Book Review: “Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur” by Ken Hemphill

Posted: April 21, 2020 in Book Reviews
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As the Sunday School Director at my church, I’m keenly interesting in leading our Sunday School toward continuous growth and accomplishing its several purposes well. That is no small challenge in our inner-city congregation that currently runs about one-fourth the number of people present on Sunday mornings as it did when my family first joined there in 1988. There are many reasons for those smaller numbers, but they are not the subject of this post.

I have only been the Sunday School Director for a little over a year since early 2019. My slow approach has been to take time to observe and talk with others – sitting in on classes to see what really happens, taking notes along the way of what is admirable and where there are opportunities for improvement. Many hours of discussion have filled up meetings with my pastor and others as we ponder needed improvements. We’re on the cusp of some significant and necessary changes to accomplish what the Sunday School is designed to accomplish in the local church. That process of change will be yet another post on this blog down the road as we have some successes (and hopefully not too many failures) behind us.

In preparing recommendations for improvements to our Sunday School, my pastor handed me a book off his shelf called Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday School Growth Strategy for the 21st Century by Ken Hemphill. To say it is influencing our recommendations for improvement would be an understatement. We are, in fact, completely changing an earlier major recommendation that was nearly a year in the making after running into a wall of opposition from a handful of vocal opponents. We aren’t changing our goals, but we are revamping our suggested means of accomplishing them, and the ideas and insights in this book will help shape the revisions in the plan for the better.

Ken Hemphill authored the book when he was president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His prior service in churches and as director of the Southern Baptist Center for Church Growth as well as pastoring several churches gave him great experience and knowledge to share with others on the subject. Even though the book was published in 1996, I believe it is just as valid and helpful for churches today as it was years ago.

This easily digestible 176-page paperback book has the following chapters:

  • If the Sunday School is a church growth tool, somebody unplugged mine!
  • Is Sunday School a dinosaur in a technological world?
  • Establishing a Great Commission vision for the Sunday School
  • Designing an effective Sunday School
  • Organizing the Bible study program
  • Designing an effective outreach ministry
  • The ministry of assimilation
  • The ministry of teaching
  • Putting it together – keeping it working

The book begins with a brief history of the Sunday School, pointing out the apparent change in focus somewhere in the second half of the 20th century that shifted its focus from evangelism and fellowship and teaching the Bible to only fellowship and then teaching the Bible. Guess what happens when you don’t focus on evangelism? You don’t evangelize! And if you don’t evangelize, you don’t grow. Not only that, but if you do evangelize but then don’t disciple those new believers and assimilate them into the life of the church, the back door will be just as large as the front door and you still won’t grow as individuals or as a congregation. So the opening chapter lays a foundation of six principles of Sunday School growth church leaders should know and implement.

Hemphill is generous with stats that demonstrate the lackluster performance of churches and their Sunday Schools in the latter decades of the 1900s. He offers a number of problems contributing to the decline of the Sunday School: lack of evangelistic focus, loss of emphasis and commitment, loss of vision for the total work of the Sunday School, dismantling the Sunday School’s component parts over time, lack of a clear purpose statement, and fear of innovation. In contrast to these problems, however, he offers nine solid reasons why the Sunday School is the growth tool of the future.

At the heart of the book is understanding the three components of a balanced strategy for the Sunday School. They are evangelism, assimilation, and discipleship. None of the three can be given more weight than the others in importance, or the whole structure will be off balance and will fail to accomplish all three of its purposes effectively. If there is one key takeaway from the book that is easy to remember and to serve as a foundation for your understanding of what the Sunday School is to be about, it is these three terms. In our case, we’ll substitute the word relationships in place of assimilation and we’ll use outreach instead of evangelism as we reshape our understanding as a church of the three equal purposes of the Sunday School, but the three legs of that stool are essentially the same regardless of the term you prefer.

I appreciate the author’s reliance on supernatural power in the process of revitalizing the Sunday School. We must remember that we are not just completing prescribed tasks touted by a church growth strategist; we are faithfully working under the leadership of God to accomplish the purposes of the Great Commission for the glory of God. We can’t do that apart from the very presence and power of God at work through us and those with whom we minister and serve.

No major effort of revitalizing the Sunday School is going to happen if you don’t organize (or reorganize) in ways required to accomplish the purpose. Hemphill provides a number of possible structures that will vary depending on church and staff size. While this means that the structure won’t look exactly alike from one church to the next, Hemphill is rightly adamant about the need for strict age grading throughout the Sunday School including throughout the adult classes. I agree with him on that. I’ve witnessed when having fuzzy or no age boundaries for adult classes only leads to groups staying together for decades and feeling quite content with who is in the group, rarely keeping their zeal for outreach as much as they do for fellowship among themselves. New classes or better aligning existing classes with stricter age ranges can help meet the needs of all participants, especially newer participants who are less likely to feel welcome or comfortable among a group of people who have been together for many years. Age grading can also bring into glaring light the age group gaps in your congregation that may not otherwise be obvious.

The chapter on designing an effective outreach strategy gives practical suggestions for visitation, evangelism training, and making contacts. The assimilation chapter is filled with practical tips of how different people and groups can work together to integrate new people into the life of the church and in relationship with one another. The suggested organization for care groups seems critical to making it work through the Sunday School.

If you asked a random group of people, “What is the purpose of the Sunday School?” I suspect most would answer along the lines of “to teach the Bible.” They are right in part given the three areas of focus mentioned above. Bible teaching and learning is certainly at the heart of what happens in the bulk of the time given to the Sunday School when it meets together as a class. Much of what happens in terms of outreach and relationships can happen outside the Bible study time, but the Sunday School is not close to achieving its purposes without strong Bible study and discipleship. To this end, Hemphill provides a number of suggestions for teachers and church leaders to assure quality teaching.

The final chapter provides a host of specific gems of advice to sum up in one place the key points made in earlier chapters and to provide final thoughts. Key points are categorized into sections on integrating the work of the class, building the church through the Sunday School, and creatively providing space. That makes the key takeaways from the book easy to reference in the future and easier to remember.

Many may think the Sunday School is a dinosaur. I disagree or I wouldn’t be a Sunday School Director. I wouldn’t devote time and energy to participating as a student or teacher. I certainly wouldn’t devote many volunteer hours to trying to grow our church through the Sunday School if I didn’t believe it is both possible and the right thing to do for all ages within the church. For those and other reasons mentioned above, I commend to you the book Revitalizing the Sunday School by Ken Hemphill. It is practical, informative, challenging, encouraging, and just as relevant now as when it was first published. Keep an open mind and heart as you read it, then seek the Lord’s wisdom in how you can use this info to strengthen your church through the Sunday School for the glory of our awesome God.

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