This is the topic that few are willing to go near. Why? People have strong opinions on both sides and rarely take an objective approach. Much of this is mainly due to habit, conviction, or simply just preference. Ultimately, a church’s decision as to whether or not to have Sunday School is never cut and dry.
How did Sunday School become a thing anyway?
Long story short, Sunday School started in the mid-1700s as a way to provide an education to working children. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing and the need for labor, many children of poor families would work in the factories for 12 hours a day 6 days a week. Because of this, these children would miss out on an education and become systematically oppressed for a lifetime of hard labor and low wages.
Recognizing this issue, men like William King and Robert Raikes began to set up schools within the churches on Sundays to provide children an opportunity to learn how to read, write, and ultimately increase their knowledge with the Bible being their primary textbook. These schools expanded in a manner in which adults would also attend in hopes of them bettering themselves through education. Sunday School was the primary source of education for decades for many people.
As Labor Laws were enacted in many countries, more children began to go to public school during the week and adults were able to become educated outside of Sunday School. There became less of a need for a full day’s worth of schooling on Sundays as the laws began to change the culture through a better work/life balance.Recognizing this cultural shift, the church condensed the day long Sunday School to a 1-2 hour time of teaching Bible stories, scripture memorization, and prayer before or after the Sunday worship service. Sunday School transitioned to being more of a discipleship group than an actual school.
Why Sunday School makes sense
It’s no surprise that real discipleship happens in the small group setting. Jesus showed us this by example as he spent almost 3 years mentoring the 12 disciples. People are willing to share more in an intimate group setting with people that they trust. In most cases, these small groups provide the ideal atmosphere for prayer, teaching, reading of the word, and hanging out.
Since everyone is already at the church, it makes perfect sense to go ahead and have everyone meet in their small groups either before or after the main worship service in "Sunday School". Children are able to have dedicated teachers while parents simultaneously meet with their peers to learn and continue along in their discipleship journey. It’s a WIN WIN!
But not so fast...
A shift already started
More and more churches are rethinking the idea of Sunday School in favor of small groups that meet on different days outside of the church walls. The biggest trend is home discipleship groups. This is for a number of reasons. Some of them include:
1. Mobile churches that only have one meeting space with limited time.
2. Churches that meet in storefronts with limited parking.
3. A high percentage of churchgoers that work on the weekends.
4. Not enough teachers to teach on Sundays.
5. Limited availability of childcare.
6. Increasing energy costs with less giving.
7. Families wanting to maximize their family time with each other.
The biggest shift we’re also seeing is a decline in church attendance amongst even the most dedicated churchgoers. In his blog “10 REASONS EVEN COMMITTED CHURCH ATTENDEES ARE ATTENDING CHURCH LESS OFTEN”, Carey Nieuwhof gives us some great insight into this trend. This lack of regular Sunday attendance makes it harder to have Sunday School when a good portion of your dedicated people are not there consistently.
Is Growth happening?
We have to sincerely ask ourselves the following question:
Would my people grow more if we stopped doing Sunday School in favor of off-campus discipleship groups?
If the answer is no, the traditional Sunday School model still has great value for the church body. We need to continue to cultivate it and let the Holy Spirit move in our congregation in BIG ways!
If that answer is yes... It's time for us to question whether or not we're having Sunday School for actual spiritual growth or merely just tradition. Tradition only for the sake of tradition that isn't backed by scripture should always be questioned. "We've always done it like this" is a slippery slope that we all can fall into easily without keeping ourselves in check.
Speaking of tradition...are you still using pen and paper to manage all your small groups? Save some time (and trees) by using Smart Lists and Tags to help you keep track of your small groups or Sunday School classes.