Worship or Sunday School?

Is he a Sunday School pastor or a worship pastor?

That is a question I hear quite frequently. It is rooted, I think, in several movements that are around today:

The Seeker Service movement.

This movement, popularized by Willowcreek Church in greater Chicago seeks to win the lost through a weekend service that is targeted toward the outsiders. People think this is a novel concept, but it is not unlike holding an evangelistic crusade every weekend. An evangelistic crusade features a service specifically designed to introduce Christ and the basics of Christianity to the uninitiated. At Willowcreek, they do that every weekend. Weeknight services, called New Community are designed to edify the saved. This concept is alluded to in scripture. There is a verse that says, "Even so, if an unsaved person, or someone who doesn't have these gifts, comes to church and hears you all talking in other languages, he is likely to think you are crazy." 1 Cor. 14:23 [Living]  The message behind the message is this: when you do church, think about what it feels like to outsiders.

Pastors that follow this model naturally concentrate on the worship service. That is what the model is all about. A great deal of time and effort is spent in evaluating and improving the worship service, especially as it relates to connecting with the unchurched.

The Praise and Worship Movement.

Jesus said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” Although there is a direct reference to the cross here, many have also seen an indirect reference to worship. As Jesus is lifted up in worship, He will draw all men unto himself. There is considerable merit in this approach. Although Rick Warren stresses the importance of balancing the five purposes of the church, this approach seeks to exalt one purpose above the rest. That purpose is worship. Pastors who follow this model teach that worship is not about seekers. It is not about believers. It is about God, and worshipping and exalting Him. Get that right, they say, and everything else will fall into place.

Pastors who follow this model spend a great deal of time on the worship service, but for a different reason than that above. They spend time making sure the worship service is truly worshipful. They spend a great deal of time evaluating and improving the worship service toward this end.

The Contemporary Music Movement.

To me, this is nothing more or less than just good missionary thinking. Good missionaries know that you use the stuff and style of the culture to reach that culture. If we find a culture whose dominant instrument is the sitar, we use the sitar in our worship service. If their dominant instrument is electric guitar and drums, we use those instruments. Instrumentation is amoral and is simply a cultural issue.

Pastors who follow this model spend a great deal of time understanding the culture and creating a worship environment that is culturally relevant. Missionaries do this routinely. It is a good thing that all of us would spend some time on this. I am often amazed at just how culturally out of touch many churches are. The truth is, they wouldn’t have to make radical, upsetting change to be more culturally relevant. Even small changes, executed over a long period of time would keep the church in touch with the culture.

I heard the story not too long ago of a pastor who got fired for moving the pulpit from the side of the stage to the middle of the stage. He visited the church a year later, and to his surprise, the pulpit was in the middle of the stage. He asked the pastor how in the world he had pulled off this monumental change. “Three inches a week,” was his casual reply.

It goes without saying that these changes are only an external issues. We would never dare tinker with the truth of the biblical message itself.

The Church Growth Movement.

I believe the year was 1972 when the shift occurred. Prior to 1972 the majority of visitors to most churches came through the Sunday School. At around 1972, it tipped in favor of the majority coming first to worship. Worship became the primary front door of the church and Sunday School was seen more and more as either an assimilation arm, or the discipline arm, but it was not longer seen (by some) as the evangelism arm.

Although there is some validity to this, the shift was not absolute. It is not as if people prior to 1972 always came to Sunday School before worship and after 1972 the opposite was always and absolutely true. It was a gradual shift that had been building for some time and the two lines crossed about this time. For this reason, many pastors have been concentrating on the worship service over Sunday School. Many began counting and reporting the worship attendance number, which was increasingly higher. Greater and greater emphasis was placed on evaluating and improving the worship service. The worship service, and not the Sunday School is seen as the front door in many churches.

(By the way, with all this evaluating and improving, you would think that all of our worship services would be at a really high level of quality. As it turns out, this is not the case, but that is another topic of another day.)

Sunday School pastors

In contrast to all these trends, many pastors have been hold-outs to the old model. They staunchly see themselves as Sunday School pastors or small group pastors. They spend most of their energy thinking about and improving and supporting and encouraging the Sunday School. You will hear them gladly say in the pulpit, “If you can only attend one hour a week, make it be the Sunday School hour, not the worship hour.” They sometimes teach a class themselves, and sometimes teach the lesson to teachers at the weekly workers meeting. (Not a bad model: the pastor teaches the teachers; the teachers teach the masses.)

Which pastor are you?

Well, which is it? Which is the better thing? Which one are you, a Sunday School pastor or a worship pastor?

Here is a better question: why in the world does anyone think they have to choose? Who said that Sunday School and worship service were in competition with each other? Isn’t a Sunday School benefited by a strong worship service? Can’t the two work in harmony, each one contributing to the other?

Pastor, let me speak to you from the viewpoint of your Minister of Education, your Sunday School teachers and your people.

We need you.

We need your cheerleading. We need you to stand in the pulpit and bleed for the importance of community, the importance of the group life, the importance of Sunday School. People will never think groups are more important than they perceive you think they are.

Privately, work on the worship service. Work on your preaching (please, do work on your preaching!) Think through strategies of what we will use the service for, whether primarily as an evangelistic tool, or, a worship service. Think about these things when you are in the office. Talk to the staff and the deacons and other leaders about these things. But, publicly, we would like to ask you to Hip, Hip, Hurray! Sunday School.

We don’t actually need a lot of time from you in supporting Sunday School. Mostly what we need is symbolic. We need you to stand on the stage and Rah! Rah! Ree! Sunday School.

It seems like a Christian thing to do to me. Ultimately, leading the worship service is what you do. I want to ask you to get excited about what they do, what we do, what laymen do. Isn’t that what Christian living is all about--thinking not so much about our own interests, but more the interests of others?

But, again, the key thing here is, there is no competition. My best years as a Minister of Education were the years where our best pulpiteer--Sam Shaw--served as pastor. You can actually track on a graph the year he came and the year he left. Not that he did a lot of hands on with the Sunday School, but his strong pulpit ministry attracted a crowd. This made it easier for the Sunday School to grow. The easiest place to grow a strong Sunday School is in the shadow of a strong pulpit. And, a strong pulpit is complemented by the assimilation and community created by a strong Sunday School of small group ministry.

In the New Testament we read of the church meeting in the temple courts (large group worship service atmosphere) and house to house meetings--small group meetings. We need both.

What a wonderful word: AND.