The term “Sunday School” is itself a skeleton of a long-dead dinosaur, a remnant of a bygone era. Like archeologists surveying the ruins of Pompeii, the 21st Century Church sifts through its Sunday morning educational program looking for what once was signs of life. Some have sought to resuscitate the time and redeem it for our modern purposes, ascribing to it names like “Life Groups” or “Connection Groups” or some such thing, but the fact is that the weekly hour of Bible didaction is hardly the time-honored tradition that it used to be. And that’s a crying shame.
Sunday School, to be clear, is not an obligatory Biblical mandate for the believer; but what happens at Sunday School is an obligatory Biblical mandate and we would be wise not to forget it. I’ll explain, but first a bit of history.
The institution that we know as “Sunday School” began in 18th Century England as a way to Biblically educate children, and in particular, children from lower socio-economic homes who were likely not to be educated in the Bible by parents. Likewise, this was during a day before child labor laws, and the New Testament Sabbath (as it was called and still is by some of us) was the ideal time to provide the opportunity for working children to learn the things of God. This was seen as a gift of the church to the poor, in a time and place in which education was ordinarily reserved for the wealthy. In the early Sunday School movement, the institution actually served as a school, complete with textbooks, assignments, and accountability. While certain family-integrated historians (including myself) look back at that time as an unhelpful departure into what has become a toxic segregation of age from cradle to the college Baptist Student Union, the notion of providing education to those without it certainly seems like a noble endeavor.
Fast forward a few years and across a Continent, and you’ll find that “Sunday School” began in the United States circa 1816. In the United States the purpose of Sunday School was initially evangelistic, whereas the Anglican-led Sunday School in England was seen as primarily charity. In 1824, the American Baptist Publication Society was created, which served to expand Sunday School throughout churches. In the Southern Baptist Convention, the “Sunday School Board” was founded in 1891 (unfortunately, that good thing morphed into heresy-peddling Lifeway Christian Resources, which is a bad thing). As Sunday School grew in America it gained another purpose besides evangelism (although in more fundamentalist churches it is still heavily oriented toward evangelism, and good for them); for many churches the purpose became discipleship.
It’s here, on the topic of discipleship, that I find my affinity for the program known as Sunday School. And it’s here that we should elaborate upon the importance of Sunday School today, after explaining the reason for it’s latter 20th and 21st Century decline.
The Church Growth Movement was the end-product of the Revivalist or Crusade emphasis of the latter 20th Century that emphasized ecumenism, in which success became gauged by statistics. An entire book could be written on this topic (instead, watch the documentary here), but suffice it to say that acquiring bodies in the pew (more fossilized remains of an era gone by) became prioritized over Scriptural education. After all, there is hardly room for doctrinal distinctives in an environment in which widening the tent and seating capacity is the ultimate goal, as doctrinal distinctives give people little more than something to argue about (and genuine discipleship).
In the end, the entire Sunday mission for most American churches became experience-driven. In fact, you can see the evidence of this phenomenon in the term that has almost universally taken over for descriptions for what actually takes place on Sunday, as churches advertise what they offer as a “worship experience.” As Jesus became an accessory and “accepting Christ” meant signing a decision card, the Sabbath command (or Lord’s Day tradition, if you bristle at the term Sabbath) became a matter of expediency and obligated inconvenience. Getting in and getting out of the church meeting house with exigency so one can go on with their day that (because of poor doctrinal teaching in and of itself) is not set apart to God other than the obligatory attendance a church service, became the unstated goal.
Furthermore, the experience-driven church actually changed the purpose of the sermon. Rather than to exposit Scripture for the listener, the stated goal has become inspiring the listener; invoking some kind of passion, emotion or resolve. An additional hour of Biblical instruction seems rather off-point, when Biblical instruction in the first place was wholesale traded for inspiring platitudes on self-improvement. Church people were taught to believe that church is a place to be inspired, and not a place to be taught. Providing time for pure didaction in a school-like setting seemed odd and off-putting in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. Sunday School once provided opportunities to teach practical application of the theology taught regularly in the sermons. When the sermons began to forsake theology and became all practicality, again the purpose of Sunday School seemed lost.
A Renewed Purpose
There are reasons why we should build our education program (for lack of a better word) upon the ruins of 19th and 20th Century Sunday School, and continue to lay the structure that might support and build up the church body.
By the way, if you’re not in a church that values Bible teaching and expository preaching, some of these will not apply.
1. The sermons are (ideally) designed to instruct you in matters of theology. While sermons are not seminary lectures, they should hold to the primary function of teaching you what the words of the Bible mean. The sermons should start at a place in a Biblical text, explain the Text, and end at a verse further down the Text. While there can (and should usually) contain a brief explanation of life-application, the 2000 year-old mandate of Biblical preaching is designed primarily to exposit the Word of God. The preacher must then rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide the listener to the knowledge of truth, illumine their mind to understand it, and lead them to its application in their own unique life.
Sunday School provides the opportunity to help apply what is being taught by the elders to the individualized needs of the congregation. Those life lessons, the individual helps, the Biblical wisdom and wise counsel can all be far more easily gleaned in a small group setting than in the corporate gathered assembly.
2. Sermons are preaching, and are not teaching. These are not the same thing. Preaching is authoritative “Thus saith the Lord” (with chapters and verses attached) proclamation. The preacher should not say anything unless it is supported by Scripture, must not use the time for endless illustration, and must NOT posit his opinions. The sermon is not the time and the pulpit is not the place for “I think” (I’ve instructed young preachers that if you’re tempted to begin a propositional statement with “I think” it best not be uttered in a sermon; only say that of which you are sure). This being the case, the sermon is not the time for interruption. The crowd need not interrupt the preacher while he’s delivering the exposition, and to do so, is both disrespectful to the act of preaching and the pulpit behind which he stands (which symbolizes the authority of the pastorate). The only time interruptions need be made is if the preacher is blaspheming God or teaching what is clear heresy.
Sunday School provides an opportunity for teaching, as opposed to preaching. With teaching, there is interaction. Questions can be asked. Clarification can be given. Someone stuck on a particular Scriptural idea or concept can be more deeply helped in a way that’s not possible in the preaching. What is taught by the pastor may be further explained by the Sunday School teacher to one who misunderstands or even disagrees.
3. Sermons to a particular church, with the knowledge a pastor has regarding that church’s previous instruction and their assumed accumulated understanding of theological topics, will be tailored to that people. The pastor – knowing the church understands the term “propitiation” – may not need people to look at their neighbor and repeat complicated words. In some churches, he can use that word freely and expect most to understand it, without taking valuable sermon time to explain. Likewise, he may use words like “hypostatic union,” “justification,” or “cessationism” without having to stop and explain the term, knowing that most understand.
However, there will always people in the congregation who don’t get the terms or concepts those terms represent. They may be new believers, newcomers, or people who just plain struggle with understanding. Sunday School provides them the opportunity to “catch up” and to understand the general ideas spoken of in weekly sermon.
4. The full purpose of church life absolutely cannot be attained by the “get in and get out” mentality of experience-driven churches. Think about it this way. We are to lift up one another’s prayer needs (1 Timothy 2:1). We are to confess our sins and shortcomings to each other (James 5:16). We are to mourn with those who are mourning and rejoice with those who are rejoicing (Romans 12:15). We are to greet one another warmly (Romans 16:16). We are to stir one another up to good works (Hebrews 10:24-25). Those are just some of the things that we are to do as we gather together corporately, and those are not the things that ordinarily happen in the weekly corporate worship service.
Only the smallest of churches can have a prayer time where everyone in the entire gathered assembly shares their prayer concerns, and where everyone can pray who feels so led. Likewise, there’s not a time in the weekly corporate worship service in which guilt-ridden brothers can stand up and share their sins like they can in a small group (although time can and should be made for that, it’s probably not going to be weekly). You can’t rejoice with the rejoicers and mourn with the mourners if you zoom in and zoom out for service, because you don’t know who’s rejoicing and who’s mourning. And even though your more-traditional church may have a hand-greeting time, something tells me that Paul had something more in mind than a passing handshake and head-nod. There’s no “stirring up one another” to good works as you sit in the pews, looking at the back of someone’s head. These are all things that have to take place as the church is gathered, but can’t reasonably and logistically take place in what we commonly call the “worship service.”
So whether you call it “Sunday School” or by some other name, please take part in that extra hour of instruction, encouragement, fellowship and embodiment of church life. You need it.