Why Sunday School Lost its Edge by Ed Stetzer
It’s probably not a secret that Sunday school is no longer the en vogue program of the local church. Its reputation has, well, suffered over the years. My focus here is not to give answers or prescriptions, but to help us consider how it lost its reputation—its edge—and how a once thriving program is now often seen as a relic of the past.
Some have noted a trend of established churches abandoning or modifying adult Sunday school in favor of off-campus small groups. You would be hard pressed to find a contemporary church plant that includes Sunday school as part of its structure. Adult small groups in new churches are most likely meeting in homes or ”third spaces” (like coffee shops) at various times during the week. For many, Sunday school is a thing of the past.
So, what happened to the Sunday school? Has our current culture so changed that Sunday school will not be able to avoid extinction? How and when did Sunday school lose its edge? Ken Hemphill wrote Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur, a pro-Sunday school book, in 1996. His work described how many people feel about this once-flourishing ministry giant. Is it now just a big thing in our past that will never roam the earth again? The Sunday school movement evolved through many transitional forms since its beginnings in the late 1700s. None of them have been perfect, but what we have now seems to be a low point.
Let me highlight four shifts that have led to Sunday school losing its edge.
FROM TRANSFORMED LIVES TO CHURCH GROWTH
For starters, Sunday school once existed for the sake of transforming lives, whereas now it often exists for the sake of increasing a church’s attendance.
Churches across America often have buildings filled with “educational space” but fewer people desiring to be educated. The Sunday school boom of the 1970s is gone. Why the boom? Churches at that time embraced Sunday school as the key to church growth. Hemphill wrote, “The Sunday school is the finest integrated church growth tool on the market today.”
It’s easy to say right things about your Sunday school program: “Our goal is evangelism or discipleship.” But a church’s actual mission for Sunday school shows up in how it measures success. If its primary goal is simply to increase attendance by 20 percent, then the goal is “church growth.” If, however, a church’s primary goal is to help the present attendees, as well as any additional ones, to grow in Christ, then the target is “transformed lives.” If we then ask how most churches today are measuring “success,” we will probably conclude that the general understanding of what Sunday school is has changed.
History gives us reasons why Sunday school has drifted away from its original focus. From their inception around 1780, Sunday schools existed for the sake of cultural and personal transformation. The first Sunday schools were parachurch organizations. So no church growth agenda drove the beginnings of the movement. The movement’s pioneer Robert Raikes (a newspaper publisher) was motivated less by evangelistic zeal than he was by prison reform. Through Sunday school, millions of British children were afforded education basics (reading and writing) and a guide for moral and ethical behavior (the Bible). This helped to keep them from prison. The good news was that this movement constantly exposed non-churched kids to the gospel.
Today, many Sunday school classes exist for Bible study, in-reach, and fellowship that grow the numbers of the church attendance.
Ed Stetzer is the President of Lifeway Research.