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Elmer Towns: What is Sunday School?

Some people have the wrong idea about Sunday School and as a result fail to see its importance in the revitalization and growth of their church. They think Sunday School is only for kids, or is an out-dated method. Others think of Sunday School as a contest that rewards losers with a pie in the face. Someone repeating this tortured view said, "When is a school not a school? When it is a Sunday School!"

Just as the New Testament church was built on teaching and preaching, so the modern biblical church must be built on Bible study in Sunday School and exhortation in the preaching service. Sunday School is functionally defined as the reaching, teaching, winning, maturing arm of the church. This fourfold nature of Sunday School is perhaps best expressed in an Old Testament verse which has often been used in the historic Sunday School conventions to express the nature of Sunday School. "Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God, and carefully observe all the words of this law" (Deut. 31:12). This verse reflects the four distinct areas of Sunday School ministry.

Sunday School Is the Reaching Arm

First, Sunday School is the evangelistic reaching arm of the church. Reaching is defined as making contact with a person and motivating him to give an honest hearing to the Gospel. Since evangelism is giving out the Gospel, reaching is basically pre-evangelism; for it is what we do to get people to listen to the Gospel. In our text, it is expressed in the word "gather. " Note those who are gathered, (1) fathers, (2) mothers, (3) little ones or children, and (4) "the stranger." Most church members have someone within their sphere of influence who is a stranger to the church who could be gathered into the church.

Sunday School Is the Teaching Arm

Second, Sunday School is the teaching arm of the church. Teaching is guiding the learning activities that meet human needs. The first step of teaching is expressed in the words of the verse, "that they may hear. " The ultimate step of teaching is "that they may learn."

Sunday School Is the Winning Arm

Sunday School is also the arm of the church that wins people to Christ. Winning is defined as communicating the Gospel in an understandable manner and motivating a person to respond. The Old Testament expression "fear the Lord" meant bringing a person to reverential trust. It was a concept of salvation. Today we might describe "fear the Lord" as a person getting saved, receiving Christ, or trusting the Lord for salvation.

Sunday School Is the Maturing Arm

Finally, Sunday School is the maturing arm of the church. Maturing is bringing a person to completion or making him well rounded. One of the objectives of every Sunday School should be the maturing of its members so that they "carefully observe all the words of this law." Some call this nurturing; others call it training.

This is our definition: the Sunday School is the reaching, teaching, winning, maturing arm of the church. However, this definition becomes a mosaic when applied to individual churches. Just as it takes all the pieces of tile to make up a mosaic picture, so it takes all four aspects of the definition to describe a beautiful Sunday School. But some destroy the beauty when they focus on one section of the tile and lose the whole picture. This happens when some have a strong reaching dynamic, so that there are an abundance of visitors; such as a Sunday School with a dominant busing outreach. These focus on numbers so that they lose the total perspective. Some are strong teaching Sunday Schools, with a deep commitment to Bible mastery. Other Sunday Schools are committed to soul-winning and their success is measured by how many they have won to Christ or prepared for church membership. Finally, some Sunday Schools are maturity oriented. These are committed to teaching environment and relationships. They measure their effectiveness by the quality of change in the lifestyles of their pupils.

From generation to generation there seems to be a different emphasis on the character of Sunday School. In the early '70s the emphasis was on reaching with attention given to Sunday School busing and Sunday School contests. The current emphasis is on the teaching arm. The Sunday School was the steeple, but is becoming the foundation. The steeple is the most visible part of a church building and its most symbolic emblem. The teaching foundation of the Sunday School will give the church of the twenty-first century stability and direction. In keeping with this shift in emphasis is an obvious attendance pattern. Visitors attend the preaching service first, not like past years where they visited Sunday School first. The average American Sunday School runs 24 percent under the attendance of the average church service.

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Our next event is April 27 - 28 in Rock Hill, SC. This is just across the boarder from NC -- near Charlotte. Steve Parr and Elmer Towns will be speaking. Hope you can attend and bring a group!

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