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High Expectation Churches
by Thom Rainer
Chapter 2
Above All: Sunday School and the Back Door

Many church leaders have helped perpetuate the myth for twenty or so years. The myth is that Sunday School is no longer effective evangelistically or as an assimilation tool. And those who believed the myth are suffering the consequences today.

Don Cox

After nearly a decade of research of two thousand churches of different sizes, locations, and denominations, I cannot say that I am surprised that Sunday School was rated so highly as an assimilation tool. My surprise in this study, however, was the intensity by which the church leaders expressed their beliefs that Sunday School is the chief assimilation approach.

Essentially the churches told us that involvement in Sunday School was the gauge by which they determined if effective assimilation had taken place. Burkemont Baptist Church in Morganton, North Carolina averaged 566 in Sunday School in the latest data we received. Amazingly, that level of attendance was 93 percent of the average worship attendance of 610. And in the previous year Sunday School attendance was actually higher than worship attendance.

Burkemont is typical of the churches we studied. The leaders believe that involvement in Sunday School is tantamount to effective assimilation. For example, one of our survey questions asked the following: "Please list the guidelines you use to determine if a church member has been successfully assimilated into your church, i.e. how do you know when a member has 'a sense of belonging and is thus involved in the ministry of the church'?"

Burkemont's response was straightforward and typical: "We follow-up with new members to get them involved in Sunday School classes." But the church goes well beyond expecting that new members merely attend Sunday School. The church also utilizes Sunday School outreach directors and "class care givers" to get each new member involved in ministry.

Santuck Baptist Church is located in Wetumpka, Alabama, near the capital city of Montgomery. The church experienced a significant increase in Sunday School attendance, from 187 to 264 in just one year. The pastor, Morgan Bailey, rated Sunday School a "5" (essential) in its importance in assimilation.

Interestingly, Santuck has a four-step strategy to assimilate new members, none of which explicitly mention Sunday School. The strategy includes:

1. Believing--leading people to a life-changing commitment to Christ.

2. Belonging--guiding people to commit to Christ's church through believer's baptism and meaningful church membership

3. Becoming--helping people become what God has created them to be, particularly through involvement in discipleship.

4. Behaving--encouraging people toward regular attendance, ministry involvement, community impact, and personal evangelism.

Indeed the "Santuck strategy" includes goals beyond Sunday School involvement, such as spiritual gift assessment, ministry involvement, and completion of a new members' class. But no member is considered "assimilated" until he or she is actively involved in Sunday School.

The church recognizes the critical importance of Sunday School. An annual Sunday School worker appreciation banquet recognizes those who work in this critical ministry. New workers are also installed annually, recognizing the importance of their positions and ministry.

I could repeat over 200 church responses to the importance of Sunday School for assimilation, but the material would be redundant. The data is convincing and overwhelming that Sunday School is critical. At this point we are more interest in telling the "why" and "how" perspective of Sunday School. But first, please allow me a few words about my own pilgrimage.


Confessions of a Sunday School Skeptic

In the 1980s I had become a certain Sunday School skeptic. Though I did not try to dismantle the Sunday Schools in the churches I pastored, I certainly was not a leader in making the organization stronger and more evangelistic. If anything took place, the Sunday Schools of my churches suffered from pastoral neglect.

I was not alone in my sentiments. Many of my peers were like me, enamored with some of the latest methodologies and innovations to help a church grow. Sunday School just seemed a bit old-fashioned compared to the "cutting-edge" information we were receiving from a plethora of sources. Indeed I had my doubts that Sunday School would be a viable growth and assimilation tool in the twenty-first century. But two developments led me to see my biases in a different light.

First, I noticed that many of the highly-touted growth innovations had an unusually short life span. What was hyped to be the methodology for the church was gone in a year or so. In other words, it proved to be a little more than a fad. In the meantime, Sunday School continued to be the dominant program in most churches.

Second, I embarked on my first major research project on the local church in the early nineties. I was serving as a pastor, but my church allowed me the time to visit other churches and interview their leaders.

Over the course of two years I had made contact with nearly 200 different churches. About 150 of the churches were from my denomination, and the remaining 50 were from six other denominations. What I discovered both disturbed me and convicted me.

In almost every church I heard pastors and leaders talk about the role of Sunday School for their evangelistic growth and assimilation. Though many did share some new and innovative methodologies, almost all the leaders said that their sustained growth would have been impossible without the Sunday School.

Any lingering doubts I had about Sunday School were erased when my research team and I at Southern Seminary conducted a study of 576 churches in America. I learned once again that the leading churches in our nation value the Sunday School in growing a church and assimilating members.

One would think that I would have no surprise when the strength of Sunday School became evident in yet another research project. This time, however, the overwhelmingly positive response regarding the Sunday School surprised me. No assimilation methodology came close to Sunday School in effectiveness. The leaders told us the methodology was number one with no real competition.

What inherent characteristics of Sunday School make it the chief assimilation tool in evangelistic churches today? How has the methodology of antiquity weathered the storms of change to remain effective? What did we learn from nearly 300 evangelistic churches? To these questions we now turn.

 

Sunday School and the Back Door

Chart 2-1 compares the Sunday School's assimilation effectiveness to other approaches. As a reminder, the values in parentheses can be understood by the following scale:

1 2 3 4 5

Not Only Slightly Important Very Important Essential

Important Important But Not

At All Essential


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No methodology was deemed more effective than the Sunday School in retaining members. And, as we shall see later, the leaders in these churches understand well the value of Sunday School, and it has thus become a high priority in their own ministry.

For example, Ken Stalls, pastor of South End Baptist Church in Frederick, Maryland not only ranked Sunday School with a "5" in assimilation effectiveness, he place a comment by his evaluation which simply said "it was the key element."

Another one of the many pastors who saw the critical importance of Sunday School was Kenny Qualls, pastor of Springhill Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri. For Springhill, their measurement of successful assimilation begins with "involvement in (not merely enrollment in) Sunday School."

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Though the ways churches utilize the Sunday School in the assimilation process are numerous, the success of retention can be categorized into six major factors. Look at these fascinating issues addressed by the leaders.

The Expectation Factor

Sunday School is neither neglected or accidental in the churches that are closing the back door. To the contrary, the churches that we surveyed were highly intentional in their approach to Sunday School.

Perhaps the key Sunday School issue that separated the higher-assimilation churches from the lower-assimilation churches was that of expectations. Our research team is presently studying non-Southern Baptist churches to compare with the data we presently have on the Southern Baptist churches. I recently interviewed the pastor of a non-Southern Baptist church in the Washington, DC area. His testimony on the rediscovery of Sunday School is not atypical of other comments we heard.

"A few years ago," he told us, "I was ambivalent about Sunday School. I did not plan to eliminate it from our church, but I certainly was not giving it a priority." But, in 1994, he began to read and hear about churches that were rediscovering the strength of the Sunday School.

"I guess you might say I had a wake-up call," he told us. "I realized that our church had been evangelistically apathetic, and that our back door was wide open. I began re-thinking my lack of priority about Sunday School. Then things began to change as our church made some intentional efforts to revitalize this ministry."

Among the intentional efforts, the most dramatic were related to raising the commitment level of those who led and worked in Sunday School. Look at some of these changes:

· Teachers would covenant to prepare their lessons each week, and to attend a Wednesday-night workers' meeting where the lesson would be discussed.

· Each adult class would establish a goal to start one new class each year.

· Each class would form care groups of no more than five per group. The care group leader would have responsibility to see that ministry to the others in the group was carried out.

· Each class would have an outreach leader to make certain that all guests were contacted, and that members were accountable for developing relationships with unbelievers.

· Teachers and other leaders would covenant that they would arrive early for Sunday School each week.

· An annual covenant renewal service began in 1995, where Sunday School leaders made these and other commitments formally.

 

This church began seeing amazing results as expectations were raised. "Once we declared that Sunday School was important, and that we had expectations of the leaders, the changes were dramatic," the pastor said. Attendance not only increased among the regular attenders, nominally-active members began to attend regularly as well. Turnover among teachers dropped dramatically. Ministry through the Sunday School increased almost exponentially. And, for the first time in the pastor's tenure, people were won to Christ through the Sunday School organization.

Repeatedly in our research, we heard about the renewal of the Sunday School. And we heard about results similar to that of the Washington church. But, more than any other factor, we heard about the back door closing because of higher expectations.

It would appear that the Sunday School organization in many churches is suffering from benign neglect. The reasons for this neglect are numerous, but the pastors' comments could be summarized in a few categories.

Some pastors have had the same attitude I once had, that Sunday School is a tool of antiquity. They have become convinced, even though the data shows the contrary, that newer models of ministry are better. Thus their time and energy is diverted away from Sunday School to other more "contemporary" approaches.

Others pastors have simply taken Sunday School for granted. It is the largest organization in their church and it will always be there, they reason. It has a momentum of its own and needs no further emphasis or attention from the pastor.

A third group told us that they had given so much attention to the corporate worship service that the Sunday School was relegated to secondary importance. Undoubtedly the renewed interest in worship has been a blessing to churches and to their growth potential. But when Sunday School is neglected as a consequence, the wide open front door is often countered by a wide open back door.

In our interviews with the leaders of the higher-assimilation churches, we asked if their moving of Sunday Schools to become high-expectation organizations had caused any problems, their answers were an unequivocal "yes." Some teachers and leaders refused to agree to stricter requirements and dropped out of ministry and service. Others resisted, implying that high-expectations in the Sunday School hinted of legalism.

Never did we hear that the expectation issue was addressed with ease. But in virtually every case, the pastor or staff member told us that the pain was worth the gains realized. A pastor in South Carolina commented, "Our desire to have greater commitments to Sunday School came at a cost. We lost some members, and made others mad."

But was the move ultimately beneficial we asked?. "Without a doubt," he replied. "The people in our church realize more than ever that Sunday School is our primary teaching and assimilating arm of the church. And I predict it will soon become our chief evangelism arm."

The Organization Factor

I was recently leading a seminar called "Closing the Back Door" in Wichita, Kansas. I spoke for approximately one hour on the importance of a quality Sunday School organization for effective assimilation. In this context I mentioned the need for care groups within the Sunday School, regular workers' meetings, ministry involvement of class members, quality teaching, enrollment emphases, and opportunities for fellowship.

At the conclusion of that particular portion of my seminar, I asked for comments and questions. One sixty-ish gentleman asked how my Sunday School emphases were different from those with which he was familiar in the 1950s. His point was well made. In essence the principles have changed little, nor should they change.

What then are some of these principles? A well-organized Sunday School will integrate the principles of effective teaching, effective evangelism, the ministry of all believers, and Christian fellowship and relationships. The key words, however, in the preceding sentence were "well-organized."

When we divided our study churches into two groups, we found some interesting relationships concerning organizational emphases. Lower-assimilation churches mentioned organizational emphases in only 32 percent of the surveys. Higher-assimilation churches cited the need for strong organization in 92 percent of the responses.

 

The inescapable conclusion could be paraphrased by the cliché: "Sunday School will work only if you work Sunday School." In the higher-assimilation churches, basic organizational principles were at work continuously. Teachers were trained and taught weekly. New members were assigned to Sunday School classes. Care groups were created in all classes so that ministry could be effective. Outreach and evangelism were organized through the Sunday School.

The successful assimilation churches had strong Sunday School organizations. And that organizational quality did not occur by accident. The quality was the result of hard work, persistence, perseverance, and a willingness to suffer short-term looses for long-term gains.

Bob Lilly has been pastor of Catonsville Baptist Church for decade. The church is located on the edge of the Baltimore city limits. The racial make-up of the church is 80 percent Caucasian, 15 percent African-American, and five percent Asian. Though not a large church, the Sunday School attendance jumped nearly 40 percent in one year. Also, 95 people accepted Christ and were baptized in two years.

Catonsville is experiencing significant growth for a church that had been averaging only 100 in Sunday School in previous years. How are you retaining these members? Pastor Lilly admitted that a formal assimilation process "is really non-existent. I have been doing most of it. We have many new babies [in Christ] but who are strong [spiritually] are often doing double duty."

What then has been the glue of assimilation in this fast-growing church? Among other methodologies, Sunday School was rated a "5" (essential). Indeed attendance in Sunday School is one of the church's four benchmarks of assimilation.

Catonsville's story is not atypical in the churches we studied. The churches are growing evangelistically but the leadership is concerned about closing the back door of the new growth. Yet when they evaluate their assimilation approaches, they discover that Sunday School has been their "glue" even when they are less-than pleased about the overall success at closing the back door.

Indeed, one of the gratifying results of this study was the new awareness of Sunday School as an assimilation tool expressed by church leaders. Listen to the words of a pastor in California: "I have taken Sunday School for granted most of my ministry. This study has shown me that I must lead my church to make our organization more effective than ever. I will no longer neglect the Sunday School organization."

The Ministry Factor

Thomas James, pastor of Alpha Baptist Church in Morristown, Tennessee, has seen remarkable growth at the church. In one year alone Sunday School attendance increased from 251 to 320. In that same year 164 people joined the church, 95 by profession of faith and baptism. Like most of the church leaders who participated in this study, Pastor James saw Sunday School as the key methodology to close the back door.

A question on our survey that produced some of the most interesting responses was: "Please list the guidelines you use to determine if a church member has been successfully assimilated into your church, i.e. how do know when a member has 'a sense of belonging is thus involved in the ministry of the church'?"

Alpha Baptist's criteria are threefold. First, the member must be active in Sunday School. Second, they must be a regular participant in worship. And third, they must be involved in ministry.

Nearly 200 of the survey churches indicated that their primary means for members to be involved in ministry is through the Sunday School. Thus, attendance in Sunday School is not the sole indicator of assimilation. Ministry through the Sunday School is a critical factor.

How do these churches involve their members in ministry through the Sunday School? The beauty of this organization is that so many possibilities are available. Below are just some of the ministries indicated by our survey churches.

1. Teaching--The most commonly associated Sunday School ministry, but certainly not the only one.

2. Care group ministry--Many churches divided each Sunday School class into care groups of typically four to seven persons. While a care group leader would coordinate the ministry to each member, all Sunday School class members were to be ministers within their groups.



3. Evangelism and outreach ministry--These churches indicated that about five to twenty-five percent of their members are gifted or desirous of being involved in evangelism and outreach. The Sunday School is an organization which can provide this opportunity.

4. Hospitality ministry--A majority of church members perceive that they have the gifts of service or encouragement. The Sunday School, through its fellowship and contact systems, allows these gifts to be utilized.

5. Leadership and organizational ministry--A number of Christians are particularly inclined to ministries that require keen skills or gifts in administration or organization. Certainly the Sunday School is in need of such skilled persons.

6. Prayer ministry--Over one-third of the churches studies had prayer ministries through Sunday School classes. As many as one-half of their class members were typically involved in these ministries.

What we learned from these churches is that no organization in America today provides more opportunities for ministry than the Sunday School. The small-group movement is certainly to be lauded for its contributions to the Kingdom. But, as George Barna recently noted, the movement has been on a numerical decline for the past few years. Barna cited a tendency toward weak teaching, lack of leadership and accountability, confusion of purpose, and inadequate child care as possible explanations for the downturn.

For reasons we will see at the end of this chapter, Sunday School has been able to avoid these pitfalls and open the door for the ministry involvement of millions. And involvement in ministry means that a significant step has been made to close the back door in our churches.

 

The Relationship Factor

My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly on December 9, 1997. At the time of her death, I was in regular contact with two groups of people. The first group was my co-workers, friends, and students from Southern Seminary. Numerous people from the seminary showed an outpouring of love and sympathy toward me.

The second group were people from Carlisle Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, where I served as interim pastor for a year. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears when a group from Carlisle drove 550 miles one way to attend Mom's funeral in Union Springs, Alabama.

Outside of these two groups, I had no regular contact or relationships with any particular group. I was therefore surprised and touched when I received food, visits, cards, and words of concern from another group, my Sunday School class at Springdale Church in Louisville.

For nearly three years my attendance at Springdale has been sporadic because of my outside speaking engagements and interim pastorates. But when my family and I moved to Louisville nearly five years ago, I joined Springdale and the Agape Sunday School class. For almost a year I was active in the class and I developed strong relationships with many of the people there.

Those relationships were sufficiently strong to engender an outpouring of love even though my absences had been long-term and conspicuous. Indeed that Sunday School class remains my tie to the church today.

Chart 2-3 provides a breakdown of participants in the morning worship services in the churches studied. Some of the categories are overlapping so they do not add to 100 percent.



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When we asked which of these groups were most effectively assimilated into the church, the responses were overwhelmingly clear. The two groups represented in chart 2-3 that are regular Sunday School attendees were least likely to leave the church or to become inactive.

A pastor in California expressed this position cogently: "Our church has tried everything to create relationships among the members: small groups, dinner clubs, family ministries, you name it. But we keep coming back to the Sunday School. That's where people get to know one another best. We've finally gotten smart enough to decide to put our best efforts in relationship building there".

 

The Doctrine Factor

A few studies have established the relationship between doctrinal understanding and assimilation. For example, a study of the churches in the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination found that younger generations tend to leave the church within about twenty years if the church has a low view of biblical authority, and if the doctrine of the church is not communicated clearly.

Two questions may surface immediately. How is doctrine related to the closing of the back door? Why has the relationship between doctrine and assimilation been mentioned so infrequently?

The issue of doctrine and the closing of the back door is closely related to expectations and assimilation. The clear teachings of biblical truth are demanding and convicting. The Holy Spirit speaks through God's Word in such a way that the cost of discipleship is understood. No higher expectations could be placed upon believers than these truths of Scripture. And, as we have seen throughout this study, high expectations are clearly related to assimilation.

Virtually all of the higher-assimilation churches in our study used a comprehensive plan to teach the Bible for all age groups. For most of these churches, the denominational Sunday School curriculum served this purpose well.

A pastor in Colorado expressed the sentiments of many of the leaders in the higher-assimilation church: "Needs-based studies and special emphases in Sunday School are okay for a short while. But those type of studies need to be the exception instead of the rule. Many people in the churches are woefully ignorant of the Bible. And doctrinally-weak Sunday Schools are partially to blame."

The second question asked why the relationship between doctrine and assimilation was mentioned so infrequently. The primary reason is that the assimilation problem is more long-term than immediate. Sometimes the adverse effects of weak doctrinal teaching do not begin to show for five, ten, or even fifteen years (when an entire younger generation leaves the church). But the average tenure of pastors is far less than five years. A potential problem ten years away thus is not perceived to be the problem of the present ministry.

 

The Evangelism Factor

One of the reasons I visited the non-denominational church in the Orlando area was its remarkable evangelistic record. The church had grown from less than 100 in attendance to nearly 300 in just two years. And most of the growth had come from conversion of adults.

The first question I had to ask the pastor was: "How is your church reaching so many people for Christ?" I had examined the demographic data of the church's community, and the growth potential in the area was modest at best. How had the church baptized nearly 200 people in two years?

The pastor could best be described as easygoing. His mannerisms and words reflected someone who was definitely not in a rush. His answer to my question was straightforward: "Sunday School," he said.

Wait a minute, I responded. You simply do not hear of churches today using Sunday School as their primary evangelistic arm. "We do," the pastor deadpanned.

Though I had originally planned to stay at the church through Friday, I made the decision to stay for the Sunday services, particularly for Sunday School. One class in which I had particular interest was an adult Sunday School class that had reached fourteen people in the past year. Perhaps the fact that the church kept accurate records of the number of persons baptized by Sunday School class should have been a clue to me. I was already seeing an accountability for evangelism within the Sunday School.

I arrived at the evangelistic Sunday School at 9:00 a.m. since the scheduled beginning was 9:15 a.m. Much to my surprise, not only was the teacher present, but nearly half who would attend that Sunday were already in attendance. No one arrived later than 9:15.

The class was a bit large; approximately twenty were in attendance. But I learned that the class had started with an average of twelve in attendance at the beginning of the year, and that two new classes had been started from the class in the past eighteen months. I was impressed!

Equally impressive was the fact that two-thirds of the Sunday School class members had been trained in personal evangelism in the context of their own class. On the day I attended prayer concerns began with prayers for lost persons to whom they were witnessing. Most of these persons were co-workers or neighbors.

I would discover at the end of the class that two non-Christians were present the day I attended. When I asked the teacher how those non-believers felt with so much evangelistic emphasis, the response was: "Why don't you ask them?" Indeed the teacher called the two to join our after-class conversation.

Somewhat hesitatingly, I asked the two non-Christians if they felt uncomfortable in the class today. Their response was so quick that it caught me off guard. One quickly said, "Not at all! We know these people care for us because they show their concern every day. The reason we attend is because of the love they have shown toward us."

This non-denominational church taught me some things that would later be reinforced in this study of Southern Baptist churches. Let me highlight the lessons I learned.

Lesson #1: The only reason churches are not evangelistic through the Sunday School is that they make no intentional efforts to do so. Somewhere in the recent past, many of us stopped talking about evangelism in the Sunday School and many churches stopped doing Sunday School evangelism. We then decided that this methodology could no longer be evangelistic. Such is a myth that has no factual basis.

In our previous study on evangelistic churches, we discovered that Sunday School-based evangelism was the third most effective approach. The only evangelistically-dead Sunday Schools are those that have chosen this path.

Lesson #2: The Sunday School organization engenders evangelistic accountability. The time of prayer in the Orlando-area church was also a time of accountability. The members of the class came to expect relationship evangelism as a way of life because of their accountability to one another each Sunday.

Lesson #3: The Sunday School can be a natural training ground for personal evangelism. The class members already know one another. Many have close relationships. Evangelism training is often easier in such a setting.

Lesson #4: If leadership emphasizes evangelism through the Sunday School, others will follow. A pastor in Texas emphasizes evangelistic outreach through the Sunday School on a regular basis. The result? Since he began this emphasis three years ago, baptisms have tripled.

Lesson #5: Evangelism through the Sunday School will not be effective unless evangelism is a priority in the entire church. The power of the priority of evangelism was evident in this study and our previous study.

Lesson #6: These evangelistic Sunday School classes could be called high-expectation Sunday Schools. Repeatedly in this study we heard about the biblical expectations placed on these class members. Not only do they respond with more evangelistic enthusiasm, they are also likely to remain productive and active in the church. Sunday School class members in the higher-assimilation churches describe themselves as "content," "hard-working," "enthusiastic," and "fruitful," to name a few. They had no intentions of dropping out.

Lesson #7: Sunday School-based evangelism results in more effective assimilation. I returned to the Orlando-area church one year later. The two non-Christians were non-Christians no more. They had accepted Christ about ten months earlier. Their growth in Christ was obvious. And, like most of the new Christians in this church, they obviously intended to stay active in the church.

Perhaps the most significant lesson is that effective assimilation for new Christians is directly related to the way the people were evangelized. We reviewed the records of hundreds of church members who had made professions of faith five years earlier. We then asked the staff if these persons were primarily worship-service-only attenders or if they also attended Sunday School regularly. The contrast between the two groups was stark and amazing.

As chart 2-4 depicts, the new Christians who immediately became active in the Sunday School were five times more likely to remain in the church five years later (we did not include those who moved to another community or those who died in the "dropout" category.). And those churches that were emphasizing evangelism through the Sunday School were most naturally seeing new Christians become involved immediately in the Sunday School.


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Why Not Cell Groups?

 

Look at the contrast between the assimilation effectiveness of cell groups versus Sunday School . Chart 2-5 shows the Sunday School ranking to be 4.91, while the cell groups ranking was 1.45. What could explain the discrepancy between the two approaches?


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We asked church leaders that had utilized both Sunday School and cell groups why they ranked Sunday School higher. Four responses were given with frequency.

First, the church leaders told us that Sunday School was simply easier to organize and administer than cell groups. Typically, the cell groups met in diverse locations of many different days and times. The strength of the diverse schedule, we were told, was offset by the difficulty of maintaining basic records for a accountability.

Second, Sunday School more easily included all age groups One of the persistent problems we heard with cell groups was the issue of child care. A minister of education in Oklahoma noted: "We started cell groups in the summer with a pretty good track record. But once school started, many couples with children stopped coming. They had activities for their kids at school, or they just couldn't find adequate child care."

Third, many of the leaders in our study were concerned about the doctrinal integrity of their cell groups. Whereas most Sunday Schools used a standardized curriculum, the cell groups tended to allow the group leader to determine the study each week. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University noted this problem with his research that found cell groups "do little to increase the biblical knowledge of their members." Instead of a strong objective study of Scripture, Wuthnow noted, the cell groups "encourage faith to be subjective and pragmatic."

Finally, the church leaders told us that sequencing Sunday School and worship services on the same day provided many practical benefits. "I came to realize that our cell groups were separating families for yet another day in the week," a Michigan pastor told us. "We solved many problems when we started emphasizing Sunday School as our small group. Now families can come to church together and leave together."

We must not conclude from this study that cell groups have little value. There have been too many lives changed positively to reject categorically the benefits of these small groups. Nor must we assume that Sunday School must fit one pattern (e.g. Sunday morning only). But from the data we have gathered over the past four years, the traditional Sunday School has been the dominant methodology to close the back door, and it has been one of the leading evangelistic approaches.

And though this study focuses upon Southern Baptist churches, both our past and future research included hundreds of non-Southern Baptist churches. The data seems to indicate that the Sunday School model is the dominant approach for effective assimilation in these churches as well.

Above All

The research is clear if not overwhelming. Sunday School is the most effective assimilation methodology in evangelistic churches today. It is a place where teaching, discipleship, ministry, fellowship, and evangelism can all take place. It is the place where relationships are formed and people become connected to the church.

But the mere existence of a Sunday School does not produce assimilation. The classes must have the best and most thoroughly trained teachers. Expectations must be clear that ministry and evangelism should take place within each class. And the organization itself should be well run with good records and strong administrative leaders. Sunday School works. But only if we work Sunday School.

We have known that Sunday School is a vital component of the past for American churches. Its history is almost as old as our nation itself. But more and more the research indicated that Sunday School is not only our past, it is our future as well. And we who are leaders in the church will ignore this reality to our churches' peril.

 






 

 

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