. Don’t misunderstand me! I love Sunday School and began attending it 9 months before I was born. But I have to wonder if the term Sunday School miscommunicates something about it? Allow me to explain. Let’s look at the two words separately.

Sunday – Yes, our churches meet on Sunday and have for centuries now. Sunday School also meets on Sunday mornings, adjacent to the worship service. As such, we’ve learned that Sunday School takes place on, well, Sundays. But my question is, “Has the word ‘Sunday’ in ‘Sunday School’ accidentally miscommunicated something really important about this time-honored ministry?” Could it be that in using the word “Sunday” we have inadvertently made this ministry primarily about the 9AM to noon time slot on Sunday morning? Is there any reason that we should compartmentalize this teaching ministry to just that time on Sunday? Hasn’t COVID taught us that through Zoom and online meeting technologies, groups can meet any time people want to get together? Could we have a world in which some groups met on Sunday morning, but others could meet on Monday evenings at 8PM after the kids get put to bed? Could senior groups meet at the church campus on a Thursday morning and “do Sunday School”? The word “Sunday” may have limited our creativity in reaching people through Bible study at times other than on Sundays. Did you know that in most cities, about 22-25% of people work on Sunday and cannot attend a group study if they wanted to? To reach them, we’ll need to move some groups off of Sunday morning and into other time slots.

School – How many people have fond memories of school? Fewer than you might think, I bet. The word “school” may conjur up long days consumed with subjects you weren’t really interested in. Does the word “school” accidentally communicate to potential Sunday School members that the experience may be similar to what they’ve experienced in other classrooms growing up? Does the word bring to mind images of desks in rows, all facing the front of the room, with little opportunity to interact with the teacher and fellow students?

When you put these two words together, there’s a possibility that it’s not attractive to people who haven’t experienced good Sunday School. So what do we do about the misnomer of Sunday School? I can think of a few things:

  • Start some groups that meet on days other than Sundays
  • Use the time between Sundays to get your group members engaged in ministry and fun fellowships – Sunday School is more than “9 to noon” on Sunday morning!
  • Make learning fun and engaging – teach using the 8 learning approaches
  • Rearrange your classroom and instead of placing people in rows, put them in a large circle, or two half-circles

I love the ministry of Sunday School. The name is classic, and it’s not going away any time soon! Let’s make sure that people who experience your church’s Sunday School have a great time of living out the Great Commission. Sunday School is to make disciples and teach them to obey all Jesus said, but perhaps without the misnomers associated with it.

3 comments

  1. A very interesting article. Our Church [Immanuel Baptist Church, Wichita, KS] had changed the name quite some time ago. Our 9:30AM to 10:30 or 40 groups meet on Sunday and are called “Life Groups.”

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