Recently my family relocated, moving across multiple state lines. Prior to moving, we prayed that we would find a church home. Now in our new state, finding a church home is difficult because the geographic location does not have a GARBC church within 100 miles.
We have visited churches in our area and still have more to visit that are farther away. When I asked my wife and daughters which church they would like to visit next, my 17-year-old replied, “I want to go to Sunday School, so as long as they have Sunday School, you guys pick.”
I was surprised and blessed by her response. My high school senior said that she wanted a church that valued all that Sunday School could offer.
She was reacting to a trend that she had heard about and was now witnessing in some of the churches we had visited: the absence of Sunday School. Some churches have done away with Sunday School. Others devote an hour before or after church to small groups or fellowship, replacing structured Bible teaching with prayer requests and announcements or a social time.
Being an inquisitive person, I asked leaders at some of the churches we visited why they did not have Sunday School. The leaders gave two common answers:
1. “We just didn’t have good attendance, so we dropped it.” I replied with follow-up questions—asking in love, but also as the leader in my family wanting to find out about the approach of these churches that were potential ministry homes for my family. Here are my questions and leaders’ common answers.
Q: If you dropped Sunday School, what is your approach to equipping the saints?
A: Equipping takes place through the message and small groups. [Many of the small groups had catchy names.]
Q: Who leads your small groups?
A: Various church members.
Q: So the pastor [or pastoral team] sits down with each leader and you all discuss the material and what is being taught?
A: No, we don’t have time to do that. Each small group leader either goes through a study or a book in the Bible, or follows the message each week.
Q: Who develops that leader and helps that leader lay out an effective approach and follow-up to teaching other saints?
A: No one does that. Each leader is selected, and they are on their own.
2. “Sunday School wasn’t working.” Unfortunately, this is a common response and a trend in many growing churches and megachurches. Then others gather that maybe Sunday School isn’t necessary to grow a church. A poorly motivated national survey has only added fuel to the arson.
First, Ephesians 4:12 speaks of equipping the saints for the work of the ministry to “build up” the Body of Christ. “Building up” naturally includes numerical growth, so if a church’s goal is only numerical growth, then I must agree that Sunday School is not necessary.
However, the word “edify” also means spiritual growth. Building up saints properly will help them, the local body, and the universal church. It will also lead to a concern for others; outreach will take place that will lead to numerical growth.
Second, this trend has been supported by a poorly motivated national survey. This survey had such a skewed and narrow interpretation that it was misleading. One of the survey’s authors/sponsors had a plan in place to spread the idea that “Sunday School is not working,” because that person was going to release their own teaching curriculum that “does work.” I am afraid that many churches got the wrong message from that survey.
While these two responses were the most common and troubling, there were others: “We don’t have enough teachers and volunteers.” “We are trying something different and are going to re-evaluate in a year.” “We just didn’t see the value.”
On the flip side, there are thriving and growing churches that are actively using Sunday School. These churches are equipping and training their teachers, who are in turn equipping and training their students. Sunday School does work in churches that emphasize this important area of ministry.
As for my 17-year-old daughter, she wants Sunday School. “Why do you want to go to Sunday School so much?” I asked. She responded, “Dad, I have heard you quote and preach Ephesians 4 on multiple occasions, and the one consistent thing I remember is that God gave the church different people so they could teach and equip the people that are believers. Sunday School has been an effective area in my life to help me learn, grow, and be prepared to do the work of the ministry that God has called me to do. Is that enough?”
Yes, it is. It’s more than enough.
Michael Nolan is CFO/treasurer and director of strategic ministry growth for the GARBC.