This is part 3 of a series of posts from David Francis’ Missionary Sunday School. Click here for a free download of the book.
The First Either-Or: Either a Systematic Plan or “Whatever the Spirit Lays on Your Heart”
One of the critical strategies of the Sunday School movement is this: all the Bible for all of life. In the organization where I serve as a Sunday School missionary, we publish materials for babies, students, retired adults, and everyone in between. We focus on ages and major life stages of a person’s development as well as specialized Bible studies for the important transition years between these stages—kindergarten, preteen, and college. We publish materials for adults and kids with special needs; for urban adults and students. And we publish materials in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. All with the promise of helping people explore the “whole counsel of God” several times throughout the span of their lives.
We all have our favorite parts of Scripture, and we tend to visit and revisit them. That stands to reason since those passages are usually the parts that mean the most to us or we understand the best. Nothing wrong with studying those passages, but we need a plan for study that somehow helps lead learners to look at the whole counsel of God’s Word. That plan needs to be realistic and fair. Studying Romans in one 30-minute session would not be realistic. You need more than 30 minutes to examine the depths of Paul’s letter. However, stretching the study to two years wouldn’t be fair to the class members. As important as the truths contained in Romans are, the people sitting in our classes need more than just Romans during a two-year time period. You can create your own plan or use one of the plans created by an organization like LifeWay. But regardless of the plan you choose, be sure it takes into account the whole counsel of God’s Word in a realistic and fair time frame. Once you select the plan, stick with it.
The Second Either-Or: Open Group or Closed Group?
Sunday School faces a dilemma when it comes to discipleship. It is remarkably effective at exposing people to all the Bible for all their lives. But a missionary Sunday School has limitations precisely because it’s a missionary Sunday School. A missionary Sunday School class operates as an open group: it expects new people every week. Because it expects new people every week, it selects a Bible study curriculum that supports an open group strategy. Therefore, every week’s lesson must be a complete and satisfying Bible study experience, whether the person was there last week or will return next week. The Bible study is typically part of a larger unit of study, maybe even a whole book of the Bible. Nevertheless, each lesson must also stand on its own if a class is to remain open. That’s why Sunday School is foundational discipleship.
Another critically important distinction is that Sunday School classes are ongoing. They meet virtually every week. Because they are also open, it’s almost always a slightly different group of people each time—plus new people are always expected and welcomed. Still another distinction is Bible study. Sunday School classes hear, discuss, and apply a passage, topic, character, story, poem, or principle found in the Bible. Because of its ongoing nature, the class can take a systematic approach to the study of His Story. That’s where curriculum materials come in. Such materials are almost as old as the movement itself. They are not intended as a substitute for the Bible, but rather as a plan to study it, learn it, teach it—all of it—over the course of a lifetime, at a level appropriate for the age and stage of each learner’s life. A group that is open, ongoing, and employs a systematic Bible study plan is functionally equivalent to a Sunday School class, whatever you call it. A group that lacks any of these three is not a Sunday School group! Shorter term, closed groups are good and necessary in the life of a healthy church. They’re just not Sunday School! A missionary might consider them advanced training.
Advanced training for the purpose of going deeper into a biblical doctrine, dealing with a challenging topic, finding support for a difficult life issue, or equipping for effective ministry, is best accomplished in a D-group or discipleship group. D-groups are typically closed groups. Not only do they not expect new people every week, new people would feel lost once the group starts. Why? Because D-groups usually select a short-term course of study that’s more intense in nature than an open group like a Sunday School class. Excellent D-groups usually establish a covenant as they start, documenting agreement about attendance, preparation, and confidentiality within the group. Missionaries need D-groups. So do Sunday School leaders and members. They just need to guard against turning their classes into D-groups. If they do, the class may lose its missionary purpose.
The Third Either-Or: Nurture or Evangelism?
This question has been debated since the beginning of the Sunday School movement. Is it the purpose of Sunday School to disciple those already in the church, especially children who are the future members? Or to assimilate new members by connecting them to a class where they can enjoy fellowship and ministry as well as systematic Bible study? Or is it the purpose of Sunday School to reach the unchurched, especially children, who might never otherwise hear His Story? The answer is yes! A missionary Sunday School attempts all three, distinguished by the third—outreach and evangelism. A missionary Sunday School believes there should be a Sunday School class for Every Person. One Mission: transformation. His Story: all the Bible for all of life. Every Person.
David Francis is Director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources. Before joining LifeWay in 1997, he served as minister of education at First Baptist Church in Garland, Texas. David and his wife, Vickie, love teaching preschool Sunday School and are helping start a new adult class in their church in Hendersonville, Tennessee.