By Bobbie Jamieson
I’m not entirely sure why, but it seems that everywhere I look, churches are abandoning adult Sunday School. There may be some valid reasons for this, but I would suggest that such churches are in danger of throwing away a key tool for training church members to be wiser and more faithful disciples of Jesus.
So, in this article I’m going to present an apologetic for Sunday school. I’ll begin with a couple reflections on personal experience.
EXPERIENCES WITH AND WITHOUT SUNDAY SCHOOL
In addition to either participating in or teaching Sunday School for about twenty years, I’ve had two especially noteworthy experiences with it.
The first was at the Evangelical Free Church in Sycamore, Illinois, which I attended immediately after I became a Christian during college. In those days, an older man who was a second-career seminary student taught a theology class in Sunday school that was similar in scope and content to Grudem’s Systematic Theology. As a brand new Christian, I had fireworks of truth going off in my mind and heart every single week. My early growth in Christ was profoundly shaped and helped by that faithful, weekly doctrinal teaching.
Further, the church had a thriving “after-church Sunday school” for college students. Students would congregate for lunch every Sunday and discuss a theological book or video series (such as RC Sproul’s Holiness of God) in an older couple’s home. Twenty-plus years later, I still remember the books we read during those times and their impact on me.
The second experience with Sunday school worth mentioning is actually about a lack of Sunday school. During my graduate studies in Scotland, I noticed that many churches didn’t have Sunday school, and there seemed to be a correlation between the lack of adult Sunday School and the generally lower biblical literacy among the congregation.
I’m sure that there are other factors involved, and that there are many churches in the United Kingdom that are exemplary in both biblical literacy and adult education. But the experience stuck with me, and it cast the value of Sunday school in a new light.
AN APOLOGETIC FOR SUNDAY SCHOOL
There are three planks in my argument for Sunday School: first, the foundational role of knowledge in discipleship; second, the division of labor between preaching and teaching; third, the unique teaching potential of Sunday School compared with other contexts.
- The Foundational Role of Knowledge in Discipleship
First, knowledge is foundational to discipleship. The gospel is a message. The Triune God has revealed himself to us in a book. And he calls us to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37).
All Christians are called to grow in the knowledge of God as a means of growth in godliness. In Hebrews 5:12 the author rebukes his readers, saying, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food.” He expected these believers to be consistently growing in knowledge.
Or again in 1 Corinthians 14:20 Paul writes, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” Paul here shows us that it is the responsibility of every Christian to grow in their thinking about God.
Therefore, those who lead the church should have a burden to equip every single member of their flock with a well-rounded, scripturally derived, steadily increasing knowledge of God and his ways. We pastors should want every single person in our churches to grow in their knowledge of Scripture, to develop a biblical worldview, and to be increasingly able to apply the gospel to every area of their lives.
- The Division of Labor between Preaching and Teaching
Second, in the church there is, and should be, a division of labor between preaching and teaching. Preaching is central to the life of the church, but it is not the only ministry of the Word that a church should regularly receive.
Preaching aims to exult in God and the gospel and to transform those who hear it. It is proclamation, celebration, and exhortation. Preaching is grounded in teaching and contains much teaching, but its aim is more focused: preaching aims to slice right through the heart of the listener and bring about repentance, comfort, joy, obedience, and worship, all in the moment of hearing.
In addition, preaching is a monologue addressed to the entire congregation. This will usually include believers and non-believers. And the Christians present will represent a wide range of seasons of life, callings, and degrees of spiritual maturity.
On the other hand, teaching, specifically in a Sunday school context, has a different end and a slightly different means toward that end. While not neglecting the heart, teaching gives special focus to the mind. And while teaching will involve monologue, it should also feature dialogue. In fact, that’s one of the great strengths of a classroom setting.
Further, Sunday school classes are to some degree self-selecting. If you teach a class on parenting, parents and would-be parents will be the bulk of your attendees. Those who are interested will come, and those who aren’t, won’t. This allows you to devote more attention to a subject and to delve into greater depth than if you were addressing the whole congregation.
The less formal and more intellectually focused atmosphere, the possibility for dialogue, and the self-selecting nature of the classes all adds up to a great opportunity for addressing subjects more comprehensively than the pulpit is suited to.
For example, consider a practical and pastorally sensitive subject such as parenting. If a pastor is preaching through Scripture, parenting will come up occasionally in places like Proverbs and Ephesians 6. And pastors should regularly apply other texts to issues in parenting to help parents see how the word of God bears on that important calling.
Yet the pulpit’s ability to address parenting issues is limited. It would be inappropriate and distracting to delve into conflicting philosophies over discipline or schooling. Further, preaching’s monological mode limits the congregation’s ability to ask questions, push back, and clarify matters. These are important steps in the learning process, especially when dealing with gray areas, second-order issues, and practical matters on which Christians can legitimately disagree.
Thus, in many ways a Sunday school class on parenting can accomplish more than a sermon series. And again, a Sunday school class would generally be a more appropriate way to address the topic at length, since it will only be directly relevant to a portion of the congregation.
There are also more intellectually demanding topics that are foundational to discipleship which are better addressed from the lectern than the pulpit. Consider, for example, the subject of how to study the Bible.
Now, a scripturally faithful sermon does model how to read the Bible. A church member who sits under a steady diet of faithful preaching will learn much about how to read Scripture in a contextually sensitive and spiritually transformative way.
Yet listening to a sermon in order to learn how to read the Bible is like playing a round of golf with a master: you’re experiencing the final product. So you absorb some of their habits and instincts, but only what you can pick up by imitation.
On the other hand, a Sunday school class on how to study the Bible is like a series of lessons with a master golfer. They teach you proper technique, walk you through the game step by step, evaluate your swing, and so on. They make you aware of dozens of factors that go into playing the game well—things they now take for granted, but that you have likely never even thought of. A course on how to study the Bible can address hermeneutics, genre, translation, and many other issues that are generally out of place in a sermon, yet are foundational to reading the Bible well. A sermon models good Bible reading, but a Sunday school class trains people in good Bible reading.
In sum, I would suggest that it is healthy for there to be a division of labor in the church between preaching and teaching. There is surely much overlap between the two, yet they have distinct means and ends. And there are crucial topics on both the practical and intellectual ends of the spectrum that can be addressed much more thoroughly—and with greater overall pastoral impact—in a class than in a sermon.
- If Not Sunday School, Where?
Third, Sunday school is suited to addressing these topics in a way that other contexts, particularly small groups, are not.
It seems that today many churches which don’t have Sunday school rely on small groups of one kind or another to accomplish some of the same ends. These small groups tend to incorporate fellowship, prayer, missional outreach, and some kind of Bible-based discussion.
Let me say at the outset that small groups like these have many strengths, and I have experienced much blessing through leading one in my home for several years now. But when it comes to making disciples through biblical teaching, small groups have several serious weaknesses.
First, the environment inherently prioritizes relationship over instruction. Sitting knee-to-knee on a couch in someone’s living room is generally not a context that is conducive to serious intellectual engagement on many topics. Again, this is not a bad thing in itself, and this context can greatly aid in building relationships, one of the single most important aspects of church life. But small groups are not primarily geared toward a teaching context.
Further, small groups are just that—small. Their strength is in the greater intimacy which a group of eight or twelve people can attain compared with a gathering of thirty, seventy-five or even two hundred that might attend an adult Sunday School. If churches are going to rely heavily on small groups for teaching discipleship, there will need to be a lot of them. This means that a church will need a lot of people to lead them. This, in turn, means that you will need to enlist people who are less gifted and experienced teachers. So, if a church intended to use small groups to address serious, theologically challenging issues such as divorce (or any other theologically and pastorally difficult topic), they would be hard pressed to find enough teachers who could handle such tricky territory and handle it well.
On the other hand, a Sunday school class can be almost any size and still retain most of its usefulness. This means that fewer teachers are needed, and, therefore, the more gifted and qualified teachers are able to use their gifts to build up the church, which is as it should be.
Thus, I would suggest that this “size vs. number of teachers” dynamic is another strength of Sunday school over against small groups as a vehicle for teaching-based discipleship. Sunday school allows the most gifted teachers in the church to exercise a vital, life-giving ministry. It multiplies the elders’ and other gifted teachers’ ability to minister the word to the congregation for their edification, all the while addressing topics that are not best handled in the monological pulpit.
The number of teachers who can dig deep into the Word and equip the church regarding challenging biblical and theological issues will always be smaller than the number of those who are sufficiently relationally mature to lead a small group. So, Sunday school allows a more precious resource of the church to be invested more widely and strategically. It allows a smaller number of gifted teachers to influence a larger portion of the body week in and week out. This creates a bigger, stronger engine for the church’s discipleship.
The bottom line here is, if not Sunday School, then where? If you don’t have Sunday school, where are you going to teach people how to study the Bible? Where are you going to give them a thorough grounding in systematic theology? Where are you going to discuss the ins and outs of parenting, or dating and marriage, or evangelism?
I’m afraid that when churches abandon Sunday school, some of these things are simply no longer being taught to the congregation as a whole. And churches are thereby missing a significant opportunity to equip their people with biblical building blocks for faithful discipleship.
CONSIDER WHAT YOU MIGHT BE MISSING OUT ON
For all these reasons, I would argue that Sunday school is a valuable tool for conforming our churches to the image of Christ. It feeds our people the knowledge they need to grow in godly living. It complements and supplements the regular pulpit ministry. And it is able to do what other contexts such as small groups can’t, namely, foster rigorous intellectual engagement about a wide range of matters that are crucial to discipleship.
My goal is not to scold churches that don’t do Sunday school. I’d rather offer an invitation to consider what you might be missing out on. Consider how you might be better able to equip your church for works of service if you devoted weekly time, in addition to the sermon, to laying intellectual and practical foundations that will equip your whole church to grow as disciples of Jesus.
Bobbie Jamieson is a former editor at 9 Marks, currently a PhD student at Cambridge University.
Posted with permission from 9Marks.