In the LifeWay training guide, Missionary Sunday School, David Francis referred to a 1888 speech by Henry Clay Trumbull to emphasize that what goes around, comes around. In an address at Yale University Divinity School, Trumbull argued that “’family education’ was indeed stronger where Sunday Schools operated effectively.” To prove his point, Trumbull cited surveys indicating that “students entering university from upper-class families who did not ‘send their kids to Sunday School’ were far less biblically literate… than students from less fortunate families who attended Sunday School.” The implication is that Sunday School was an important and essential partner in family discipleship in the 19th century, and it remains so today.
The role of Sunday School and its impact on the family is much debated in the halls of church leadership today. On one end of the spectrum are those who would abolish Sunday School and placed the entire responsibility for spiritual training in the hands of the parents; on the other end are those who contend that children are better trained in a church-based program. Most leaders find themselves somewhere between the two points, trying to figure out how to leverage the best of what we do in Sunday School to support the efforts of parents to be the spiritual leaders God has called them to be.
Can I propose that one of the best strategies for training parents is adult Sunday School? If we intend to prepare the next generation of children to follow Christ faithfully and advance the Kingdom forcefully, they will need parents who are being well trained for this awesome responsibility. The effective adult Sunday School class is a place where parents can learn and respond to the word of God in a systematic and consistent process, develop a network of strong and supportive relationships to encourage them during the victories and the difficult times, and reach other parents with a gospel message that will impact their children as well.
Let’s examine each of these benefits:
Learning and Responding to the Word of God: In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the Lord issues His first command to the children of Israel; He called them to love Him completely and to teach their children to do the same. This process would entail learning and responding (obeying) to His commands and then teaching these commands to the next generation. An effective Sunday School offers adults the opportunity to come together once a week for the purpose of intentional and interactive Bible study. The disciple-making process that starts in Sunday School should extend into the home. Parents who are solidly equipped in the Word will be more confident and capable of leading their children to love the Lord and respond to His love by obeying His commands.
Developing a Network of Strong and Supportive Relationships:
The importance of the relational component of Sunday School cannot be understated. Parents are faced with a monumental task as they bring children into the world and seek to raise healthy, well-adjusted sons and daughters. The Christian parent is even more challenged: to lead their children to faith in Jesus Christ and disciple them to become devoted followers of the Lord. These tasks cannot be accomplished in isolation; parents need the help and support of other parents.
To this end, the adult Sunday School serves as a weekly connection point for parents. A Sunday School class can become a “band of brothers (and sisters)” who care for one another, minister to each other, and provide mutual support during the good times and the bad. As minister of education at Wedgwood Baptist in Fort Worth, I saw this benefit in action. A few years ago, we started a “youth parents” class that was specifically designed for parents of teenagers who needed the encouragement and support of others like themselves. Some of these parents were going through difficult situations with their teenagers, and they knew of other parents in the community who could also benefit from a class like this. This group became a “safe harbor” for parents who needed the comfort, encouragement, and friendship of those who were making the same journey.
Reaching Other Parents with the Gospel: Children can learn how to lead a missional life by watching the example of their parents. Parents who take seriously their part in the Great Commission are powerful role models for their children. If adults are consistently and naturally sharing the gospel, their children are going to be more likely to do the same. The adult Sunday School class not only serve as a center for evangelistic training, but it can also be a “sending agency” as well. When adults commit to a missionary mindset in Sunday School, they will be witnessing in the harvest field during the week and inviting other parents to be a part of their Sunday School ministry. When mothers and fathers are won to Christ, their transformation will influence their children and extended family as well.
Age-segregated Sunday School has developed a bad reputation among family ministry proponents, and rightly so if segregation is leading parents to abdicate their God-given responsibility for spiritual leadership. Adult Sunday School is not, and should not be, a place to escape parental responsibility. Rather, it should be the parent’s best resource for developing disciples in life and disciple-makers at home.
Chris Shirley serves as Assistant Professor of Adult Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served at Minister of Education at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas from 1997-2007