As a young boy I did not have high-definition television. In fact, we did not have color television. Our family TV was black-and-white. Now go ahead and reach for your handkerchief because we only had three channels from which to select—NBC, CBS, and, if the aluminum foil on the rabbit ears was just right, ABC. Boy, have things ever changed. Television has been around for decades, and it has made drastic improvements.
Like television, Sunday School has been around for decades. Most churches still have a functioning Sunday School. However, many questions have been raised as to the validity of Sunday School in an ever-changing world. What is the benefit of a Sunday School ministry in a local church? What role does Sunday School play in the context of the church's ministry? Does Sunday School fulfill a vital function in helping the church reach her mission? Are we just having Sunday School because we have always had Sunday School? Is it a worn-out method of yesteryear? Does Sunday School still have relevancy in the twenty-first century? These questions beg to see the context of Sunday School in the contemporary church. They seek to know if Sunday School has a vital contribution to make in the life and ministry of a local church. I want to give you six reasons why Sunday School is still a relevant, vital, and necessary ingredient in producing growing disciples and healthy churches.
Sunday School Is Relevant
1. Sunday School gives the church's DNA a natural, functional, practical expression.
I serve the First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Georgia. Under the leadership of our pastor, Dr. Johnny Hunt, we have adopted a fourfold mission for our church that we refer to as our church's DNA. Our mission is to:
- Worship God
- Love Others
- Serve God
- Invite Others
We want every member to be a disciple who loves God with his whole being in accordance with the first and greatest commandment. We want every member to love others, the second great commandment. We want every member to find a place of service and activate their spiritual gifts. We also want every believer to invite others to know Christ, to witness to them, and to invite them to church where they will hear the gospel. These four things are the ingredients of a disciple of Jesus Christ. These four things are the mission of First Baptist Woodstock. They are also the four things we want every one of our members to embrace because they are the church. We need a way to express our DNA, and Sunday School makes that possible in three ways.
Sunday School gives a natural expression to the church's DNA. It is natural for a believer to want to be discipled, build community with others, minister to people's needs, and be on mission with others in the body of Christ. As believers, we naturally desire a supernatural lifestyle because of the One who loves us and lives within us.
As His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2 Pet. 1:3–4, emphasis mine)
Through His divine power God has given us everything we need to live supernaturally. He has even invested His divine nature in us through the person of the Holy Spirit. We need to find a natural way to express that which is naturally in us, and Sunday School fills this need. Sunday School provides a natural mechanism for every believer to express naturally what is supernaturally in them. We have the purpose in our heads and hearts; Sunday School moves it to our hands and feet! Sunday School affords every member a natural way to express the church's mission.
Sunday School gives a functional expression to the church's DNA. The book of Acts gives us the fivefold purpose of the church: worship, evangelism, discipleship, ministry, and fellowship. All of these, with the exception of worship, function better through Sunday School than through the corporate worship service. We have a clear mental picture of these five functions; however, they practically take place through the ministry of small groups.
Sunday School gives a practical expression to the church's DNA. Most of us know what to do; it is finding the how that is challenging. Sunday School is the how behind the what. Our pastors stand in our pulpits and proclaim the Word of God. Their messages tell us what to be and what to do. However, we leave the worship service with no tangible, practical way to express what we just heard. I am afraid that we teach a theology that never gets out of the intellectual and into the practical. Certainly we need to be good thinkers and to be intellectually astute so we can engage lost people who have bought into the lies and deceitfulness of the devil. At the same time, unbelievers must see a practical expression of our sound theology as it is lived out in the context of a real world that is reeling in pain and despair. At some point our theological and practical hands must shake!
Sunday School becomes a vital tool for the church to express her core values.
Sunday School becomes a vital tool for the church to express her core values. I have found that without a tool, our values often go unexpressed. When I was a boy, my Granny used to put my three brothers and me to work in the garden. With school out for the summer, she had to find productive things for us to do to keep us out of trouble. About once a week she would take me to the garden to weed. She would hand me the hoe and instruct me to rid the garden of the weeds. Granny gave me a task: weed the garden. She also gave me a tool to accomplish the task: a hoe. In the church we are guilty of giving people the task without the tool to accomplish that task. Sunday School puts a hoe in all believers' hands for their work in the church garden.
Can a church grow if she does not have a natural, functional, and practical way to express her purpose? It is very doubtful. Sunday School develops missional Christians as each class engages its members in the church's mission. Sunday School drives the mission down and places it on a personal basis. Many churches fail to see their mission accomplished because the mission is imprisoned behind the bars of the theological and philosophical cells. Sunday School releases the mission into the real world of practical living.
2. Mission is best accomplished in the context of small groups.
Any mission is best tackled in a setting of small groups of people. This gives everyone an opportunity for input. Dr. Johnny Hunt has taught me that people pay for what they own. I have found that to be true in my life. I pay for my house, my car, and my belongings. Why? They are mine! I do not make your house or car payments because I do not own them, and I have no part of them. When people are given the privilege to speak into the process, they begin to take ownership of it. If everything is dictated to people, then they will not own that mission. As we meet in small groups, people have the opportunity to speak to the mission that is being pursued by that small group. If a large meeting is the only gathering of God's people, then you run the risk of creating a dictator. Sunday School classes provide a forum for people to speak into the mission, to invest in the mission, and to own the mission.
Small groups not only give people an opportunity for input; they also give everyone an opportunity for involvement. A church cannot survive without the involvement of others. I have often said that the secret to success is the involvement of people! Sunday School allows people to get involved in ministry. Sunday School empowers people and puts them to work. Sunday School gives practical application of the words of Jesus, “Engage...until I come back” (Luke 19:13 HCSB). Let me give you three biblical examples of the principle that “mission is best accomplished in the context of small groups.”
Sunday School empowers people and puts them to work.
And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. So when Moses' father-in-law saw all that he did for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a difficulty, they come to me, and I judge between one and another; and I make known the statutes of God and His laws.” So Moses' father-in-law said to him, “The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: Stand before God for the people, so that you may bring the difficulties to God. And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and show them the way in which they must walk and the work they must do. Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace.” So Moses heeded the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people: rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. So they judged the people at all times; the hard cases they brought to Moses, but they judged every small case themselves. (Exod. 18:13–26)
In this passage we see the mission is to judge the people. Moses, the great leader of God, sat all day judging the grievances of the people. Moses was getting weary and so were the people. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, advised him to get some help, divide the people into smaller groups, and appoint capable men over jurisdictions. They were to be “rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.”
Moses reminds me of some pastors today. They are working hard but not working smart. I have had the blessing of doing conferences in many countries. Over and over again, I see two people in churches doing the entire ministry—the pastor and the worship leader. They are godly men, working hard, loving their people, trying to meet all their needs, erecting buildings, and trying to win their communities to faith in Christ. They are worn out and need some help. Like Moses, they need to be asked, “Why do you sit alone?” (Exod. 18:14). They need a Jethro to step into their life with exhortation, “The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself” (Exod. 18:17–18).
They need to heed the advice of Jethro and find capable people and release ministry to them. I submit to you that Sunday School is that ministry! I have seen pastors all over the world light up when they have caught the vision of getting others involved in vital ministry. Yet I constantly see American churches that are more exposed to the concept of ministry through Sunday School not get it. In some cases they are having Sunday School but they are not using Sunday School.
In some cases they are having Sunday School but they are not using Sunday School.
When the mission was to judge the people, Moses learned that “mission is best accomplished in the context of a small group.”
Ezra and Nehemiah observed this principle being practiced in their day.
Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose; and beside him, at his right hand, stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Urijah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah; and at his left hand Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law: and the people stood in their place. So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading. (Neh. 8:1–8)
In 586 BC the Babylonians had destroyed the magnificent temple that King Solomon had built. Some poor Jews were allowed to remain in the land of Israel, but most were carried away to Babylonian captivity. A remnant had returned, but they lived under much scrutiny and persecution. Under the prophetic ministry of Haggai and Zechariah and the leadership of Zerubbabel, the people rebuilt the temple. Some seventy-five years later under Nehemiah's godly leadership, the people rebuilt the walls of the city. Then Ezra, the scribe of God, stood at the Water Gate and read the Torah to God's chosen people from morning to noon. For many, it was the first time they had heard God's Word. Many did not understand it and needed further instruction. The Scripture says that “Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law.” The Bible does not give the exact details of how this took place, but it does give us the names of thirteen teachers who helped people understand the meaning of the Scripture read by Ezra. This passage also informs us that the Levites also helped to teach the people the meaning of what they had heard. How many Levites were there? The Scripture does not indicate. It would seem that there would have been many. Therefore, these many teachers must have huddled in smaller groups with people to explain the teaching of the Scripture. I have written in the margin of my Bible beside this Scripture “The first organized Sunday School.”
You see, when the mission was to help the people understand the Word of God, Ezra and Nehemiah learned that “mission is best accomplished in the context of a small group.”
In this passage we actually have a biblical account of small group Bible study for the purpose of helping people understand and live the truths of Scripture, and we have not been able to improve on it since!
The last biblical example I offer for your consideration comes from Jesus feeding the five thousand men with the little boy's lunch of five loaves and two fish.
And the apostles, when they had returned, told Him all that they had done. Then He took them and went aside privately into a deserted place belonging to the city called Bethsaida. But when the multitudes know it, they followed Him; and He received them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who had need of healing. When the day began to wear away, the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the multitude away, that they may go into the surrounding towns and country, and lodge and get provisions; for we are in a deserted place here.” But He said to them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless we go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. Then He said to His disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of fifty.” And they did so, and made them all sit down. Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the multitude. So they all ate and were filled, and twelve baskets of the leftover fragments were taken up by them. (Luke 9:10–17)
The people had been with Jesus all day as He was teaching and healing. Apparently they had missed some meals to be with Jesus (There is a message in that!). As the day began to be late, Jesus knew they needed to eat and sent His disciples into the crowd to see if they could find some food. They came back with five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus took the food and then gave a directive to His disciples to “make them sit down in groups of fifty.” Jesus knew that He could best accomplish the task of feeding the people if they were in smaller groups of fifty.
When the mission was to feed the people, Jesus knew that “mission is best accomplished in the context of a small group.”
Sunday School allows a church to break its mission down in bite-size, chewable, digestible pieces. It makes the mission something to get your arms around. It makes the mission doable. Sunday School creates many “ministry teams” throughout the whole church so that everyone can connect to the intended purpose of the church. It is obvious that even the early church met in a large group setting and in small group settings.
Sunday School allows a church to break its mission down in bite-size, chewable, digestible pieces.
And daily in the temple (large group setting), and in every house (small group setting), they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” (Acts 5:42, emphasis mine)
Remember that mission is best accomplished in the context of a small group!
3. Sunday School equips the saints to do the work of the ministry.
Ephesians 4:11–12 is God's formula for church growth.
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.
We have not found a better way to “equip the saints” than Sunday School. We have not found a better way to do “the work of the ministry” than Sunday School. We have not found a better way to “edify the body of Christ” than Sunday School! Sunday School disciples people in the Word of God. Sunday School puts people to work doing the ministry and exercising their spiritual gifts. Therefore, Sunday School is in the business of edifying the people of God like nothing else. This ought to cause many to rise up and champion her cause!
I have had the opportunity to address classes at some of our seminaries. It is such a thrill to speak to our upcoming church leaders. When addressing those preparing to be pastors, I would start out by asking, “When you finish your theological education and a church calls you to be their pastor, are you going to preach the Great Commission?” I then quoted Matthew 28:19–20. Those young seminarians would respond with a hearty “amen.” I then asked, “When you finish your theological education and a church calls you to be their pastor, are you going to preach Ephesians 4:11–12?” Again, I quoted this passage of Scripture and the “amen” was even louder. I then asked one last question, “When you finish your theological training and a church calls you to be their pastor, how are you practically and tangibly going to flesh out the Great Commission and Ephesians 4:11–12?” Silence! You could have heard a pin drop; there was no comment, no response, and no amen. I let the silence linger because it was preaching a loud message: it is one thing to preach it; it is another thing to do it! Now I believe in the power of preaching because I believe in the power of the Word, but at some point spiritual leaders must help people get practical with the Word of God. Nehemiah exhorted the people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, but there came a time when he started mixing mortar and laying bricks!
We have not found a better way to “equip the saints” than Sunday School.
We have not found a better way to help people become doers of the Word than through Sunday School! I challenge anyone to tell me what has done a better job of fleshing out Ephesians 4:11–12 than Sunday School. Let me repeat myself, this ought to cause many to rise up and champion her cause!
Sunday School has had to find ways to equip people to do ministry because…
- Sunday School cannot survive unless she does. It takes multitudes of people to supply workers needed in all age divisions.
- Sunday School is the largest organization in the church (in most cases). Therefore, Sunday School must shoulder the responsibility of equipping the people of the church. If left to a smaller ministry, the church would die for a lack of equipped people.
- Sunday School gives away hands-on ministry to people who must be trained in order to be effective.
- Sunday School empowers people with the ministry. Sunday School does not confine the people of God, she turns them loose to serve God with great zeal and passion.
4. Sunday School develops leadership for the church.
As we have just seen, Sunday School develops many for the work of Sunday School, but she also equips people for the work of other ministries in the church. If you were to eliminate Sunday School, you would see a gradual decline in workers being produced in other ministries as well. Sunday School is the foundational ministry from which other ministries are able to sprout.
How effective would other ministries in the church be if there were no Sunday School? Can you imagine ministries with leaders that had never been nurtured and discipled in a Sunday School class? For example, how effective would Awana leaders, discipleship teachers, altar counselors, evangelism trainers, counselors leading devotions at children's/youth camp, DiscipleNow Weekend, and others, be if they were not nurtured by a Sunday School class? At the least we would have to say that they probably would not be as equipped as they could be.
5. Sunday School gives intentionality to our good intentions.
Good intentions alone are no better than no intentions unless we get intentional about our good intentions! Most of us do not suffer from a lack of knowledge, but from a lack of will. Churches are full of good intentions. Churches have good intentions to win the lost, assimilate new people, disciple the saved, minister to people's needs, be on mission to reach the world, involve people in vital ministries, build relationships with others, and so on. With all these good intentions, why are we not growing and thriving? Why are most churches in decline or plateaued? There is a lack of intentionality! Friend, if good intentions would have gotten the job done, we would have won the world to Christ years ago.
Christian people often go to bed with the good intention of rising the next morning and spending time reading their Bible and praying. Yet many do not. Why? There is a lack of intentionality. They do not get to bed in time to get a decent night's rest, or they do not set the alarm early enough to have time for their morning devotions. They have good intentions; they just do not execute those intentions. Churches are like the people in them; they are full of good intentions but often devoid of ways to execute them.
As previously stated, Sunday School gives everyone the opportunity to get involved in the church's mission. Intentionality requires involvement! No involvement, no intentionality! If a church has no small group ministry, she greatly reduces the possibility for people to be involved. If you have no intentional way to get people involved, then you
• waste God's giftedness in them
• have very little ministry taking place
• raise up lazy Christians
• confine the church's potential
• position the church for an implosion
I heard a story that illustrates this point. A young preacher had graduated from seminary and was called to pastor his first church in a rural community. He had just moved to his new church when the local funeral home director called and asked him to do the graveside service for a ninety-three-year-old man. Obviously the new pastor wanted to get involved with the community and minister to the people there, so he accepted the offer. The elderly man had outlived his friends and had just a few family members so the decision was made to have only a graveside service at a small country cemetery. The funeral home director explained directions to the cemetery and gave the new pastor the time and date. At the appointed time the pastor drove to the cemetery but lost his way. Finally, after several wrong turns he showed up thirty minutes late. The hearse was gone and no people were present. The pastor just assumed the few people that would have attended decided to leave. Since he had promised he would do the graveside service, he was bound to keep his word, so he could at least report this to the funeral home director and maintain his integrity as the new pastor in town. So he took his Bible, got out of his car, and walked to the grave. It was then he noticed the workers sitting under a shade tree eating their lunch. Apparently, they were waiting on him to do the service so they could cover the grave. The pastor went to the grave and found the vault already in place. He opened his Bible and read Psalm 23, made a few comments, and offered a prayer. As he returned to his car, he overheard one of the workers say to the other, “Do you think we ought to tell him that's a septic tank?” The pastor had good intentions, but his good intentions were not enough. We must put some intentionality to our good intentions, or else we will end up with an unhealthy church on our hands.
Intentionality requires involvement! No involvement, no intentionality!
If you have no way to exercise your good intentions, then you will end up like the following story.
Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody
There were four church members named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done, and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done. (Author Unknown)
6. Sunday School keeps the church small.
Everyone wants to attend a growing church that is reaching many people yet remains small. Sunday School helps keep the church small. As the population increases and more and more people move to metropolitan areas, we have seen the emergence of many mega-churches. Whether your church is a megachurch or not, she should be a growing church. I believe it is God's will that everyone repent and come to faith in Christ.
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9)
I believe it is God's will for churches to grow because it is God's will for everyone to be saved; however, a growing church faces the serious challenge of becoming bigger, and many people do not like to attend big churches. We do not have the option of not reaching more people, but we do have the challenge of accommodating people into a larger congregation. Since large congregations can be intimidating to many, how do we help people get assimilated into our growing churches? Sunday School!
Sunday School keeps the church small because Sunday School makes the church personal and relational. This places people in an environment where they are comfortable. It positions people in surroundings that are conducive to their emotional and social well-being. God designed us for relationships, and relationships are best formed in small group settings. We recognize the spiritual experience that church attendance provides, but it also offers social experiences, and we need both.
Churches work hard at reaching new people. Much time, effort, and money are expended to reach others for Christ and church membership. Yet sometimes little energy is given to assimilate those we reach. Companies have a difficult time staying in business if they cannot keep their customers. They do much in the way of marketing to acquire new customers, but they also do much in maintaining their current clients. Business is much better when you have repeat customers instead of one-time customers. So it is with the church. How do we keep the new people we reach? How do we assimilate new members? We do this through relationships! Where are relationships formed? They are formed in small group settings. Sunday School is the church's Velcro.
Sunday School puts a face to the church and presents the characteristics of smaller churches such as a hand of fellowship, a prayer of support, a hug in difficult times. Therefore, the larger a church grows, the more vital Sunday School becomes! When we stop to analyze the role that Sunday School fills in the context of a local church, it is mind-boggling. Every church needs a small group ministry. If a church has no small group ministry or has a dysfunctional small group ministry, then it leaves a huge hole in the church. I submit to you that Sunday School is the best small group ministry known to the modern-day church. The contribution of Sunday School to the church ministry cannot be overstated.
Allan Taylor, Sunday School in Hd (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2009).