What will become of Sunday school?

A decade ago, while on a sabbatical research project, I visited 15 churches of various denominations across the United States that bore only one common trait — they were in some way “traditional” churches.

Even among that group, one of the most shocking things I learned was how much of an outlier traditional Baptist churches remained in keeping adult Sunday school classes alive. When the pastors I interviewed asked me about my own church and what we did by way of adult education, I would explain that about 85% of our typical Sunday worship attendance also participated in Sunday school every week. They were stunned. And I was shocked that they were shocked.

Mark Wingfield

Among all the non-Baptist churches I visited, most felt lucky to have two or three adult small-group Bible studies that met throughout the year or part of the year. The notion of a year-round, full-scale, all-ages Sunday school program was unimaginable to them. And yet for us — and for many other traditional Baptist churches like us — it was still working.

That was pre-pandemic. And now I wonder how the landscape will have changed yet again as more traditional churches that remained closed to in-person gatherings the longest begin to regather.

That came to the forefront this week after I wrote a news article about churches reopening. One line from veteran church consultant Carol Childress seemed to spark the most conversation in my circle of friends and colleagues. That’s the line where Childress suggested that among four indicators of churches that will navigate a post-pandemic world successfully is “an infrastructure for community built on anything other than the traditional Sunday school model.”

To some, Childress might as well have denied the virgin birth. That’s how sacred Sunday school remains in some of our circles. And I have to say that in my own local church context, I am one of those defenders of Sunday school. But I also realize that my experience is an outlier to the rest of American Christianity.

I would argue that in traditional churches like ours, adult Sunday school has been the glue that kept people together during the pandemic. And in some ways, that sentiment must be true in all churches, depending on whether they have Sunday school or life groups or whatever. We’ve known for a long time that the way to build large churches is to support small groups within the larger body. People need personal connections.

“In traditional churches like ours, adult Sunday school has been the glue that kept people together during the pandemic.”

One of the secrets about America’s megachurches is that the back door often is busier than the front door. Yes, the big-box churches bring in lots of new people — mainly from other churches and not through conversions, by the way — but they also lose people just as freely. The larger the church, the more important some kind of small-group connection is to assimilation and retention.

Over the past couple of decades, we’ve witnessed a sea change in American Protestant churches about the nature of small groups. Traditional curriculum publishers have adapted by offering all manner of short-term studies and book studies and non-traditional curriculum. And I know of some churches where no curriculum is needed for adult small groups because they’re not really Bible study groups so much as support groups.

The impersonal nature of online worship during the pandemic has increased the need for personal connections through small groups. As I’ve previously written, one of the things lost during the pandemic has been informal interaction — like visiting with someone in the hallway at church or staying after the service to chat with a friend, or learning about a prayer need through a passing conversation.

While much worry has been expressed about whether people will come back to church in general, we probably should be concerned particularly about whether people will come back to small groups at church — and how they will engage. My prediction is that a lot of folks will want to keep participating virtually, which means using technology to create a hybrid approach to church small groups.

“While much worry has been expressed about whether people will come back to church in general, we probably should be concerned particularly about whether people will come back to small groups at church.”

There are multiple reasons for this, including (1) We’ve learned how great it is not to have to get fully dressed and out the door early on a Sunday morning; (2) We’ve developed new family habits that will be hard to break; (3) People who live far away have connected and reconnected with churches through online worship and small groups and likely will want to stay connected; (4) Some people will still be wary of virus transmission.

You might think the group most likely not to come back to church is senior adults, and I’m pretty sure you’d be wrong about that. The most at-risk group for churches to lose is families with children and youth.

Even before the pandemic, it was increasingly hard to get families to devote two hours a weekend to church — meaning attending both worship and small groups like Sunday school. Lots of these families already were making choices to attend worship only or to attend a small group only, but not both.

After more than a year of not having to get kids dressed, fed and in the car to church, there’s not going to be a huge pull to return to the previous stress of a Sunday morning. And here’s where Childress’ point comes home to roost even for those of us in traditional churches that have had success with Sunday school: The pandemic has changed what people are willing to do with their time.

As much adaptation was required in the early days of the pandemic shutdown, that’s likely how much adaptation is going to be needed going forward as well. Churches that already have reopened to full programming are reporting reduced numbers of people coming back.

This is a time for innovation more than frustration, however. Here are some questions for consideration:

  • What matters? Imagine you were designing church programming from scratch (because in a way you actually are). What are the essentials your church must do to fulfill its mission?
  • What doesn’t matter? If ever there were a time to kill off dead church programming, this is it. Muster the courage not to restart things that ought to have gone away even before the pandemic.
  • Who have you lost? During the pandemic, some people have fallen away. Do you know who they are? If not, how can you find out?
  • Who have you gained? Many churches have gained new members during the pandemic — folks who never knew the way things were before. How are you going to assimilate them, including locals and those who have found you online?
  • What will people participate in? I know this is looking at the problem from the other side of the table than most churches usually occupy. We have theological reasons for wanting people to do certain things we think they ought to do, after all. That kind of obligatory attendance was on the skids before the pandemic, and those skids now have been greased into express exit ramps. People are not going to come back to a church schedule out of obligation. Figure out what matters to the people in the church before you assume everything will return to the old ways.
  • What will people lead? Church ministries are only as good as your ability to recruit solid leaders for them. If you can’t enlist leaders, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t draw attendees either. We have little data yet on how volunteerism in the church has been affected by the pandemic.
  • What can be shortened? One of the myths pandemic worship has exploded is that a Sunday morning worship service must be at least a full hour in length. Turns out you can do a lot in 45 minutes if you plan well and cut out the chatter. Corollary truth for preachers: Whatever your sermon length was before the pandemic, don’t expect anyone but your mother to listen to you for that long anymore. We’ve had a year of shorter sermons and the ability to fast forward when you get on a tangent. Tighter, more focused preaching is needed now more than before.
  • What can continue to be done remotely? Exhibit A here is committee meetings. We’ve learned the joy of not having to drive to the church or stay late after church for committee meetings. I see little reason ever to have routine in-person church committee meetings in the future.
  • How might the post-pandemic church build relational community? Despite everything said above, pandemic-starved people are craving real community but they’re not willing to waste their time on stuff that doesn’t pay off. This reminds me of the wisdom of some landscape architects who intentionally don’t build sidewalks into their projects at first but wait to see where people naturally beat down paths. Then they put sidewalks or trails in those places. Take a look at what your congregants did on their own during the pandemic to maintain community — and in the days immediately after being vaccinated — and encourage more of that.
  • What is the smartest way to provide essential discipleship training for children and youth? Again, before the pandemic, traditional Sunday school for preschoolers, children and youth were experiencing half-time attendance at best. It already was difficult to teach a complete scope and sequence of the key Bible stories when half the class was present one week and another half the next. Someone needs to come up with a better way to do this, and I’m still not sure what it is.
  • How will you provide variety within your context? Someone could read all the suggestions above and surmise that the answer moving forward is to strip down all church programming to the bare minimum and drive everyone into the same funnels. That would be disastrous. Even though shut up at home for months, we’ve had options. We could attend any church or Bible study group we want online. We’ve had thousands of choices of what entertainment to watch on TV. We could have all manner of food delivered to our front doors. The answer for churches may not be to do less but instead to do more shorter and smarter and on-demand.

The church finds itself at a moment of excitement but also vulnerability as the doors reopen and we wonder who will walk through them. Whether you’re in a rural or urban setting, big church or small church, there are preparations to make. Just don’t expect to pick up the church calendar from 2019 and assume it will work in this new world.

Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. He has taught adult Sunday school for most of the last 35 years and still teaches an intergenerational class today.


Related articles:

More churches plan reopenings cautiously, joyfully and with flexibility

Church leaders, please don’t waste your transition crisis | Opinion by Bill Wilson

Your church after COVID: Restart, refresh or relaunch? | Opinion by Bill Wilson

What if they don’t all come back to church? | Opinion by Jason Koon

Remember that time you were teaching Sunday school on Zoom and a cat entered the screen?

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Inside the spiritual life of Anne Lamott

I recently sat down with Anne Lamott, beloved and debated American novelist and non-fiction writer, to discuss her new release, Dusk Night Dawn.

This book has all the trademarks that make Lamott a household name and New York Times best-selling author: Empathy, provocative thought and inspired soul searching. In this new release, she reflects on the need for courage. Courage is something she fully embraces and asks her readers to do the same — all in her down-to-earth folksy style.

As our conversation began, Lamott was on a tight schedule to connect with a friend she hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic. However, she made it clear that if we didn’t get enough time today, we could connect in the future. She’s so human in that regard.

“I decided to think of the pandemic as COVID college, and what are some of the greatest teachings that I needed to learn from it,” she explained.

Learning is what Lamott seems to like to do best. And her learning comes with a posture of welcoming change and being open to what God brings her way.

“I’ve watched kids in my Sunday school class that I lead become free of addiction along with watching my son stay sober for the last nine years,” she said. “I’ve learned in my life that God always makes a way out of no way.”

Lamott speaks from an understanding that God has a way of making the best out of things no matter the situation. This understanding inspires her writing and mission in life — to point people to God.

It may surprise some to learn that this well-known author teaches a Sunday school class at an interracial church with fewer than 50 attendees. She invited me to attend her virtual class. I’m glad I accepted her invitation.

Lamott has a manner of speaking and writing that makes people sit up, listen and react. Within her virtual class, she seems pretty normal like the rest of us. She sits and takes notes and chats in the comment section. Having had the privilege of attending her class twice, it’s an amazing sight to see this best-selling author at church and singing, at times, old Negro spiritual songs.

“I’m a passionate, devout Christian. It’s just that I’m not a fundamentalist.”

She explained: “I’m a passionate, devout Christian. It’s just that I’m not a fundamentalist. The political Christians tend to be very, very much more fundamentalists, let’s say.”

Lamott believes God has called her to an existence that is hardly that of a fundamentalist Christian. Her joy seems to come through carrying out the work of Christ on earth — with people.

“Jesus’ message for me is that you give thirsty people water,” she said. “Being a servant of Christ is serving others.”

It is ‘serving others’ that moves Lamott to action. “During COVID, we saw lines two and three miles long of people in cars trying to get a box of food for their kids. I believe Jesus weeps over these types of things.”

Carrying out her Christian calling not only moves her personally, it also gives her strength for her writing and telling stories that matter to many.

In her latest book, Lamott writes about the interactions she has with her students. Many of the kids in her class come from families that live in dysfunctional, under-resourced communities. She seems to have a passion for those who live within that type of lifestyle.

“I try to keep my mission in living out the gospel simple.”

“I try to keep my mission in living out the gospel simple,” she said. “Kids have always loved and trusted me for some reason. It’s just how the Lord made me in relating to kids; they can tell me anything, and I won’t judge them.”

Lamott comes across more like a youth pastor than a best-selling author.

“I won’t tell them what I think they should do,” she explained. “I will listen, and my heart will be open to their struggle.”

Having wrestled with addiction herself, Lamott has an infectious degree of empathy and understanding. “Some of my Sunday school girls have been cutters. You know, their wrists are slit with razor lines, and some of my kids have ended their life.”

She laments the struggle she has seen in her class members’ lives. It is not merely “a moment” for her. She digs into the humanity of the members of her class. She pauses to make sure we don’t quickly pass over what she’s just shared.

“I look at the lost. We have a youth group in heaven.”

“I look at the lost. We have a youth group in heaven,” she added. And from this lament, she understands the realness and truth of the circumstances some of the kids face. From there, she dives into her calling and mission to be a solution-solver, which is how she lives out her faith.

In living out that faith, Lamott knows one of the things she does best is writing for the masses, but the time with those in her Sunday school class seems to allow her to connect intimately with people and help them understand their calling and mission.

“I try to help my kids be really curious about faith,” she said, and yet these young friends also give her insight and material to weave into her writing.

“If you read the chapter in Dusk Night Dawn about what a soul is, the answers that my students gave me are the most beautiful definitions,” she said. “Putting aside C.S. Lewis or any of them. I’ve heard from my class (that a soul is) a silvery snow globe. The deepest part of you. A little peek at you. Love is in the very heart of you. It’s a little person. A little kitty-bunny person looking out into the world with love and curiosity.”

As Lamott recounts this portion of the book, it is obvious this mission of being a Sunday school teacher ignites her passion for storytelling to people who may never attend one of her classes, but perhaps they are by reading one of her books.

“I am doing my very best to transform my stories, my very ordinary stories, into medicine for whoever my readers might be.”

When asked if she is surprised to be a successful writer, she said: “This is my 19th book. I’ve been doing this professionally for 45-years, and when I sit down to write, I’m never in the mood. I don’t wait for inspiration. My dad was a writer. He taught me that you sit down at the same time every day. You do it as a habit. You do it by prearrangement with yourself as a debt of honor. Because no one cares if you write, no one cares. I’m never in the mood to write, to tell you the truth, but you know what? If I’ve gotten a couple of hours of work done, I’m going to have a much, much better day because I’m going to know that I met something that was a gift that was given to me. I am doing my very best to transform my stories, my very ordinary stories, into medicine for whoever my readers might be.”

It’s this medicine — the missional ministry of Lamott’s writing — that is working for many.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many influential leaders. Most of them have been great. But none of them have prayed for me the way that Anne Lamott did.

As our conversation closed, she prayed. “Thank you for my new friend. I pray courage for him to step into the shape that awaits both of us, always, always in your precious name, Lord; I pray that you make us ever mindful of the needs of the poor. Amen”

Amen indeed, Anne.

Maina Mwaura is a freelance religion writer and communications consultant based in Atlanta.

Remember that time you were teaching Sunday school on Zoom and a cat entered the screen?

Moving from in-person to virtual spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted engagement and outreach for many churches, but the transition came with a variety of growing pains, especially around technology and online etiquette.

And the challenges were experienced by both the students and teachers of Bible studies and Sunday school classes, said Jayne Davis, associate pastor for discipleship at First Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.

Jayne Davis

“There was a learning curve in the beginning,” she said of teaching, learning and fellowshipping online. “It was difficult figuring out how to engage when you can’t have eye contact with everyone.”

Davis and other ministers recounted weeks and months of sometimes-exasperating, sometimes-humorous experiences downloading Bible studies, adjusting camera angles, muting and unmuting microphones and trying to find the perfect Zoom background.

And the glitches continue in some contexts as clergy and laity overcome the hurdles of being church in little squares on a screen. “That’s just part of the cost of doing business right now,” Davis said.

Another cost of doing business is the understandable burnout that a lot of people have experienced after 12 months of maintaining virtual congregations, said Philip Vestal, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.

There, the process began “with some learning curves and technical challenges” that morphed into excitement over the novelty of the format before being exposed as a paltry substitute for in-person fellowship, he said.

Philip Vestal

“What’s better is the flexibility and the convenience” that online classes provide, he said. “What’s worse is the lack of personal presence, the computer glitches and lag times, and not being able to hear each other talk. We also worry about those who didn’t join Zoom, for whatever reason. We don’t want them to feel abandoned.”

Teaching online also added challenges that remain even now, he said. “With Zoom, you have to be patient and more intentional as to identify who is speaking or who is wanting to speak.”

The opening stages of virtual church were among some of the most challenging of the pandemic, said Tommy Bratton, minister of Christian formation at First Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C.

“It’s been difficult. It’s been a huge learning curve.”

The difficulty stemmed from unfamiliarity with the technology and acceptable behaviors in using it, he said. “Early on, muting was a problem and still is a problem. People don’t know how to mute. For other people, it’s volume and their microphones. Sometimes you just can’t hear them.”

Tommy Bratton

Another distraction was — and sometimes still is — the electronic backgrounds Zoom provides. The images, which include nature and space scenes, often make the speaker disappear if the camera or lighting aren’t adjusted properly.

“We spent way too much time early on making sure we had the right background, and people were bouncing in and out of the picture. It was distracting. And we still have the lighting issues for some people — they are always in the dark,” Bratton said.

Others continue to struggle with their computers or smartphone cameras, resulting in only partial images of their faces or heads showing. “Things are more challenging when people are involved but they are on mute and something distracts them, or you can see them talking off screen. Sometimes they are laughing because someone else is telling them a joke on the chat,” he said.

A dog or cat suddenly entering someone’s square can derail a teacher’s concentration, too, Bratton said. “Anything that was being talked about is totally forgotten and everyone wants to focus on that cute dog. In some ways it can be positive, but in the midst of a focused time, it is a little bit harder.”

It can be equally hard for ministers and other teachers to know when to reign in distracting behaviors during online sessions, said Matt Rollins, minister of spiritual formation and outreach at First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C.

“Sometimes I worry about sounding rude or controlling or confrontational, which may have more to do with society in the South than with the Zoom age,” he said. “But there have been times when I was reluctant to ask someone to mute themselves because I was worried about how it would come across.”

Matt Rollins

Those and other “learning curves” have been worth the effort, however, as the congregation strove to remain connected during the coronavirus outbreak, Rollins said.

Nor will they keep the church from increasing its virtual technologies and offerings even after the pandemic eventually subsides, he added. “We have found it to be a good way to engage people going forward and being flexible for people who cannot always get here.”

Davis added the many of the hiccups along the way to virtual church were inevitable but have been worked out as teachers learn more about the technology.

“If there are five people, then I’m good. But if there are 12 or more, I can set it up so we have smaller breakout groups. This is especially good for people who are not as comfortable speaking in large groups,” she said. “You have to think through the logistics of your lessons you might not have before.”

Davis said she views the past 12 months adjusting to virtual technology as preparation for the future. “This ship has sailed. We are not going back to how it was before. We will go back in person, but the technology will be coming with us.”

What if we ‘promoted’ in adult Sunday school again?

WingfieldI’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.

Separating mission and spiritual formation is bad strategy, say ministers

If he had a magic wand, Trey Lyon says he would likely transform the way churches conceive, fund and experience mission and spiritual formation.

Basically, he would combine them.

“I would love to see churches with ministers of mission and spiritual formation,” says Lyon. He and his wife, Jennifer, serve at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta as field personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Trey Lyon

Trey Lyon

“I’m vision-casting here, but we don’t have to differentiate between mission and spiritual formation because they are one and the same thing.”

Lyon and Brandon Pendry, ministers of youth and mission at First Baptist Church in Athens, Ga., took that message to Greensboro, N.C., last month, where they led a workshop on the topic during the CBF’s General Assembly.

They presented a case that if mission was — like Sunday school, worship and weekend retreats — viewed and led as spiritually formative, it would more likely result in long-term relationships between congregations and missionaries and other community partners. Participants also would more often have transformative, faith-nurturing experiences.

Lyon says a lot of the change can come not only from shifts in budget categories and committee names, but also from shifts in perspective on how mission and formation are defined.

“Missions involve going outside of your native context – anytime you encounter another culture,” he says. That can be across the globe or across the street.

Spiritual formation involves activities that nurture and grow Christians in their relationship with Jesus.

Churches and youth group teams routinely visit the Lyons’ literacy and church ministries in Atlanta. Pastors commonly remark that they hope such trips will “light a fire” under their members and youth.

“They want people to go on mission trips for spiritual formation,” Lyon says.

Traditional mission work, including painting churches and other structures, can have just as much of a spiritual impact on participants as attending weekend retreats in monasteries, two CBF ministers say. (Creative Commons photo)

Traditional mission work, including painting churches and other structures, can have just as much of a spiritual impact on participants as attending weekend retreats in monasteries, two CBF ministers say. (Photo/Creative Commons)

But they usually do not word it in those terms, he adds.

Likewise, church members who attend contemplative retreats at monasteries or retreat centers aren’t thinking in mission terms during those events.

“But both groups are pulling themselves out of their own contexts” to grow spiritually, Lyon says.

It’s all the more reason why churches should consider combining the two.

“Why are we splitting these? Because they are one and the same.”

Transcending ‘the hands and feet’

A both-and approach to mission and spiritual formation can result not only in a more efficient use of resources but also in avoiding a common mission pitfall — church tourism or “voluntourism,” Lyon says.

“We want to stay away from mission guides, or tour guides for Jesus where your church is considered only as good as the number of teams it’s sending and where they are scattered around the world.”

“We can do a much better job of treating these trips and local mission partnerships as integral to our faith and not just as ‘hands and feet.’ That implies that you are not ‘hands and feet’ when you are worshiping.”

There are other benefits, including Christians and churches living more fully into God’s will for their lives, Pendry says.

The fusion of the two can generate deeper and longer-lasting relationships between congregations and field personnel, and between partner groups in local contexts, he adds.

The approach is similar to the CBF’s PilgriMission, a program encouraging church members to rethink their attitudes toward mission.

The goal is to avoid trivializing those being served just so members of a mission trip can feel good about themselves, Pendry says.

“There’s less of a focus on doing for the sake of having a project and getting some good before-and-after pictures.”

By partnering with missionaries and outside agencies long-term, Pendry says, mission participants help those in need and grow in faith as they experience what it means to be a transformative presence in the lives of others.

“We can do a much better job of treating these trips and local mission partnerships as integral to our faith and not just as ‘hands and feet.’ That implies that you are not ‘hands and feet’ when you are worshiping.”

Bible: The Pope and Jeb Bush

[This is the fifth of a nine-part series on empowering a faith community to impact the world. Already hospitality, evangelism, missions, and ethics have been explored.]

Did you hear Pope Francis? “Jeb!” was all over it.

Immediately following the released climate change encyclical from the Pope, presidential candidate Jeb Bush said that religion “ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”

Of course, abortion must be different. And that pretty much neutralizes Jesus.

Putting aside one’s party affiliation, Bush’s response represents a daunting disconnect between faith and theology. Is this true for our congregations? Are we doing our jobs as clergy and lay leaders for theological education?

Walter Wink argues, “We have been subjected [in the church] to the academic and societal equivalent of a cerebral commissurotomy!” (Transforming Bible Study, Abingdon, 1980, Walter Wink, p. 26). In other words, we are not using in a symbiotic fashion our right (creative and emotive) and left (analytical and cognitive) brains for a holistic read of the biblical story. It’s at that intersection that we can own the story.

When I am conferencing with ministerial colleagues, we are always very high-minded about the philosophy and theology of teaching the biblical story. When we return to our congregations, we yield to filling teacher slots, settling resource options, and finding marker pens.

And worst of all, we reduce the veiled cry for informative and transformative biblical story to the programmatic and long-standing Sunday school. What is this disconnect all about?

Maybe it is helpful to evaluate the disconnect through notions of what informative, generative, and transformative learning of the biblical story is not about.

ŸIt is not about Sunday school but the biblical story. What are the methods and where are the places by which the biblical story is discussed and discerned?

ŸIt is not about developing a class consensus but the personal meaning for life and work. How are the everyday issues of our lives and of others being informed by the biblical story?

ŸIt is not about deferring to experts but the personal authority each individual has for rightly dividing the word of truth. How can church leadership move from right answers toward living out the right questions that cause us to mature in the faith?

In most of my experiences there is a teaching default to the analytical approach to biblical study. The creative or emotive approach will add dimension to the learning process. Wink submits that we aim for that, “the truth that the text bears has come a long way toward incarnation in our very flesh.” (p. 32)

Now that’s connecting to the biblical story.

Baptist church transforms Sunday school into community and pastoral care

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.

JohnsCreekSSThere 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.

ShaunKing“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.

Missing Church: Why I’m not a “Done” (Even If I Want to Be)

A couple of months ago, I posted about the experience of taking a break from attending church. It somehow garnered a lot more attention than I expected, enough that it prompted a follow-up question:

Why go back?

It’s a question that is becoming more prominent even among the most dedicated church members. It seems that even those who are committed to the church are actually showing up less frequently than they once did. Some of these may even fall into a new category that sociologists are calling the “Dones”–Christians who just stop going.

Let me establish that I do not intend to be a “Done”. Sometimes I feel like it–usually around 8 am on a Sunday morning. There are four big reasons why I cannot go this route. While these specifics may not hold validity for you, perhaps they will prompt you to think about where you stand with a community of faith.

1. Mom and Dad will not let me do it:  As a pastor and youth minister, I used to consistently get the question from parents, “Should I make my children go to church?” And my answer was always an unequivocal “Yes”.

Why? Well, after I tell you to get off my lawn, let me give you the grumpy old man answer:  Because my mom and dad made me go to church and it never hurt me a bit. (NOW get off my lawn!).

This does not mean that you do not talk with them about where to go, what to do, how to participate or what they expect, particularly as they get older. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with establishing church as a spiritual standard for family.

The inevitable guilt trip (either real or perceived) that I get from Mom when she calls on Sundays to ask, “Well, did you GO to church TODAY?” will not bring me back. But the education my parents gave me in faith, dedication, and commitment to something more important than myself just might. And they are connected to hours of discussion and exploration about what it means to be Christian, both in and beyond the church.

My parents made faith a part of who I was and who we are as human beings, as family. Going to church is not the only way to do that, but it surely did not hurt. Those Sunday experiences–even the ones I did not like–will forever influence my personhood.

Am I ready to turn my back on what my parents taught me by declaring, “I’m done?”

2. Mrs. Nora and The Ballard Sisters: If you grew up at East Park Baptist Church in the last half of the 20th century, one thing is guaranteed. You had Mrs. Nora for 5-year old Sunday school, followed by the Ballard sisters through elementary and middle school. In Mrs. Nora’s class, you learned to run string across the room and make tents with bed sheets, so you would have an appropriate venue to talk about Aquila and Priscilla. And you would eat dates and wild honey like John the Baptist (thankfully she skipped the locusts and deferred to more appetizing Galilean fare).

In fact, we often tried to sneak back to her class every now and then, even when we were much too old for it.

The Ballard sisters were a little less dynamic, but these four ladies offered unparalleled lessons in faithfulness. They walked down their hillside street every Sunday morning to teach annoying, poorly behaved 10-year olds what a famine was and how Moses discovered a most disturbing piece of shrubbery. Amazingly, they managed us with grace and patience–although they had no children of their own! Maybe they could do that because they knew that they didn’t have to take any of us home.

When we had snow or ice, we called off church because we knew the Ballards would try to walk and were likely to break a hip on the way. And it was not just Sunday mornings. Oh, no…it was Sunday Night Bible Drill and Training Union. It was Vacation Bible School. It was Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.

Ms. Sarah Ballard did not miss a day of Sunday School for 20 years! Actually, she missed one day, somewhere in year 20…and tried to turn down her 20-year attendance pin (a remnant of Baptists past) because of it.

Maybe these ladies are just that, a remnant of a long gone era of church that is destined never to return. It is hard to imagine them teaching with a power point and a YouTube video. But that does not lessen their impact. For all of us who have a story of stodgy, judgmental old Southern Baptist “church ladies”, we also have Mrs. Nora and the Ballard sisters.

Am I ready to insult their legacy by saying, “I’m done?”

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Past churches wrote on me with Sharpies: I mean this as a good thing.

Certainly, every church where I served made a positive impact, but the churches I served as pastor have left the most significant spiritual marks. That is not intended as a slight to the places where I served on staff. But serving as pastor simply creates a different level of relationship with the whole church, particularly in my venue of call, the small church.

I often reflect back on the positive impact those churches continue to have on me. More than once I have found myself drifting back to the fellowship of a Back-to-School Bash or a Fall Festival. I even miss church league basketball! (Sometimes).

But the indelible mark on my heart comes from the places where the fellowship and spirituality become one and the same. These are the encounters with real people–open, vulnerable, and willingly exposed to the work of the Spirit. These are the life-giving happenings, genuine and as real as they come. They evoke both joy and pain, laughter and tears. It is weddings and funerals. It is sharing celebration and the reality of heartache. It is the Thanksgiving Eve service at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist, where people opened their hearts to share their greatest joys and deepest spiritual hurts–as well as the faith that emerged from those hurts.

It is the baby dedications at Augusta Heights, where we learned to celebrate new life with tears of joy after years of hoping for such celebrations. It is Mrs. Wilma–the AHBC equivalent of the Ballard sisters and the last remaining charter member–offering gracious wisdom to me as the new pastor. It is the irreverent moments and informal discussions that, somehow, led us closer to this Jesus that we strive to know.

Can I possibly ignore the graciousness, honesty, and hospitality of these people, all of whom greatly impacted my life, by saying, “I’m done?”

And finally…

4. It’s the community, stupid!  I hate to go all James Carville here, but it just fits. You may not need a community to be a Christian, but I still believe that you need one to be an effective disciple.

Jesus beckons us to a life of community. And how quickly we forget just how imperfect that life was!

As we roll our eyes over the blatant and debilitating flaws of the church, we often long idealistically for a “New Testament Church”. But in our vision, we skip the jealous bickering, bitter disagreements and theological or practical disputes that characterized the original 12, right on into the formation of that New Testament church. Why do you think Paul wrote all those letters? It was not because everyone was just getting along.

Yet, those disciples managed to learn, grow, bond, and cooperate with one another in spite of their disagreements. The early church learned discipleship together, in and through the hardships they faced and the sharp distinctions of race, class, religious identity and theological point of view.

Sometimes they separated. Sometimes they decided to go in different directions. But there is no evidence that they gave up and quit. And they certainly came together, bound by spiritual ties of love that outweighed their disagreements.

Can I insult the saints, both early ones and those in my own lifetime, by saying, “I’m done”?

I sometimes remember the hardships and bitterness of ministry when considering my past in the church. Much more often, I long for the community, fellowship, sharing and caring that those churches brought into my life. I long for the everlasting friendships and eternal prayers that I know some believers offer. And I want to find that community again, in the here and now, rather than simply leaving it to memory.

Community is challenging and difficult–and more than worth it! It is the imprint of the community past that keeps me searching for the community of the present. Imperfect though it will surely be, it is also the life-giving face of love.

And it is the reason that I cannot say, “I’m done.”

Perhaps we need to recognize that the perseverance of the saints of the past is a fine example to follow in the present.


What to do when your Christian education ministry needs a boost

Christian education ministry was held in high esteem in denominations and churches from the 1950s to 1970s. In the mid 1970s traditional Sunday schools began to experience decline in participation during traditional time slots. Small groups emerged at different times and around non-age graded curricula. In the late 1970s and 1980s the professional minister of education and age group ministers began to experience a multi-tiered metamorphosis due to the shifts being called for among participants in CE programming and in the fast-paced culture that was emerging. Now, in 2015 we are seeing yet more shifts being called for, different staffing arrangements emerging and new sources of curricula being created. The challenge now for most is not to recreate what has worked (been tried but not bearing fruit) but to discover and create the new. We are not certain, as of yet, what that new is but many are searching and having significant discoveries. I’ve been experimenting and watching trends in CE for the last 20 years. I’m very excited about what I’m seeing from those courageous leaders and churches who want to create the new and be part of that exciting “creating of the new” that is in the essence of God.

Identifying and acknowledging the problem

How do you know when your CE ministry needs a boost? Permit me to share a few indicators for your review.

  1. Decreased interest in participation and serious engagement in provided programming.
  2. Diminishing transformational impact on participants.
  3. Minimal noticeable return on investment of time, energy and money in CE programming.
  4. Routine is given more priority in planning than transformation of lives and impact on communities.
  5. Participants are content with their inward focus on members rather than outward focus as missionaries.
  6. What else would you add?

Possible solutions that transform

Practical ideas for your consideration: Most of these I have either tried myself or have observed over time. Share with me via email your possible solutions that are revitalizing, reframing and recreating religious education in your church and community.

With a growing diversity in our culture, a shift is needed from “Christian education” to “religious education.” (I’ll discuss this shift in forthcoming articles). Diversity of beliefs are now found in families, communities, schools, universities, government, businesses and now as church we are left to create safe and sacred space for faith conversations to happen. Not for proselytizing but for discovery and mutual learning. From such dialogues questions often emerge that take people to deeper levels of understanding, exploration and even conversions. Without such mutual learning environments, we only create and fuel competition rather than enjoy faith communities and conversations.

What you might do to increase participation, engagement and impact of your CE ministry. (7 ideas to jump start your conversation, prayer and thinking)

  1. Create “faith clubs” in families, communities and businesses and among faith communities in your local community. Purpose is to create safe and sacred space for guided dialogue and mutual learning.
  2. Look for opportunities to create space and place for intergenerational and multi-ethnic, multi-cultural relationship building and sacred conversations around matters of faith, life, love and distinctives.
  3. Seek out prayerful, intentional intersections between faith stories and life’s experiences (i.e. brokenness of families, multi-ethnic families, ethical challenges, life-death issues, etc.) Seek for the teachable moments and divine appointments and use these as religious education curriculum.
  4. Decentralize sacred conversations. Challenge and model for congregants and participants that faith conversations and study of scriptures can happen anywhere and anytime. Saying this and blessing this as valued ‘participation’ are often the challenges.
  5. Create spontaneous or formal intergenerational, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, faith-guided conversations to help each other find connections with faith narratives and life challenges (i.e. around societal issues of race relations or justice and mercy issues).
  6. Plan periodic age-graded learning experiences that are age appropriate but focus on maximizing teachable moments in intergenerational, multi-cultural settings and experiences (i.e., a community VBS that moves into intergeneration and multi-ethnic settings).
  7. Online learning opportunities that are topical, biblical, cultural places for conversation, exploration (i.e., Facebook, Instagram, online face-to-face dialogues or webinars).
  8. What would you add?

Share your thoughts, discoveries and feedback. My hope is to start conversations and innovation labs for religious education in our 21st-century culture. I have found my Christian coaching skills to be immensely helpful in creating safe and sacred spaces that yields transformation and reformation of heart, behavior, attitudes and understandings. Such is the best counsel I can suggest for what has been known as “teacher training.” I’m not sure we need traditional teachers in our churches as much as we need “transformational agents’ who are committed to being church in the buildings, through programs and as church wherever they/we go. “As we go” is the heartbeat of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment and the heart cry from today’s increasingly diverse culture.