By Jeff Brumley
They have a different way of doing Sunday school at Johns Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga. — and that’s a good thing, given the state of today’s Baptist Sunday school system.
“It’s mired in 1975, still,” said Michael McCullar, formations pastor at Johns Creek.
The congregation’s Sunday school program is so not stuck in the past that it’s not even called Sunday school anymore, and hasn’t been for years.
In fact, there’s practically nothing about the church’s approach that resembles the traditional Sunday school system.
‘They belong there’
Instead of classes Johns Creek has 21 age-graded, adult Sunday school communities, each led by a community leader who is charged with leadership, administration and sometimes pastoral responsibilities for his or her group.
However, those leaders are not teachers. Instead, 21 teachers, each with expertise in different topics, lead discussions with a community for 10 weeks before rotating to another group.
McCullar and some other teachers have also participated in creating the teaching materials used by the rotating instructors. The result is a library of 17 books published by Smyth & Helwys Books. They include “Sessions with Timothy & Titus” and “Sessions with Corinthians,” both by McCullar, and all designed with a 10-week seminar in mind.
The age groups begin with college and range up to senior citizens. Those age groups alone are listed on a community’s door, McCullar said.
“That way anyone who comes up and looks at the door knows they belong there,” McCullar said.
Communities, not classes
But what began as a way to be more welcoming to newcomers has become a ministry that has transformed just about every dimension of the church, he said.
“After I got here, we expanded on the idea of becoming Christian community.”
The rotating teachers and community teachers contribute to that, he said.
Another factor is the schedule each Sunday morning. The first and last 15 minutes are labeled “community time” during which members can socialize over food and beverages.
Then there are care groups — which are smaller units within the community group. These become the social and pastoral groups of members, McCullar said.
Care groups also are encouraged to meet outside the church three to four times a year. That social element and the rotation of expert teachers provide much-desired intellectual stimulation.
“We provide Christian community, a safe environment and every 10 weeks a new seminar,” McCullar said.
But there is another element that keeps the communities growing, he added.
‘Pastoral care 10 times easier’
“They are taking care of themselves through pastoral care and loving each other,” he said. “This has opened the door for an amazing set of relationships that have become very Christian and very pastoral.”
McCullar said he and other staff have yet to arrive at a hospital or nursing home for a pastoral visit and not find members of the individual’s care group already there or on the way.
“Pastoral care is, no kidding, 10 times easier … because we know the Sunday school community is going to be there before we are,” he said.
There is now an agreement at the church that pastors will be the second level in hearing about distress in a member’s life. “It should start with the Sunday school community and work its way up to us from there.”
Another benefit to ministers is that the Sunday school communities are producing better-educated and well-rounded listeners in worship, McCullar said.
“It lays the groundwork for there to be true intellectual exchange in talking about the Bible and faith,” he said.
“We know you don’t have to leave your brain at the door — it allows more ground to be covered in sermons.”
‘Loving each other’
McCullar does a lot of speaking and consulting with churches eager to change the way they do Sunday school. He said he doesn’t recommend everyone follow the Johns Creek model, but he urges them to embrace change of some kind.
“Traditional Sunday school needs a lot of work,” he said.
He often tests his clients by asking if they would attend Sunday school classes as visitors to their own churches. Almost always they say no.
A common problem is that those classes are attended by people who have known each other for years and know each others’ stories. It’s not a very inviting environment for visitors.
“Today’s traditional Sunday school is not open to overly mobile adults,” McCullar said. “There is not a place for them … because most classes have been together for so long.”
Teaching styles and curricula also rarely change and can be stale, he said.
In fact, most Sunday school community members at Johns Creek would likely say the expert teaching they get in their groups is one of the highlights of the initiative.
“But we say no, it’s that they are taking care of themselves through pastoral care, and loving each other in a safe environment,” McCullar said.
And that environment is projected throughout the entire congregation, Johns Creek Senior Pastor Shaun King said.
“Offering community-driven learning environments reinforces our conviction that we are mutually responsible for one another,” King said. “This ought to be — and is — especially true in the Sunday school hour, when theological exploration integrates with our personal experiences, and real discovery becomes possible.”
— Baptist News Global’s reporting on innovative congregational ministries is part of the Pacesetter Initiative, funded in part by the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation.