Wednesday, July 18, 2018

How the Forgotten History of Sunday School Can Point the Way Forward

By Aaron Earls
Robert Raikes was like a lot of cause-oriented millennial evangelicals. As a writer, he stuck to impartial reporting instead of sensational “fake news.” He fought against inhumane prison conditions and founded a program to educate underprivileged children.
But Raikes wasn’t a millennial. He was born in 1736, not 1986.
He was, however, part of a generation of Christians who sought to live out their faith in the public square for the good of others. And part of those efforts included the founding of Sunday school.


Visiting a friend outside his hometown of Gloucester, England, Raikes observed local children cursing, gambling, and fighting, according to Thomas Walters’ 1930 biography Robert Raikes, Founder of Sunday School.
Horrified, he asked a local woman standing outside her door about it. She replied, “This is nothing [compared] to what goes on on Sundays. You’d be shocked indeed if you were here then.”
The woman told Raikes people couldn’t even read the Bible in peace at church due to the chaos caused by the children. They, along with their parents, worked at a factory every day of the week except Sunday. So on that day “they behaved in a most unrestrained way.”
Raikes returned home determined to help children like those he saw. He was the publisher of a local paper, so his mind probably went quickly to literacy and education.
During that time, education was primarily the realm of the middle class or higher, according to John Mark Yeats, associate professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Many children of the poor worked horrible hours in factories during the week—often in excess of 12 hours a day,” says Yeats. “Those on the lower end of the economic spectrum often did not have access to educational opportunities due to their overburdened work schedules, which kept them trapped in a cycle of poverty.”
Walters writes that when Raikes opened his Sunday school in July 1780, he spent the next week inviting children from poor families to participate. Many objected that their children did not have proper clothes for school. Raikes responded that if the children’s clothing was fit for the streets, it was fit for them to come to his school.
Those first school days began at 10 a.m. with teaching. The students were dismissed for lunch and came back around 1 p.m. After a reading lesson, they would go to a church service. That was followed by another round of classroom instruction until around 5:30 p.m. when they were sent home.
After more than three years of Sunday school, Raikes published a small account of its successes in his newspaper, making no mention of his own involvement. Others had started similar programs in previous decades, but papers in London picked up Raikes’ story and the idea began to spread.
By this time, the number of children in Raikes’ program had grown to several hundred and increased weekly.
Employers began to notice a change in the children’s behavior. “They have been transformed from the shape of wolves and tigers to that of men,” said one manufacturer.
Other evangelical reformers—including several better known now for abolition efforts—began to join the Sunday school movement. Hannah More started Sunday schools around her home with the financial support of William Wilberforce and the encouragement of John Newton, the former slave trader turned minister and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
“Some historians have posited that the Sunday school movement did more to empower the lower class than any other thing in the early 19th century,” says Yeats.
What began as a small group with Raikes in 1780 grew to more than 200,000 students across England in only 20 years. By 1850, the number had climbed to 2 million. This does not even include the number of parents and siblings who were taught by children bringing their lessons home from Sunday school.
As education became more common, Sunday schools began to transition into a religious training program for all ages. “We see this happen rather quickly in the U.S.,” says Yeats. By the 1840s, what was once known as the Baptist General Tract Society expanded its work to include biblical education material for all ages and became the American Baptist Publication and Sunday School Society.
This transition continued until today when Sunday school is almost exclusively seen as a means to teach Christians more about the faith they’ve already come to embrace. To many, its evangelistic and social justice origins remain unknown. But others continue the tradition of Raikes by using Sunday school to reach beyond the walls of the church to those in need around them.


What started as a service project for Sherrie Poirrier’s Sunday school class at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, has grown into its own nonprofit organization to serve a mobile home park.
As part of FBC Woodstock’s LoveLoud initiative, Poirrier says, her Sunday school group went one day to the park to give out free clothing, household items, furniture, and Bibles. The group also offered free haircuts and legal advice.
After that day, Poirrier says her heart was broken for the people there. She immersed herself in a bread ministry already serving the mobile home park. Eventually, she became the leader of Living Bread Ministry and wanted to do more as she saw the overwhelming needs.
“It’s right in our town and most don’t even realize it,” Poirrier says. “People are strangled by the bondage of drugs, domestic abuse, and alcohol. Many of the children have parents with felony records who cannot find employment.”
Much like Raikes centuries earlier, Poirrier saw the needs and wanted to bring the gospel to bear on her community—and it started with helping to educate the children who lived in the mobile home park. “We have a camper on one of the lots where we provide free tutoring to the children,” she explains.
The ministry offers Bible studies to the men and women on Saturday and specific year-round activities for the families. Funded solely by donations from Christians, Living Bread Ministries helps those in the area with groceries, medical bills, clothing, car repairs, and school supplies.
Ross Ramsey is doing a similar ministry to a local apartment complex with First Baptist Church in Allen, Texas. Volunteers from Sunday school classes come to a Saturday training and then go into the neighborhood to help people and share the gospel.
The church had recently begun a new initiative and the apartment complex was “begging” for the church to come over to help. “It was a marriage between tools and a place to use the tools,” Ramsey says.
He says the outreach—driven by Sunday school—has resulted in an explosion in leaders, increased personal evangelism, members discovering their identity in Christ, and a more diverse congregation.
“I have never seen anything like this that has gotten people from being passive in the pews to being ambassadors for Christ in the street,” Ramsey says.
Sunday school is the perfect place to start an outreach ministry, he says, because that’s where a church’s labor pool is. “Our Sunday schools were full of people not doing anything, so that’s where I started.”
That’s where Salem Evangelical Covenant Church in Oakland, Nebraska, started as well. The 50 people gathered each week would take up a Sunday school offering. It was barely enough to cover the costs of their children’s curriculum, says Kate Webster. Then she visited her niece’s church and got an idea.
Salem Covenant took an old shoebox and “bedazzled it—just covered it with gemstones and ribbons,” she says. The church also decided to use the Sunday school offering to bless others. “One Sunday a month, we would give what was collected to a person or anything we thought could benefit from it.”
The very first week of using the Sunday school offering for others, the church received more than three times what it had previously gotten in an entire year. The money was given to a local family in need.
Since then the tiny church has given away tens of thousands of dollars. One project involves giving the church kids money to spend on gifts for kids at the local children’s home. “It’s just great to see the kids search so hard for a deal so they can get more things for the other kids,” Webster says.
The church is thrilled it’s been able to give so much away, but Webster is clear this is about more than the money. “It’s about the love, the prayers, and support being shared with our community and even those beyond it,” she says. “It’s about teaching our kids—and adults—what’s important.”
Those efforts are reminiscent of Raikes and the founding of Sunday school itself. Yeats says it’s what modern-day churches should keep in mind. “There are amazing ways to transform a community, if we can be attentive to societal needs, meet those needs, and ensure the gospel is communicated clearly.”
To capture the heart of Sunday school’s origin and continue that into the 21st century, modern Sunday school programs must reach beyond their classroom walls, according to Yeats.
“When our Sunday schools become only training programs for devoted Christians to get more knowledge,” he says, “they miss out on the very thing that made the initial foray into the project so worth it.”
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.

Originally appeared here...

Friday, July 6, 2018

6 Questions Toward a Far-Reaching Family Ministry

As a parent, I’m constantly thinking about what my kids need (more often than not because they are asking for the 90th snack of the day and I’m trying to determine if their little bellies can actually hold one more pack of fruit snacks.)

It’s no surprise that Pew Research found that 56% of churchgoers indicated strength of children’s education opportunities as a deciding factor as to if they would attend. It’s also important to remember many of these people who were surveyed don’t have kids in their home, so I’d expect the number to be much higher among parents.

Whether your church has a family minister who is focused on synergy between ministry to kids and ministry to parents, your children’s ministry team handles the parenting side as well, or you are just beginning to think about how to minister to parents and equip them to disciple their kids in their home, here are six questions to consider:

1. Does your church have a holistic view of kids ministry and parenting/family ministry?

Don’t forget that the parents within your church’s ministry live inside the same home as the kids in your church’s ministry. A cohesive plan doesn’t mean that parents and kids have to be studying the same things at the same time or that parents should only be in classes for parents. Instead, if multiple staff members are assigned to family ministry (kids ministry, youth ministry, adult ministry, or overarching family ministry), work through strategy together. Even if you only have one of the staff members listed, thinking through the lens of family ministry as a whole is wise. While we are on the topic of holistic views, don’t forget those who are in generations without kids in the home. Giving them opportunities to partner with families and provide wisdom is a valuable resource!

2. What processes are in place to promote and train parents in Biblical literacy and theology?

We want parents to feel comfortable teaching their kids, but I often hear that parents don’t know where to begin or how to have spiritual conversations. Offering classes, recommending resources, and creating opportunity to be in community with other parents where they can learn the Bible and ask hard questions is a must, not just for the purpose of discipling kids but for the purpose of personal growth and commitment to Christ.

3. What are you doing to train and support parents, as well as build community around them? 

Helping parents know what to say or teach to their kids is only the beginning. There are many different methods that can work to train and support parents and build a strong community for them. Choose the ones that work for you, but do have a plan. Ask parents what they need and provide solutions like these:
  1. Consider training teachers who work kids each week in building relationships with parents so that they might ask questions about discipleship at home and be a resource for parents.
  2. Send home a weekly sheet that parents can work through with their child. Host parenting meet-ups or trainings often.
  3. Challenge older couples in the church to “adopt” a young family.
4. What are you saying from the pulpit to encourage families to do discipleship at home?

Vision often starts within a church from the guidance of the pastor. Help parents catch the vision that they are the primary discipler of their children. Communicate the responsibility and blessing of it, and provide opportunities for training. Helping parents be equipped to lead their children also means shepherding them toward Jesus well so that they may have growing, healthy relationships with Him, and may lead from the overflow of what He is doing in their hearts.

5. How are you teaching and modeling that raising “good” kids is not the goal, but raising godly kids is?

We are so good at encouraging kids to behave, but what does it look like to move them to godliness? Help parents know the difference between raising well-behaved “good” kids and raising godly kids, and encourage them to seek the latter. When we focus less on behavior modification and more on what’s going on in the heart of a child, we can show them Jesus rather than merely showing them the correct way to act.

6. What resources are you promoting to parents to help them be godly parents?

There is no shortage of great resources to help parents lead their children well. Provide a list of these via a weekly email to parents or a hand out that goes home with kids every couple of weeks. There are many, but I pulled together some of the top ones in this set of resources that I hope will help. 

Mary Wiley is a wife, mom of two, and women’s books marketing strategist at B&H Publishing Group. She is passionate about helping women (and especially moms) know and love the truth of Scripture, allowing it to transform all of life. She has served as a children’s minister and kids curriculum writer for The Gospel Project and other resources. She hosts the Questions Kids Ask podcast, equipping parents to answer the tough theological questions that their kids ask.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Sunday School as the Key to Fulfilling the Great Commission

By Allan Taylor

Every church must answer two basic questions: 1) What? What is our purpose? What does God have us here to accomplish? and 2) How? How are we going to accomplish our purpose?

Your answer to the What question gives you your mission. Most churches find it relatively easy to answer the What question because Jesus, the Head of the church, has answered that for us—it’s called the Great Commission. We are to “go and make disciples.” No debate about that.

But your answer to the How question comes more painstakingly. Church leaders wrestle with this more difficult question. But our answer to the How question is vitally important because it gives us our strategy. That is, our answer to How moves us to accomplish the What!

Many churches are missional, but most are not strategic. Churches read their Bibles and understand the clear teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew 28:18-20. Jesus cast a vision for converting all nations to Himself. What a compelling, transcendent cause! Working on a strategy doesn’t sound so exhilarating, yet, it is so needed.

Think about it. Every organization on earth has a strategy to accomplish their mission. A business has a business plan/strategy to accomplish its mission—grow the business, make more money, and expand its footprint. Every coach has a game plan/strategy to accomplish the team’s mission—to win the game. Every school system has a strategy to accomplish their mission—educate children. Everyone has a strategy to accomplish their mission…but the church.

Anything worth accomplishing has a strategy. Is the Great Commission worth accomplishing? You bet it is! It is so grand that we call it the GREAT Commission. Therefore, it deserves our careful attention and planning.

I believe that Sunday School should be the church’s strategy. Sunday School is the How behind the What. Sunday School is the way we go about accomplishing the Great Commission—one class at a time, one person at a time. This article cannot cover all the reasons for that, but let’s look at the three components of a strategy.

Strategy can be defined as “a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time.” Let’s divide this definition into three parts.

1. Strategy is a careful plan or method.
As a “careful” plan it should be well thought through. It should have much critique, input, evaluation, and be tested over and over again in many times and places. Sunday School is over 200 years old and has been tweaked and refined, reviewed and assessed, analyzed and criticized many times over. I submit to you that nothing in the life of the American church has endured the gauntlet of this kind of scrutiny like Sunday School. It is in fact a “careful plan or method.”

2. Strategy is necessary for achieving a particular goal.
As previously stated, we have a particular goal in mind—to bring the world to Jesus! For many reasons Sunday School should be the outreach, evangelistic arm of the church. It should be the church organized, mobilized, and individualized to reach people with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. When we energize the Sunday School in outreach then we can realize the Great Commission!

3. Strategy is usually implemented over a long period of time.
Making disciples is not a quick fix endeavor. Disciple making is a process. It starts in the conversion process and continues through the maturation process. The beauty of Sunday School is that it is about both evangelism and discipleship. Sunday School shares the gospel and wins people to Christ, assimilates them into a community of believers, and then disciples and grows them into the image of Christ.

My observation is that most churches are event-driven, not process-driven. Yet, making disciples is a process. Jesus, the greatest disciple-maker, was in process with the Twelve for three years. My role places me in a lot of churches. I purposely notice their announcements and bulletin material. They most always promote and emphasize events and rarely ever promote and emphasize the process. We have unconsciously starved our process, our strategy and abundantly fed our events. I recommend using events that are tied to your church process/strategy.

Sunday School as the church’s strategy to fulfill the Great Commission is nothing new, but it is often untried. Like what you hear but need help? Check out LifeWay’s 12 session, Sunday School DVD Training, Sunday School Matters.

Allan Taylor is the Director of Sunday School and Church Education Ministry at LifeWay Christian Resources. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

'Christmas in July' underway at LifeWay stores

As much of the U.S. was weathering another heat wave this summer, LifeWay Christian Store employees were busy breaking out some Christmas decorations.
The reason for the yuletide displays is the "Christmas in July" service projects offered through LifeWay.
"The Christmas season is all about giving, but that spirit of giving should extend beyond the months of November and December," said Nathan Magness, marketing strategist for the bookstore chain. "As believers, we should always look for opportunities to give back all year long."
Each week in July, guests can visit any LifeWay store to build care packages for different mission or service-focused groups or organizations.
-- through July 7: Military servicemen and women
-- July 9-14: Local homeless ministries
-- July 16-21: Disaster relief
-- July 23-28: North American missionaries
LifeWay will provide hand sanitizer, toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, sanitizing wipes and other supplies for guests to create care packages. Guests can write encouraging notes while younger children can draw pictures to send with the packages.
From July 16-21, LifeWay is partnering with the North American Mission Board's Send Relief arm to provide supplies for people in disaster relief areas. The following week, care packages will be created for NAMB missionaries.
As guests celebrate Christmas in July at LifeWay stores, they'll notice the festive trees aren't just for decoration. The trees also hold Operation Christmas Child ornaments that provide an opportunity for guests to bless children around the world.
"We've partnered with Samaritan's Purse for a unique opportunity," Magness said. "During the month of July, customers can purchase a $6 ornament -- the proceeds of which will provide a Bible and 'The Greatest Journey' to a child in need."
The Greatest Journey is a follow-up discipleship course for children who have received a shoebox through Operation Christmas Child.
LifeWay stores are closed on Sundays.
In operation for more than 90 years, LifeWay Christian Stores is the nation's largest Christian bookstore chain with more than 170 stores throughout the U.S. The stores are owned and operated by Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Aaron Wilson is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Churchgoers sticking around for theology, not music

Most churchgoers will put up with a change in music style or a different preacher, according to a LifeWay Research study released today (June 26). But don't mess with a church's beliefs or there may be an exodus.
The study of Protestant churchgoers found most are committed to staying at their church over the long haul. But more than half say they would strongly consider leaving if the church's beliefs changed, according to the study, which was conducted Aug. 22–30, 2017.
Pastors often worry about changing church music and setting off a "worship war," said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. But few say they would leave over music.
Churchgoers are much more concerned about their church's beliefs.
"Mess with the music and people may grumble," he said. "Mess with theology and they're out the door."
Churchgoers stay put
LifeWay Research surveyed 1,010 Protestant churchgoers -- those who attend services at least once a month -- to see how strongly they are tied to their local congregations.
Researchers found most churchgoers stay put.
Thirty-five percent have been at their church between 10 and 24 years. Twenty-seven percent have been there for 25 years or more. Twenty-one percent have been there less than five years, while 17 percent have been at the same church for between five and nine years.
Lutherans (52 percent), Methodists (40 percent) and Baptists (31 percent) are most likely to have been at their church for 25 years or more. Fewer nondenominational (11 percent) or Assemblies of God/Pentecostal churchgoers (13 percent) have such long tenure.
"Most church members have been at their church longer than their pastor," McConnell said.
More than half (57 percent) of churchgoers say they are completely committed to continuing to attend their current church. About a quarter (28 percent) are "very much" committed, while 11 percent are moderately committed. Two percent are slightly committed, while 1 percent are not committed at all.
The more people go to church, the more committed they are to attending their same church in the future. Those who attend at least once a week are twice as likely to be completely committed to attending their church (62 percent) than people who go once or twice a month (31 percent). Those who attend once or twice a month are more likely to be moderately committed (36 percent) than those who go at least once a week (7 percent).
Churchgoers with evangelical beliefs are more likely to be completely committed (67 percent) than those who don't have evangelical beliefs (45 percent). Baptists (60 percent) are more likely to be completely committed than Lutherans (47 percent).
About two-thirds (63 percent) of churchgoers who are 65 or older are completely committed to attending their same church in the future. That drops to 50 percent for those younger than 35.
Older churchgoers are also least likely to want to leave their church. When asked if they've thought about going to another church in their area, 92 percent of those 65 or older say no.
Overall, 15 percent of churchgoers say they have thought about going to another church in the past six months. Eighty-five percent say they have not.
Of those thinking about going to another church, about half (54 percent) have already visited another church. Forty-six percent have not.
"If people are thinking about leaving your church, chances are they've already started looking," McConnell said. "So they're probably halfway out the door."
Most feel their beliefs line up with the church
For the most part, churchgoers say they agree with their church's teaching. About half (52 percent) say their beliefs are completely aligned with those of the church. Forty-two percent say their beliefs are mostly aligned. Fewer than 3 percent say their beliefs are slightly aligned, not aligned or they don't know their church's beliefs.
Education plays some role in how churchgoers view their church's theology. Churchgoers who have graduate degrees are less likely to accept all their church's teachings. Only a third (35 percent) say their beliefs are completely aligned with those of the church. Sixty percent say their beliefs are mostly aligned.
Two-thirds (62 percent) of churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs say they are completely aligned with their church's theology, while a third are mostly aligned. By contrast, 39 percent of churchgoers who don't have evangelical beliefs say they are completely aligned, and about half (53 percent) are mostly aligned.
Sixty percent of churchgoers at big churches -- those with more than 1,000 attenders -- say they are completely aligned with their church's theology. That drops to 46 percent at churches with fewer than 50 attenders.
Baptists (57 percent) and nondenominational churchgoers (61 percent) are more likely to say they are completely aligned with their church's theology than Lutherans (43 percent) or Methodists (25 percent).
Still, churchgoers don't like to see changes in their church's doctrine. More than half (54 percent) say they'd seriously consider leaving if church doctrine changed.
Researchers asked about other factors that might cause churchgoers to switch churches. Nearly half (48 percent) would change churches if the churchgoer moved to a new home.
Some churchgoers would leave if the preaching style changed (19 percent), if the pastor left (12 percent) or if a family member wanted a new church (10 percent). Nine percent say they would leave over politics. Fewer would leave if they didn't feel needed (6 percent), if the music style changed (5 percent), if they had a conflict (4 percent) or if a friend stopped attending (3 percent).
The survey shows churchgoers care about doctrine, McConnell said.
"Still, pastors can't assume everyone in the pews agrees with their preaching," McConnell said. "Overall, 94 percent believe most or all of their church's teaching. But there's still substantial wiggle room.
"Every time a pastor gets up to preach, there's a good chance more than a few people in the pews are going to disagree," he said.
Most find church programs helpful
Researchers also looked at how effective churches are in helping people grow spiritually.
Most churchgoers think their church is doing a good job. Three-quarters (76 percent) think their church has been either extremely helpful (36 percent) or very helpful (40 percent) in their spiritual growth. Sixteen percent say the church is moderately helpful.
Relatively few say the church has not been helpful (1 percent) in their spiritual growth or are not sure (2 percent).
Churchgoers did have some suggestions on ways churches can help them grow. Among them:
-- 27 percent want their church to help them understand more about God and the Bible.
-- 20 percent want their church to help them find new ways to serve.
-- 19 percent want their church to provide more Bible study groups.
-- 16 percent want their church to help them get to know more people in church.
-- 14 percent say their church could provide forums to answer their spiritual questions.
-- 13 percent want their church to give them more chances to serve.
-- 13 percent want their church to provide worship experiences that fit their needs.
-- 9 percent want their church to provide more interaction with the pastor.
-- 8 percent want their church to provide them with a mentor.
Even though most churchgoers are staying put and are relatively happy, there's some reason for concern, McConnell said.
At any given church, about 15 percent of the congregation is thinking about leaving. If they go, the church could suffer.
"The average church in the United States has less than 100 attenders," McConnell said. "Losing 10 or 15 people could make a huge impact."
LifeWay Research conducted the study Aug. 22–30, 2017. The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. People in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel. For those who agree to participate but do not already have internet access, GfK provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection.
For this survey, a nationally representative sample of U.S. Protestant and nondenominational adults (18 and older) who attend religious services once a month or more often was selected from the KnowledgePanel.
Sample stratification and base weights were used for gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, metro/non-metro, home ownership, education and income to reflect the most recent U.S. Census data. Study-specific weights included for gender by age, race/ethnicity, region and education to reflect GSS 2016 data. The completed sample is 1,010 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Margins of error are higher in subgroups.
Evangelical beliefs are defined using the NAE/LifeWay Research Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition based on respondent beliefs. Respondents are asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced-choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Respondents are categorized as having evangelical beliefs if they strongly agree with all four statements:
-- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
-- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
-- Jesus Christ's death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
-- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God's free gift of eternal salvation.
LifeWay Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches.
Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends, a magazine and website of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.