Basics of Sunday School Growth

06 May 2021 2:05 PM | Josh Hunt (Administrator)

As a young pastor, I inherited Sunday School programs that were well established but hardly aggressive in outreach. I pastored a rural church of 120 members, a small-town church of 700 members, and a metropolitan church of 6,000 members. In each case, when I came to the church the Sunday School was reasonably well organized in the preschool, children, and youth divisions but was essentially stagnant in the adult areas. Because none of these churches had a clear strategy for organizing the Sunday School for growth, most of the small groups had plateaued or declined over time, accurately displaying the condition of the church as a whole.

The beginning of the awakening

In the first two churches I pastored we experienced growth; it was reflected in the Sunday School attendance, but it was not driven by the Sunday School organization. The Sunday School was simply the recipient of growth, not the catalyst of growth. In these churches the growth was fueled by visitation, worship, and an aggressive youth program.

In one pastorate I stumbled over the potential for growth through the Sunday School. We had a number of young single members who were regular in worship attendance but had not attended Sunday School since they were in the youth department. We began a college and career class. To my amazement the class began to attract other young singles who had not been attending church anywhere. They were brought by friends! At that time I knew little about the growth principles of homogeneity and receptivity, but later I began to see that these accepted growth principles were inherent in the Sunday School structure.

On another occasion, we started a pastor’s class for a group of median adult couples who attended our worship service but were uncomfortable in our existing Sunday School structure. In this case too, the class grew and attracted a new group of folk not previously involved in the church. Forming the new classes created a permanent growth situation. Both church membership and attendance increased and were sustained at these new higher levels. Other growth projects had produced momentary gains, but those gains had soon dissipated. Little did I know that I was discovering the value of the “New Unit Principle,” which I will describe later in this chapter.

The growth discovery

I became the pastor of First Baptist Church of Norfolk in 1981. The church had recently relocated near the rapidly growing Virginia Beach area in Tidewater. A fire that destroyed the downtown plant had forced the move in the early 1970s. At the new location the church grew rapidly, peaking at an average of 550 in Sunday School attendance in 1976. It then declined slowly back to the 380 average Sunday School attendance mark that I inherited in 1981.

During the early months of my ministry at First, Norfolk, God began to give us immediate and spectacular results. People were joining the church every Sunday. This rapid growth was taxing to me and the one other staff person serving the church. After I had been serving the church for six months, my staff colleague was called to serve alongside the former pastor. Not only did we have insufficient staffing, but also we had even less money and physical resources. Before you think I am painting a bleak picture, I must be honest to tell you that I discovered one incredible asset. The church was blessed with a highly committed group of laypeople who had been praying for God to awaken the church to its potential and who were willing to work. Many of these persons had been faithfully serving in the Sunday School program for many years.

In those early months, I focused on the basics: preaching, teaching, training, and visiting. The rapid growth of the church was exciting but draining. The church outgrew my ability and energy rather quickly. I soon began to ask myself, “How do I care for the needs of all the church members and continue to reach the lost?” While I knew that God was sufficient, I had grave doubts about my own sufficiency. The needs were overwhelming. The young couples we were reaching had several small children, and the preschool was quickly overcrowded. We needed workers! We had seen many people profess Christ as Savior, but now we faced a huge discipling task. How could we organize to accomplish this massive task? I knew that if I stopped emphasizing our new visitation program, we would stop reaching the lost. My passion for the lost of Tidewater would not permit me to consider such an option even though many other tasks vied for our attention and resources.

I felt like the circus juggler who spins plates on long, pointed sticks. He gets two or three spinning, then he pauses to spin a new plate, but one of the spinning plates wobbles and falls to the ground. I would launch one new program after the other, trying to meet all the complex needs of a growing church. The core leaders responded to my desperate cries for help as they scurried to shore up the preschool or the outreach program or the discipling ministry. I’m sure the people must have felt that I was indecisive and unsure, for such was certainly the case. We were doing too many things but achieving few results. We had many programs, but they were disconnected. How could we organize the church to fulfill the Great Commission?

I began to devour church growth books in an attempt to find a means of coping with the growth that God was causing in our church. In each book I would find good ideas and helpful organizational structure, but it was disjointed in my thinking. With our limited staff and resources, I knew that I needed a more integrated tool, one that was simple to organize and manage.

The converging streams

Several events flowed together in my own experience that led to the conviction that the Sunday School, with its age-graded, small-group structure, might be the integrated growth tool for which I was searching.

With my Sunday School director, Dick Baker, I attended a Growth Spiral Conference led by Andy Anderson. As Andy described the Sunday School Growth Spiral, I began to recognize many parallels between the principles he was espousing and those in the pile of church growth books I had been reading. The parallels between Sunday School work and church growth principles were numerous and unmistakable. Then it dawned on me: I already have a single organization that embraces acknowledged church growth principles. Why should I create several more ministries to do the work Sunday School was designed to do?

I left that conference with a clear vision, and I was committed to make Sunday School the central organization for church growth. On the drive home, Dick and I talked about setting enrollment goals, establishing new teaching units, and administrating the Sunday School as a growth ministry, not just a maintenance organization.

I began with an abundance of zeal and a modicum of knowledge. Our first enrollment goal was for a net gain of 840 persons in Bible study. I enthusiastically had posters and banners made declaring that goal. Little did I know that a goal for over 60 percent net gain in a single year was impossible in a large church. With supernatural empowering and clear vision, even the impossible is achievable. We actually exceeded our growth goals for the year. We were well on our way to using the Sunday School as a growth tool.

One question still plagued me: If the Sunday School is such an effective growth tool, why are so few churches growing? Most of the churches that I knew about in our area had some small-group Bible study plan that resembled our Sunday School organization. Why were so few churches experiencing any real growth? Something was missing.

I found the missing factor in the equation when I attended a conference with Harry Piland, former director of the Sunday School division of the Baptist Sunday School Board. Piland stated that any adult Bible study class that had not attempted to lead anyone to Christ during the past year had missed their purpose for existing. He then affirmed that Sunday School must first be an evangelistic tool. Sunday School and outreach evangelism! I had never really connected the Sunday School with evangelistic outreach. I knew that it was effective for conserving the results of evangelism, but I had never seen a Sunday School designed for outreach.

The idea shocked me, and it rattled some of my finest teachers. Some were so convicted by their lack of evangelistic concern that they even considered resigning their classes. In the end, we all decided that repentance was more appropriate than resignation. Thus began the vision to give the Sunday School an evangelistic focus at First Baptist, Norfolk.

The event that allowed me to integrate my thinking about church growth and Sunday School was the opportunity to teach a course entitled “Growing an Evangelistic Church” at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The course was designed to cover every phase of church growth. I required my students to read a wide range of materials from several different authors. As I was lecturing on the ratios for church growth, I was dumbfounded by the similarities between the ratios for growth described by Win Arn, one of the founding fathers of the church, and basic Sunday School principles. This discovery caused me to examine more closely basic Sunday School concepts and principles espoused by church growth authors. It was the final clue that helped me discover the evangelistic Sunday School as an integrated growth tool.

Parallels between Growth Principles and Sunday School

All church growth authors agree on principles though their methods differ. The distinction between method and principle is basic. Methods are many; principles are few. Methods are often tied to a particular setting, time, and person or group of persons; principles are timeless and universally applicable. A method that works well in an Atlanta suburban congregation might fail in a rural Kentucky church. In truth, it might not work in another Atlanta suburban congregation. Methods must always be contextualized. Yet the principles by which these congregations experience growth are the same.

Delos Miles, in his book Church Growth: A Mighty River, isolates six growth principles that run through the writings of virtually every church growth author. Miles states that all methodological strategies are based on these six principles of church growth: the Process Principle, the Pyramid Principle, the Receptivity Principle, the New Unit Principle, the Homogenous Principle, and the Leadership Principle.8 I contend that these six principles of church growth are inherent in a properly designed evangelistic Sunday School.

Principle 1: The Process Principle

The Process Principle maintains that church growth is a process and not an event. As such, a process requires planning, goal setting, management of resources, and regular evaluation of results and effectiveness. Because church growth is a process, it is neither a passing fad nor is it a quick-fix program.

The need for planning, goal setting, management of resources, and the like strongly motivated me to organize our Sunday School to function as a church growth tool. The fundamentals for managing the process of growth were already in place through the Sunday School organization.

One of the great and continuing growth stories of our generation is First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Copastors Homer Lindsay Jr. and Jerry Vines recently occupied their new 9,000-seat sanctuary debt free. Over the past fourteen years they have baptized 13,133 people, averaging 938 a year.

Recently, I asked a group of growth leaders to name the church that was doing a good job in reaching children, youth, singles, young adults, and various other categories. I was expecting them to name a different church in each category, but without exception they mentioned First, Jacksonville. This church has been a leader in many categories for years. How do they do it? How do they organize for such consistent and long-term growth? They focus on exalting Jesus and on personal soul-winning, and they organize everything through the Sunday School. Dr. Vines recently told me that he is always surprised when church growth experts trot out some new program or strategy for outreach, assimilation, or discipleship. They herald this new program as the latest innovation and the greatest need of the growing church. Yet when compared with a properly designed Sunday School, Vines notes, “They seem so complex and cumbersome when you can do it all so effectively and easily through the Sunday School.”

Principle 2: The Pyramid Principle

The Pyramid Principle is discussed under several different names. It is actually a pictorial representation of growth. To enlarge the pyramid, you must first enlarge its base. The base of the pyramid is the organization structure for growth. Thus many would affirm that the base of the pyramid is the small-group structure through which Bible study, assimilation, and discipling relationships occur. Thus if we are to enlarge the attendance structure of our church on a permanent basis, we must continue to increase the number of small groups in the organizational base of our church.

In chapter 5 we will discuss in detail how the organizational structure for growth must be increased and is most easily expanded by developing new units and new departments in the Bible study structure of the church.

Principle 3: The Receptivity Principle

The Receptivity Principle establishes evangelism as a priority for church growth and discusses how best to present the gospel by understanding and developing natural receptivity in those to whom you are witnessing. In simple terms, the Receptivity Principle states that the church should invest most of its resources where they will return the best evangelistic harvest.

Jesus instructed His disciples to brush the dust from their feet when rejected and to go to a house that would receive them. This does not mean that the church can ignore those who reject our witness; it simply means that we must first harvest the fields that are ripe. While we are harvesting ripe fields, we can work to break down barriers to the gospel in the less receptive fields. Small groups for Bible study can often create a door of opportunity to create and foster growing receptivity for evangelistic results.

Principle 4: The Homogenous Principle

This is another principle that focuses on the evangelistic task of Sunday School. The Homogeneous Principle recognizes that the gospel witness often travels with greater receptivity through a kinship or friendship unit. Each homogenous unit in the church can become a bridge for the church to move evangelistically into the world and for the secular person to find access to the church. The growing church will sensitize its people to recognize natural homogenous groupings and utilize these as means for spreading the gospel. This principle has been fully utilized in friendship evangelism strategies. Homogeneity is the basis for a Friend Day in Sunday School. Homogeneity is the power behind the personal invitation.

The church growth movement has come under attack for its emphasis on the Homogenous Principle. This principle could be less than Christian if it fosters a spirit of racism or elitism in the church. It must never be used to justify ignoring social injustices. We can, however, reach the lost by recognizing that people look for a homogenous unit where they share some characteristics in common and to which they can belong.

For example, if you wanted to reach families living in a trailer park, you could win one family in that trailer park to Christ, organize a Bible study in their home, and invite their friends and neighbors. From here you could move to fully integrate the new Christians into the life of the church. Once they accept Christ, they will have a new sense of homogeneity with other members of the body of Christ. In the church at Antioch (Acts 11), we have the remarkable scene of Jew and Gentile eating together. The Spirit of God had created homogeneity between two groups that had been alienated previously, but now they were united as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The small groups of Sunday School provide a natural means of using the principle of homogeneity for outreach and for developing homogenous relationships for assimilation.

Principle 5: The New-Unit Principle

Growth emanates from new units, new members, and new churches. Remember, new canes of a rose bush produce beautiful roses. Older units or groups begin to calcify. Newcomers find these old groups hard to penetrate. Churches must regularly create new groups to maintain the flow of new life. Remember the Pyramid Principle: Establishing new units expands the organizational base of the pyramid, thus empowering the Pyramid Principle.

Principle 6: The Leadership Principle

The master key of the church growth movement is leadership. To sustain meaningful growth, a church must have plenty of Great Commission-conscious leaders. This is why the growing church puts a high priority on recruiting and training leaders. The Sunday School is well designed to recruit and allocate church growth leaders.

As we look carefully at the basics of Sunday School work, we will see that all these principles are incorporated in the properly designed evangelistic Sunday School. When I examined my church in light of these principles, I realized I already had the program I needed in place. In addition, I could integrate the six principles into a single organizational strategy. I didn’t have to recruit and train leadership for several programs; I could do it all through one central ministry. I didn’t have to keep five different plates spinning at one time!

Revitalizing the Great Commission Mind-set

Let me close by returning to a set of questions:

  • Is the Sunday School irreparably broken? No.
  • Is it unplugged? Often, yes.
  • What will empower the Sunday School to function as an effective church growth tool? A vision to fulfill the Great Commission.

The Sunday School must be plugged into a passion for evangelism; otherwise, it will settle into the comfort zone of a maintenance organization. By ignoring the evangelistic potential of the Sunday School, we have reduced Sunday School to a stagnant pool of introverted groups that look primarily to their own needs and interests and ignore the plight of the unsaved.

Your Sunday School does not have to remain stagnant! It can give your church the most effective Great Commission tool ever designed if it focuses on evangelism and if its purpose statement is clearly understood by all those who work and participate in it.

The Six Principles of Sunday School Growth

  1. The Process Principle: Church growth is a process, not an event.
  2. The Pyramid Principle: If you want to grow, enlarge your base.
  3. The Receptivity Principle: Invest the most resources where they will return the best evangelistic results.
  4. The Homogeneity Principle: The gospel witness often travels with greatest receptivity through a kinship or friendship unit.
  5. The New Unit Principle: New units that enlarge the organization bring growth.
  6. The Leadership Principle: To sustain meaingful growth, a church must have plenty of Great Commission-conscious leaders.

Ken Hemphill, Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday School Growth Strategy for the 21st Century (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 7–15.

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