Posts Tagged ‘Evangelism’

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.

Got FaithIn our 21st century American culture, much is said about tolerance.  In matters of religious faith, those who speak much about tolerance tend to imply (and occasionally explicitly request or demand) that people refrain from pushing their religious faith on others.  Their preferred state of faith in society would involve everyone following sentiments such as “live and let live,” “you do your thing and I’ll do mine,” etc.

I understand the sentiment, especially when coming from someone with no apparent interest in another’s faith.  Many are understandably quite content in their own faith or lack thereof.

So why can’t those of us for whom Christian faith is vital just mind our own business and leave others alone on the matter?  Two lines of thought emerge for me in response to the question.  The first deals with the legal right to practice one’s faith, and the second deals with the weightier fact of the explicit teaching of the Christian faith to spread the message.

As for the legal perspective, we allow people in America to practice their personal religious faith.  That’s what freedom of religion is all about.  The first amendment in our Bill of Rights states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This rightly prohibits the government from establishing religion and from prohibiting its free exercise.  We are guaranteed freedom of  religion, not freedom from religion.

Clearly, not everyone is paying attention to the Constitution and Bill of Rights in multiple areas these days, this being one of them.  There is an undeniable trend in our country to silence those who attempt to promote their faith – especially those of traditional Christian beliefs.  It’s trendy to be very tolerant of non-Christian faiths, but you won’t find those advocating religious tolerance very eager to allow conservative Christians the right to practice their faith unhindered.  You do not have to listen to too many newscasts or read many news articles to find repeated attempts to silence those who espouse traditional, conservative Christian beliefs consistent with two thousand years of Christian practice and biblical interpretation.

That’s a problem.  Why?  Because of the second line of thought.  The author or our faith – Jesus Christ – and his faithful followers in the New Testament consistently and unequivocally make it clear that sharing the gospel with all the world is at the core of what His followers are called to do with their lives.  That means that the general public sentiment against promoting one’s faith clashes head-on against a basic teaching, practice and personal spiritual discipline of biblical Christianity that calls the faithful to do that very thing.

Let’s take a look at some of the relevant Scripture passages.  Some of Jesus’ final words to his followers were:

  • “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” – Matthew 28:19-20.
  • “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” – Mark 16:15.
  • “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” – Acts 1:8.

Many additional passages by inspired authors show the seriousness with which the early church took those words of Jesus, even if being faithful to the command resulted in their persecution and death.  Anyone claiming Jesus as Lord must do the same today.  To fail to do so is at best disobedience to Christ’s commands and at worst an indication that the person isn’t actually a regenerate believer.

To my non-Christian friends and visitors reading this, I share this with you in hopes that you will understand where I’m coming from in occasional blog posts about my faith, in posting the “This, I Believe” page detailing my core beliefs, in posting a list of Christian Resources I’ve created or recommend, and in the practice of my faith in other ways and places.  I also hope you will tolerate others who may approach you from time to time to discuss such matters.  Their heart is usually in the right place, even though their methods may sometimes leave much to be desired.

To my fellow Christians, I write this to remind us all of our obligation to be faithful to our Lord’s command if we, indeed, proclaim Christ as Lord.  I also want to remind us all that we are to do what we do from a motive of love and with an attitude of genuine compassion for others.  As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect” (italics mine).  Yelling, protesting, accusing, and generally being a hateful jerk isn’t representing our Lord very well.  Be sensible and sensitive in where and how you share your faith.  If we are genuinely concerned for others and we believe in eternal consequences of believing in or rejecting Christ, then that compassion should show in our words and deeds.  (And it does take words to share the gospel, by the way.  Deeds alone don’t tell the whole story.)

This issue isn’t going away.  Serious Christians will continue to share their faith because doing so is necessary in order to be faithful.  Some hearers will listen and respond positively, while others will ignore the message, and yet others will try to stop them from sharing.  To the extent that more of us know why Christians can’t (and shouldn’t) keep their faith to themselves, the greater the likelihood we can understand and accept each other.