RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Mike Hatfield paused to think about what impact Sunday School Week at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center could have.
Hatfield, minister of education at First Baptist Church in Kissimmee, Fla., said the adult Sunday School class taught by Carol Kern doubled in the year following her solo trip to the 2007 Sunday School conference sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“She told us about [Sunday School Week] with such passion, people signed up a year in advance,” Hatfield said. “Now there are 19 of us up here. I can feel that same excitement, that same fever. All of them have it this year.”
The July 11-14 conference brought nearly 1,000 ministers of education, pastors and Sunday School teachers together for an intense series of “reDiscover Sunday School” workshops in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville.
The conference focused on three interrelated aspects of Sunday School: Scripture, stories and shepherding –- a “Discover Triad” that is part of the “3D” Sunday School strategy developed by LifeWay Sunday School director David Francis.
Keynote speaker Tom McCoy, pastor of Thompson Station (Tenn.) Church and president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, had an unsettling question for the crowd on hand: “If everybody in the church led the same amount of people to Christ that you lead to Christ, how often would your baptistery be used?”
Sunday School, McCoy said, is a great way to grow the church. He noted that Thompson Station’s 130 Sunday School classes all started from one class that met in the church’s early days. “Now, it’s 1,700 [in Sunday School]. I know what a challenge it is to build classes,” McCoy said.
“But it really doesn’t matter what I know. It’s WHO I know. If you’ll take what you know and let God put His anointing on it, it’s an incredible victory you’ll win,” McCoy said.
“When God takes you from the safety of your adult class and puts you into the dangerous shark tank of eighth-grade boys, He’s gonna protect you,” he said of excuses people make to avoid teaching Sunday School.
“The church exists for those who are not yet part of it,” he noted. “Some of you don’t believe it. ‘Oh no, the church exists for me and my friends to get together and have a great time.’ No, you can do that at Kiwanis.”
Bruce Raley, LifeWay’s director of leadership ministry, training and events, said if Sunday School classes ultimately want to impact their environment, culture and community, they must struggle with this question: “What really is our purpose?”
“To be a church that’s missional, we have to have Sunday School classes that are also missional,” Raley said.
People inside the church often are focused internally and don’t have a good perspective of people outside the church, he said. “I wonder if we have taken ourselves out of the world.”
The foundation of reaching people is the Gospel, Raley said. “People need the Word of God. They need it in the pulpit and they need it in Sunday School,” he said, adding that many Sunday School classes have strayed from solid teaching of the Bible. “We need to go back to teaching the Bible in Sunday School.”
To that end, LifeWay adult ministry specialist David Apple challenged conference-goers to teach “life-changing, life-giving words” in their lessons.
“[The Apostle] Paul said the Gospel is the very power of God,” Apple said, explaining how the Greek word for power -– dynamis –- is the root of the word dynamite. “That means we have with us the very power of God. And we can teach with the very same power to the very same kinds of people with the very same kinds of results as did Jesus,” Apple said.
While Scripture and shepherding are essential, David Francis said stories that intersect with God’s are equally important -– and not just the ones teachers tell.
“This will really blow people away: If you don’t say, ‘That reminds me of …,’ but instead say, ‘Hmm, tell me more,'” Francis said. “Sunday School isn’t just about getting together and eating donuts. We pride ourselves on being the best talker. We should be the best listener.”
Imogene Cromer, who has taught all ages of Sunday School for 50 years at New Prospect Baptist Church in Anderson, S.C., is a longtime attendee of Sunday School Week at Ridgecrest who said she learns a fresh lesson each time she attends.
“I have re-learned this week [that] while there’s not anything more important than the Bible, somebody could be sitting there hurting, and sometimes we need to slow down,” said Cromer, who said her nature has been to finish the day’s lesson.
“I know we’re here to learn lots of tools, but I also come for the spiritual enrichment,” Cromer said. “I go home a different person. Not only are we physically on a mountaintop, we’re spiritually on a mountaintop.”
Andrea Higgins is a writer based in Raleigh, N.C.