Ken Hemphill: Does Sunday School Still Work?

The question, “Could Sunday School still work?” makes a presumption that I do not share. It presumes that the Sunday School no longer works as a growth tool. We could first point to numerous examples of great churches of all sizes that have been built on a basic Sunday School model. One of the largest Sunday Schools in America is at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. They are presently averaging over six thousand attendees in Sunday School. Their school is basic but extremely well done. First Baptist Church in Orlando; Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis; First Baptist, Woodstock, Georgia; First Baptist, Snellville, Georgia; First Baptist, Springdale, Arkansas; Hyde Park Baptist in Austin; First Baptist in Dallas; First and Second Baptist in Houston, and a host of other successful churches have been built on basic Sunday School models. In fact, at a recent gathering of the largest churches in Southern Baptist life, I found that over 90 percent were built on basic Sunday School principles and strategies. All of these churches had other fine programs, but they are basically organized to grow through the Sunday School.

Lest you think Sunday School is only a growth tool for the largest churches, I maintain that it works effectively in the small to moderate size churches of different ethic groupings. Look, for example, at Arlington Park First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas; Estrella de Belen in Dallas, Texas; Temple Jerusalem in Victoria, Texas; and Carolina Memorial Baptist in Thomasville, North Carolina.

Pat Pajak became the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Decatur, Illinois, in January of 1991. That year the church averaged 165 in twentytwo teaching units. Pat began to build the church through the Sunday School. In January of 1996 the church was averaging 561 in Sunday School with sixty-one teaching units. They have now implemented three Sunday School hours on Sunday morning (8:15, 9:30, and 10:45). They are presently preparing to implement a Bible study program on Saturday evening.

Morningside Baptist Church in Valdosta, Georgia, has had a similar growth story. During the last five years, average attendance in Sunday School has grown from 478 to 630, while teaching units have grown from fifty-one to eighty-seven. Baptisms during this five-year period have averaged seventy-nine. The secret to this growth success has been a well-organized Sunday School coupled to an aggressive visitation program.

Sunday School has been used as a growth tool by churches from many denominations. Kennedy Smartt, a Presbyterian minister, tells of his discovery of the Sunday School as an evangelistic tool. He refers to the sterile and dying Sunday Schools in many settings that are designed to serve the “select of the elect.” He then goes on to write about seven keys to a growing Sunday School.5

Those who have predicted the demise of the Sunday School might also want to consider the opinion of men who have been involved in church growth research. Kirk Hadaway, in his well-documented book, Church Growth Principles: Separating Fact from Fiction, looked at the role of Sunday School. He writes, “Is there a strong relationship between the quality of Sunday School programming and church growth? The answer is yes.” He notes that 84 percent of growing churches rated their adult Sunday School as excellent or good, as compared to only 56 percent of plateaued churches and 46 percent of declining churches. In addition he discovered that 78 percent of plateaued churches that managed to break out of their plateaued situation reported an increased emphasis on the Sunday School.6

Leith Anderson, when looking at the church of the twenty-first century, predicted that the traditional church will be one of the major growing segments of the twenty-first century. He argues that we have ignored America's growing interest in the traditional, the attempt to recapture yesterday. He states that the traditional churches will need to incorporate many contemporary elements and do the traditional with a high level of excellence.7

Along the same lines, Elmer Towns writes, “Growing churches today are returning to traditional laws of Sunday School growth and implementing these principles into their ministry.”8

Hemphill, Ken (1996-07-10). Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday School Growth Strategy for the 21st Century (pp. 25-26). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Ken Hemphill will be speaking as part of the All Star Sunday School Training team. See