I’d like to make a case for “promoting” in adult Sunday school once again.
But to do so, first I need to explain some antiquated terms. “Sunday school” is a weekly small-group Bible study that’s not just for children in our Baptist tradition. It typically happens on Sunday mornings either before or after worship. You may know this today as a “small group” or “cell group” or “life group.”
And “promoting” is what we Baptists used to do every year on Promotion Sunday, when adults as well as children moved to new classes based on age. In the halcyon days of Baptist life, we had adult classes organized by age clusters: College and career on one end and 70-year-olds and up on the other end. In between were class buckets with labels like Young Adult One or Senior Adult Two. Each class had a specified age range, such as 30 to 35 or 55 to 60. When you exceeded the age limit of your class, you got moved up to the next class. If you were in a couples’ class, the measurement most often was taken by the husband’s age, as I recall.
But decades ago, even among churches that retained adult Sunday school, we adults stopped promoting. More accurately, we adults refused to keep promoting. We put down our feet and said we would not move any more. We wanted to stay where we were.
And for good reason, too. Adults found comfort in staying with a group of people they knew, found stability in identifying a teacher they liked and found consistency in not promoting each year. In many of our churches, this innovation saved adult Sunday school by creating cohesive communities of care and learning.
But there was a price to be paid for this comfort, and now, 30 years later, the chickens are coming home to roost. What we have created instead is silos. In most of our established, traditional congregations, we have adult classes that have been together continuously for decades. Sure, new people have come along and some old-timers have moved away. But there’s often a core group that has been together for 20, 30 or 40 years. This stability has its merits.
However, the downside to the comfort created by fixed classes is a loss of perspective. Particularly in large churches, it is easy to think our Sunday school class represents the theological or even political views of the entire church. We may have no basis for understanding that other classes operate differently or believe differently. We may wrongly assume that our experience is everyone’s experience.
At our church, we recently moved several young adult classes to the same floor as some of our senior adult classes, and the two groups were surprised to know that each existed in such large numbers. Some of our older adults never had seen all the young adults, and perhaps thought we didn’t have any young adults. Just seeing people of a different age makes a difference in awareness. So imagine what might happen if we could get people to mix it up inside their classes.
And by the way, the same problem exists in cell groups, life groups or any other kind of fixed small groups in a church. We easily come to believe that our experience is everyone’s experience.
It seems unlikely that most churches could return to promoting adults in Bible study. That kind of forced assignment just won’t fly today. And so the answer instead might be finding intentional ways to create intergenerational groups, to have “sister class” relationships between different age groups or to offer something like a Fifth Sunday Mixup to throw us all out of our comfort zones.
If the church is indeed to function as the body of Christ, we need to help the hands find the feet and the elbows find the knees.