Sunday School. The term conjures up images of Bible-toting, well-dressed children trooping into classes. It brings back visions of a flannelgraph Apostle Paul (who, interestingly enough, looked exactly like Jonah, Peter, and Saul). It brings back memories of patient and loving teachers, as well as some very fidgety lessons. I look back on Sunday School as a formative factor in my spiritual growth. However, some churches today are dispensing with Sunday School. Is Sunday School an institution we must defend? Or is it something that needs to die?

In order to answer that question, we must think–Scripturally, carefully, prayerfully, and strategically. We need to rethink the cherished tradition of Sunday School.

Is Sunday School Old School? Rethinking the Cherished Tradition of Sunday School

History of Sunday School – An Evangelistic Success

Way back when Sunday School got started, it was literally just that – an actual school that took place on Sunday. Robert Raikes, a philanthropic and evangelistic newspaper editor started the first Sunday School in 1780. The purpose of his Sunday School was to round up vagabond kids and shuttle them off to a place where they could learn how to read. Most of these children were orphans or street kids, and the other six days of the week, they were shut up in the factories of Industrial-Era England. Raikes hoped that Sunday School would help spare them from a future life of crime and indolence. So, he rented some rooms, hired some teachers, and Sunday School was born. The first Sunday Schools were not received very well. Since many of them were forced to go, the street-urchin kids hated having school on their only day off of work. Wild street games were much preferred to stuffy teachers and indecipherable Bibles. The dignified parishioners shared the children’s contempt of Sunday School. But their dislike was different; they detested the thought of grimy, sooty, rascals flooding their churches and denigrating the sacred sanctuary. The weary givers who funded the schools feared that their contributions were descending into an ineffective cause.

But all that changed. In just a decade from its birth, Sunday School exploded into a phenomenon of evangelistic fervor, reaching millions with the gospel. The Sunday School concept spread from the British Isles to the continent of Europe, infecting Christians with a passion, and affecting the unreached with the gospel. Some church historians look back on the Sunday School movement, and claim that “the starting of Sunday schools saved the church from extinction.” To say that Sunday School was “successful” is to understate its impact.

Sunday School Today – A Different Animal

Sunday School in 2010 is vastly different from Sunday School in 1780. Everything about it has changed–except for the fact that it takes place on Sunday. The motive has changed. The financial support has changed. The administration has changed. The structure has changed. The style has changed. The goal has changed. The attendance has changed. The audience has changed. Over the course of 230 years, Sunday School has morphed into an altogether different event. 230 years will change things.

Change is not evil. But when change happens–intentionally or unintentionally–one must determine whether that change is positive or negative. One should not necessarily gaze backward to try to restore something to its original form. Over-the-shoulder wistfulness degenerates into anachronistic ineffectiveness. Instead, one must look at an issue from three perspectives.
1) Past: Understand the history.
2) Present: Understand the present form.
3) Future: Envision the long-term goal.
This kind of strategic thinking needs to be rooted in a solid mission and vision. A church without a mission is like an oar with holes. You will row forever but never get anywhere. A biblically-derived mission and vision is the crucial starting point for ministry strategizing.

The Challenges of Sunday School – Stray Pet or Healthy Work Horse?

So, what is it Sunday School today? To use the “different animal” analogy, let’s think of it either as a healthy workhorse or a stray pet. A stray animal can be clingy, annoying, and it will leech you of your precious resources. A healthy workhorse, on the other hand, requires that you give your resources, but it also gives back. At the risk of oversimplification and stereotyping, here are some of the less-than-desirable features of Sunday School today–features which may render it a stray pet instead of a healthy workhorse.

  • Sunday School lacks a great commission focus. Rather than functioning with the goal of making disciples, Sunday School is often in a maintenance mode.
  • Sunday School depends on published curriculum from the ‘experts.’ Sunday School curriculum is the bread-and-butter of some major publishing houses. Rather than understanding and adapting to the unique needs of their congregation, Sunday School depends on printed material or booklets from outside sources.
  • Sunday School separates the family by age-indexing. Is the age-indexing of the church healthy? It almost goes without questioning today that a church needs to have a separate room, class, teacher, and curriculum for every age category. However, at closer inspection, the effect that age-indexing has on the family does not seem right. Is this really necessary, beneficial, and in keeping with the biblical paradigm for the family? Must we separate the Christian family every Sunday–at a time where they should be worshiping together?
  • Sunday School curriculum often prescribes moralism, to the neglect of strategic evangelism. Usually, this happens in children’s classes, where teaching major biblical concepts and spirituality is challenging. However, it can happen for all age categories. Patrick, in his book The Church Planter, said it best:  “For many American churches the focus has been almost exclusively on converting people to a code of Christian conduct with the hope that they will ‘behave’ their way to salvation. This couldn’t be further from the intent of the gospel of grace.”
  • Sunday School programs often lack a long-term plan. Many Sunday Schools go into ‘existence mode,’ maintaining a tradition without posturing for productivity. The result is a semester-by-semester approach or a topic-by-topic approach to Sunday School planning, rather than a big-picture vision for discipleship.

There are more than just this list of woes of Sunday School. The point of this article is not to bash Sunday School. The point of this article is to think about Sunday School. The point is to help you determine whether your efforts toward Sunday School are more like feeding a stray pet or healthy workhorse.

A Barrage of Considerations

So, here comes the artillery–a barrage of questions, statements, and aphorisms to help you think about Sunday School.

  • Just because something Sunday School has been successful in the past, doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful in the future. Keep the three-perspective principal when rethinking Sunday School (not the backward-only look). If something has been successful, it is necessary for that thing to continually modify, adapt, and regroup to maintain its impact. This takes strategic thinking, prayerful consideration, and bold moves.
  • Don’t dispense with something simply for the sake of being cool or contemporary. Only dispense with something if it is truly a distraction or violation to the purposes of God and the goal of the church. If Sunday School needs to bite the dust, then kill it. If Sunday School is effectively ministering to the needs of the people, and fulfilling a Great Commission role (both evangelism and discipleship) than keeping it.
  • Don’t idolize traditions. Tradition can turn into idolatry. It may happen that someone in the church–be it a pastor, deacon, or member–breathes the slightest hint of change: “Should we keep the Sunday School program?” There are those in the church who may view such a question as an outright attack on the faith! Doing away with Sunday School is nearly tantamount to eradicating the church or denying the existence of God. The illustration is intentionally overstated, but do you see the point? If Sunday School is so near and dear to the faith, then why don’t we see it clearly in the Bible? When we begin cherishing traditions above the inspired Word of God, we make a tragic mistake. When we think that our man-made institutions are more important than strategic adaption and biblical innovation, we are treading into dangerous territory.
  • Rethink your nonnegotiables. Every ministry has them, whether they are written down or not. They’re called nonnegotiables. What are the most important features of your ministry–features that you will not compromise? To derive such nonnegotiables, go to the Scripture. Then write them down. Ministries without “nonnegotiables,” “distinctives,” “essentials,” or whatever they’re called, are likely to idolize tradition and cling to the past. They make tradition their nonnegotiable.
  • Form a mission and vision statement. In a future post, we will discuss the why and how of a mission and vision statement. For now, simply understand that a mission and vision statements are both the compass and the engine for your ministry. In order to know where you’re going, you must have a vision (compass). In order to mobilize and motivate for action, you must have a mission (engine).
  • There is such a thing as positive change. As we discussed above, not all change is evil. Change–even painful, difficult, and opposition-motivating change–can be a good thing. Sometimes, things just need to die. And it may be a good thing. If you face opposition to a decision to change, it doesn’t mean that the decision is wrong. In fact, it may just mean the opposite. A. W. Tozer said, “To be right with God has often meant to be in trouble with men.” Eliminating Sunday School will not create a ministry vacuum. Instead, it may free the church to do more…to do better.
  • Practice asking why. “Why?” is a powerful question. It is a life-changing question. Asking “why” can change the course of a ministry, a life, or a nation. When you turn the floodlight of this question onto Sunday School, it may be very revealing. Mustering up answers to the “why” question isn’t done by merely brainstorming. It’s done by going to the Scripture. If you can derive Scriptural motivations for the existence of Sunday School, great. If not, keep asking why. Then change. Ask why again. Change some more. Keep asking why. Keep changing. But keep Scripture at the center of your questioning and your changing.

Conclusion:  Rethinking the Cherished Tradition of Sunday School

It’s time to put our minds to better use. As leaders, pastors, volunteers, or church members, we know too well the daily grind. Our gaze is always on the here-and-now. Our energies are being expended to try to put one foot in front of the other. Can we take some of that energy to look up, to look ahead? When our thinking is entrenched in the day-to-day maintenance of ministry, we rarely take the time to forge ahead and evaluate our present ministry. And what’s happening? We’re compromising maximum effectiveness. “Rethinking” is hard work. But the really hard work comes not in the rethinking, but in the retooling,–in taking those thoughts and strategies and implementing them for God’s glory.

Thanks to Dr. Wade Kuhlewind for his class lecture, “Is Sunday School Old School” from which some of this material was derived. Thanks to Andrew Warde for his insightful observations.

About The Author

Daniel Threlfall has been writing church ministry articles for more than 10 years. With his background and training (M.A., M.Div.), Daniel is passionate about inspiring pastors and volunteers in their service to the King. Daniel is devoted to his family, nerdy about SEO, and drinks coffee with no cream or sugar. Learn more about Daniel at his blog and twitter.

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