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Should we rename Sunday School?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–I responded recently to a blog entry question that went something like this: “Our Sunday School needs to be revitalized, so we’re thinking about changing the name. What do you think?” Here is the essence of my response:

1. What you call it isn’t my top priority. As the program leader for Sunday School in our denomination, it really matters more to me that churches operate their Bible study ministries using good Sunday School principles than that they call the ministry “Sunday School.” As long as the ministry is built on a foundational strategy of ongoing, open, organized, evangelistic Bible study groups, it is functionally equivalent to Sunday School — whatever you call it. By the way, even if you rename it, it can be counted as “Sunday School” on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Church Profile (ACP).

2. Two deficiencies of the term “Sunday School.” I often joke that there are only two things wrong with the name “Sunday School:” 1) It’s not just on Sunday, and 2) It’s not a school. When executed with excellence, Sunday School is really a 24/7/365 network of care, communication and outreach that assembles once a week for Bible study. But that Bible study session is not all there is to Sunday School. Certainly the teaching of God’s Word is the foundation of Sunday School, but the weekly group meeting is the occasion for witnessing the fruit of the previous week’s work and launching the work for the following week. So, if you have a better name that captures that dynamic, go for it.

3. “Sunday School” enjoys huge brand positioning. The above notwithstanding, the term “Sunday School” enjoys tremendous brand recognition — and brand loyalty. The weekend Bible study ministry in my church has not officially been called “Sunday School” for more than a decade, but what do people call their small group leaders? Sunday School teachers.

Here’s a test: Do you often use the term “Sunday School” to explain whatever it is you call your Bible study ministry? I tried for more than 13 years to change the name of the sanctuary to “worship center” in a church where I served. I changed the signs, labeled locations “WC” in the bulletin, etc. Want to guess what people call it today? That’s right — the sanctuary.

4. Sunday morning does not make it “Sunday School.” The reverse is true, as well: A weeknight small group can be functionally equivalent to Sunday School. These are curious days in church practice. Some churches are confusing the occasion of Sunday School — typically right before or right after the primary weekend worship service — with the ministry of Sunday School. They use that time predominantly for closed groups that are primarily for believers. In essence, these churches are doing what Southern Baptists have typically called “discipleship training” during the Sunday School occasion.

There’s nothing wrong with having a strategy to mature believers and equip them for ministry. My point is simply that churches need to understand the difference between when and what, when planning their disciple-making strategy and their Sunday School time.

5. Are small groups functionally equivalent to Sunday School or discipleship training? Churches that operate small groups often ask this question — well, at least once a year when they prepare to submit the Annual Church Profile. In fact, many don’t report small group participation at all, simply because they don’t use the traditional labels “Sunday School” and “discipleship training.” But most small groups are functionally equivalent to one or the other. If the groups are closed and primarily for believers, participation can be reported as “discipleship training.” If the groups are ongoing foundational Bible studies open to believers and nonbelievers, they are functionally equivalent to Sunday School and can be reported as such.
David Francis is director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • David Francis