Bob Mayfield: How to make Sunday School Thrive

Welcome to one of the greatest adventures on earth! If you are reading this pocket guide, you are probably a Sunday School or Small Group leader. Whether you have been teaching a Sunday School class for decades or are just starting this week, you are part of a worldwide movement that has impacted millions, probably even billions of people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Although we can trace small groups all the way to the Old Testament (Exodus 18, Nehemiah 8) and the New Testament (Acts 2 and 4), the modern Sunday School movement began in 1786 in Gloucester, England. A newspaper owner named Robert Raikes decided to begin a Bible school on Sunday for unreached and rowdy children. Within just a few short years, what began as a small class in England became a phenomenon with over 100,000 children involved. It soon became a movement that crossed the Atlantic and is practiced today on every continent.

Sunday School has changed dramatically since the days of Robert Raikes. Sunday School has always had its pioneers. Stephen Paxton, an illiterate hatmaker with a speech impediment, got saved and learned to read while accompanying his daughter to Sunday School. Paxton then became a Sunday School “missionary”. He began and organized hundreds of new Sunday Schools in the Ohio Valley in the 1800’s. Arthur Flake, another pioneer, was the “Henry Ford” of the early 1900’s and brought structure to the movement. Another pioneer, J. N. Barnette, was a visionary and challenged the Southern Baptist churches to enroll more people in one year (1954) than it has ever done, before or since.
Today’s pioneers are writing the best curriculum; changing the format of Bible study by involving more members in discussion; and discovering new methods to share the gospel and disciple people.

Across America today, many Sunday School pioneers are literally taking the Gospel to the streets of our nation by conducting “Sidewalk Sunday Schools” on the sidewalks and public parks of our largest cities. Other groups are taking the Great Commandment and the Great Commission as their class project and are launching into missions like we have never seen before. Thousands of classes are adopting unreached people groups and praying for opportunities to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to their adopted group.

One thing that we have learned about Sunday School; it thrives when it takes evangelism seriously. Periods of decline in Sunday School have always occurred simultaneously to a de-emphasis on evangelism and lack of evangelistic zeal. Sunday School declines when we impose our own mission on our group and forget that our mission is God-sent. Times of explosive growth are likewise tied to evangelistic renewal in the Sunday School movement. Ultimately, proper study of God’s Word dictates that God’s people respond in obedience to God’s mission – to bring the Gospel and make disciples of every group of people on earth. To do anything less is to abandon our call to be Great Commission leaders of Great Commission people.

One of the things that I enjoy is to listen to people share stories about their favorite teacher. My favorite Sunday School teachers include people like Toy Sams, Hoot Gibson, Joyce Arterburn, and my own dad, Dowe Mayfield. Teachers like these are changing history one life at a time. You are going to leave your own legacy: a legacy of teaching and leadership; a legacy of making disciples that are impacting lostness and discipling people across the street and around the world. Go ahead… take the baton of Sunday School leadership. Your predecessors have left an incredible legacy. I challenge you to leave your own mark as well!

According to Barna Research1, about 45 million people were in a small group or Sunday School class in America. This “army” is not led by professionals, but by people like yourself who volunteer time and talent to the sacred duty of leading a small group of people on a spiritual journey together. Whether you are called a teacher, leader, or facilitator; you are a vital part of putting the Gospel on display in every town, village, city or rural community in America and across the world.

Bob Mayfield is the author of several books related to Sunday School. He is the Sunday School and small group specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. He will be speaking at several of our All Star Sunday School Training events.