Sunday School can trace its origins to the mid-1600s in England. Robert Rakes, a successful newspaper man, used the Bible as the curriculum for a school he started for children. His goal was to teach illiterate children how to read since children who worked in factories all week long were unable to attend school. Rakes knew that without an education, these children would grow up in poverty, and he was unwilling to stand by while that happened. Rather than watching them run the streets of English towns on Sundays, their only day off, he started a school for them. Hence the origin of the name “Sunday School.”
When residents of England traveled by boat to the new world, they brought Sunday School with them. Once here, it was “Americanized” and took on a different mission – to teach the Bible to children, but with an emphasis on evangelism. Through the printing of pamphlets by Sunday School societies, teaching resources became more readily available throughout the colonies. As the country expanded to the West, Sunday School went with it. The emphasis on reading comprehension that began in the English version of Sunday School faded and gave way to evangelism and discipleship.
Sunday School has been around almost 400 years now, and untold numbers of churches have used it effectively as the primary strategy for reaching people of all ages with the gospel, followed by discipling them in small groups. With such a long history of success, why would any church consider doing away with Sunday School today? I realize that not every church has the facilities to provide an on-campus reaching/teaching ministry like Sunday School. I also realize that some people perceive Sunday School as ineffective, antiquated, and expensive (it’s truly not).
With all that said, I can think of 7 reasons why you should do away with Sunday School in our increasingly post-COVID world. You should consider canceling Sunday School if:
- You can involve more people in Bible study some other way. In my experience, many Sunday schools average within a few percentage points of the total number of people who attend the weekend worship service. It is not uncommon to see 85 to 90% of those who attend worship to also attend a Sunday School group that is adjacent to the weekend worship service. If you can beat those percentages in a different Bible study system, then do away with Sunday school and go with that new strategy. I’ve never seen anything else involve as many people in Bible study as Sunday School, though. The churches I’ve served have averaged approximately 90% of worship attendance in Sunday School. In almost every church, the Sunday School (or its functional equivalent by another name!) is the second-most attended ministry every week, except for the church’s worship service(s).
- You have a better plan for providing foundational discipleship for people of all ages. Sunday school provides groups for all ages, and groups for all types of people at various ages and stages of life. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that groups exist for people “from birth to heaven.” In these groups, people experience age-appropriate Bible study, biblical community, opportunities to serve others, and relationship-building. Because everyone has a place to belong, people of all ages can participate in ongoing Bible studies that provide foundational discipleship. If you can deliver foundational Bible studies for people of all ages in another kind of system that isn’t adjacent to the weekend worship service, then by all means do away with Sunday School.
- You are regularly starting new groups. Sunday School groups are designed to grow and multiply. Over time we’ve referred to this process as “splitting a group, birthing a group, or dividing a group,” or some other term (I really like the phrase “planting a new group” (it’s organic, and we often talk in terms of planting new churches). Sunday School adds groups to keep them intentionally smaller so that discipleship can take place. A basic strategy of the Sunday School is to start new groups and reach new people. If you are consistently starting new groups some other way, you don’t need Sunday School.
- You have reached all the people in your community. If you’ve found a way of reaching people through another Bible study system, do away with Sunday School. If you haven’t found a better way to reach and engage people in ongoing Bible study, keep using Sunday School to reach people. Churches that can provide on-campus, Sunday morning groups are finding much success in a post-COVID world where families are looking for ways to streamline their schedules and align their spiritual growth opportunities.
- You have a better plan for evangelizing men, women, boys, and girls. The mission of Sunday School is the Great Commission. Sunday School’s primary mission is to make disciples, and that starts with evangelism. Evangelism and discipleship are two sides of the same coin. Sharing Christ with people of all ages is done in age-appropriate ways through Sunday School groups, which is quickly followed by age-appropriate discipleship. The curriculum series produced by the company I work for have recurring, intentionally evangelistic studies that make it easy for group leaders to share the gospel with group members.
- You are willing to see 85%+ of your newest members disappear by their fifth year of membership. Dr. Thom Rainer’s research has demonstrated that people in ongoing groups stick with church over the long haul. In fact, if people join the church but do not become involved in an ongoing group, you can’t find over 85% of them five years after they joined the church! Maybe you have something different than Sunday School that is retaining people at an even higher rate. If you do, then you probably don’t need Sunday School.
- You want less volunteers, less people praying, and less people serving. The research for the book Transformational Groups revealed that people in Bible study groups give more financially, serve more often, confess sin at a greater rate, and pray more than people who are not in groups. This is not an exhaustive list, but a representative one, about the power of groups.
By now I hope it is apparent that I’m an advocate of Sunday School and how it helps engage people in Bible study and biblical community. I value the way it provides a space for people of all ages, and a way for them to discover God’s Word in age-appropriate ways.
I suspect you won’t find a better, more effective way to carry out the Great Commission. Perhaps what your Sunday School needs is a slight reorientation or revitalization – a “course correction” if you will, so that it gets back on track and does the hard work of evangelizing and discipling the people in your church and community. If that’s the case, pick up a copy of my book Breathing Life into Sunday School (2019) or my recent release Breakthrough: Creating a New Scorecard for Group Ministry Success.