Saving Sunday School
Peter BeckPeter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
- 2009 Mar 27
I love Sunday School. Sunday School is what God used to draw me into a closer relationship with him as an adult. Sunday School is where God began his vocational call on my life. Sunday School is where I began to get an inkling of what I might actually be good at. I love Sunday School.
Apparently a lot of folks must hate Sunday School. They have to. They’re trying to kill it. They’re killing it with their apathy. They’re killing it with their absence. They’re killing it, sometimes, with their good intentions. Sunday School is dying at the hands of those who should it love it the most.
When done right, Sunday School is a blessing. Consider these advantages to a strong Sunday School ministry:
1 - SS provides a place of community. The class becomes a church within the church, a time and a place for intimate relationships that can blossom nowhere else on Sunday morning. Friendships grow, cares are shared, and, occasionally, faith is found within the friendly confines of the Sunday School room.
2 - SS provides a place for service. Many Christians who will not or cannot serve the church at large can be encouraged to find and use their spiritual gifts on the smaller stage of the classroom. I would not be where I am today doing what I am doing today had it not been for a reluctantly accepted offer to teach Sunday School 15 years ago.
3 - SS provides spiritual accountability. People who would otherwise fall through the cracks, problems that go undiagnosed, and needs that are overlooked in the larger corporate atmosphere of the church, can be recognized and addressed in the intimacy of the SS class. When you’re dealing with 400 it’s easy to hide and it’s easy to get lost. When you’re dealing with 20, there’s nowhere to hide and no one should get lost.
4 - SS provides biblical teaching. For far too many Christians, the only Bible training they get comes during the worship hour. While even the best preacher can teach much during his 30 or 40 minutes on Sunday morning, his sermon must necessarily be aimed to address the needs and development of the larger population. Those who need more teaching or deeper teaching can find it only in Sunday School.
On the other hand, when Sunday School is done poorly, it can only hurt the church. Consider these matters in that light:
1 - Sunday School classes can become closed cliques not open communities. The sense of intimacy can be so great that newcomers feel like interlopers. The jokes, the prayer concerns, the needs are so familiar that the visitor feels as though he or she is just a fly on the wall. SS should be a place to get plugged in not shut out, even if we are smiling as we do it.
2 - Sunday School is dominated by one or two eager folks. They do all the work. They do all the planning. They do. No one else does. They watch. They absorb. They enjoy or they complain. When they volunteer, they’re politely told “thank you but we’ve got it covered.” Sunday School classes that assume that they shouldn’t presume upon the time of others may be inadvertently denying them the chance to exercise their gifts.
3 - Sunday School classes that are not intentionally keeping an eye on every member may accidentally overlook the quiet members. Add to that the fact that so many SS ministries have bloated rolls with names of folks who visited once or thrice and never returned that they struggle to know for certain who is and who isn’t there. Worse yet, too many SS classes forget that they are to be a place of ministry. Instead, they follow a social agenda, focusing on fellowship to the exclusion of spiritual accountability. Or, others are so teaching focused that the present needs of the littlest flock are pushed aside as irrelevant to the larger picture.
4 - Sunday School becomes something other than a conducive teaching environment. Any number of things can undermine the teaching ministry of SS. A poor teacher, short on the gift of teaching but long on the desire to help when no one else does, can drag a class down in spite of their goodhearted intentions. A prideful teacher who seeks to build a cult of personality can kill a class. A weak teacher who cannot control the class with tact and grace can hamper the teaching by chasing every rabbit let loose or ignoring every question raised. Too many SS classes become an opportunity to share our ignorance as we talk about “what this verse means to me” rather than what this verse meant to the author. This too points to poor teaching. Another class killer that I’ve seen is the rampant promotion of community. Some SS classes spend the bulk of their time counseling their members, sharing their prayers, and planning their fellowships at the expense of the “school” element of Sunday School. We learn everything about each other and nothing about the Bible.
So, let’s not throw out Sunday School. Let’s promote it. Let’s not kill Sunday School. Let’s grow it. Let’s recruit teachers who can teach. Let’s enable members to minister to each other. Let’s focus on the Word of God and let God speak to us. Let’s save Sunday School while we can. Let’s see our churches grow from the inside out.