4 min read

Bring Back the (Serious) Sunday School!

As I’ve reflected on the church calendar issue, one key motivation for the expositional sermon series is the leadership team’s hope to raise biblical and theological literacy. So we program a 45-minute verse-by-verse sermon series of a book that has 100-500 verses in the hope that it will shape the culture of the church.

And it does, but I’m growing less satisfied by that initiative as I’ve seen it in practice. It seems to me, we might be better off letting the worship service be the worship service and letting the Sunday school class be, well, a class in a school that meets on Sundays.

I’m a huge fan of great preaching, especially expository preaching which, after 10 years of formal Bible training, I still credit with inculcating an exegetical instinct in me that has made the formal training an exercise in gap-filling.

But I also know that, in spite of everyone’s best intentions, when the lines between a sermon and a lesson get blurred, it’s not a win for either. It doesn’t have to be that way, but in my experience, when a preacher tries to provide an education and a homily at the same time, it just waters down the lesson and bogs down the homily.

I do think a lot of this has to do with time scarcity. If you only have 45 minutes per week to provide a meaningful theological education, it’s just not going to happen. And if you have to split that time between theological education and liturgical obligations, it’s even less. 

That’s not to say a sermon shouldn’t educate. I think there’s a Venn diagram of “education” and “exhortation” that certainly overlap. I’m okay saying the sermon does and should naturally gravitate towards the exhortative. But absent serious theological education, the preacher ends up tasked with doing a thorough job of both. and I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation.

If the goal of a sermon is to ignite a spiritual fire in the congregants, then there needs to be a separate time to fall tress, split logs, and stack the pile next to the pit. A traditional, classroom environment is far better suited for that kind of manual labor. For example, how many sermons let a person raise a hand and ask a question? If you can’t dialog about a teaching, is it really education? And if you can’t get a serious theology or Bible education at your local church, where can you get it?

The uncomfortable answer to that last question is that hungry congregants will follow nationally branded ministries, celebrity teachers, and/or cart wheelbarrows-full of money to the local seminary to audit courses or earn a certificate of professional degree.

I can’t help but wonder if the result of this “anywhere but church” education pursuit means serious-minded congregants find less-and-less reason for a local church while “thought leaders” flood the internet and church trade rags with ecclesiological navel gazing about why people stop attending.

I’m also curious as to what that sort of education strategy would do to the “small group’ campaigns. From my vantage in the cheap seats, it seems like leadership teams are desperately trying to build community around community. I wonder what would happen if we tried to build community around content. After all, isn’t that what parachurch orgs are doing that’s attracting the congregants to their respective communities?

The Problem with Sunday School

Now I’m not starry-eyed about Sunday School in practice, either. 

Some Sunday school “classes” just follow the liturgical order of the main service, so the congregant ends up attending two services. That seems weird to me. “Hey, you just finished singing some worship songs and listening to a lesson. Now that you’ve come here, let’s sing some songs and hear a lesson.”

Other classes are a six week DVD courses produced by denominational publishers trying to crank out product, which comes off as a bit of a crutch How is an over-produced, 20-minutes runtime followed by a pre-assigned “study guide” going to respond to the needs of the specific individuals in that specific room? And how is the “leader” going to be equipped to lead discussion and answer questions when the only requisite skill is pressing play? Or, worse, how is a talented teacher supposed to exercise their gift if they’re job is restricted to pressing play?

And I’m a little surprised by how hands-off the pastor/elders can be towards Sunday School classes. Do they even know what’s being taught? Which is not to say leadership should be control freaks, but it does mean that we respect what we inspect and in the churches I’ve walked through, it seems the distance between the pastor’s office and the Sunday School room is cavernous. If a guy was going to preach on Sunday morning, there’d be prep meetings, and outline reviews, and postmortems. But Sunday school leaders are given a room and time. If they’re lucky, they might get some column inches for advertising in the builtin, but that’s about it. 

Anyway, none of those seem like a win. So a more comprehensive approach is needed. But what could happen if serious Sunday school became a major ministry emphasis of the local church? 

Why Not Do Better?

A Sunday school class expressly led by gifted instructors, focused on being engaged and presenting high-level material that services the educative needs of the community can do that wood piling work brilliantly. 

I’m becoming convinced a serious Sunday school class can do more than a sermon ought to attempt and can provide a solid launchpad for the preacher to trigger from the pulpit. The homily should aim at homily and the class should aim at the class. If we do both deeply, then we can have both beautifully.