Rev Stephen Brooks looks at the role Sunday Schools have played in raising up great Christian leaders, and argues that they are a key ministry of the Church, and are deserving of greater support and resources.
Edward Kimball lived over a hundred years ago, and his name does not appear in any history books, because he was a ‘simple’ Sunday School teacher in Chicago, who taught a class full of teenage boys. One Sunday, he got a new student and, after a few months, led the boy (whose name was Dwight) to Christ. That was the beginning of the ministry of Dwight L Moody, one of the greatest American evangelists of modern times.
Moody’s international speaking engagements took him to the British Isles, where he preached in a little chapel pastored by a young man named Frederic Meyer. In his sermon, Moody told an emotional story about a certain Sunday School teacher he had known, who personally went to every student in his class and led every one of them to Christ. That message changed Meyer’s entire ministry, inspiring him to become an evangelist like Moody.
Meyer preached in America several times. Whilst he was preaching in Northfield, Massachusetts, a young preacher sitting in the back row heard Meyer say, “If you are not willing to give up everything for Christ, are you willing to be made willing?” That remark led J Wilbur Chapman to respond to the call of God on his life. Chapman went on to become one of the most effective evangelists of his time. A volunteer by the name of Billy Sunday – a famous baseball player – helped set up his crusades. He eventually took over Chapman’s ministry, and God used Billy Sunday’s preaching to turn thousands of people to Christ. Inspired by a 1924 Billy Sunday crusade in North Carolina, a committee of Christians dedicated themselves to reaching that area for Christ.
The committee invited the evangelist, Mordecai Ham, to hold a series of evangelistic meetings there in 1932. A lanky 16-year-old sat in the huge crowd; he gave his life to Christ. His name was Billy Graham – arguably the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. All this started with the work of a faithful Sunday School teacher named Kimball.
Many pastors today are convinced that the Sunday School is no longer an effective method for reaching the lost or increasing church membership. They believe it is antiquated and irrelevant. Some feel it is no longer a viable means of ministry, or worthy of church priority.
It is my conviction that Sunday School has not lost its effectiveness as a tool to promote church growth. It exists to teach the Word of God, and still remains the best chance for a church to reach people, teach, minister and make disciples.
Some reasons why Sunday School is still an effective growth tool are:
- It’s familiar. Most people who have any church background have been involved in a Sunday School programme of some kind.
- It can provide a space for reaffirming fundamental principles, providing a solid foundation for character development.
- It incorporates many principles of church growth into one department, ie. a clear purpose; provides personal development; is consistent, and also provides the best method for assimilating newcomers so that they become attached to the church family.
- It gets people involved in service, and provides many opportunities for people with differing gifts to be involved in ministry.
- The small group structure is founded on the solid rock of relationships, not on personalities or events.
- It can establish family Bible study. Families can study the Bible systematically in classes, and also use those well-prepared texts at home, empowering parents to provide Christian leadership.
The problem with Sunday School today is not with the programme itself. Rather, the problem is with the priority and the purpose that church leaders place on it. For many pastors, it has become a glorified childminding service, without an intentional evangelistic purpose.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14 NIV).
Sunday School can fulfil the role of teaching values to children; it teaches them what is good behaviourally and what is not. It also helps them make sense of the world, and answers all the “Why?” questions, in ways that secular society can’t. For children from troubled homes, or who are lonely or mistreated by others, Sunday School offers comfort, for they know someone loves and cares for them. Ideally, the parents provide this instruction, but many homes lack such input, in which case Sunday School teachers can fill the gap.
Research, conducted by Faith Journeys in 2011, identified that people do not generally get more religious as they get older. There are older people in churches nowadays, not because they became churchgoers as they got older, but because they continued with habits laid down whilst growing up – 72% first considered being a Christian before the age of 19.
In my opinion, the greatest method of evangelism in the 21st century is not revivalism, but Sunday School; it’s not just a programme, it’s an intentional ministry.
Rev Stephen Brooks is National Development Manager for Excell 3. For more information about Excell 3, visit www.excell3.com