When I was a kid I remember staying with some relatives who were very devout Christians, and while we were with them we had to go to church one Sunday. I was asking my aunt about the day and she said it would start with Sunday School, and then we’d go to “Big Church.” My spoon fell at the word “school,” and I responded with something along the lines of “We go to school all week, and God wants us to go on Sunday too?”
In God’s sense of humor I later became a Christian who eagerly attended Sunday School as a high schooler, and eventually became a Sunday School teacher. Even though I serve full-time as a student pastor, teaching Sunday School has been something I’ve held onto despite the added administrative, teaching, and visitation responsibilities.
What began in the 1700s as a way to educate street children who spent all week working in the factories in the early days of the Industrial Revolution has now become an institutional staple in our churches. It can go by different names: Sunday School, Cel Groups, Core Teams, Bible Fellowship, Discover the Bible, etc. but the core remains: a small group of people gathered to study the Word. I believe Sunday School remains a key component to building a strong, healthy, and spiritually productive student ministry for 4 reasons.
It provides fellowship – However you arrange your groups (age, grade, gender, division, etc.), they provide natural affinity groups for your students to be around those in similar circumstances. Take advantage of this: many in your class may attend the same school. Work towards building a supportive community where they are allies on their campus and extend the relationships beyond church time. Teachers, have your class to your home, do things with them. My wife and I have had the same class for 4 years now and it’s been one of our great joys to pour into that group.
It becomes the primary teaching arm of the ministry – For many students, this is the point at which they are most connected to the Word. Most pastors, though well-meaning, struggle at times to really connect with teenagers. Take full advantage of this in selecting and evaluating a curriculum. Pick one that does more than offer the best icebreaker. Go with one that really captures the big picture of the Bible, that centers itself on the Gospel, and that provides cultural engagement. A couple great recommendations are The Gospel Project by LifeWay, and Treasuring Christ by Providence Baptist Church (Luke, can you link these?)
Good teachers are worth their weight in gold – I have always been very selective in who I ask to teach in our student ministry. I look for people who are committed to the church, who are perhaps serving in another ministry, who have a healthy Christ-centered marriage, and who seem to have a passion for both the Bible and ministering to students. Recruit well, because it is very hard and costly to dismiss a volunteer. At the same time, invest in your teachers. Keep them in the loop with information. Have fun with them. You as a student pastor are your teacher’s small group leader, so invest in them. Minister to them. Love them, serve them, and they will be your eyes and ears. I regularly ask our teachers if there are needs coming up in class, and we try to be in constant dialogue about ministry needs, curriculum, evaluation, and training. Good teachers can be taught, so make sure to train them well. We take an afternoon once a year (would love to do more) and work through some issue related to teaching. So far we’ve done transformational teaching and developing learning activities.
It becomes the front door for a student ministry – No matter how cool your mid-week ministry is, Sunday School still serves as the best front door for your ministry. This is the opportunity for visitors, prospects, and new-to-towners to gather with their peers and begin the process of assimilation. Our goal with Wednesday night when we have guests is to introduce them to people in their Sunday School class and encourage them to come and attend the following Sunday. We’ve seen it repeatedly, students who assimilate and who become connected are students who stay, grow, mature, and serve. Sunday School classes also provide the opportunity to contact those who have dropped away, who are in need of accountability, and who need encouragement. These are all things that are hard to do on a macro level but which can be done on a micro level.