The Role & Importance of Sunday School Today, Part 2

In my last post I focused on the importance of Sunday School ministry in our post-COVID world by sharing part of a journal article I wrote for the Florida Baptist Historical Society. Today, here is part 2 in this series.

If you need help with your church’s Sunday School ministry, consider reading the following books:


Sunday School from a different era. I’m thankful for the history and foundation laid by faithful churches and their teachers.

Thom Rainer, former Lifeway president, spoke to the power of Sunday School’s ability to connect people relationally and create community in his book High Expectations. “After nearly a decade of researching two thousand churches of different sizes, locations, and denominations, I cannot say that I am surprised that Sunday school was rated so highly as an assimilation tool.”[i] There is power in group ministry, which is the power of connection and relationships. Why is Sunday School so vital and important today? The answer is that people are created for relationship (Genesis 2:18). Churches that emphasize connection in groups, and not just the delivery of content in groups, position themselves to have a powerful ministry. In another research project, Dr. Rainer learned that if people are not connected to a Bible study group and choose to attend worship only, in five years only 16% of new members can be found. Conversely, if new people join the church and commit to attend a group regularly, 83% are still connected to the church at the end of the same five-year period.[ii]

Sunday School is a Place for Biblical Instruction

Sunday School provides ongoing groups for people of all ages. Groups for people “from birth to heaven” can be found in most churches, making Sunday School an attractive place for families to receive biblical instruction while on the church campus. Age-graded classes for kids, students, and adults are common, as are lifestyle or affinity-based groups for adults.

Sunday School engages people in foundational discipleship, and as such it is a place where biblical illiteracy is combatted. Americans struggle to read their Bibles regularly.  “Just over one-third of U.S. adults (34%) reads the Bible once a week or more, while half (50%) read the Bible less than twice a year (including “never”). In between these two extremes, we find those who read the Bible more than twice a year, but not on a weekly basis (16%). Overall, one in six U.S. adults (16%) reads the Bible most days during the week…”[iii]


As Sunday School evolved during the early 19th century, the American version expanded its mission beyond the social gospel emphasis of the British model from which it came. “Sunday School became an evangelical enterprise…Sunday School was embraced by many churches relatively early – especially evangelical churches.”[iv] Southern Baptists were among groups of evangelicals that embraced and endorsed the ministry of Sunday School.

From 1917 through 1919, the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic raged. “An estimated 500 million people were infected worldwide (around one third of the world’s population) and 50 – 100 million people died (three to five percent of the global population).”[v] In the aftermath of this terrible pandemic, the Baptist Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention embraced Sunday School as a discipleship strategy and enlisted a man to become the first secretary of the new Sunday School Administration Department. This man’s important work was to help Southern Baptist churches strengthen Sunday Schools and reach people for Christ. This man’s name was Arthur Flake, the father of the modern Southern Baptist Sunday School movement. Through his eighteen books and constant championing of Sunday School growth principles and best practices, Flake helped usher in a period of church growth during the Roaring Twenties and beyond. An entire department rose up under Flake’s leadership, one that had the assignment of training and strengthening the Sunday Schools of Southern Baptist churches. “At the age of fifty-eight, he began his most enduring work. In the field…he tested and refined his technique for building a Sunday School. Now he summarized them in five simple points that became famous as ‘Flake’s Formula.’”[vi] After only four years of Flake’s leadership at the Baptist Sunday School Board, Sunday School enrollment was up by 600,000 people. Receipts at the Board more than doubled from $634,000 in 1919 to $1.42 million by 1924.

Following Flake’s tenure at the Baptist Sunday School Board, other men followed in his steps and continued to write, train, speak, and encourage churches to utilize Sunday School as their primary approach to making disciples. Spillman, Francis, Taylor, Piland, and others dating back to the time of Arthur Flake have all championed the growth of Southern Baptist churches through the ministry of Sunday School.

Southern Baptists continued to embrace Sunday School when they came into possession of two conference centers, one at Ridgecrest, NC., and the other in Glorieta, NM. “As Glorieta developed over the years, it became the third largest tourist destination in the state, with a picturesque lake, beautiful buildings, and gardens laid out over eight years…”[vii] These two places became training centers for Southern Baptist pastors and lay Sunday School leaders for decades. Tens of thousands of men and women experienced Sunday School training at these conference centers.

The Baptist Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (now known as Lifeway Christian Resources) continued to embrace Sunday School by publishing dozens of books to train Sunday School leaders. Study course books familiarized lay leaders with best practices for Sunday School groups, and informed them about the characteristics of the children, students, and adults whom they taught. During David Francis’ tenure as the Director of Sunday School, he authored annual Sunday School support books, including conference training plans to help churches teach the content to their Sunday School leaders. More recently, books such as Breathing Life into Sunday School and Breakthrough: Creating a New Scorecard for Group Ministry Success continue to promote best practices in Sunday School ministry.

Southern Baptist churches also embraced Sunday School through the curriculum developed at the Baptist Sunday School Board. Developed in agreement with the SBC’s Baptist Faith & Message statement, curriculum from the Baptist Sunday School Board provided churches with trustworthy content for people of all ages.

Changing Methodologies

Sunday School methodologies have undergone numerous changes over the last two centuries. Sunday Schools across the country have continued to adjust and adapt to changing conditions in both the church and in the culture. Some of the changes are seen most notably in the following areas:

  • Training – In the past, Sunday School training was often conducted weekly as a way to prepare group leaders to teach on the following Sunday. Training took place on Sunday or Wednesday evenings, and it was conducted at the church campus. Over the last two centuries, the training of workers has changed and become less frequent. Today, it is not unusual for churches to provide training monthly, quarterly, annually, or never.
  • Location– The majority of churches conducted Sunday School at the church campus and on Sunday mornings between the hours of 9AM to 11AM. Today, churches have shifted their campus-centric philosophy to offer classes at times other than Sunday mornings, and in locations besides the church campus. In addition to meeting off-campus and on days other than Sunday, groups have learned to move their location online.
  • Purpose – Sunday School has historically been considered the outreach arm of the church. People like Arthur Flake promoted the idea that evangelism was the primary purpose of Sunday School when he said, “The supreme business of Christianity is to win the lost to Christ. This is what churches are for. It was Christ’s supreme mission…surely then the Sunday School must relate itself to the winning of the lost to Christ as an ultimate objective.”[viii] Today the evangelistic purpose of groups has given way to an emphasis on discipleship. The goal of many groups is to go deeper in their understanding of Scripture, which often diminishes the outward focus of the group that was so prevalent in the last century.
  • Curriculum – A shift has occurred in groups today with regard to the curriculum used by groups. In the past a denominational publisher was the primary source of curriculum for groups. The Baptist Sunday School Board (Lifeway Christian Resources today) supplied Southern Baptist churches with curriculum for all age groups in the past. Today, group leaders who write their own studies, or churches that create sermon-based curriculum, are becoming more prevalent. There is less loyalty to denominational publishers such as Lifeway as new options are discovered.
  • Children’s Sunday School – Over the past two hundred years, foundational discipleship for children has been conducted through small Sunday School groups. Children have been placed in Bible study groups based on age or school grade with appropriate student-teacher ratios. In those groups, teachers have led children to explore the Bible and apply it to life. Because of the small nature of these groups, teachers developed relationships with children and their parents. Today, however, a shift has occurred in many churches. Volunteer recruitment is more challenging today, and churches often struggle to recruit leaders who will teach for an entire Sunday School year. Today, churches have tried creatively staffing their classrooms with adults who serve for one week at a time, or one month at a time.  


Sunday School still works today, but it must be worked. Just because a church has a ministry called Sunday School does not automatically guarantee that it is a relevant, growing, thriving ministry. It can be, but it requires cultivation, nourishment, attention, and constant maintenance. Churches that committed to have healthy Sunday School ministries have experienced the proportionate blessings. If churches have not poured time, money, resources, and attention into Sunday School, it is no wonder they have decided that it is no longer relevant or needed today. Congregations that are committed to Sunday School believe it is a necessary disciple-making ministry.

[i] Thom S. Rainer, High Expectations: The Remarkable Secret for Keeping People in Your Church (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999), 29.

[ii] Ibid, 45.


[iv] David Francis, Missionary Sunday School (Nashville: Lifeway Press, 2011), 11.


[vi] James T. Draper, Lifeway Legacy (Nashville: B&H Books, 2006), 148.

[vii] Ibid, 213

[viii] Arthur Flake, Building a Standard Sunday School, (Nashville: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention), 98.

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