Sunday School is Dead (But Not Like You Think)

Sunday School is Dead (But Not Like You Think) August 2, 2016

I had a discussion with a fellow pastor recently who tried to adamantly make the case that “Sunday School is dead”; that Sunday school was a useless practice, in no small part because you simply can’t get that many people committed. This archaic method of yesteryear spiritual education just can’t seem to put up the numbers (or the median age averages) that it used to.

Another church I attended thought the name might have something to do with it. Sunday…. SCHOOL…. School on Sunday.  In an age where few people are even picking up a book at all[1], many hear the word “school” and think of classrooms… and books… and all the negative associations that came with an often difficult education in their youth, be it high school or college. This particular church’s response was to change the NAME of said “Sunday School” courses. They chose “Bible Apps”; it’s relevant and hip (like your average iPhone) and doesn’t conjure up the notions of going to “school” at all. And while it seemed like a good idea, the results in “Bible App” attendance still left something to be desired.

So is Sunday School dead? I would contend it is, but not in the way you think. Saying Sunday School is dead is a lot like saying that the hymnal is dead. Its vitality comes only from your ability to understand it and maximize its potential.

So how is Sunday School dead?

It’s not dead in the classroom. Many churches have anywhere from 6-100 people faithfully attending some form of “Sunday School” (pre-service, small group, whatever)… and by “Sunday School”, I mean wherever the word of God is expounded upon informatively and honestly (as it lies) in a way that is accessible to the spiritually hungry.

It’s not dead in the content. Sure many of the latest, hippest Sunday School materials out there are about as successful in feeding your spiritual hunger as a doughnut in the fellowship hall is at feeding your physical hunger. Sure, it leaves you somewhat satisfied (and may even have some nutritional value), but it fails to deliver enough spiritual vitamins to strengthen your spiritual metabolism for the week of personal study ahead. It doesn’t leave you “hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest”, as the old hymn says.

Now to my point: Sunday School IS dead in its penetration of many a Christian’s heart. Let me explain what I mean. When I became a pastor, one of the biggest shocks to me was that most people in the church today don’t know or understand many of the basic spiritual truths (the kind you’d learn or sing in Sunday School as a little child). People didn’t know the stories I came to love, like Jonah, Moses, King David, Sampson… or even the many stories surrounding the Savior, Christ Jesus. Most shocking of all was how little they could answer regarding the question “Who is God?”. While it may have been surprising to me, I doubt it would have surprised the wise R.C. Sproul, who (noting the trend of spiritual ignorance these past 40 years) made the comment “The biggest problem in the church today is that we don’t know who God is”[2]. In counseling friends and couples, I see case made often for an ethical moral “gray” as a perfectly acceptable worldview. These people are shocked or even confused when I then asked them “Well what does God say about that? What does the Bible say about that?”. They don’t know how to make the connection from the age to the page. R.C.’s point is well taken in that if don’t fully understand who the God of the scripture is correctly, then how can the weighing of our sin, the formation of our moral or ethical code, the development of our framework through which we process the world, or even our very worship of that God be correct?

That’s why the words of God, “breathed out” in Scripture are not JUST for “teaching” (as positively helpful as that is), but also for the often-less-emphasized, more negative (by negatively, I mean corrective) uses of “reproof”, “correction”, and “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). You see, the more we see God (as He is), the more we will see just how far we are from Him. “As far as the heavens are from the earth, so are MY ways above your ways”, says the Lord (Isaiah 55:9).

What does that have to do with Sunday School? Well, I’ve often said ministry is like matter. It doesn’t die. It simply changes forms. Given that “school on Sunday”-ness of the contemporary church (as traditionally accepted) is mostly dead, the desire to consume (rather than learn) will be the most present in our pews. This is the 21st century American church and the ones to whom the word of God needs to speak. Therefore, a change in approach is warranted.

This change starts in the sanctuary. The Church has to respond to this new challenge and it must do so by calling on a new generation of pastors and elders to show this non-committal church “great and mighty things which it does not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). They must not assume, like I did, that the basic stories and doctrinal truths of the bible are GIVEN in the hearts and minds of the people. They must be willing to pray and prepare their gospel-driven message well enough that the hearts of the spiritually dead, the spiritual babies, and the spiritually mature (I call them the spiritual “steak-eaters”) all benefit from GOD’s words (not the preacher’s) in those messages. After all, what teacher doesn’t accommodate for a variety of different learning style and competency levels (to challenge each according to their potential) in her classroom?

So I guess Miracle Max from The Princess Bride got it right. There is a difference “between being mostly dead and all dead”. The same is true for Sunday School. So in closing, here’s a quick test you can run to check the vitality of your “Sunday School” heart:

  1. Am I putting in conscious effort (work) into learning something new from God, whether in the scripture I read or the sermon I hear?
  1. Do I carefully examine the text of each song I sing in church or just blindly get caught up in the catchy melody or ongoing repetition?
  1. Does my hunger for the food of God’s word match my hunger for physical food? Are they fed even close to equally? (Jeremiah 15:16)
  1. Do I know where in my church I can be taught from God’s word, besides Sunday morning service?
  1. Where are my time and money being spent most? Am I too busy for regular corporate and personal study of God’s word because of other things? Is the pursuit of spiritual knowledge and growth an invested priority in my life? (Matt. 6:21)

Finally, let me say a word to the exhausted, overworked Sunday School teacher….. to the small town country church with an average Sunday School attendance of a faithful but modest 3 people…. to the elder board debating whether to even start offering Sunday School, Mid-Week Bible Study, or even (gasp) Sunday Night service, because they don’t know “if people will attend”…. Do NOT lose heart. Above all, “preach the WORD… in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). “Do not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9). A church fully committed to as much of the Word of God as possible CANNOT fail, despite what numbers or budgets or records might tell you.

Shakespeare once wrote that all the world’s a stage. I would argue that, in the 21st Century Church, all the church is a Sunday School. All believers are continually growing in our faith and knowledge of God, so to seek those things is to pursue what makes us strong. That’s why the Devil puts so many distractions in our way. He doesn’t want us to grow. He doesn’t want us to be “transforming by the (by God’s, in the Greek) renewing of our mind”. If we approach spiritual education this way, it will be a blessing. Sunday School is no limited to just the classroom, but has become a vast and expansive field of ministry, white for the harvest. It is an opportunity to show the wonderful, life-changing truths of God’s word to a new generation… and maybe even to see ourselves fall in love with them all over again in the process.

[1] Source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/19/slightly-fewer-americans-are-reading-print-books-new-survey-finds/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=70a524fbc3-Weekly_Oct_22_201510_22_2015&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-70a524fbc3-399349005

[2] Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDFH5IUWkPg

 

Featured Image: James & Isaiah by Richard Masoner; CC 2.0

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