First, know what the purpose of your Sunday school is and stick to it! In all my work with other churches and talking with scores of church leaders, I feel this is without a doubt one of the main reasons most of our Sunday schools aren’t growing as they should. Indeed, I will go further to say that I believe this is why so many church leaders have looked elsewhere for a strategy for discipleship and church growth, leading many to pronounce Sunday school as a thing of the past. For years I have asked church leaders, conference attendees, and even those staff members charged with Bible study and Discipleship, “What is the purpose of Sunday School?”, and I am not exaggerating when I say that most have not had a clear understanding. For certain, it is more often than not a very misguided and muddy understanding of what they are trying to accomplish with their Sunday school ministry.
Purpose is important if you want to accomplish the task. I have a favorite illustration I like to use with groups I am speaking to that makes the point. I will ask them, “What is the purpose of a hammer?” Of course, they all get it, to drive in nails. Then I ask, “What is the purpose of a screw driver?” Again they all get it, and by now are looking at me like, “Wow, you’re really deep.” Then I ask how many have ever tried to put a screw in a wall with a hammer because a screwdriver wasn’t available and vice-versa? Most laugh and agree; they have done both. Then I ask, “How effective was it?” You get the point, I’m sure. Of course, you can drive a screw into a wall with a hammer and hammer a nail with the handle of a screwdriver, but the results aren’t very pretty. It’s not very effective, and there is always collateral damage along the way like marred walls, smashed fingers, and most importantly nails or screws that are weak and do not effectively do the job intended. The point is that Sunday school is a powerful tool and is your most powerful tool WHEN organized and used for the purpose for which it is intended! However, when we use it for less than intended or even with a misguided purpose, then it is not effective and like the nails and screws in the illustration, it is weak.
This begs the question then, “What is the purpose?” Did you notice in the brief history of Houston’s First Church that the purpose was always clear and to the point. In the written history of Houston’s First Baptist Church, you will read on page 125, “For a church to consistently reach, teach, win and develop persons in the Christian faith it is imperative that it have an effective Sunday school organization.” Did you catch it? The purpose of the Sunday school as employed by those who want to use this ministry in its most effective and productive manner is to “reach, teach, win and develop persons in the Christian faith”. For the most part, any version or restatement of the purpose of Sunday school will include, stated one way or the other, the task of reaching people, winning people to Christ, teaching them the Word of God, and developing or discipling the believers.
How has Houston’s First Baptist been able to re-dream the dream and keep it alive through 170 years and going? It has always stayed with this purpose and focused the Sunday school ministry on reaching, teaching, winning, and disciple making. The Sunday school might have drifted from time to time or got overly focused on other issues, but every time it came back to that central purpose- recaptured the desire to grow and make tremendous impact again. Just a little over four years ago HFBC’s average Sunday school attendance had gone through another slump, but upon refocusing the staff and Sunday school leadership on the purpose, we have seen the weekly average attendance rebound and begin to grow once again. To be sure, there are some other key principles that have helped get our Sunday school back on track, but it started with our recommitting to the primary purpose of the Sunday school.
The next step to revitalizing a Sunday school is making certain that the key leaders share a common understanding and agreement of the purpose of Sunday School. To paraphrase Jim Collins in Good to Great, it is not about just getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, it is about teaching, mentoring, and leading your staff and leaders to see the purpose and to get on board the bus with you.
As important as it is to get the pastor and staff (when in a multi-staff context) on the same page, it is vital that the lay leadership of your Sunday school understand and buy into the purpose. They need to also be open to learning how to implement the purpose as a strategy in their group. You will need to invest much more time and effort into training on an individual level as well a group level.
It is not enough that the staff and volunteer leadership understand the purpose of the Sunday school. The third key is to make sure the members of the Sunday school understand and accept the purpose. I wish I had a nickel for every time a Sunday school leader has told me something to this effect, “I really want to help create a new class out of our group, but the members will not go along with it.” When that happens, it reveals one of three things: you either have a leader that has not accepted the purpose and strategy of the Sunday school, you have a weak leader who is not leading his or her group, or you have a leader that has failed to lead the members to understand and accept the purpose of the Sunday school. I understand that this is a never ending task, and you will never get everyone to buy in, but you can get enough members on board so that it will enable you to do what needs to be done to help the Sunday school grow.
The next step is to keep the strategy of outreach and evangelism at the heart of the Sunday school. From the very beginning of the Sunday school movement, a key element that made Sunday schools work so effectively has been keeping the focus of reaching and winning people to faith in Jesus Christ. In the last four years at Houston’s First Baptist, we have re-charged the Sunday school organization with a strong emphasis on both outreach and inreach. We are installing Outreach and Inreach Leaders serving with their Care Group Leaders charged with the task to minister and connect with guests and members in a more effective way. The point is that when any church places an emphasis on these key functions, organizes in a way to give priority to them, and commits to train the leaders, it has tremendous impact on the Bible Study ministry.
Finally, train and equip your leadership to do the work of the Sunday school. A well thought out strategy to train leadership must always be in place if you want to revitalize or keep your Sunday school energized. You cannot neglect equipping as a strategy and expect any of the concepts I have described to be embraced or implemented. Failure to train will inevitably lead to a loss of focus and ultimately a Sunday school ministry that flounders.
Houston’s First Baptist has always placed a high priority on regular leadership meetings. All of the leadership luncheons and training events are designed to keep the leaders not only informed but also motivated. In the last four years, we have place renewed emphasis on training with a special emphasis on a major annual training event that is highly promoted, prepared, and participated in by the leaders. The key to making the training work is to get buy in from the most
influential leaders, development of a good format, strong guest leaders that are practitioners, early and excellent promotion, and of course lots of hard work.
Sunday School Still Works When You Work the Sunday School
I firmly believe and have experienced the truth of that statement. I often tell groups of church leaders that Sunday school works every time it is tried as long as you adhere to the purpose and are committed as a leader to make it work. I have shared some of the key steps that have helped Houston’s First Baptist to continue re-dreaming the dream for over 170 years! Our story, while perhaps unique because of our age, is not unlike other great churches. I know of churches of all sizes that are committed to making their Sunday school an effective tool in the 21st century. If you give an honest evaluation of the various methods to reach people, teach the Word, evangelize your community, and begin people on a healthy path to discipleship, you will see that much like the report that Mark Twain read of his death, the report of the death of Sunday school has been greatly exaggerated.
Ben Pritchett is the Minister of Education at the First Baptist Church of Houston, Texas.
Steve Parr. (2013). Sunday School that Really Excels.