The parachurch organizations make an interesting study. They certainly have contributed significantly to youth evangelism. However, the venerable Sunday School has reached a lot of young people as well.
Robert Raikes started the first Sunday School in Gloucester, England in 1780. A dedicated social reformer, Raikes established his school to improve the miserable life that workhouse children endured. Raikes taught the children reading, writing, and religion. Despite opposition from the Church of England, Sunday Schools multiplied. When Raikes died in 1811, four hundred thousand youngsters attended classes all over Great Britain.6
The first Sunday School in America was started in Virginia in 1785. The number of schools grew steadily, but Sunday School received its greatest boost when the American Sunday School Union was organized in 1824. This was one of several significant institutions spawned by the Second Great Awakening. Many of the early Sunday Schools operated separately from the churches. Some pastors refused to allow a Sunday School in their churches because they doubted that laymen could teach the Bible.
Gradually the denominations began to see the potential for growth held by Sunday Schools. The Methodists and Baptists began to include Sunday School in their church programs, and other denominations followed their example.
The American Sunday School Union committed itself to evangelizing the Mississippi Valley by establishing Sunday Schools throughout the region. The Sunday School Union sent eighty missionaries to fulfill this goal. The most famous of these missionaries was Stephen Paxson. Riding his horse, named Robert Raikes, Paxson traveled through Illinois and Indiana starting Sunday Schools. During his ministry Paxson enrolled eighty-three thousand young people and established 1,314 Sunday schools. Scholars estimate that four of every five churches in the Mississippi Valley began as Sunday Schools, and in one year alone seventeen thousand people made professions of faith.7
Around 1900 Sunday School enrollment in the mainline denominations began to decline. Many of these churches viewed Sunday School as merely a means of providing religious education for the children of their members. However, the more conservative churches and denominations began to develop the Sunday School as an outreach organization. The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention promoted Sunday School as the outreach arm of the local church.
Arthur Flake provided strategic leadership for Sunday School development within the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1920 he was appointed head of the Sunday School Board’s new department of Sunday School Administration. Flake soon developed and popularized principles of Sunday School growth. Through his book, Building a Standard Sunday School, Flake laid out a five-point formula for Sunday School growth:
Thousands of churches followed Flake’s formula and experienced growth. In fact, Flake’s simple principles became the “Five Commandments” for Sunday School directors in the Southern Baptist Convention.8
Baptists made the Sunday School their key tool for evangelism. In 1945 J. N. Barnette wrote, “During the past quarter of a century approximately 85 percent of all church members, either by baptism or letter, have come out of the Sunday school enrolment.… The Sunday school is formed and operated for the purpose of reaching the lost.”9
Southern Baptists have tended to point toward organization in general and to Flake’s principles in particular as the key factor in their Sunday School growth. Elmer Towns discounted the role of organization and pointed instead to the evangelistic fervor of the pastors, commitment of the teachers, and dedication to the Bible as the important factors. Organization alone cannot account for the growth, but Flake’s formula provided a simple and effective approach that enabled Southern Baptists to channel their enthusiasm.10
The 1970s brought a remarkable increase in Sunday School growth. In 1968 there were only twelve Sunday Schools of all denominations that averaged more than two thousand in Sunday School. By 1981 forty-nine churches averaged more than two thousand. Several factors contributed to this development. First, the 1970s was the decade of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist churches proliferated during this period, and they emphasized Sunday School attendance. For example, in 1981 the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, averaged over fifteen thousand for the year. The use of church buses also boosted attendance. A large Sunday School attendance became a matter of prestige among some pastors.
Throughout most of church history, no specific efforts were made to evangelize young people. This changed in the 1800s. During this period the Sunday School and YMCA were founded to reach young people. Youth ministries multiplied rapidly during and after World War II. The founders of these ministries sought to win high school and college students and fill gaps left by the churches. No doubt these organizations did much good, but they also left some with the impression that local churches were ineffective in evangelizing youth. It remains to be seen if the churches can recapture the initiative or if they will surrender responsibility to parachurch organizations.
For their part, the parachurch organizations need to show a closer linkage to local churches. They claim to be servants of the church, but practical benefits of this servant spirit are often hard to find. The organizations report impressive numbers of conversions, but it is not clear how many of these converts become active adult members of local churches.
John Mark Terry, Evangelism: A Concise History (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 180–183.