Why Sunday School Lost its Edge
By Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay Research
It’s probably not a secret that Sunday school is no longer the en vogue program of the local church. Its reputation has, well, suffered over the years. My focus here is not to give answers or prescriptions, but to help us consider how it lost its reputation—its edge—and how a once thriving program is now often seen as a relic of the past.
Some have noted a trend of established churches abandoning or modifying adult Sunday school in favor of off-campus small groups. You would be hard pressed to find a contemporary church plant that includes Sunday school as part of its structure. Adult small groups in new churches are most likely meeting in homes or ”third spaces” (like coffee shops) at various times during the week. For many, Sunday school is a thing of the past.
So, what happened to the Sunday school? Has our current culture so changed that Sunday school will not be able to avoid extinction? How and when did Sunday school lose its edge? Ken Hemphill wrote Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur, a pro-Sunday school book, in 1996. His work described how many people feel about this once-flourishing ministry giant. Is it now just a big thing in our past that will never roam the earth again? The Sunday school movement evolved through many transitional forms since its beginnings in the late 1700s. None of them have been perfect, but what we have now seems to be a low point.
Let me highlight four shifts that have led to Sunday school losing its edge.
FROM TRANSFORMED LIVES TO CHURCH GROWTH
For starters, Sunday school once existed for the sake of transforming lives, whereas now it often exists for the sake of increasing a church’s attendance.
Churches across America often have buildings filled with “educational space” but fewer people desiring to be educated. The Sunday school boom of the 1970s is gone. Why the boom? Churches at that time embraced Sunday school as the key to church growth. Ken Hemphill wrote, “The Sunday school is the finest integrated church growth tool on the market today.”
It’s easy to say right thing about your Sunday school program: “Our goal is evangelism or discipleship.” But a church’s actual mission for Sunday school shows up in how it measures success. If its primary goal is simply to increase attendance by 20 percent, then the goal is “church growth.” If, however, a church’s primary goal is to help the present attendees, as well as any additional ones, to grow in Christ, then the target is “transformed lives.” If we then ask how most churches today are measuring “success,” we will probably conclude that the general understanding of what Sunday school is has changed.
History gives us reasons why Sunday school has drifted away from its original focus. From their inception around 1780, Sunday schools existed for the sake of cultural and personal transformation. The first Sunday schools were parachurch organizations. So no church growth agenda drove the beginnings of the movement. The movement’s pioneer Robert Raikes (a newspaper publisher) was motivated less by evangelistic zeal than he was by prison reform. Through Sunday school, millions of British children were afforded education basics (reading and writing) and a guide for moral and ethical behavior (the Bible). This helped to keep them from prison. The good news was that this movement constantly exposed non-churched kids to the gospel.
Today, many Sunday school classes exist for Bible study, in-reach, and fellowship that grow the numbers of the church attendance.
FROM VOLUNTEERS TO PAID PROFESSIONALS
Sunday school has also morphed from a movement led by volunteers to denominational and church programs led by paid professionals.
The early Sunday school movement was generally rejected by churches because of its parachurch status. As churches began to embrace it, the parachurch nature of the movement gradually faded. Once Sunday school moved into the church ministries, clergy—or quasi-clergy—began to lead the work of Christian education.
This change, however, removes leadership from church members, who now typically serve as teachers or department leaders under the leadership of pastors. For many years the “Minister of Education” was one of the first staff positions churches would fill, which further shifted Sunday school away from its “movemental” momentum.
In its inception, Sunday school was used by everyday people to make an impact on the lives of marginalized children. In its modern iteration, Sunday school has become an organization led by professionals to educate a declining percentage of church attendees with less volunteer leadership and, as a result, often less engagement and shared community.
FROM MOVEMENT TO PROGRAM
Sunday school had all the qualities of a movement in the earliest days. Sunday school missionaries travelled the American frontier planting thousands of Sunday schools for millions of people. In a period of 50 years, as a part of western expansion, records indicate that they established 61,297 Sunday schools involving almost 75 percent of the total western population. Steven Paxton was one of the best-known Sunday school missionaries in history. A hat-maker and salesman by trade, Paxton became a Christian in 1838 and soon became passionate about establishing Sunday schools. He once started 40 schools in 40 days.
David Francis argues that the success of Sunday school in the early days can be explained as a movement. He writes, “The best evidence that something is a movement of God is that He planted His idea in the hearts of many people…I believe that’s the reason many people embraced the idea of Sunday school so eagerly, because it resonated with something deep within their spirit.” The movement that affected so many on the American continent seemed to meet a God-initiated need among the early pioneers.
Over time, this movement became a program, and this program soon gained a different reputation. Sunday school became associated less with the cause that fueled a movement and more with when and where it met. There is nothing wrong with the name “Sunday school,” except that it is not always held on Sundays and it is not a school. Sunday schools met in pubs, homes, and buildings dedicated to the Sunday school mission. Sunday school was about people on the margins that were hurting. Sunday schools were ministry and mission strategies, not merely teaching and care centers.
In the early days, Sunday school did not exist in order to grow churches. Preserving the Sunday school brand, although powerful, timeless, and recognizable, was not the cause then (and perhaps should not be our cause now). Originally, they saw themselves as those on a mission of societal and personal transformation beyond the walls of the local church.
FROM CHILDREN-FOCUSED TO CONSUMER-FOCUSED
Sunday school began with a clear people-group in mind: children from “the wrong side of the tracks.” Marginalized children were the heart of the first Sunday school movement. What may surprise some is that Sunday school lost its edge because it lost its people-group focus. The initial focus was not to meet the consumer needs of the primly dressed children of the town luminaries, but for kids who had little hope for a future outside of poverty and/or prison.
Perhaps Sunday school most recently possessed a missionary edge in North America during the height of church bus ministries in the early ’70’s, peaking in 1974. Bus ministries in many contexts focused on poor areas and the children who inhabited them. Some churches even had separate Sunday schools for them because of their behavioral challenges. Yet, this was as close to the original Sunday school movement as we have seen in quite some time. Today, the shift has moved from reaching children to educating Christians. Both are valuable, yet today’s approach to education seems to lack the vision that inspires people to more than a consumerist education exercise for a declining percentage of church attendees.
In conclusion, Sunday school does not have the reputation it once did. Yet we should not forget that it has been a tool that God used in amazing ways. Over time, Christians and churches did what they often do: they turned a tool into a goal. Thus, they knew they needed a Sunday school, but perhaps forgot why.
Sunday school need not continue to struggle its way into complete extinction. A new emphasis on Sunday school could position it to roam the earth again, becoming the giant it once was—focused on teaching scripture, building community, and helping people engage in mission.
I will leave others in this issue to debate the “hows” (as that was not my assignment), but the reality is that the vast majority of churches use Sunday school merely to educate a declining percentage of believers—and it appears that in its current form, it is simply not inspiring more to greater participation. Yet, Sunday school is the tool most churches use—and will for the foreseeable future. If that “Sunday school hour” could be retooled, not necessarily in the same way as the movement’s origin, but perhaps moving from consumerist education to gospel-centered disciple making, teaching the full counsel of God to those seeking to live it out, the impact could be great.
As such, we need to ask what forms we might adopt to bring a Great Commission and Great Commandment focus to Sunday school and Bible study. Perhaps we can help Sunday schools (once again) become the domain of gifted, passionate, called believers who teach and provoke others to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24) to the glory of God.
Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research and is the author, most recently, of Transformational Church (with Thom Rainer).
 However, to be fair to Hemphill, he also gave a thorough treatment of Sunday school history and concluded that it must be undergirded by the Great Commission to have the right outcomes. Ken Hemphill, Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday school Growth Strategy for the 21st Century (Nashville: B&H, 1996), 1, 6.
 David Francis, Missionary Sunday school: One Mission, His Story, Every Person (LifeWay, 2011), 15.
 Francis, Missionary Sunday school, 10.
DiscipleLand’s family of resources forms a comprehensive Children’s Discipleship System™ – an intentional, relational, transformational process to help children grow in Christ-likeness.