A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted a long-term trend in the American church: the decline and even closing of Sunday Schools across the nation. While the article really offers no surprises, it summarizes well the reality of this venerable institution. Sunday School is not on the cutting edge of church practices for many congregations. Or, as one young pastor really told me: “Face it, Dr. Rainer, Sunday School is just not cool.”
He was right. At least he was right in that many affirm his perspective. The problem is that, without a healthy Sunday School, the long-term outlook for churches is not positive.
The Name Problem
We have found in our research that one of the problems is the name “Sunday School.” I guess one of the reasons that some shy away from the name is its age. Robert Raikes (1736-1811), a newspaper editor, started Sunday classes as a way to reach out to England's impoverished children in the 1780s. The Wall Street Journal article notes that, in Protestant circles, the Sunday School movement was "the greatest lay movement since Pentecost. Sunday School traveled across the pond in the 1790s, eventually becoming the Protestant norm here.”
Because of its antiquity, and because poor practices and curriculum have often been a part of Sunday School, some rejected the program and its name, and relegated it to the history books. The baby was thrown out with the bath water.
The Definition Problem
Another common issue is the lack of consensus on what Sunday School really is. For some mainline churches, it was a program for children only. And evangelical churches have lacked clarity on the type of small group Sunday School should be. Is it an open group or a closed group? When should it meet? Does it have to meet on the church campus? What depth of study should characterize Sunday School?
The Opportunities Abound
Somewhere in the midst of the conversation, confusion, and debate, the value of Sunday School has been lost. Do you realize that a person in a Sunday School class is five times more likely to be assimilated and discipled in a church than a person who attends worship only? Did you know that Sunday School increases biblical literacy and encourages personal Bible study? Are you aware that churches with the healthiest Sunday School organizations are likely the healthiest churches evangelistically?
The evidence of the efficacy of Sunday School is clear if not overwhelming. Yet for many church leaders, it’s not edgy or cool. And it therefore is devalued and minimized.
It’s time for the cool factor to return to Sunday School.
A Healthy Sunday School
What are some of the characteristics of a healthy Sunday School? For one, it is the priority of the leadership of the church, particularly the senior pastor. And the plan of study or curriculum is not haphazard where all are doing their own thing. What takes place in Sunday School is no less planned than what is preached in the pulpit.
A healthy Sunday School is an open group, where anyone can attend at any point. A healthy Sunday School has the best teachers who are trained and capable. And a healthy Sunday School is well organized and given a prominent place in the life of the church.
Though some churches simply do not have the facilities to accommodate large numbers of persons in Sunday School at one time, the highest attended classes are those that precede or follow a worship service on the church campus. But if the church does not have sufficient education space, off-campus classes are certainly better than no classes.
The Cool Sunday School
One of the most encouraging trends in the American church today is the way in which young leaders are embracing the primacy of preaching. Strong text-driven and expositional preaching is now a priority among some of the most respected young pastors today.
I pray that the small group Bible study called Sunday School will begin to be embraced with similar fervor. I’m not hung up on the name assigned to it. I just pray that men, women, boys and girls will return to the experience of regular group Bible study.
It’s the trend of some of the healthiest churches in America.
And that’s really cool.
Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.