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The Pastor: Key To A Vibrant, Growing Sunday School

While specific factors related to organization and emphases are important, the differentiating factor between healthy Sunday schools and unhealthy Sunday schools is often the active and visible support of the pastor.

By Thom S. Rainer

This church should not be growing. Located in the Florida panhandle, the nondenominational fellowship did not have demographics in its favor. While many people think of Florida as highly populated and fast growing, many areas of the state are still sparsely populated. Such was the location of the church my consulting team and I visited.

Within a 5-mile radius of the church, the 2000 census listed no more than 482 residents. A check of the 1990 census revealed that the same area has grown a total of three people in a decade.

In the past 3 years from the point we arrived, the average attendance grew from 97 to 352. By the year 2000, over 60 percent of the residents were attending this church on a given Sunday. My consulting team had to find the secrets of this remarkable growth.

The pastor was disarmingly modest and soft-spoken. He quickly gave credit to God and a move of His Spirit in the town and the church. But when we pressed him on any methodologies that enhanced the church’s growth, he spoke of only one: Sunday school. Many churches have Sunday schools. What was so different about his church’s Sunday school?

The interview quickly led us to an issue that my research team and I see repeated in churches around the United States. While specific factors related to organization and emphases are important, the differentiating factor between healthy Sunday schools and unhealthy Sunday schools is often the active and visible support of the pastor. Indeed, my own story is one of failure in this key leadership issue.

Confessions of a Sunday School Skeptic

Before coming to Southern Seminary as dean in 1994, I served as pastor of four churches in four states. In the 1980s, I was a true Sunday school skeptic. Though I did not attempt to dismantle the Sunday schools in the churches I pastored, I was not a leader in making the organization stronger and more evangelistic. If anything, the Sunday schools of my churches suffered from pastoral neglect.

I was not alone. Many of my peers were like me, enamored with some of the latest methodologies and innovations to help a church grow. Sunday school seemed a bit old-fashioned compared to the cutting-edge information we received from a plethora of sources. Indeed, I had my doubts that Sunday school would be a viable growth, teaching, and assimilation tool in the 21st century. But two developments led me to see my biases in a different light.

First, I noticed that many of the highly touted growth innovations had an unusually short life span. What was hyped to be the methodology for the church disappeared in a year or so. In the meantime, Sunday school continued to be the dominant program in most churches.

Second, in 1994, I began the first of several research projects involving over 4,000 churches across America. In the healthy and growing churches, my research team and I heard pastors talk about the role of Sunday school in the teaching, evangelistic, and assimilation ministries of their churches. Though many did share some new and innovative methodologies, almost all the pastors said that sustained growth would have been impossible without the Sunday school.

Indeed, Sunday school is neither neglected nor accidental in the healthy churches we researched. The pastor has made a conscious and intentional decision to utilize the Sunday school as a key arm in reaching, teaching, and retaining. What, then, must a pastor do today to be the visionary catalyst for the Sunday school organization and, thus, the church? Several key responses are worth pursuing.

Pastors Own the Sunday School

Recently I was leading a conference of over 300 pastors in Orlando, Florida. In my presenting the research of the churches we studied, I mentioned our findings of the critical role of Sunday school in the health of a church. One pastor approached me during break. The tears in this man’s eyes told me that my break was over. I listened to his story.

"Why," he lamented, "has no one told me about the importance of Sunday school? None of my peers, no one at Bible college, not even my own denominational leaders have shown me the data I heard from you. If someone had told me, I know I would have led my church differently."

In educational and denominational circles, the role of Sunday school is often shared with leaders in Christian education or laypersons with specific tasks in Sunday school. Rarely are pastors taught the importance of Sunday school in the health of their churches. Yet, the potential of Sunday school will rarely be realized without the ownership and enthusiastic support of the pastor. Our research team discovered that pastors would usually support Sunday school if they were given sufficient reasons and good data to do so.

Here is key research that has convinced more than one skeptical pastor of the importance of Sunday school.

Pastors Embrace Sunday School As An Evangelistic Tool

Those who predict the demise of the Sunday school are betting against history. The Sunday school is almost as old as our nation and, with only a few exceptions, has mirrored the growth of the United States. The movement had its beginnings in England in the late 1700s, when Robert Raikes, editor of the Gloucester Journal, hired teachers for impoverished children.1

Sunday school quickly moved to the United States and was aided by other forces pushing for social reform. Just before 1800, Sunday school had spread to Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.

After 1800, the purpose of Sunday school expanded to both biblical education and evangelism. The first national Sunday school effort began in 1824. The American Sunday school’s stated purpose was to organize, civilize, and evangelize. The Union trained leadership, published literature, and formed thousands of evangelistic Sunday schools by 1880.

Though the Sunday school movement began by educating children in England, it eventually became the teaching, nurturing, and evangelizing arm of the church. Sunday school evangelistic outreach was especially effective. By 1900, about 80 percent of all new church members in America first came to the church through the Sunday school.

When I present this historical excursion to pastors today, I typically receive a polite but bored look. Their expressions tell the story: What does this information have to do with my church and me today? The question is valid, especially in an environment where most visitors to our churches come first to worship services.

The purpose of the historical journey is twofold. First, I want to remind pastors that Sunday school has been the primary evangelistic arm of the church for over a century. Second, the principles of evangelistic growth are operative today.

When Sunday school was a major evangelistic arm of the church, three primary but basic principles were in effect. First, the pastor was the chief advocate of and cheerleader for the Sunday school organization. Second, Sunday school classes had some type of accountability for evangelism inherent within each unit. Third, classes were intentional about reaching out evangelistically. The word intentional seemed to play a major part in the evangelistic success of Sunday schools. The sidebar embedded in this article, "Praying for the Lost in Sunday School" is but one of many examples of a 21st-century success story of an effective evangelistic Sunday school.

Sunday school as an evangelistic arm of the church is not limited to a few churches. Indeed, in our study of over 4,000 churches across America, Sunday school was the third highest-rated, effective evangelistic methodology.2 Pastors must realize that the issue is not that Sunday school is not working; rather, many pastors are not working Sunday school to be evangelistically effective.

Pastors Embrace Sunday School As An Assimilation Tool

Imagine you are leading a church with an average worship attendance of 200. Further imagine that the church is divided into two distinct groups of 100 each. The difference between the two groups is straightforward. One group attends worship services only, while the other group is active in both worship services and Sunday school.

Now, fast-forward your imaginary journey 5 years into the future. Where are the 200 regular attendees? Of the group that attended both Sunday school and worship, 83 are still active in the church. Of the 100 who attended worship services alone, only 16 are still attending the church. Simply stated, those who were active in Sunday school were five times more likely to remain assimilated in the church than those who were in worship services alone.3 As I consult with pastors and churches across America, I am inevitably asked what can be done to slow the rate of dropout in their churches. When I respond with the two words "Sunday school," I often receive a stare of disbelief.

I understand the attitudes of these pastors. Most of their churches have Sunday school classes. And in many of these classes they remember the boring and unprepared teacher, the classroom furniture of the 60s, and the relatively few participants who attend because that is what they have always done.

But in the churches we studied in our nation, many pastors took a second look at Sunday school. They realized the potential for assimilation through this organization. And they decided that, if Sunday school were to be done in their churches, it would be done well. To have a first-rate organization, the pastors quickly discerned that they and the church leaders could no longer be content with business as usual. Expectations would have to be raised.

The Pastor, Assimilation, and the Expectation Issue

Our studies found that the key Sunday school issue separating higher-assimilation churches from lower-assimilation churches was that of expectations. We interviewed a pastor in the Washington, D.C., area about Sunday school and expectations. His testimony is not atypical of comments we heard from other pastors.

"A few years ago," he told us, "I was ambivalent about Sunday school. I didn’t plan to eliminate it from our church, but I certainly was not giving it a priority." Then he began to read and hear about churches that were rediscovering the strengths of the Sunday school.

"I guess you might say I had a wake-up call," he told us. "I realized that our church had been evangelistically apathetic, and that our back door was wide open. I began rethinking my lack of priority about Sunday school. Then things began to change as our church made some intentional efforts to revitalize this ministry."

Among the intentional efforts, the most dramatic were related to raising the commitment level of those who led and worked in Sunday school. Look at some of their changes:

The church began seeing amazing results as expectations were raised. "Once we declared that Sunday school was important and that we had expectations of the leaders, the changes were dramatic," the pastor said. Attendance not only increased among the regular attendees, nominally active members began to attend as well. Turnover among teachers dropped dramatically. Ministry through the Sunday school increased almost exponentially. And, for the first time in the pastor’s tenure, people were won to Christ through the Sunday school organization.

Repeatedly in our research, we heard about the renewal of the Sunday school. And we heard about results similar as the Washington, D.C. church. But more than any other factor, we heard about positive change because the pastor led the church and the Sunday school organization to higher expectations.

Are most pastors today buying into the incredible potential of Sunday school? While our research team has seen some amazing turnaround stories, not all pastors are Sunday school converts.

The Unchurched In Sunday School

My research team and I completed a major research project in 2001, interviewing 353 formerly unchurched adults. A formerly unchurched person is a new Christian of less than a year, who has also become active in a church for the first time in his or her life. In other words, we asked those who had been out of church all of their lives, and yet were recently reached with the gospel of Christ, "What happened?"

One of the many surprises we received from this group was their attraction to Sunday school. Sixty-eight percent of the formerly unchurched were active in Sunday school, compared to only 58 percent of long-term churchgoers.

What attracted these new believers to Sunday school? The first factor was a desire to learn more about the Bible. The second response was the attraction to become involved in ministry through the Sunday school. The third factor was the fellowship they experienced with other Christians. Perhaps the conventional wisdom that the unchurched are not attracted to Sunday school is more myth than reality.

—Thom S. Rainer

THE PASTOR’S ATTITUDE TOWARD SUNDAY SCHOOL

Throughout this article, and indeed in our entire consulting ministry, we have held a central thesis: A healthy Sunday school and church are integrally related to the pastor’s attitude and vision about Sunday school. It would appear that the Sunday school organization in many churches suffers from benign neglect. The reasons for this neglect are numerous, but the pastors’ attitudes could be summarized into four categories.

Some pastors have the same attitude I once had, that Sunday school is a tool of antiquity, a dinosaur headed for extinction. They are convinced that, even though the data shows the contrary, the newer models of ministry are better. Thus, their time and energy are directed away from Sunday school to other more contemporary approaches.

A second group of pastors simply take Sunday school for granted. It may be the largest program organization in their churches, and it will always be there, they reason.

A third group told us they had given so much attention to the corporate worship services that the Sunday school was relegated to secondary importance. Undoubtedly, the renewed interest in worship the past two decades has been a blessing to churches and their growth potential. But when Sunday school is neglected as a consequence, the wide-open front door is often offset by a wide-open back door.

A final group recognizes the importance of Sunday school, but these pastors recognize that the business-as-usual, dull-teaching, low-expectation classes will not be effective. They realize that high-expectation classes and a high-expectation organization are the solutions to the mediocrity of the past.

In our interview with the pastors of the higher-expectation churches, we asked them if moving their Sunday schools from low expectation to high expectation caused any problems. Their answers were an unequivocal yes. Some teachers and leaders refused to agree to stricter requirements and dropped out of ministry and service. Others resisted, implying that high expectations in Sunday school hinted of legalism.

Never did we hear that the expectation issue was addressed with ease. But in virtually every case, the pastor told us that the pain was worth the gains realized. A pastor in South Carolina commented, "Our desire to have greater commitments came at a cost. We lost some members and made others mad."

"But was the move ultimately beneficial?" we asked.

"Without a doubt," he replied. "The people in our church realize more than ever that Sunday school is our primary teaching and assimilating arm of the church. And I predict it will soon be our chief evangelism arm."

WHERE DOES THE PASTOR BEGIN?

"Dr. Rainer," the seasoned pastor from Oregon began, "where do I start? I have served three different churches the past 27 years, and I have given very little attention to the Sunday school. How would you advise me to change directions?"

His question is typical of the hundreds of pastors who write or call us. We typically lead the inquiring pastor through the following steps:

  1. Affirm the reality that many churches use healthy Sunday schools in their efforts to lead churches. A pastor cannot go further until he or she is convinced of the importance of Sunday school.
  2. Communicate your own support of Sunday school through preaching, writing newsletters, recognition of lay workers, and casual conversation.
  3. Realize that business-as-usual Sunday school is ineffective. The high-expectation Sunday school is the remedy for mediocrity.
  4. Mentor lay leaders who will become key leaders in and advocates of Sunday school.
  5. Organize Sunday school so it becomes not only a key teaching arm of the church, but an organization mobilized for evangelism and ministry as well.
  6. Slowly transition the Sunday school organization from low expectation to high expectation. This process may utilize covenant agreements, and it may take 3 or 4 years to complete the transition.
  7. Deal with opposition lovingly, but with resolve. The transition to become a high-expectation Sunday school will not please everyone, but the conflict is most often worth the results.

If people had told me in the 1980s that I would be one of the most ardent supporters of Sunday school in the 21st century, I would have questioned their or my sanity. But the data is in, and it is difficult to dispute the facts. Sunday school is alive and well in healthy churches across America. And, in each of the churches, the key proponent and cheerleader is the pastor.

Sunday school has an amazing history. It struggled for recognition in the last two decades of the 20th century. But in a new century and a new millennium, many pastors are once again affirming the importance of Sunday school in their own churches. If such a trend continues, we may very well see the greatest era of Sunday school in days yet to come.

Thom S. Rainer, Ph.D., is dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the president of the Rainer Group, a national church and denominational consulting firm. He has authored 12 books and nearly 300 articles. You can reach him at: www.RainerGroup.com.

ENDNOTES

1. See Thom S. Rainer, Effective Evangelistic Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), chapter 5, "The Sunday School Factor," for an overview of the history of Sunday school in America.

2. Ibid., 17

3. See Thom S. Rainer, High Expectations (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), chapter 2, for a full discussion of Sunday school and assimilation.

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