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Interview: LifeWay Southern Baptist teacher David Francis about Sunday school, the strong program, by Peter Menkin


In a letter via email, LifeWay’s David Francis, Director, Sunday school, Discipleship, Church & Network Partnerships, LifeWay Church Resources, supplies a response to this writer’s inquiry regarding Southern Baptists, the Sunday School Church.   He responds in part to questions asked of Sharon Ely Pearson of the Episcopal Church in her earlier interview. The answers themselves provide a context for his statement. But note his email carries this quotation: “As God works through us . . . We will help people–through churches–know Jesus Christ and seek His Kingdom by providing biblical solutions that spiritually transform individuals and cultures.”   The questions with answers are found below this email letter, an informative and full reply that has the mark of inspiration and spontaneity:   The email letter: Sunday school remains a strong program of ministry in Southern Baptist churches. On a typical Sunday in our denomination, about 6 million people will gather for worship in SBC congregations. About 4 million will attend Sunday school, or two out of three worshipers. My estimate is that these folks will attend one of more than 400,000 Sunday school classes. Well over half of those who attend one of these classes, typically meeting on Sunday mornings before or after a worship service, will be adults.

In an analysis I conducted with Eric Geiger, co-author with LifeWay President Thom Rainer of the popular book Simple Church, we found that in a sample of the SBC’s most vibrant churches, over 87% operated Sunday school–or its functional equivalent by another name–as the critical “second step” in their church’s discipleship process. 50% of these groups simply called the program “Sunday School.” The rest used a different term, although I would agree with one of the comments made in response to the Episcopalian article that most of the folks still just call it “Sunday School” regardless of any new, official, cool name!

The other 12.5%? Those churches’ primary “Step 2” strategy was off-campus small groups–at least for the adults. This is a shift in Southern Baptist church practice, to be sure. Nevertheless, Sunday school remains very strong.

In terms of broader “faith formation,” the term preferred by your Episcopal source, Sharon Ely Pearson, Southern Baptist churches have traditionally operated another program ministry to help members grow more deeply in their faith, defend its doctrines, and equip themselves for ministry and missions.   This program is typically called “Discipleship” or “Discipleship Training.” That name has evolved more than “Sunday School.” It was originally “Baptist Young People’s Union,” then “Training Union,” then “Church Training,” then “Discipleship Training,” and now typically just “Discipleship” or some name that includes the word, such as “University of Discipleship.”   Typically, the occasion for “Discipleship” offers a variety of elective options. That occasion has typically been on Sunday evenings, before an evening service. In some churches, the occasion is Wednesday evenings. In others, these elective courses are offered at various times throughout the week.   The important thing to note is that in terms of “faith formation,” this program ministry represents sort of a “third step” in a discipleship process where worship attendance is step 1 and a Sunday school class or small group is step 2. Hope that makes sense! Or provides you some ammo for a probing question!

Part of our assignment at LifeWay is to provide curriculum materials for both Sunday school and Discipleship groups. Our full name is LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, and we are governed by a Board elected by the convention, and are therefore an SBC entity. We enjoy a broad base of customers from many denominations, however.   LifeWay also operates a chain of LifeWay Christian Stores and produces Bibles and trade books through our B&H Publishing Division, along with the products and services offered through the division where I work, LifeWay Church Resources.       The Interview: Is salvation individual, and if it is how the congregational or Church experience does enter into the experience and faith formation process? In what way does LifeWay introduce a concept of individual salvation and the salvation of the congregation and Church?

Salvation is individual for Baptists over against a “covenant” understanding of salvation held by those in some faith walks (such as the Presbyterian Church in which I was raised!). Here is a link to the article on “Salvation” from the Baptist Faith & Message, a statement generally agreed to (but not a creed that is binding on) by Southern Baptists.Jerry Vogel, Director of Childhood Ministry Publishing at LifeWay, wrote: “Salvation is definitely an individual response/decision. The church experience for children should include some type of small group learning experience. LifeWay resources begin at birth to lay the foundation upon which God’s Spirit can work and draw each child unto Himself in a personal relationship.    These concepts from birth through Preteen are represented in our Levels of Biblical Learning document showing the natural progression of learning precept upon precept by children. Significant adults in the church congregation provide the environment of unconditional love and trust building needed for children to begin their faith journey.   A well-planned scope and sequence provided in LifeWay childhood resources (continued throughout all of LifeSpan, providing foundations for salvation for all focus age groups beyond childhood) helps guide teachers along a balanced journey of creating learning environments for children to “hear, know and do” God’s Word.)”

Note: The Levels of Biblical Learning document Vogel refers to is quite impressive, and is a great visual depiction of how LifeWay approaches 10 basic biblical concepts from a developmental view.  

Together, these documents illustrate our approach to “Faith Development.” We have similar guidelines that guide our approach to students (youth) and adults:

How is Sunday school Christian oriented? That is student and teacher?

Sunday school teachers must be Christians. The students need not be. That includes adults. We promote Sunday school as “open groups practicing open enrollment.”   I have coined a five-word definition of an open group: “Expects new people every week.” An open group is an intentional mixture of believers and unbelievers, Baptists and non-Baptists, veteran and “rookie” church-goers. In fact, any person can enroll in any Sunday school class at any time, without making any obligation–to become a church member or even a Christ follower.   The way I say it is “Enrolling in Sunday School does not make you a church member or obligate you to become one.” I also have a five-word definition of this concept of “open enrollment:” You can belong before you believe.” Even if you never choose to believe. These principles are two of the distinctive of how Sunday school is practiced in many Southern Baptist churches.

What new directions are taken with students, re previous decades? Please speak to the new wave experience of Cell Groups.

I actually “debated” LifeWay’s small groups specialist, Rick Howerton, in a live on-line format recently on the topic “Sunday School vs. Small Groups.”
The number one challenge for the small group movement is the question, “What do you do with the kids?” Or, more seriously, at least from the standpoint of faith development, “What do you do meaningfully with the kids?” LifeWay has a brand new resource, Small Group Life that attempts to address that question.   In addition to inexpensive Bible study guides for each participant, who are flexible enough to be used either every week or every other week, free online helps are available for Bible-centered activities with the kids–written in such a way that a teenager can execute the plans–that connect conceptually to the material being studied by the parents. Samples available here. 

Does praise of God enter into the equation of Sunday school? What component does this hold in the formal Curriculum?

Music has historically been an important element of Southern Baptist Sunday Schools. Back in the pioneer days of the Sunday school movement, when Sunday Schools met many places where there was no organized church or formal worship/preaching experience, Sunday Schools conducted “opening assemblies,” where participants gathered together before going to their individual age-group classes. Singing was an important part of this “general assembly.”   Fewer and fewer churches continue this practice today, but some do. In terms of curriculum, all of LifeWay’s Sunday school materials for preschoolers and students include music as an important element. Preschool music is available as a separate resource, a CD-ROM that includes additional teaching materials as well as music.   My wife and I teach pre-K kids in our church. Yesterday, we began a unit on prayer. I put the CD in the player and set it to repeat a song about thanking God. After hearing it all morning, the kids were ready to sing it when we gathered for “large group time” to hear the Bible story. In LifeWay’s curriculum materials for elementary children, the music CD is included in the Leader Pack. Words to all songs on the CDs are printed in the back of the leader guides. LifeWay’s innovative curriculum for youth, KNOWN, includes an mp3 playlist: 

Music as well as serial dramas are a feature of LifeWay’s DVD-driven youth curriculum, called Fuel.

What is the prime difference in approach between youth and children, and where does it break? Will you tell us something of the “care and feeding of babies” in the Sunday school experience and approach? This seems unusual, that babies get religious education.

LifeWay is one of the few–if not the only–publisher that produces a line of Sunday school curriculum especially for babies. We believe strongly that that the preschool years are the most important in spiritual as well as physical, emotional, and intellectual development. If nothing else, babies can learn that church is a safe place to go and that people who care for me there love me and love Jesus. One of the Levels of Biblical Learning documents focuses on babies and what we believe they can learn about 8 basic biblical concepts.

What music do you use?

Think I answered that above. We have actually been pleasantly surprised at the success of the new Baptist Hymnal (also published under the name Worship Hymnal) which LifeWay Worship published just last year as the “hard goods” part of an ambitious next generation online platform called The Worship Project. This project promises to put great musical accompaniment at the fingertips of even the smallest church.

Why do you think Sunday school practice, that is the Sunday school itself as educational entity in the individual church is so high in the Southern Baptist church? I note the Wall Street Journal article says Sunday Schools are on the decline:

“Why Sunday Schools are Closing,” by Charlotte Hays says, “Fewer children are having that experience, though. Like West Olive United Methodist, many churches have drastically curtailed or given up entirely on Sunday school for children. Two years ago, Bruce Morrison, an official with the Missouri Baptist Convention, wrote about attending a “ministry conference where several denominations were represented.” During a break, he recalled, “I overheard a discussion between several of the attendees about the value of Sunday school in today’s culture. The implication was that Sunday school ministry in the local church is obsolete.”

Two responses, not in order: (1) I would recommend that a careful reader of the cited article read the comments posted in response to the online article. Some challenge the accuracy of the reporter’s conclusions. Enough said. (2) Sunday School–or more broadly, Bible study in age/life-stage appropriate groups–is just important to Southern Baptists.   Maybe it’s a cultural thing. A historical thing. And it is typically year-round. No summer break. Not just for kids while mom and dad go to worship. For the typical Southern Baptist church, the first two steps of its disciple-making process are worship and assimilation/foundational discipleship/fellowship/ministry through small group Bible study. As I note in the conclusion to an analysis conducted as a follow-up to the popular book Simple Church, “What could be simpler? Accomplishing the first two steps of your discipleship process, with every member of the family, on one trip to the church?!?” (Just Google “Sunday School in Simple Church” if you’d like to see the entire paper.)

I was interested to hear you say the worship experience is number one in the Sunday school experience. Will you say more about that and something of the role of the Sermon?

I think my point is the same as above: The worship service is the primary/first step in the discipleship process for most churches today. Sunday school used to be. In fact, Southern Baptist churches were not asked to report worship attendance until 1990, at which time average annual Sunday school attendance was 85% of reported worship attendance. That ratio has steadily declined to a about 2/3, with a typical Sunday finding 4 million people in Southern Baptist Sunday Schools and 6 million people in worship (including preschoolers being cared for during worship, children’s worship, any separate youth worship services, etc.).   That is still strong versus the same ratio in other denominations. (Assemblies of God and Nazarenes may give us a run for the money!) 

  Images: (1) Man at prayer. (2) Dramatic Praise “Chef” Chantéa Kirkwood and the LifeWay choir, led by LifeWay Worship Director Mike Harland, perform in “The Joy of Christmas,” LifeWay’s 2007 Christmas program. Photo by Kent Harville.  (3) Quiet white Snow creates a peaceful scene around Holcomb Auditorium at LifeWay’s Glorieta Conference Center outside Santa Fe, N.M. Photo by Kent Harville. (4) The preacher Billy Graham, April 4, 1966. This is a representational and popular photograph of the Reverend (Wikipedia has photo). He is currently 91 years old.  (5)  Gathered Dozens of men come forward to commit and rededicate their lives to Jesus Christ during an invitation offered at the Be the Man conference May 8-9, at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center. Photo by Kent Harville.  Photographs courtesy LifeWay. Slideshow photographs, courtesy LifeWay (Southern Baptist Church).



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