Any undertaking by the body of Christ for the cause of Christ should be done with excellence. Our Lord and Savior deserves the very best from his redeemed people. Therefore, the church of Jesus Christ ought to excel.
So writes Allan Taylor, the Minister of Education at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, GA, in the Foreword to Sunday School That Really Excels: Real Life Examples of Churches with Healthy Sunday Schools.
Both Prescriptive and Descriptive
The book is both prescriptive and descriptive. It aims to (prescriptively) suggest how a church’s Sunday School can excel by (descriptively) offering case studies and anecdotes from churches.
The book begins with the chapter, “The State of Sunday School Today,” in which editor and author Steve R. Parr interviews Dr. Thom Rainer. Thankfully there is an early and concise definition of “Sunday school” offered in that chapter: it “consists of Bible study groups for all ages that ordinarily meet on Sunday mornings in conjunction with a worship experience either before or aftewards.”
Rainer notes three key features that successful Sunday school programs should have:
- The lead pastor’s support.
- “A strong core of lay leaders” that receive solid training.
- A sense of Sunday school as “a hero of the church.”
Following the helpful wisdom of Rainer, the next 14 chapters note some specific settings and ways in which Sunday school programs should and do excel. These range from Sunday school that “Excels in the Middle of Nowhere” to Sunday school that “Excels on the Heels of a Crisis,” and more. Contributors generally reinforce Rainer’s assessment of what is needed for a robust Sunday school.
The case studies come predominantly (but not exclusively) from Baptist churches in the South. So ministers in other traditions may need to do some cultural adaptation in seeking to implement some of what’s recommended here. The more than dozen contributors are all male, and almost all “white.” (Southern) Baptist Sunday School That Really Excels, As Told By Mostly White Males would have been a more accurate title. (No snark intended–I had just expected more diversity of background and perspective.)
All the same, there are plenty of inspiring stories and recommendations for building healthy Sunday schools. Whether it’s the call to make sure a church has clarified the purpose of their Sunday school, or specific suggestions as to how to teach with various learning styles in mind (Ken Coley’s chapter 15–probably the best chapter), anyone reading this book will find herself or himself making a running to-do list as they read. (This is what I did.) The anecdotes from various churches were at times inspiring.
Some Lacks and Disagreements
There wasn’t much about Sunday school for young children or youth, something I had hoped this book would include. And there is what I consider to be some unsound (maybe even dangerous?) missions advice in one chapter about a Sunday school program’s effort to reach out to families at a local trailer park: “They need to see the church as a place where we will help you even if you hate us for doing it.” Good intentions, for sure, but probably bad advice as so-called development efforts go.
And I found it hard to believe that some of the evangelism efforts described would actually have positive long-term results. One contributor (whose chapter seems not to relate much to Sunday school, per se) suggests “Accountability Evangelism,” practiced by a pastor who “planned to reach the lost friends of his members” by asking “everyone to invite a neighbor to the new building and get their friend to promise attendance by filling out a ‘Yes’ card. Their signature and ‘Yes’ indicated they would be present.”
That’s: get the potential visitor (not the church member) to fill out a “Yes” card.
No doubt–God can and does choose to bless efforts of every stripe, even misguided ones. And I want to be reluctant to criticize another Christian’s evangelism efforts, but the approach described above, which also refers to said neighbors as “prospects,” just strikes me as odd, off-putting, and counter-productive.
While Sunday School That Really Excels does describe “growth” in terms of spiritual depth, the underlying assumption seems to be that healthy and excelling Sunday schools are growing numerically–and exponentially is even better. I won’t engage that presupposition at length here, but it passes as a critically unexamined axiom in this book that I don’t think is always true. I.e., “bigger” is not always and necessarily “better.”
Finally, I was surprised that none of the contributors addressed theories of culture change. To help a languishing Sunday school to excel could require a re-orientation and re-creation of the culture surrounding Sunday school. Programmatic fixes may not be enough. I’d have liked to see part of the book address how pastors and ministry leaders can help a church to navigate the change process itself, keeping systems and culture in mind.
So I found some things lacking and a lot to disagree with here, some of which I thought was unsound in a prescriptive sense, even if it had worked in a church in a descriptive sense.
But there were some helpful ideas and reminders to me of things I as a pastor can be contributing in my own church’s setting, as we seek to have a healthy and thriving Sunday school program. For that I’m grateful, even if on the balance I might not recommend the book as a great read for someone seeking to help a Sunday school truly excel.
If you want to see more, there is a pdf excerpt here, including Table of Contents, list of contributors, introduction, and chapter 1.