The drive from Atlanta to Nashville is pleasant and scenic. The drive is due north beginning on I-75, and expressway travel allows for uninterrupted progress except for the preferable breaks that the traveler chooses along the way. You will see the Georgia pines, get a panoramic view of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and climb Monteagle before pulling into the city of Nashville in less than four hours of travel. I’m on my way to interview one of the leading voices on the growth and health of churches from across North America.
Dr. Thom Rainer served for many years as the Dean of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He currently serves as the President of Lifeway Christian Resources located in Nashville, Tennessee. LifeWay is well known as a book publisher, curriculum developer for groups of all kinds, Christian resources, and 165 Christian bookstores across America. However, Rainer’s expertise for the issues at hand comes from years spent as a researcher and an author.
With nearly thirty books to his credit, Rainer has established himself as one of the most knowledgeable voices of this generation on what it is that makes churches effective. I enthusiastically recommend any of his books and am honored to be a personal friend. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will point out that Dr. Rainer was the project supervisor who had responsibility for guiding my doctoral project while serving in Louisville, Kentucky. I entered the program because I wanted to learn from the best, and I was not disappointed. I want you to begin this journey as we learn about Sunday schools that really excel by sitting down with us as I interview Dr. Thom Rainer about the state of Sunday school today.
I want to point out before the interview begins that we both use the word “Sunday school” descriptively with appreciation that many congregations utilize other designations. We both agree that a Sunday school consists of Bible study groups for all ages that ordinarily meet on Sunday mornings in conjunction with a worship experience either before or afterwards. With that being said, let’s step into his office and get an expert’s perspective on the state of Sunday school.
Parr: Dr. Rainer, you have written almost thirty books largely related to the health and growth of churches, and I know that your work is largely research based. Is there any particular theme that runs through your books as you look back on them as a whole?
Rainer: As I think back over all that I have written then, I would have to say the common theme is best summed up in a book I wrote called “High Expectations.” The theme or idea of high expectations runs through a lot of my books.
Parr: What are you referring to when you say “high expectations?”
Rainer: It comes down to this. When we believe in what God can do through us, the result is that we expect more of ourselves. In turn, we tend to expect more of our congregation because we want to do all that we can to please God. As a result of expecting more of ourselves and of those we lead, we begin to see good things happen within the church itself. It is God working in us and through us that inspires us to go above and beyond seeking to do our best. I have written books addressing the programmatic elements of church life as well as the dynamics of the influences that help us to connect and reach the unchurched. I was not cognizant as I was writing, but it has become clear as I reflect back. My first book was published in 1989. From that point up until the present, I can now see that in most of my books that there is a theme that God expects much of us. The expectation is not that we would earn our salvation but a response to his grace. Out of gratitude we should expect much of ourselves, and we should understand that we have the resources we need through Him.
Parr: Share with me about your leadership journey specifically as it relates to Sunday school through the years.
Rainer: For me the journey goes back to when I was a deacon and a layman at GoldenSpringsBaptistChurch in Alabama and became very active in the Sunday school as an adult. The reason I am going that far back is because I grew up in another denomination, and Sunday school was not important in my earliest experiences. Although I attended church services, I was not involved in Sunday school from my childhood years all of the way through my young adult life.
Parr: I assume that must have changed at some point.
Rainer: Yes, it did. What happened is that once I got married, my wife and I made the decision to join GoldenSpringsBaptistChurch, in Anniston, Alabama. It was my wife who encouraged us to find a Sunday school class. That was a new concept to me. Being the dutiful husband that I was, I got involved with a Sunday school class and my experience evolved from that point. If you fast forward to the present, I find it amazing that some of the relationships I developed in that group are still dear to my wife and me today. That’s going back to 1979. As one example, I still have a relationship with a young man named Jim that I led to the Lord after which I was able to get him involved in our Sunday school class. I have to credit the ministry of the Sunday school with helping me to engage with the total life of the church.
Parr: So you went from uninvolved to very involved, and it obviously became important in your spiritual walk. I believe I recall that you were called to pastor as a young adult. How did that experience affect your Sunday school journey?
Rainer: Ironically, I shifted back the other way at one point. Keep in mind that when I was called to vocational ministry, the ministry of Sunday school was very much a part of my experience and my vocabulary. I brought that passion to seminary with me and then went on to pastor four churches. But somewhere along the journey during my ministry as a pastor, two things were taking place. First of all, I became enamored with what I viewed as cutting edge strategies that I perceived to be innovative. That caused me to begin to ignore and devalue Sunday school for a season during my early pastoral ministry. That is a fatal mistake to any church that desires to have a strong Sunday school ministry. I was in good company because many who became fascinated with the church growth movement made the same mistake.
Parr: I know you are an advocate of Sunday school today. What was it that caused you to go back to being a huge supporter of Sunday school as a strategy for churches?
Rainer: It happened as I began to do research as the backdrop of my writing endeavors. I went into my research experiences believing Sunday school had good things to offer, but as part of the church growth movement my focus was more on whatever was newest, latest, or greatest. Sunday school does not fit the template when you are busy chasing fads, and that is what I was doing. The Sunday school movement goes back to the late 1780’s with Robert Raikes, and its age leads many to interpret it as irrelevant. In one sense, the Sunday school goes even further back because small groups have existed in one form or another throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, I abandoned Sunday school like so many others because I was always enamored with the latest and greatest. As I began to write about some of the cutting edge strategies, I didn’t necessarily bash Sunday school- although in my earliest books I wasn’t very positive about it. But I have always been committed to do objective research.
Parr: What did your research reveal?
Rainer: In the course of honest research, I found over and over there is a high correlation between the health of a church and the implementation of a strong Sunday school type of ministry. I was surprised because of my preceding bias at how often it was specifically Sunday school that was core strategy at work in the healthiest churches. The research consistently affirmed the relationship between an open group ministry like Sunday school and the ability of a church to assimilate new members.
Parr: Explain for those who will be reading what you mean when you say an “open group.”
Rainer: An open group is a Bible study group that meets weekly and can be joined at any time throughout the year without any prerequisites. In addition, the research that I conducted consistently revealed that the non-believers connected to opens groups such as Sunday school dramatically increased the likelihood of that person coming to faith in Jesus as Savior. My research caused me to go through a paradigm shift back to strong support of Sunday school as a strategy that when done correctly can strengthen a church.
Parr: So you were actually a Sunday school doubter early in your pastoral ministry.
Rainer: I actually admitted following my research for my book “High Expectations” that I had made been making a mistake. I called it “Confessions of the Sunday School Skeptic” if I remember correctly. I admitted in writing that I was absolutely wrong. I believe the reason some church leaders struggle with the concept of the Sunday school is because they forget the purpose behind it. Sunday school done correctly enables your congregation to organize to fulfill the Great Commission by integrating and balancing evangelism, discipleship, and ministry to members as well as the community. That has been my journey. I believe in Sunday school, and I think it is still relevant for churches today.
Parr: I know the name “Sunday school” emerged early on because it was established in its earliest form as a “school that met on Sunday” to battle illiteracy. Of course, Robert Raikes soon discovered that when you expose people to the Word of God, and the Bible served as the reading text, that God moves in hearts and lives. But when you consider that it is not school on Sunday and the fact that in some regions it is associated with ministry to children, there is a lot of discussion about the relevance of the name. Obviously, you support the strategy. What about the name itself? Should we change it?
Rainer: I actually fought for the name at one season of my ministry, but I don’t do that anymore. Churches call it by all kinds of names. I realized it was a silly fight given the different names churches use such as Sunday Morning Bible Study, Bible Study group, Open Groups, Fellowship groups, Bible Study Fellowship, Connect Groups, and on and on it goes. Many churches have already made that decision. The key is not what you call it so much as what you do with it. I believe in the strategy or the concept, but I am not married to the name as being critical to its success. There is no single answer. I know that’s a cop out answer. Let me give you an example. My son Sam served in his previous church in Sarasota, and I believe they called theirs Life Groups. They ran into a problem. The Hispanic community that they were engaged with did not understand what Life Groups were, but they understood the name Sunday school, so they had to explain to the Hispanic community in southwest Florida, that this is Sunday school. In addition, there are some regions where Sunday school is understood to be a ministry for children. I don’t think the name Sunday school is intrinsically evil or intrinsically good. I think it has to be contextualized. It is more important to focus on the strategy than the name. The bottom line is that churches will be healthier if they involve their members in small groups like the Sunday school as well as the larger gathering of a worship experience.
Parr: How would you characterize the state of Sunday school as a movement today?
Rainer: In many ways it is fledgling right now. But please do not misunderstand me on this point. I am not saying that it does not or cannot work or be effective. I am just acknowledging that fewer churches are focusing upon the concept of an open group strategy than did in years past. I believe that we are in a period of transition where worship has been the primary emphasis in an increasing number of churches. Another shift is underway now where the emphasis is shifting more towards missions and ministry as well as preaching. I’m not complaining because those are all good things. The challenge is that the emphasis on these is often at the expense of elevating the importance of connections to small groups such as Sunday school. My fear is, and I believe research will bear it out, that the devaluing the Sunday school or open groups may hasten the decline of involvement and attendance in Christian churches. You cannot build something while simultaneously minimizing or de-emphasizing it. I see it happening in individual congregations as well as on the national stage.
Parr: I was with a group of Seminary students recently who were in Master’s level studies. I was disappointed when I asked what they had learned about leadership of the Sunday school ministry and the mechanics of leading it to be healthy and growing. Of the sixty students in the audience, I discovered that only one or two could recall anything tangible they had learned on the subject. Are you seeing any trends in higher Christian education that may be affecting the state of Sunday school?
Rainer: Steve, I am seeing the same thing. I know we both love our seminaries and Christian colleges, but I fear that fewer of them are talking about groups or Sunday school in the context of training future pastors on the skills needed to make it work effectively. Obviously, we are not talking about every seminary or every professor because so many do such a great job. We are talking about the trends of the day. Pastors are so critical to the health of Sunday school in a local church. If all of the emphasis is relegated to the Christian Education track, then you are working around a key leader that needs the foundation himself. If the Christian Education wing of a school does not provide the tools for Sunday school leadership, then the erosion becomes even more challenging to address.
Parr: More and more churches are moving to small groups that meet during the week. I have not found it wise to dismantle the Sunday school to move to small groups in the churches where I serve, but that does mean that I oppose small groups. It certainly makes sense for a church plant or a church lacking facilities to have weekday groups, and even churches that have Sunday schools can reach more by starting some groups during weekdays. Let me ask you. How has the small group movement affected Sunday school in your opinion?
Rainer: Like you, I am a fan of all groups. I think that only good can happen when believers and unbelievers come together to study and talk about God’s word. It is certainly healthy for Christians to fellowship with one another and to work together to witness to non-believes. Therefore, whenever groups get together, I am a fan. I think the mistake that is being made is that leaders are creating a false dichotomy by asking which is better; Sunday school or Small Groups? It is not a competition. Suggesting that a church must choose one or the other, or that one is inherently superior is not beneficial to the body of Christ. But I do think that as a movement, the Sunday school has been hurt by the small group movement. Here is why. The elevation of weekday small groups as a strategy either through silence or overt distain has diminished the value of Sunday school on some levels. I look back to a lot of our denomination Southern Baptist and to where we were at a certain time, and a lot of people knocked Sunday school as a programmatic method. I would have to agree if a Sunday school ministry were an end instead of a means. Admittedly, some leaders have made it an end but correctly applied, it is a means to engage your congregation in fulfillment of the Great Commission, and many congregations are still doing that successfully. We must be careful not to glorify the organization but to focus on and apply the intended purpose. The emerging anti-programmatic sentiment has dragged along with it Sunday school and closed groups as well, which is what many churches refer to Discipleship Training time. I fear that we may have thrown the baby out with the bath water, and the result is that there are fewer ongoing open groups in our churches today.
Parr: What are the key factors that you find commonly at work in churches that have strong Sunday schools?
Rainer: The first thing is that the pastor must be the primary advocate. I have always noticed that when the pastor fails to elevate the Sunday school as an integral part of the church life, it wanes. It is critical for the pastor to invest energy and time whether his is bi-vocational, single staff, or in a multi-staff situation. The pastor’s influence is absolutely critical to the health of the Sunday school. It will crash if he fails to give support. Secondly, a strong core of lay leaders must be enlisted and equipped. Untrained leaders rarely if ever lead a Sunday school to be healthy and growing. The training takes on many forms in strong Sunday schools but is always there. Thirdly, the Sunday school must be elevated or made a hero of the church. You accomplish that by giving examples through sermon illustrations, newsletters, and whatever means of communication a church has at its disposal to show how Sunday school is working within the church. Those are the starting points. You certainly have to follow that up by attending to organizational issues, facilities, creating new units, outreach and so forth. Planning and participating in equipping opportunities is the source though which you address the other factors.
Parr: I know from reading your research that similarly to churches, some denominations have stronger Sunday school ministries than others. You do not limit your research to Southern Baptist churches. What makes the difference on that macro level do you suppose?
Rainer: It may sound redundant but once again it comes down to leadership. Leadership is the key no matter the denomination and no matter the region. It is stronger where the denominational leaders support it and weaker when the denominational leaders devalue it whether inadvertently or by intent. I have noted that the theology of the denomination also bears great influence. I have found that the less conservative leaning denominations value Sunday school less because they value the Bible less. God’s word is the anchor of a healthy Sunday school. It is not enough to come together, but the body must be connected through the study of God’s word as well as fellowship. Denominations certainly differ, and where the Bible is not valued, the need for groups like Sunday school lack value. I am glad to report, however, that some denominations are beginning to embrace Sunday school, and I have no doubt they will be strengthened in the long run.
Parr: What would you say are the key changes that have taken place in the Sunday school movement over the last generation?
Rainer: We have already addressed a couple of those. The name “Sunday school” is obviously being used less frequently. Secondly, there has been a shift towards more of an emphasis on the worship experience, and as I said earlier an emerging shift towards missions and ministries. A third trend that we have not discussed would be what is occurring in relationship to Bible study curriculum. We are seeing unevenness and inconsistency in curriculum. In the past, a pastor would not only have confidence that his sermon or sermon series was being approached strategically but also that the education ministries were using curriculum strategically. An inconsistency has emerged where one class may be studying a book and another class may have LifeWay or a denominationally driven curriculum while yet another group has material from a completely different publisher. Still another group may just say “we are going to study the Bible” and not have any curriculum at all. I cannot imagine a pastor not having a plan for his preaching, but I find it amazing how many are so unorganized or non-strategic about the content being utilized in the Bible study groups. I certainly have affection for what my organization provides. But, at this point, I share this trend which is a growing concern without regard to the excellent materials we provide and fear that the “teach whatever you want” approach is detrimental to a healthy strategy in a local church.
Parr: What adjustments or adaptations do you think need to be made for Sunday schools in the current culture?
Rainer: We do not need to be afraid to call it something else. I think I have beat that horse till its dead- not to be hung up on the name. Churches need to be innovative with the space that is available. I find when the Sunday school meets on the campus of the church that there is a greater likelihood of involvement of the members, and I can see many reasons why that would be the case. However, in many of our churches today space is not available. Most church plants face this problem, and so you have to look to alternatives other than the campus itself. A willingness to be flexible about location and time is important. I have yet to find a better time than connecting the small group experience to the worship service primarily because of convenience. That does not mean that other alternatives should not be considered or will not work. I also want to emphasize again that you cannot take for granted that what is being taught in your groups. You need to develop a strategic biblical plan for content delivery in your Sunday School ministry to ensure the content is biblical, consistent with your church’s theological convictions, and leads the group to action or application.
Parr: Let me ask you one more question, Dr. Rainer. How do you see evangelism and Sunday school connected?
Rainer: Well, of course, there are so many ways, where do I begin? It all begins with relationships. It is amazing how you bond with people that you meet with to study God’s word on a regular basis. Those relationships enable you to serve together in reaching out to your friends and neighbors. I want to share something else. The older I get, Steve, the more I realize how powerful the word of God is. I wish I had realized it more when I was young. Robert Raikes tapped into it when he began Sunday school as a way to teach children to read. They used the Bible as their textbooks, and as a result of their reading the scripture, the Holy Spirit worked through them with hundreds coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Is there a better way to introduce someone to Jesus than studying God’s word with them? That is the nature of an open group and ultimately the aim of Sunday school when correctly implemented. Relationships are built between believers and then between believers and members of the community. They can be brought in to visit or join at any point, and the group should be working together to bring unbelieving friends. Sunday school is intended to be evangelistic, and leaders who desire to have a healthy Sunday school will emphasize this aspect. Sunday schools can flourish if we are purposeful in leading them to be evangelistic.
Parr: Dr. Rainer, I could not agree more. I want to tell you how much I appreciate your friendship and your leadership among evangelical churches. I appreciate your helping our readers to think through some of the challenges we are facing in our Sunday schools. You are definitely to be commended for your work in encouraging and equipping leaders to develop Sunday schools that really excel!