by Ken Braddy / Director of Sunday School
Sunday School can trace its origins to 16th century England when Robert Rakes used the Bible as the curriculum for a school he started to teach children to read. These children worked in factories all week long and did not attend traditional school. Rakes knew that without an education, these children would grow up illiterate and disadvantaged. He used the Bible to teach them to read.
When residents of England traveled by boat to the new world, they brought Sunday School with them. Once here, it was “Americanized” and took on a different mission—to teach the Bible to children, but with an emphasis on the gospel. The emphasis on reading comprehension faded and gave way to discipleship.
Sunday School has been around for almost 400 years now, and tens of thousands of churches have used it as the primary strategy for reaching people of all ages and discipling them in small groups.
With such a long history of success, why do away with Sunday School today? You should do away with Sunday School if the following things are taking place:
- You can involve more people in Bible study some other way. In my experience, many Sunday schools average within a few percentage points of the total number of people who attend the weekend worship service. It is not uncommon to see 85 to 90% of those in worship also attend a Sunday School group that is adjacent to the weekend worship service. If you can beat those percentages in a different Bible study system, then do away with Sunday school and go with that new philosophy! I’ve never seen anything else involve as many people in Bible study as Sunday School, though.
- You have a better plan for doing foundational discipleship for people of all ages. Sunday school provides groups for all kinds of people. Sometimes we say that groups exist for people “from birth through heaven.” In these groups, people experience age-appropriate Bible study. Because everyone has a place to belong, people of all ages participate in ongoing, foundational Bible studies. If you can deliver foundational Bible studies off campus for people of all ages, then by all means do away with Sunday School.
- You are regularly starting new groups in a different Bible study system. Sunday School groups are designed to grow and multiply. You might refer to the process as “splitting a group, birthing a group, franchising a group,” or some other term. Sunday School adds groups to keep them intentionally smaller so that discipleship can take place. A basic strategy of the Sunday School is to start new groups and reach new people. If you are starting many new groups some other way, you don’t need Sunday School.
- You have reached all the people in your ministry sphere. The mission of Sunday School is the Great Commission, and to reach all the people in a church’s ministry sphere. If you’ve found a way of doing that in another Bible study system, do away with Sunday School. If you haven’t found a better way to reach and engage people in ongoing Bible study, keep using Sunday School as the way your church expresses its obedience to the Great Commission.
- You have a more dynamic plan for evangelizing men, women, boys, and girls. Sunday School’s primary mission is to make disciples, and that starts with evangelism. Discipleship and evangelism are really two sides of the same coin. Sharing Christ with people of all ages is done in age-appropriate ways through Sunday School groups. We teach foundational concepts with preschool children and move to more advanced teaching with children and students. You can do away with Sunday school if you have created a new system for teaching the Bible and sharing the gospel in age-appropriate ways. If you are reaching more people in a new way than you were through Sunday School, share that with the rest of us, please!
- You are willing to see 85%+ of your newest members disappear by their fifth year of membership. Dr. Thom Rainer’s research has demonstrated that people in groups stick with church. In fact, if people join the church but not a group, you can’t find over 85% of them five years after they joined the church! Maybe you have something different than Sunday School that is retaining people at an even higher rate. If yes, then do away with Sunday School.
- You want less volunteers, less people praying, and less people serving. The research for the book Transformational Groups revealed that people in Bible study groups give more financially, serve more, and pray more than people who are not in groups. Do away with Sunday School if you have all the money, volunteers, and prayer warriors your church needs.
By now I hope it is apparent that I’m a huge fan of Sunday School and what it does to engage people in Bible study and relationships. I value the way it teaches the Bible to people of all ages in age-appropriate ways. I suspect you won’t find a better, more effective way to carry out the Great Commission. Perhaps what your Sunday School needs is a slight reorientation or revitalization—a “course correction” if you will, so that it gets back on track for the work of evangelizing and discipling the people in your church and community.