"It doesn't work!" I have heard this statement often in my ministry. A leader is doing all he or she knows how to do, and yet the Sunday school is struggling. A Sunday school teacher works hard at preparing and delivering a lesson and wants the class to grow; however, no guests are present. At the same time, hundreds of churches have growing Sunday school ministries.
Dakota tribal wisdom says when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. However, churches often find themselves trying other strategies. Consider the following 10 ways that churches and organizations deal with the problem of riding dead horses:
10. Provide additional funding to increase the dead horse's performance.
9. Provide training to teach people how to ride dead horses.
8. Appoint a committee to revive the dead horse.
7. Change the person riding the dead horse.
6. Say things like: "This is the way we always have ridden this horse."
5. Appoint a committee to study the dead horse.
4. Harness several dead horses together for increased speed.
3. Pass a resolution declaring: "The horse is not dead."
2. Arrange to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses.
1. Buy a stronger whip.
What is a Sunday school that works?
An effective Sunday school strategy can have a dramatic effect on the evangelistic results of the church, and effective evangelism has the potential to impact the Sunday school in a positive way. It is not hard to figure out that as more people are trained and challenged to share their faith, more people trust Christ as their Savior. As more people trust Christ, more people become involved in the Sunday school or the small groups of the church.
Further research has revealed that participation in Sunday school makes a dramatic difference in the assimilation of a new believer. The survey questioned people who had received Christ as Savior five years earlier. Of those who immediately became active in Sunday school, 83 percent were still active five years later. By contrast, only 16 percent were still active if they did not become active in Sunday school immediately after becoming a believer. What a dramatic difference. Commenting on these findings, the researchers concluded: "With this type of data, one might expect churches to give high priority to getting new members involved in a small group immediately. We certainly found the formerly unchurched to have an enthusiastic view of small groups, particularly Sunday school …. The picture is clear: the formerly unchurched 'stick to' a church when they get involved in a small group. Let us pray that more churches will learn this lesson."
Why then are many of today's leaders dismissing Sunday school as a strategy? The reasons that many have done so include the following:
Some leaders have never had a healthy Sunday school experience.
Some pastors, staff members, and church leaders have experienced dry, cold, dull, and academic Sunday school settings and do not feel compelled to endure it since it is a matter of personal choice. However, Sunday school does not have to be that way, and it is not that way in all churches. Some leaders assume that it cannot work if they have not personally seen it happen in their setting. I jokingly say that the number one reason people do not want to go to Sunday school is because they have been. Some leaders have had the same experience and do not have any other context from which to draw their conclusions.
Some leaders have never been taught the principles of Sunday school growth.
I recently asked a group of master of divinity graduates what they had learned about Sunday school growth in their seminary experience. Only one of about 60 students could point to any academic training in this area. Ordinarily, if the pastor does not have the tools and the knowledge, neither will the members. The result is that many pastors go into a church that has the basic Sunday school structure (rooms, classes, teachers, rolls, curriculum, etc.), but the Sunday school is lifeless and cold. I am not aware of anyone with expertise who proposes that Sunday school can thrive on autopilot. Yet, many leaders draw the conclusion that it does not work because the basic structure is present and there are no results.
Some leaders assume Sunday school does not work because another prominent leader has dismissed it as ineffective.
The other leader is often successful in preaching, growing the worship attendance, and/or perhaps reaching people for Christ. Surely, Sunday school cannot work if it does not work in his church! The success of the leader in other areas may lead those who hear him to conclude that Sunday school cannot be relevant if it did not work for him. In addition, many leaders dismiss it outright because it is not an innovative approach in their estimation. However, their innovation and success cannot be interpreted to mean that Sunday school cannot be effective because they did not choose to use it as a strategy or because it is not the latest trend. On the contrary, many churches have struggled because they have tried to emulate these innovative churches, perhaps because of their fascination with the innovations and their desire to be on the cutting edge. I believe in being innovative. However, I am more concerned with being effective. Some church leaders have concluded that Sunday school cannot be effective today because it is not a new innovation. It is not new in the context that it was developed in a previous generation. However, it is relatively new in the context of the history of Christianity. Robert Raikes started the first Sunday school about 220 years ago. Sunday school has been in existence as an education and evangelism tool only during the most recent 11 percent of Christian history. The real question is not whether it is new, old, contemporary, or out of date. The most important question is whether it can be effectively used to evangelize and to educate in the Christian church today and in the future.
Some leaders are unwilling to pay the price to lead the Sunday school to be healthy and growing.
Leading the Sunday school to be healthy and growing is hard work. It is a high-maintenance strategy involving a large number of the congregation. The results can also have a high return. Sunday school is a tool that can involve every generation in the church in evangelism, Bible study, fellowship, ministry, and assimilation of new members.
Do you have a saw in your garage? Go out to your garage and watch it work. It will not work if it is not in someone's hand. It is only a tool. Take the saw and hold it. It still does not work, does it? You have to know what to do with it. You have to keep the blade sharp and use it in the way that it was designed. Sunday school is a tool. You cannot sit back and watch it work. You have to sharpen it and apply it in the way that it is intended. The problem is not that Sunday school will not work. The problem is that we have goodhearted teachers and leaders who have not been taught how to use the tool.
How can you know if Sunday school is working correctly? You will see at least three results.
The lost will be reached. The word lost is not a contemporary term but a biblical term often used to describe the state of a person who does not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A class or a church can express the purpose of the Sunday school in many ways. Ultimately, I believe the purpose is to enable the church to strategically embrace and engage the Great Commission as stated by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20. A Sunday school that works is one that equips and challenges the classes or small groups to move beyond the church walls and into the community, working together to share the gospel and bring people to Christ. Sadly, many classes meet for Bible study and give no consideration, time, or effort to this end. The result is that many people have concluded that Sunday school does not work, when in reality the Sunday school has lost focus and moved off of the intended track.
Lives will be changed. God's Word is powerful, and people are transformed as they are exposed to it. The problem that many Sunday school classes encounter is not the power of God's Word but the anemic presentation of unprepared or passionless teachers. The teachers I am describing love God and love their church. However, they may not have been equipped and are often not motivated to prepare and present the lesson with effectiveness. It certainly cannot help their attitude if the pastor or other leaders are talking down the value of Sunday school. Additionally, many are unaware that they are ineffective. They have concluded that the purpose of Sunday school is to study the Bible, and that is what they are doing. Therefore, they see themselves as successful. James 1:22 says, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." A Bible study in a Sunday school class or a small group of any kind is not intended to be an academic exercise. It is intended to be an encounter with God that affects the participants' lives day in and day out. An encounter with God's Word should lead to personal spiritual growth that in turn leads to life change. The teacher of the class bears the responsibility of confronting the class members with the truth of God's Word with the aim of personal application and the spiritual growth of all members.
Leaders will be sent. Rick Warren rightly states that the measure of a healthy church is not its seating capacity but its sending capacity. The same is true of a Sunday school class. A consistent encounter with God through the study of his Word will lead many participants out of the class into ministry. Many children and students who grow up in a healthy Sunday school will heed God's call to missions and ministry. All members will feel compelled to find their place of service within the existing class or externally as God sends them. Each class will have members who do not attend regularly as well as those who attend and choose to do nothing but sit and listen. The teacher of a healthy class will be frustrated by that fact but will understand that moving one, two, or three class members into leadership each year can make a huge impact in the life of the church.
Adapted from the book Sunday School That Really Works, by Steve R. Parr, Kregel Publications, published by permission.
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