Friday, July 15, 2005

Sunday School Changes

By Alexander Samuels

According to a new survey by The Barna Group, Sunday school in Protestant churches is changing. This was recently reported in an article titled "Sunday School Changing in Significant Ways" posted on The Christian Post Web site (hat tip to News! For Christians).

The Barna Group survey found that there were fewer pastors whose number one priority was Sunday school. I hope that this is because more pastors are making . . . the preaching of God's Word their number one priority, but Sunday school should follow a close second even though it is a relatively recent addition to church history.

Traditionally, Robert Raikes (1735–1811) is credited with pioneering Sunday schools in the 1780s, but teaching Bible reading and basic skills on a Sunday was an established activity in a number of 18th century Puritan and evangelical congregations. The first adult Sunday school is said to have begun in Nottingham, England, in 1798 to meet the needs of young women. It was independent of any other organization and was run by William Singleton (a Methodist) and Samuel Fox (a Quaker).

Even though the history of Sunday schools is relatively recent, it has played an important role in the teaching of the Scriptures, in addition to the preaching from the pulpit. Most churches have supported it because it provides more opportunities for structured community study and participation in smaller groups. Belonging to a Sunday school class not only helps to encourage the spiritual growth of the church member, but increases opportunities to deepen one's sense of belonging through meeting people in a smaller church setting. According to The Barna Group, almost 45 million adults attend religious training in a classroom setting each weekend.

Some churches have tried to replace the traditional adult Sunday school program with small group ministries. These are typically made up of a certain number of church members who usually meet in homes or in other settings away from church. Schedules differ, and they may be held on any day of the week. Usually, the group decides. These groups provide opportunities for members to minister to one another, pray and study the Word of God.

The most consistently successful enterprise I have seen in small groups is their members' ministry to one another and the sense of belonging that is developed. This is, however, often difficult to duplicate in every group. It can be difficult to find enough people with the leadership qualities necessary to lead these groups. The Bible studies, too, are often inconsistent among groups. It is more difficult to oversee the content and reaction to instruction in small groups than it is to oversee what is actually taking place in a Sunday school program.

I do not want to be perceived as being negative toward small groups. I do support the concept of small group ministries. Actual attendance records of each meeting should be kept and reported to church leaders—just like Sunday school—which would help the church better evaluate the needs of the congregation. Small groups can serve as one of many important arms of church ministry to the congregation. Small groups will not, however, replace the adult Sunday school teaching arm of church ministry. Of course, effective adult Sunday school teachers are often difficult to find as well, even if the church is providing a "canned" program (videotapes, study guides, etc.). Can you see how even more difficult the teaching component of small group ministries is when you are hoping to develop many more small groups than you have adult Sunday school classes? I simply think that small group ministries would be more effective with a structured setting that would include a brief church-assigned Scripture reading, followed by a question or two with discussion, then prayer and ministry to one another, and finally fellowship.

In more recent years, according to The Barna Group survey, fewer churches are providing Sunday school programs for children under 6 and teens. Vacation Bible school and midweek programs for children are also being dropped. Unfortunately, this may be because it is more difficult to get volunteers in these areas. Modern Christians are becoming more dependent on the church to hire workers or professionals to provide these ministries. As in most organizations, the modern church is a place where we rely on the same few volunteers to do almost everything. The average Christian does not want to serve in these areas. You often hear the excuse "I'm not called to work with children." But they are not serving anywhere else. If they would just step out in faith, they would probably be surprised by the joy they would experience.

I believe it was the Jesuits who said they could shape a person's moral foundation by the time they were 8 years old. I think there are developmental strategies for teaching a child about Christ at almost any age under 6. It is disappointing to hear that Christian instruction is fading out for this age group. Too many people seem to see this as just the "baby-sitting hour."

Ministry-wise, the teens can be a difficult group. Yet, I believe that this group is too important to ignore. There is too much evidence that once our young people age out of the teen/youth group, a large percentage fail to maintain regular church attendance. This is as true of evangelical churches as it is in mainstream denominations. Many churches hire youth ministers to provide the oversight for this program. Unfortunately, many who hold this position see it as a transitional step to another job in ministry. Some burn out in three or four years. Consistency is very important to this age group. Volunteers are difficult to find. Yet, this may be the last opportunity to minister to this group.

I guess you could legitimately say that after "good preaching," I am definitely biased in favor of building a good Sunday school program for all ages. Part of Jesus' mandate to the church is "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). Preaching and teaching are important and like every aspect of ministry must be done to the glory of God.

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