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Tony Brooks: Sunday School: Missional or Discipleship?

Posted: 1/15/19 at 12:00pm. Post by Tony Brooks.

There is an ongoing debate about the validity of Sunday School in the present time. Many people believe that because of the decline in its numbers and its relatively inept function in some churches that Sunday School is dead.

I must admit that Sunday School and discipleship in many churches have lost focus and need serious revamping. Here are some of the problems and what I believe the current solution to be.

Sunday School has lost its original purpose. Sunday School, from the beginning, was the outreach, missional, and evangelism work of the church. Around 1780 in England, Robert Raikes began a Sabbath School for children who were poor and unable to read. Sunday was their only day off from work. His purpose was to teach them to read and to become healthy, productive citizens, and the Bible was one of the textbooks.

They provided other basic needs for these children, and it was very much a missions experience. Some people would suggest a similar movement was going on in North America at the same time. Either way, Sunday School was a missional venture to help children in need of physical, emotional, social, and spiritual growth.

Soon evangelism and outreach became the focal point of Sunday School for all ages. In the United States, the first national Sunday School effort began in 1824; its stated purpose was to organize, evangelize, and civilize. Arthur Flakes took it to another level in the early 1900s as he helped Sunday School become the outreach, organizational, and evangelism arm of the church.

Sunday School was to reach lost people, provide a care ministry for them, and teach God’s word. Over the years, however, Sunday School classes moved to a tradition of fellowship and Bible knowledge for existing members with little emphasis on outreach and evangelism.

Discipleship lost its place in churches. Meanwhile, Training Union/Discipleship Training developed as a Sunday evening program to educate members on church polity, doctrine, and leadership. (Sunday School focused on a less-intimidating way to reach unchurched people and provided a way to lead them to faith.)

Sunday evening became the place to go deeper in discipleship. Unfortunately, most churches (due to time constraints for members) stopped having Discipleship Training, or they had fewer members present to disciple than on Sunday mornings.

So what do we do? We have a couple of choices.

We can continue to allow Sunday School to remain as it is and see the numbers continue to dwindle, or we can revamp Sunday School to become vibrant again. Here are my suggestions:

Use Sunday morning for discipleship and the traditional Sunday School class. Classes that have been in existence for five or more years with little growth would best be served as discipling and training classes. Keep the fellowship and ministry to each other, but add the discipling piece instead of the traditional Sunday School literature.

Allow these classes to move to small group studies that will deepen their faith and hopefully their motivation to reach people. Offer different studies where people have options, but keep care groups as part of the ongoing ministry to each person. I have discovered that a parenting class or marriage enrichment class has been the perfect tool to get people in the pews back to Sunday School. Find out the needs of worshippers for deeper study.

Have a couple of adult classes use the traditional Sunday School curriculum with the purpose of reaching newcomers—unchurched people and visitors. After a year, these classes will have as their mandate to start new classes. This will require each teacher to mentor someone to take their class or start a new class on Sunday morning or at a new time and place. A new class done well will bring an additional 10 people to Bible study in the first year.

Develop Sunday School classes at a different time and possibly a different place. Many adults now work or have other responsibilities (travel ball teams for their children) on Sunday mornings. Why not offer classes at other times? Seek places in the community to start a Sunday School class. If Sunday School is going to bring unchurched people closer to God and to faith, we need to begin thinking outside the church walls. Have a Bible study in your home for the neighborhood. Have a Bible study for the travel team or at the workplace if allowed.

If we don’t make some changes to our existing Sunday School structure, our critics will be right…Sunday School will die. Begin creative ways to do Sunday School and discipleship, or see the numbers continue to decline. It’s your choice!

Brooks-TonyTony Brooks is our Sunday School/Discipleship Specialist and Field Strategist for the Southside Region. You may email him at tony.brooks@bgav.org. Follow Tony on Twitter: @TonyBrooks7