Last year the Florida Baptist Historical Society commissioned me to write an article for their journal on the importance of Sunday School today. Now that the article has appeared in their journal, I have been granted permission to release it here, which I will do in several posts to keep the word count reasonable. I hope you enjoy reading why I believe Sunday School is still vitally important in our post-COVID world. I am a product of two church’s Sunday School ministries. My mother insisted that she, my sister, and I attend weekly, even when my father had dropped out of church and declined to go with us. I am thankful for the Sunday School teachers I had as a child and as a teenager. These special people poured into me and taught me to understand and obey God’s Word – I wish I could go back and thank every one of them for allowing themselves to be used by God to guide me spiritually.
I have served three churches and led their Sunday School ministries as the discipleship pastor. Two of the three became the fastest-growing Sunday Schools in two different states, so it is easy for me to appreciate, applaud, and argue for its continued place of prominence in the church today. I love to brag on what God has done through the men and women who have led Bible study groups in my churches. They are the true heroes, empowered by the Holy Spirit and dedicated to making a difference as disciple-making group leaders. I am proud to say, “I love Sunday School.”
A VITAL MINISTRY TODAY
The word vital is defined as “of the utmost importance, fundamentally concerned with or affecting life or living beings.”[i] As applied to the ministry of Sunday School, the definition fits perfectly. Sunday School is of the utmost importance to the church today, and it is fundamentally concerned with affecting the life of its members and guests for Christ. The ministry of Sunday School was transplanted from England to the early American colonies in the mid-1600s, being “Americanized” as the country moved westward. Sunday School became a response to the Great Commission’s command to make disciples, which includes both evangelism and biblical instruction. Sunday School was vital over three hundred years ago, and it is still vital today. Tom Rainer, a self-described Sunday School skeptic at one point, said, “Any lingering doubts I had about Sunday School were erased when my research team and I…conducted a survey of 576 churches in America. I learned once again that the leading churches in our nation value the Sunday School in growing a church and assimilating members.”[ii]
THE ROLE AND IMPORTANCE OF SUNDAY SCHOOL
Sunday School may be defined as follows: Sunday School is the church’s foundational discipleship strategy for people of all ages where they learn to think and act like Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sunday School must be accessible for spiritually lost persons while simultaneously meeting the needs of growing believers.
Disciples learn in rows by grow in circles. This acknowledges the importance of a small-group strategy for growing believers as disciples beyond what they learn and experience in a worship service. “Preaching to make disciples is like going to the nursery and spraying crying babies with milk and saying you just fed the kids…discipleship involves more than preaching and listening.”[iii] Southern Baptists have long been known as people of the Word, and they have also been known for their strong commitment to teaching the Bible in small groups through the ministry of Sunday School.
IS SUNDAY SCHOOL STILL NEEDED TODAY?
David Francis, the former Director of Sunday School at Lifeway Christian Resources, explored the research conducted for the book Transformational Church. The original research began with a survey of 7,000 Protestant pastors, included interviews with 250 churches, plus surveys of 15,000 church members. Francis identified the percentage of transformational churches that used Sunday School as their primary discipleship strategy. The results were impressive. 87.8% of churches that were identified as transformational employed Sunday School as their foundational discipleship strategy. This demonstrates that Sunday School continues to be a strong foundational approach for making disciples. Sunday School is needed today because it creates a place for several crucial things to happen that are important in the process of making disciples.
Sunday School is a Place for Connection & Community
Throughout the book of Acts, the first-century church discipled Christians in two primary places. The philosophy seen in Acts is also the basis for the philosophy of groups today. Throughout Acts, people gathered in two primary places. The church grew exponentially at this time, and first-century believers came together in the temple courts to worship Jesus and hear the Word of God spoken and applied to them by the apostles. This is the first of the two kinds of gatherings seen in Acts.
The second kind of gathering took place in the homes of Christians. There is a glimpse of group life in Acts 2:42-47. It was in these smaller circles that believers enjoyed times of prayer, fellowship, ministry, service, and growth. Thousands of new believers were assimilated into the church through small groups. Today, the majority of Southern Baptist churches use a similar philosophy: large-group worship and a small-group strategy called Sunday School.
Christians today need connection and community like their first-century counterparts. Author Carey Nieuwhof’s has proposed that community and connection will be more important than the content delivered in group Bible study. “Growing churches…will realize that connection and community will win out over content in the end, and they will focus their resources there. Nobody should be able to out-local or out-community the local the church. Absolutely produce the best content you can, but make the goal connecting with people. When you provide connection (getting to know people, moving them into community, caring for them), it will provide a loyalty and sense of tribe that people can’t get elsewhere.”[iv]
Sunday School is a Place for Spiritual Transformation
The practice of meeting together in smaller groups has changed since the first century, but the goal is similar to what took place in Jerusalem as the earliest believers met together in small groups. Today people connect to one another relationally in groups. Praying together, serving together, learning together, and giving from an overflow of their financial resources are common practices of growing disciples. These outcomes, seen in Acts 2:42-47, can be found in healthy groups today.
The data mined from the Transformational Group research project conducted by Lifeway Research and the executive director, Scott McConnell, reinforced the belief that groups matter – a lot. The research surveyed 2,930 American adults who attended a Protestant church at least once a month. Within the research project, the Lifeway team learned a tremendous amount about the importance of groups to the success of a church as it seeks to make disciples. Is Sunday School relevant? Do groups truly matter? The answer according to the research is a resounding yes.
The Transformational Group research project uncovered eight ways in which people grow as disciples. These eight attributes can be seen in the lives of people who are on a pathway of discipleship and growth. Being involved in a Bible study group accelerated the people’s spiritual growth in every way. The eight attributes of discipleship are:
- Bible engagement
- Obeying God and denying self
- Serving God and others
- Sharing Christ
- Exercising faith
- Seeking God
- Building relationships
- Living unashamed[v]
The research was compelling because it demonstrated how regular involvement in a group accelerates a believer’s growth as a disciple.[vi]
|Question||Did not attend a group||Attended a group 4+ times a month|
|I intentionally spend time with other believers in order to help them grow in their faith||22%||63%|
|I have developed significant relationships with people at my church||57%||89%|
|I am intentionally putting my spiritual gift(s) to use serving God and others||42%||73%|
|I intentionally try to get to know new people I meet at church||37%||67%|
|Throughout the day I find myself thinking about biblical truths||45%||74%|
|Spiritual matters do not tend to come up as a normal part of my daily conversations with other Christians||38%||19%|
|If a person is sincerely seeking God, he/she can obtain eternal life through religions other than Christianity||33%||18%|
The authors of the book Transformational Groups noted other ways in which involvement in a group is advantageous for a believer. The research demonstrated that people in groups give financially at a higher level than those not in groups, they share their faith more frequently, they confess sin more frequently, they serve to a greater degree than people not in groups, and they are more likely to stay with the church over time more than people who have not connected with a group of their own. The authors noted that, “One thing is definitely clear: Those who attend groups act and think differently from those who do not. We passionately believe that engaging in small groups…promotes and even causes such greater involvement and activity. That’s been our experience…”[vii]
I will release Part 2 of this journal article on Wednesday this week. In the meantime, I hope that you have a blessed week, and that your love for the ministry of Sunday School continues to grow as you become more aware of how it has changed, and is changing, countless people’s lives today.
[ii] Tom Rainer, High Expectations: The Remarkable Secret for Keeping People in Your Church (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999), 31.
[iii] Robby Gallaty, Growing Up (Nashville: B&H Books, 2013), 25.
[v] Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, Transformational Groups, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2014), 39.
[vi] Ibid, 41
[vii] Ibid, 44
It’s great that you elaborated on the role and importance of Sunday school for children, this prompts them to build up their personality traits as true Christians by taking into their hearts that Jesus is their one true savior. I have a friend who has a daughter, he wanted her to attend a baptist church Sunday school for her to be acclimated with the right environment and people, he asked me if I had any idea. Thanks to this article, I will surely tell them to inquire at a local baptist church for more information.