Look back at the August 2 blog by Mark Miller of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and you will see that Sunday School is a movement. But movements do not happen in a vacuum. Many if not most movements begin with a small hand full of people and then have a historic and explosive time of growth and impact. Movements are a combination of: 1) an idea; 2) people; and 3) passion. These are the three key ingredients of a movement and for the past 230 years, Sunday School has had all three ingredients. An idea may fuel the movement; and passion sustains it; but ultimately it takes people who believe in the truth of their cause and have the passion to see it through.
Known as the founder of the Sunday School movement, Robert Raikes was a newspaperman from Gloucester, England. A follower of Christ, Raikes recognized the hopeless plight of the thousands of uneducated children that roamed the streets of his hometown. With an idea to bring hope to these children and the passion to face massive resistance from England’s nobility (and its clergy), Raikes began a School on Sundays to teach little boys and girls how to read. Their textbook: the Bible. The Sunday School movement had begun in 1831 there were 1,250,000 English children were enrolled in Sunday School.
An uneducated hatmaker from the American Midwest, Paxson’s first experience with Sunday School was when his daughter convinced him to join her and attend a new Sunday School that had begun in their town. On his first Sunday, Paxson was asked to teach the teenage boys class! Embarrassed, he determined to come back prepared. Paxson learned to read and became one of America’s best known and loved Sunday School missionaries. In his 20 years of service with the American Sunday School Union, Paxson began 1,314 Sunday Schools in towns across the midwest.
The American Sunday School Union
Originally known as the American Missionary Fellowship, it later changed its name to the American Sunday School Union. The Union engaged local people who raised their own support to serve as Sunday School missionaries. These missionaries went throughout the American frontier of the 19th century to start Sunday Schools in the new towns and cities. This Sunday School
mission effort was so successful that author Anne Boylan estimated that appoximately 90% of the church plants founded in American Frontier in the 19th century were originally begun as Sunday Schools. (Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988; paperback edition, 1990)
Although there will be an article on Arthur Flake later this month, a brief look at Flake’s life shows that this Mississippi clothing merchant was a pioneer in bringing organization and some basic principles that brought direction to the Sunday School movement. Flake’s efforts eventually rallied the entire Southern Baptist Convention to embrace Sunday School as an evangelistic as well as a Bible study time for adults in addition to children. The first Bible Teaching-Reaching director of the Baptist Sunday School Board (LifeWay), “Flake’s Formula” is still the standard for building an evangelistic Sunday School almost 100 years later.
J. N. Barnette
Barnette was a man with a big dream. While Flake pioneered organization and principles, Barnette was a champion of taking Sunday School to every person in America. The missionary effort he is most known for was called A Million More in ’54, an effort by Southern Baptist churches to enroll one million new people in Sunday School in just one year – 1954. Coincidentally, the following year the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention set an baptism record that has only been eclipsed one time since.
Modern Day Missionaries
Sunday School has its modern day missionaries as well. A phenomenon known as Sidewalk Sunday School was begun in New York City by Bill Wilson. This ministry now reaches over 20,000 children every week on the sidewalks and parks of New York. Sunday School Under the Bridge has popped up in many metro areas. An outreach to the homeless living under freeway overpasses, these Sunday Schools Under The Bridge offer hot meals and Bible study and hope to the homeless.
Steve Bigbie of First Baptist Church of Moore, Oklahoma has a team of volunteers who travel in church vans through the Oklahoma City area and bring the homeless to church for a time of Bible study, food, and worship every Sunday morning. Many of these people take an additional step to move on by participating in the church’s Celebrate Recovery ministry. The church regularly sees the men and women touched by Bigbie’s ministry come to accept Christ.
In addition, a new movement is springing up in many places to start new groups. With its roots deep in Sunday School’s legacy of evangelism, this movement of new groups is growing in strength and awareness as more churches discover the value of new groups in reaching the lost with the Gospel of Christ. Over the course of one year, a typical new group will increase church attendance by an average of 10 people. New groups are generally more evangelistic and tend to grow at a much faster pace than existing groups.
Whether you call your church’s Bible study ministry Sunday School, LifeGroups, Bible Fellowships, or small groups, you are part of a movement of engaging boys and girls; men and women; with the Gospel of Jesus Christ by reaching them through small groups. Sunday School has had a massive impact in America in the past and continues to have a significant impact today.
You’re part of the movement that will one day offer every person in America an opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord through a small group experience.
Keep up the good work… Galatians 6:9.