Sunday School should be a church’s outreach arm
October 26, 2004
A cursory look at the ACP statistics for Sunday School over the past 20 years shows a steady downward trend. Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) statistics are flat while our state population is moving upward. In traveling around our state, the MBC’s Sunday School/Discipleship Team has discovered that a disturbing number of churches of all sizes have abandoned the basics of effective Sunday School ministry. Our recent research survey of 1,604 smaller churches (January-February, 2004) has reinforced our perceptions. Our churches have strayed far from the true purposes of effective Sunday School ministry. Evangelism through the Sunday School is a basic principle of effective Sunday School ministry. It is time to return to the basics — because they work!
Sunday School has two primary missions; to teach the Bible and to be the center of the evangelism efforts of the church. This article will explore the evangelism portion of this mission. Let’s take a look back in history and see what some of our great Baptist leaders have said about Sunday School. In 1902, E. Y. Mullins said: “The Sunday School must, more and more prove a factor of power in the pastor’s work. Already in many churches the Sunday School is the chief and almost only hope for church growth. But whether in the family church, or the church among the masses of the great city, or the country church, the Sunday School will remain the most hopeful field of evangelistic endeavor.” In his book Building A Standard Sunday School (1922), Arthur Flake states that the Sunday School shall be positively evangelistic. He identifies the Sunday School as the church’s greatest soul-winning opportunity. He further states, “ … the soul winners of a church are found in the Sunday School.” In other words, the Sunday School is, by design, positioned in the life of the church to be the most effective evangelistic organization available to the pastor and leaders to fulfill the Great Commission.
P. E. Burroughs, in his book How To Win To Christ (1934), begins his chapter on “Winning Through The Sunday School” by saying, “We have already intimated that a chief agency at present, depended on in evangelistic effort, is the Sunday School. The fact is now so generally recognized that it does not call for discussion.” Today, we have lost sight of this “generally recognized fact” that Sunday School IS the chief agency for evangelism in the local church. We must reclaim this important basic principle.
In discussing the focus and purposes of Sunday School in 1937, J. N. Barnette wrote: “Evangelism is the chief work of the church. The Sunday School is the chief agency of the church in evangelism. A Sunday School provides a church with its greatest field for evangelism. The Sunday School puts major emphasis upon reaching people – all classes of people – the lost as well as the saved.”
Southern Baptists have long been seen as leaders in the Sunday School movement. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Southern Baptists had phenomenal growth in the local church. The basic principle of Sunday School being the outreach arm of the church made that growth possible. Churches actively practiced this basic principle with marked success.
More recently, leaders have continued to identify the high priority of evangelism in the Sunday School. In The Ten Best Practices To Make Your Sunday School Work by Ken Hemphill and Bill Taylor (2001) the authors state, “The age-graded Sunday School ministry provides the best organizational structure for organizing a church’s evangelistic, outreach, and ministry visitation effort.” In The Essentials for Excellence by Alan Raughton and Louis Hanks (2003), they state that Sunday School “. . . is a most efficient way to reach people for Christ.” Ken Hemphill, in his 1996 book, Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur, writes: “The Sunday School that is designed to fulfill the Great Commission must go to work in outreach before anything else. Developing an evangelistic Sunday School and church is not so much a matter of strategy as it is a matter of commitment and climate.”
Many others have identified evangelism as one of the two primary missions of the Sunday School. A Sunday School that is active, in appropriate balance, in the five functions of the church will become a catalyst for healthy growth. Evangelism is the first of the five functions. Unfortunately, in today’s church culture, leaders seem to know that the Sunday School is the best organization in the church to reach the lost for Christ, but make little effort to put into practice the basic principles to accomplish the task. The leaders of the church today must wake up to the reality that a mediocre Sunday School, one focused on itself and not the lost in the community, will not get the job done.
If you need to make some changes in your Sunday School so it can become more evangelistic in nature and function, what do you do? Here are three steps that will get you started on this journey. Remember, it took you a long time to get where you are today. It will take time to get back to fully practicing these basics of effective Sunday School ministry.
• Pastor and key Sunday School leaders should begin by praying about this issue and asking God to give you wisdom in making the right decisions.
• The church’s Sunday School leadership team should answer a series of questions regarding the current condition of the Sunday School. Questions include topics such as 1) How can we “educate” the congregation about this need to change? 2) How can the pastor champion Sunday School and share the importance of these changes? 3) What evangelism strategy is to be used? 4) What training needs to occur before this change can be implemented? 5) What other resources need to be gathered to support this change? 6) Is restructuring the Sunday School organization required to support these changes? 7) What else has been discovered on this journey that needs to be addressed?
• Develop a strategy and action plan to move the Sunday School from where it is today to becoming the outreach arm of the church. The Five Star Church Strategy can be the catalyst in this transition.
Practicing the basic principles of effective Sunday School ministry is key to becoming a Five Star Church; one that has a true kingdom focus. Being intentional in making the Sunday School the outreach arm of the local church will be a great start in your pursuit of excellence as you strive to become a Five Star Church! (Bruce Morrison is the MBC’s Sunday School/Discipleship Team director. This is an abridged version of a much more in-depth article on the subject. The full article can be read at www.mobaptist.org/ssd.)