By Elmer Towns. Sunday school is facing some of the most serious challenges of its life. Attendance is down, it’s hard to recruit teachers and those who volunteer don’t want to spend time in training and planning. Facilities are inadequate and out of date. Most churches have few teaching resources and little money to buy up-to-date aids. And it hasn’t even thought about the computer, Internet, PowerPoint presentations or moving into the 21st Century electronically.
Attendance seems to be down in most Sunday schools and up in a few. Dry lectures seem to be out, while enjoyable learning activities are in. However, can we build a biblical Sunday school by just making it fun? According to one observer, “The more enjoyable we make Sunday school, the fewer children seem to attend.”
Some pastors are concerned because they can’t get new visitors or new Christians into Sunday school classes, and faithful attenders of the past seem to drop out as they get older. Sunday school busing, which was a dominant outreach thirty years ago, no longer seems effective; nor can we get people to attend Sunday school with contests or campaigns. Not as many care about having the largest banana split in the city or being called the fastest growing Sunday school in their county. There are no new gimmicks on the horizon to re-vitalize Sunday school. However, as Sunday school is changing, let’s examine the change to see how we can turn some of these negatives into positives. Let’s see if we can find some diamonds in the coal mine and turn obstacles into wheels for prayer.
1.Sunday school is changing from being the steeple of the church to its foundation. The steeple is the most visible part of the church, and so, in the past, the Sunday school was visible in its campaigns, buses, and systematic visitations carried on by teachers. But Sunday schools no longer attract a larger attendance than the morning worship service.
As a matter of fact, the average worship service attendance has more than 25 percent larger attendance than the Sunday school. Visitors do not usually attend Sunday school; usually they attend the morning service. Let’s turn this obstacle into a wheel of progress. After visitors attend the worship service, let’s recruit them into Sunday school classes where they are grounded in Bible teaching and Christian living. Let’s make the Sunday school of the future the foundation of the church that becomes the place where believers are grounded in doctrine and godly living.
The year 1971 seemed to be the transitional year when worship attendance passed Sunday school attendance. Sociologists call this a tip-point. Prior to that year, Sunday school attendance was larger. It seemed that many pastors were constantly encouraging people to remain for the morning service. Now, we must reverse the process. Pastors must motivate people to come early next week for Sunday school.
The old Sunday school adage is still true. Everyone who comes to Sunday school ought to stay for church. Those who come to church ought to come early enough for Sunday school. There is a place for both in both, and if both are not in both, there is something wrong with both.
2.Sunday school is changing from the reaching arm to the nurturing arm of the church. Traditionally, Sunday school is by defined by four points; (a) the reaching arm, (b) the teaching arm, (c) the winning arm, and (d) the nurturing or maturing arm of the church. As such, the Sunday school of the past has had a strong evangelistic outreach, primarily through Sunday school busing and Sunday school campaigns. When I used to ask a church audience how many were won to Christ through Sunday school, many hands went up. Today, less than 10 percent say that the Sunday school was influential in bringing them to Christ. Sunday school is no longer thought of as an evangelistic outreach for the church. Also, teachers do not perceive their primary role as evangelists; and not many have a burden to win their pupils to Christ. They perceive themselves as educators.
The Sunday school should not throw in the towel on evangelism. Recently, I conducted a survey of 649 adults at a Sunday school convention. I asked them to respond with a show of hands how many were converted through the influence of media, i.e., preaching the gospel by TV, radio, magazines, tracts, billboards, etc. Two percent lifted their hands. Then I asked how many were converted through the ministry of a pastor. Six percent raised their hands. Next, I asked how many were saved through the organized evangelistic outreach of the church. This included organized visitation, street meetings, intentional evangelism, etc. Again, six percent lifted their hands. When I asked how many were saved through the influence of a friend or relative, more than 80 percent lifted their hands. Sunday school can be an effective evangelistic outreach when members will network their friends into a Bible study group where they can hear the Word of God and be saved. Then as a result of life-style evangelism and the follow-up of class members, these people are not only won to Jesus Christ, but bonded to a church through the Sunday school. Hence, the Sunday school is becoming the nurturing arm for bonding people to the church and Christ.
3.Sunday school is changing from front door to side door evangelism. Front door evangelism is inviting people into the church where they can hear the gospel and be converted. This is also called inviting evangelism or it implies event evangelism. This means people are converted as a result of a sermon or a Sunday school lesson. Statistics reveal that front door evangelism is not nearly as effective as relationship evangelism. But don’t completely rule out front door evangelism, some will get saved. However, as Americans become more concerned about their relationship to one another, side door evangelism can network friends to the gospel through classes, cell groups, and special ministries for the retarded, the deaf, the divorced, the single parents or other people with special needs in the church. The key is to find hurting people and offer them help. Side door evangelism is reaching people through special ministry to their needs.
The churchwide evangelistic crusades of the fifties and the sixties were a successful means of getting people to Christ. Today, outreach must be personalized and specialized. People can be brought under the influence of the gospel through ladies’ Bible studies, recreational teams sponsored by the church, special seminars aimed at the needs of people and fellowship groups. Sunday school can reflect specialized outreach by including some special purpose classes (in addition to the graded classes).
4.Sunday school is changing from its image of children only to a balanced ministry to children and adults. Before 1971, 39 percent of the Sunday school population were adults. But this has changed. Today more than 51 percent of the Sunday school population are adults. You can no longer think of Sunday school as only a place for flannelgraph stories for children. You must think of it as a place for adult Bible classes and fellowship groups. In the tip-point year of 1971, adult attendance finally passed children in the Sunday school population. Now that there are more adults, we should not minimize our emphasis to children but balance our endeavors to reach and teach both children and adults.
One way to balance the outreach to children and adults is to evaluate our resources. The average Sunday school invests 70 to 80 percent of its budget, staff, and educational space on children, yet adults represent 51 percent of its population. Let’s do more with adults, but not minimize our efforts to children.
At a Sunday school convention in North Carolina, I asked approximately four hundred pastors their opinion as to what age group in their Sunday school was growing. Only six pastors indicated that their Sunday schools were growing because of children. Six pastors indicated that their Sunday schools were growing because of youth. Only four pastors said their Sunday schools were growing because of senior saints’ ministries. However, more than two hundred pastors indicated that their churches were growing in the young adult area. While that is both important and wonderful, approximately two hundred said their Sunday schools were not growing.
Young adults, ages eighteen to thirty, have been considered a hard age to reach with the gospel. However, a recent sociological survey studied the many changes that young adults are going through. While changes sometime hurt church attendance, there is the other side. When people go through changes, they are open to the gospel. These transitions make young adults receptive and responsive to the gospel. These changes include choosing a college, choosing a life partner, choosing a place to live after college, choosing a job, and deciding to have children. Usually the change-process starts over as they assume new jobs and new homes. The research by Flavil Yeakley reveals that during this time a large number of young adults will attend church and be impacted with the gospel.
Growth-oriented Sunday schools that want to reach young adults should create special classes for them. New young adult classes, unlike established classes, produce growth; and remember, it is difficult for new members to penetrate into older fellowship circles.
In a recent study of why people choose a Sunday school class, it was shown that they first looked for fellowship, or they wanted to attend with friends. Second, they go where they can receive specific help for a heartfelt need. In the third place, they choose a Sunday school class because of a topic for discussion. The fourth place was the personality of the teacher, and the fifth was because of specific teaching techniques, such as films or discussion groups.
5.Sunday school is changing from an instructional center to a shepherding ministry. Many are recruited as Sunday school teachers because of their love for teaching. However, if education were the only objective of the Sunday school, then a teacher who communicates Bible content can rightly feel that when his pupils know the lesson, he/she has finished the task. However, Sunday schools have a much broader objective than education. They have a shepherding task that must be carried out. A Sunday school teacher is a shepherd; he/she is the extension of pastoral ministry into the life of the pupils. Everything the pastor is to the larger church flock, the Sunday school teacher is to the Sunday school flock.
When a Sunday school teacher gets a burden to shepherd pupils rather than just instructing them in biblical content, he or she will be transformed in passion and purpose. A shepherd is first of all a leader or an example to the flock. His life modeling influence will do more to communicate the gospel than simply telling Bible stories. Secondly, a shepherd tends or protects the sheep, which involves the ministry of counseling, visiting absentees, and making oneself available to talk about their problems. When a Sunday school pupil backslides, a teacher/shepherd goes to restore them. A teacher/shepherd has a ministry of intercession for his/her pupils. It was Jimmy Breland, a Sunday school teacher at the Eastern Heights Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, who cared enough to come by and take me to Sunday school in his truck. He was a shepherd for my soul.
6.Sunday school is changing from Bible lectures to Bible study. The key to the healthy Sunday school is Bible study with fellowship. Most think of an adult class teacher as a deacon who lectures to a class of adults in the back of the church auditorium underneath the balcony, speaking in a monotone for thirty-five minutes, then asking, “Are there any questions?” When there are no questions, the deacon dismisses for the morning service. This typical class will not make it in the future, nor will it prepare pupils for the future.
Recently, my wife attended a Sunday school class of forty-three adults in the family room of a home in a subdivision in Modesto, California. The class was studying Melchizedek? The people entered through the kitchen, got coffee, and found a place in the family room. Even before the class officially began, they were sharing what they had found out about Melchizedek. Although a simple topic, it motivated many students to research Melchizedek’s character and duties. The class had a lively discussion by many individuals before the teacher finally stood to begin giving his thoughts. My wife said it was an outstanding class because everyone shared. Everyone was interested.
The modern adult Sunday school class must have three things. First, a coffee pot (cold drinks or juice for younger people) Not that the refreshments attract visitors, but coffee allows people to fellowship before class begins and promotes informality that leads to sharing during the class. Second, modern adult classes need an overhead projector that allows people to see an outline, read a question, or focus their attention on the topic. This electronic teaching aid is a modern tool that reaches young adults who are a product of the electronic generation. Third, there must be questions to stimulate thoughts, discussion and involvement. Even Jesus used questions in his teaching. The difference between mediocrity and success in teaching is involvement by the student in the learning process, and a good question will get involvement.
7.Sunday school is changing from emphasis on enrollment to the open hand of fellowship. There was a time in the past when enrollment figures were some of the most important statistics in a Sunday School. As a matter of record, most teachers told visitors that if they attended for three weeks in a row, their name would be placed on the roll book. Enrollment was an important figure; it was gathered and carefully kept by Sunday school secretaries and reported annually for denominational records. Enrollment meant that the pupil belonged to the Sunday school and was accepted into its ranks. Today, many of the major denominations and independent churches have stopped gathering and reporting enrollment figures (except the Southern Baptists, who use it as a vital technique in their outreach). Most Sunday schools offer an open hand of fellowship to anyone who visits the class and try to make him or her feel as much a part of the class on their first visit as any other member. The open hand approach indicates that anyone who attends is a first-class member, just as much as the person who has been there for ten years.
Perhaps the change in American society is reflected in the change of attitude toward Sunday school enrollment. Most people do not make long-term commitments to bowling teams, service clubs, or hobby groups. Most Americans make short-term commitments, so they don’t ask others for long-term commitments. Like fast foods and instant everything, people become instant members of a class the first time they attend. As a matter of fact, the most important use of enrollment is that it becomes a mailing list for follow-up and for contact with absentees rather than a means of identifying those who belong to a Sunday school.
8.Sunday school can’t use yesterday’s tools in today’s world and be in ministry tomorrow. Some things such as our commitment to God and His Word must never change, while other things constantly change. The mature believer must know what things to cling to, and what things to give up. The Word of God never changes, and Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We must never compromise biblical principles. But programs can change because they represent a technique used to reach people through the meeting of their needs. When a person’s perception of his need changes, the church must use a new program to reach a person through the new need in his life.
The biblical principles of preaching, teaching, soul winning, and ministry never change. But programs and techniques change. The original Sunday school was conducted on Sunday afternoon and taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. Now since public schools teach these topics, Sunday school no longer meets basic educational needs of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Public attitudes have changed toward Sunday afternoons, so it is difficult to attract people to Sunday school in the afternoon. Most Sunday schools are held on Sunday mornings. So, Sunday school programs change, but the biblical principles that make Sunday school essential have not changed.
The wise Sunday school leader will test all things by the Word of God. Some programs have served their usefulness; they should no longer receive priority treatment. Other new programs arise and demand attention. Remember the words of Longfellow, “Be not the first by which the new is tried, be not the last by which the old is laid aside.” New programs are not good just because they are new and old programs are useless just because they are old. Paul tells us, “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Therefore, hold fast to biblical principles, for they are eternal, then test all programs by biblical principles for effectiveness.
Does the Sunday school have a bright future? Its historic purpose must not change. The Sunday school must reach, teach, win, and mature its pupils in Christ. As long as the Sunday school remains a channel for the Word of God, it will meet needs and have a future. As long as the Sunday school curriculum is based on the Word of God, people must attend its classes and support its programs. As long as the Sunday school is based on the Word of God, it has a bright future.