Sunday School is the foundational strategy in First Baptist Church for leading people to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and for building Great Commission Christians through Bible study groups that engage people in evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, ministry and worship.
Part 1: Foundational and Strategy.
What makes Sunday School “foundational”? You might think, “it is for all age groups”, “it’s something we offer every week of every year”, “it is built directly on the Bible (Bible study)”, “it will always be a part of our church”. Those would all be correct!
And there's more to it: Sunday School uniquely accomplishes all of the purposes of the church. You might remember from The Purpose-Driven Life that Rick Warren had a great summary of the “Great Commandment” and “Great Commission” that we still use. (I’ll make sure that each class gets a small poster of this.) This is what makes Sunday School foundational—every purpose of the church can be built directly off of Sunday School.
Why is it important to think of Sunday School as a “strategy” rather than a ministry? Answers might include, “strategies are built from a purpose”, “strategies are master plans”, “strategies are about multiple goals”. And those are good!
Notably, “strategies” are not limited to a time or a place (any more than “worship” is something we just do at 10:45 on Sundays). We choose to meet when it is maximally efficient, but we will also emphasize fellowship and outreach beyond Sunday mornings to accomplish to full purpose of Sunday School. It’s a strategy that we must be intentional about.
A "ministry" is a step-by-step plan. Conversely, a "strategy" is more of a guiding policy. With a strategy, you establish your parameters (goals, guidelines, principles), and then you are free to operate within that strategy to accomplish your goals. In other words, every Sunday School class can be different—different methods, different teaching styles, different curriculum—as long as we share a purpose and principles.
That begs the question: how do we know if our Sunday School class is “on track”? How do we know if we’re doing the “right thing” in here? How do we measure our effectiveness? Based on our definition of Sunday School, we know what our strategy is supposed to lead to: “leading people to faith in Jesus and building Great Commission Christians”. Here’s a quick way of summarizing our strategy:
Your Sunday School is on track when the Great Commission is a part of your thought process when preparing for class meetings/fellowships, when you care about the four outcomes listed, and when you focus on those five functions.
Part 2: Being a “Great Commission Christian”
First and foremost, each Sunday School class is a Bible study group. That means that the centerpiece of our time together must be studying the Bible. This does not mean that we cannot occasionally focus on an excellent Christian book. This does not mean that we cannot take a morning to focus on a project or a prayer need or even just fellowship. It means that the centerpiece of our time must be studying the Bible. Why?
The Bible is our ultimate source of truth. If we want to follow Jesus, we must know who Jesus is and what He said. If we want to lead a fulfilling life with Jesus, we have to know what God has told us to do and how to live.
Because God inspired the Bible through the Holy Spirit, the promises of power and effectiveness God has made to us come through the Word of God—we are transformed through the renewing of our mind. (Rom 12:1-2)
The best book studies help us understand and apply topics in the Bible, but they derive their “authority” only from accurately teaching the Bible. We want to be able to go to the source of truth for ourselves—not depend on others.
What does this mean for our Sunday School classes? It means we need to be aware of how we spend our time. Talking about the weather and the Superbowl, talking about kids and grandkids and school, sharing prayer requests, praying, planning get-togethers and ministry actions—all of those things are good and necessary and should be a part of our time. But our focus must be learning the Word of God. That’s where the power is. That’s where the change is. And here’s the best part: all of those other activities (prayer, fellowship, ministry) can be rooted in the Word of God. We can use those functions to help our class members see how the Bible applies to and fits into every part of our daily life. The five functions we focus on are evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, ministry, and worship.
Part 3: Sunday School and Evangelism
You might not think of Sunday School as the ultimate evangelism arm of our church, but it is. When you share the gospel in your class, you are encouraging any non-Christians present to come to faith in Christ. Your small group is the safest place for a new Christian to ask questions, learn the basic truths of the Bible, and see what the Christian life looks like.
But more than that, as we learn the truths of the gospel in studying the Bible, and as we see different ways Bible characters tried to “describe” God and “explain” the gospel, we are training our classes in the basics of evangelism. When we have a lesson on crafting your testimony or on sharing the gospel, we are doing deliberate evangelism training. The more we know about how to share the gospel, the more encouraged we should be to try to share the gospel.
Finally, our church’s missions emphasis should regularly appear in our times of sharing. Many people from our classes are either engaged in missions. When we tell stories of what God has done in our personal mission experiences, we are encouraging more class members to be a part of mission work and support mission work financially. That “pray/give/go” model has been effective for a many years at building up Christians who understand the importance of personal evangelism.
Questions to ask:
Do we regularly pray for lost people to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus?
Do we actively seek to enroll lost people in our class?
Do we look for ways to help our church reach out to the lost?
Are we trying to learn how to share the gospel?
Are we looking for a way that our class can “birth” a new class (the data shows that new classes are more effective at connecting with lost people)?
Are visitors welcome in our class? Do we teach and share in such a way that an unchurched person would be comfortable in our group?
Part 4: Sunday School and Discipleship
What is discipleship? In Jesus’ world, a “disciple” was someone who belonged to a school and learned from a particular teacher. By that definition, everyone who learned from Jesus was a disciple of Jesus. But in the early church, they quickly realized that following Jesus meant more than learning some of what He said—it meant believing in Him for salvation and surrendering to Him as Lord. That’s the definition of disciple we use today. As a result, “discipleship” is the process of making a disciple.
How does Sunday School help build disciples of Jesus? Common answers to this include “learning the Bible” or “learning what Jesus taught”. And that would be right and good. Let me add some more thoughts to this:
Disciples are not made in an hour, so Sunday School must be a seven-day-a-week strategy. Bible reading at home, “homework” and projects must all be a part of Sunday School for it to make a lasting impact on our lives.
Sunday School provides the organizational framework for whole families and putting them in the work of the church. This means our classes must encourage members to be involved in other ministries and projects.
Sunday School must teach that every Christian is accountable to God for his/her own spiritual growth and is a missionary and minister in our world.
Because the Great Commission tells us to teach comprehensively, we believe that Sunday School classes should have a careful curriculum that has a plan for covering everything in the Bible.
Questions to ask:
Do we lift up the Bible as our source of truth?
Do we emphasize at least one foundational truth in every class time?
Do we pray for spiritual transformation?
Do we expect our class members to be Great Commission disciples?
Part 5: Sunday School and Fellowship
Everybody kind of knows what “fellowship” is, so just explain it like this: Sunday School is the best strategy for helping members establish and build enduring relationships with God and one another. And here are some basic principles:
Whereas church membership is “closed” (we have rules for being a member), Sunday School membership is “open” (meaning anyone can join at any time). That means that Sunday School is the fastest way for a guest to make a connection with church members. Make it easy to enroll a guest as a class member. Talk to everyone who visits about becoming a class member!
Sunday School should create an environment of grace, acceptance, support, and encouragement through those ongoing and open Bible study groups. What better environment for relationships that last!
Sunday School provides opportunities to interact with God’s Word, the class leaders, and one another both on Sunday mornings and through ongoing social, outreach, and ministry activities throughout the week.
Sunday School should provide a structure to maintain contact with members and visitor who may be out of town, ill, or unable to attend church services for any reason. That cannot be said about the worship service.
Here is the basic principle: the strongest relationships are built over a long time in a small group. However, fellowship cannot be the dominant function of a Sunday School class. Small groups that overemphasize fellowship always stagnate and “crystallize” because they are more worried about being comfortable with one another than reaching out, growing, and challenging one another. Ironically, fellowship without discipleship or accountability is often more superficial than the deep relationships we inwardly desire.
Questions to ask:
Is our class gracious and accepting of all people?
Do we provide opportunities to build relationships outside Sunday mornings?
Do we encourage class members to take initiative in building relationships?
Do we keep up with class members who are out/away?
Part 6: Sunday School and Ministry
Sunday School is the most comprehensive strategy our church has for organizing, equipping, and mobilizing church members for ministry. And here are some basic principles:
Sunday School identifies ministry needs and informs people of ministry opportunities—churchwide or just in your class.
Sunday School organizes members for effective ministry by identifying specific needs in members and guests. Plus, Sunday School can connect members with the resources necessary to meet those needs.
Sunday School provides training for effective ministry in our Bible study (using spiritual gifts, how to speak to people, how to discern sin or falsehood).
Sunday School encourages members in on-going visitation/outreach for the purpose of ministry and prayer.
Based on those four points, think about ways yyou have done those things in the past year. What opportunities were missed? Are there things that you did in ministry because of your Sunday School class that you might not have done otherwise? (Because it’s a smaller group, the needs are more personal. Plus, you’re more likely to ask someone specifically to do something in a small group than, say, in a church service. Plus, because of the relationships, you’re more likely to feel connected to the need.)
This is also the value of real, intense prayer time. In prayer requests and in praying, your group finds out about real needs and meets them in two ways: spiritually, and in plans to do something physically/materially. However, make sure you don’t let your prayer time dominate your class time (and not devolve into a gossip session)!
Questions to ask:
Is our class committed to caring ministry?
Are we aware of ministry needs and working toward meeting them?
Do we encourage participation in churchwide ministries?
Do we actively contact one another for the purpose of ministry?
Part 7: Sunday School and Worship
When you hear “worship in church”, what do you think of? Probably a lot about singing. And singing is one expression of worship, but it is not the only one. How might worship happen in Sunday School? Well, that depends on what your definition of worship is.
I think the easiest definition is this: worship is the Christian’s response when they encounter God. That’s something we want to have happen in Sunday School! Sunday School is a strategy for helping church members enjoy God’s power and presence by seeking Him. Specifically:
Sunday School helps members encounter God and encourages them to desire personal transformation by studying His Word.
Sunday School seeks God’s power and presence by seeking Him personally in Bible study and prayer.
Sunday School encourages members to actively participate in corporate worship opportunities with our church family.
Sunday School should be an uplifting time, a time where we connect with God, learn more about our hope in Jesus, and set our minds on “things above”. Any time we do those things—that’s worship! A good Sunday School class will have its moments of challenge (just like a good sermon) because when we truly encounter God, we are always reminded of how far we have to go. But we are encourage by the God who loves us and is always with us. Put like that, why doesn’t every Christian want to be in Sunday School every chance possible? Why doesn’t every Christian want to be in corporate worship every chance possible?
Questions to ask:
Does our class regularly acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in our words and actions?
Does our class emphasize Bible study as a means of encountering God?
Is our class an inspiring time that our members look forward to? (Follow up: if not, do we know why not?)
Are we growing in our Christlikeness, and can that be seen in our personal and family worship, our commitment to evangelism, ministry, and missions?
Acknowledgements: this post was inspired by the long-forgotten Sunday School for a New Century. Yes, times have changed, but the principles haven't.