The Sunday School is the finest integrated church growth tool on the market today!” I have begun numerous conferences in various denominational settings with this assertion. My bold declaration has elicited responses varying from mild amusement, to incredulity, to outright scorn, to enthusiastic endorsement. Often religious educators applauded because they felt a certain sense of satisfaction and job security. Many, however, were guarded in their endorsements because they had not seen their ministry in terms of church growth. Other educators were somewhat hostile because they feared that the emphasis on church growth through the Sunday School would compromise their commitment to educational excellence. In truth, their Sunday School programs were not resulting in church growth. Many pastors stared at me blankly thinking, If the Sunday School is a church growth tool, somebody unplugged mine!
These pastors were unconvinced because they had never seen Sunday School function as a church growth tool. Most American churches have a form of Sunday School in place, but they have not experienced any perceptible growth through this organization.
Sunday School as a church growth tool? This sounds hard to believe when some church growth writers are predicting the demise of the Sunday School. They have labeled it a dinosaur, a relic of a past age. Some contend that the Sunday School was an important growth tool of the past, but it is facing extinction as the church enters the twenty-first century. Are they right?
Is the tool simply unplugged from its power source, or is it worn out and due to be replaced like your daddy’s Oldsmobile? Are we hanging onto Sunday School like a fine antique automobile? Do we polish it and take it out for a drive down memory lane though we intuitively know that we shouldn’t rely on our cherished classic for extended high-speed driving on today’s church growth interstate?
This is a critical question because thousands of churches already have a form of Sunday School or small-group organization in place. We must seek to answer this question honestly, for we are investing valuable resources of money and time in the Sunday School structure. Our intention should never be to preserve an organization for the sake of sheer nostalgia; we need to find tools and organizations that will enable us to fulfill the Great Commission most efficiently. I believe that with a few adjustments aimed at modernization and contextualization, the Sunday School organization can be raised up from its growth malaise and take its place as the church growth tool of the twenty-first century. We can reanimate the behemoth of church growth.
Few would debate the significant role of Sunday School in the history of church growth. Yet we must take a glance backward to learn lessons for the future. It is my conviction that the Sunday School has not lost its effectiveness as a growth tool, but that we no longer use it for its intended purpose. A screwdriver is an effective tool when used properly but is totally ineffective at driving nails.
Sunday Schools first appeared in America during the 1790s. Anne M. Boylan, in her study, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790–1880, writes, “Inspired by British examples, most [Sunday schools] were designed to provide rudimentary instruction to poor working children on their only free day of the week. Robert Raikes and other British evangelicals had pioneered this model during the 1780s by collecting children off city streets, cleaning them up, and keeping them in school for two long Sunday sessions.”1
The British model of Sunday School was primarily a mission school aimed at providing basic education for those unable to attend public education. The earliest American Sunday schools were virtual copies of the British models, providing education and often essentials such as food and clothing to needy children. In time, the British model faded in America, and in its place arose a new type of Sunday School, taught by volunteers and offering a specifically evangelical Protestant curriculum. In the American school, reading was not an end in itself. The greater end was an evangelical interpretation of the Bible and the conversion of the pupil.2
Using the Sunday School program to evangelize children is of such historic significance that Boylan devotes an entire chapter to the discussion of conversion and Christian nurture. She writes, “The earliest goal of evangelical Sunday school workers was simply to bring religious knowledge, and the behavior associated with it, to lower-class youth.” But they accomplished much more: “They would also provide a foundation upon which their charges could construct moral lives. True morality, in their view, emanated from knowledge of the individual’s ultimate accountability to God for his or her actions; without that knowledge, individuals had no incentive to behave correctly.” There was even an evangelistic motive. “Although teachers did not expect their instruction to guarantee conversion—such an expectation would challenge the orthodox doctrine of inability—they did hope for subsequent conversions among pupils who participated in revivals and believed that Sunday school instruction would at the very least ‘rectify and enlighten their consciences,’ creating prudent and circumspect individuals.”3
The earliest American Sunday School organizations were interdenominational and paraecclesiastical. Concern for evangelism, doctrinal purity, and a clear stand on moral issues led to the “denominationalization” of Sunday School. As children were converted through the Sunday School, there arose a greater concern to develop material to teach the unique doctrines of the various denominational groups that employed the Sunday School system through the church.4
Southern Baptists have played a leading role in the recent history of the denominational Sunday School movement. It is thus instructive to look at the purpose statement for Sunday School in the writings of early Baptist leaders. In 1902, E. Y. Mullins said, “The Sunday school must more and more prove a factor of power in the pastor’s work. Already in many churches the Sunday school is the chief and almost only hope for church growth [my emphasis]. But whether in the family church, or the church among the masses of the great city, or the country church, the Sunday school will remain the most hopeful field of evangelistic endeavor.”5
J. M. Frost, first head of the Baptist Sunday School Board, said, “The school becomes as an agency what the church makes it; is capable of almost indefinite expansion in church efficiency as a channel for the output of its energy and life.… As a force for study and teaching the Word of God; as a force for evangelizing and bringing lost sinners to the Saviour; as a force for instruction and education in the mightiest things claiming the attention of men; as a force for mission operation in the worldwide sense; as a force for making Christian character in men and women; and for opening the door of usefulness in a large scale.”6
Arthur Flake, a layman who was instrumental in shaping Southern Baptist Sunday School, wrote, “The supreme business of Christianity is to win the lost to Christ. This is what churches are for … surely then the Sunday school must relate itself to the winning of the lost to Christ as an ultimate objective.”7
The early architects of the Sunday School movement in America believed that the Sunday School must have a Great Commission focus. They did not believe that Sunday School could function properly without a clear and intentional strategy of evangelism. After persons were won to Christ, the Sunday School would nurture and train these new believers even as it helped mature all believers. Yet clearly the enthusiasm and energy for an effective Sunday School came from its clear evangelistic focus.
It is my conviction that the beginning of the so-called demise of Sunday School can be traced to a time when denominations and local churches failed to use the Sunday School with evangelistic intentionality and purpose. When the design was forgotten, the Sunday School became a maintenance tool rather than a growth tool.
While holding growth conferences in diverse settings, I have asked participants, “What is the role of the Sunday School?” I usually get two answers: “Fellowship” and “Bible teaching.” These are important, but fellowship and Bible teaching are not to be the stated purpose of the Sunday School if it is to function as a growth tool. The purpose of the Sunday School is to fulfill the Great Commission.
I am a preacher’s kid. In fact, I am the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. You might surmise that my earliest memories are of Sunday School. I was enrolled on the cradle roll before I was born. Sunday School was formative in my thinking and an ingrained part of my religious tradition. Yet in truth, it was not until relatively recent years that I began to think of the Sunday School as a tool for evangelism and church growth. I had simply never seen Sunday School used to grow the church.
My dad once told me that Sunday Schools in the past were more aggressive in evangelism than those I had experienced as a child. When I was nine years old our family moved from Morganton, North Carolina, to the not-too-distant town of Thomasville. It was hard to leave my church friends in Morganton and that beautiful brick church building in the foot-hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains for a decrepit building overlooking a lumber yard.
Soon, however, our new church experienced growth, and plans were made to relocate the church to a new site on a major road. Often Dad would pick me up from school and take me with him to inspect the progress of the building. These trips began even before the lot was cleared. Once the building was designed, it was as if it already existed in my dad’s mind. One day when he picked me up he was flush with excitement. He could hardly wait for me to see the church. What I saw was hardly spine tingling—ditches with freshly poured concrete outlined by a few stakes with strings drawn down the entire length of the ditch. Workers had laid the foundation, but Dad could visualize the finished project.
He proudly led me on a tour of the sanctuary, pointing out the vestibule, the aisles, the pulpit area, and finally the baptistry. As we stood on a small knoll by the soon-to-be baptistry, he motioned to the strings outlining a much larger rectangle and pointed out to me the future sight of the educational building. He paused momentarily, as if reflecting back over his ministry, and said, “I can remember when virtually everyone we baptized into the church came through our Sunday School ministry. That’s no longer the case. Truth is, I lead most of the new converts to Christ myself. For that reason they are more faithful to come to worship than Sunday School. The Sunday School is changing and I don’t think it bodes well for the future.” That conversation must have taken place about 1960.
Ken Hemphill, Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday School Growth Strategy for the 21st Century (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 1–5.