What's the Pastor's Role in Sunday School?

January 4th, 2011

For decades we have announced the death of Sunday School and it has not died yet. Get over it. Sunday School is here to stay.

Pastors who agree with this statement go a long way in moving rightly towards the maturation needed in any local church's discipleship system. Sunday School, as an institution and one part of the disciple's maturation process, will be here for a long time. Its longevity comes from its effectiveness, its success and its adaptability. Christians from the youngest child to the eldest grandparent have stories of how the Sunday School formed their relationships with God and clarified their calls to serve God. When pastors acknowledge its possibilities for Christian cultivation, the Sunday School can be a vital part of disciple making.

The first Sunday Schools, in the 18th century, were open to all children, and they learned the basics of reading, writing and portions of the catechism. Some schools also taught mathematics. The school book most suitable for the religious educational needs of the school was the Bible, and while the school was a vehicle to assist the poor, the transformation and sanctification of human nature was the fundamental motivation. Bringing boys and girls to the salvific relationship with God in Jesus was his basic aim in all he did, including the Sunday School.

Even today, Sunday School remains a medium for transmitting Christian faith. On average, 1.6 million persons, adults and children, find their way to classes each week. It remains an excellent occasion to deepen congregational discipleship. While it is not the only opportunity to teach faith, its durability and flexibility suggests that it not be capriciously ignored. Because it is here to stay, clergy should consider its possibilities for congregational development.

First, pastors can reclaim the teaching ministry. Pastors are charged to preach, to teach, to order the life of the church and to serve. While preaching and church administration maintain impressive significance in pastoral ministry, teaching is often times neglected. This happens to the detriment of congregational growth. Maturing persons in faith demands a central role for Christian teaching. Clergy leaders too often hand the teaching ministries to others. This should never happen. The teaching office is absolutely essential in the building of the church.

Pastors must, therefore, be intimately involved in the teaching ministry. In fact, they should see themselves as the lead teachers in the congregation. Pastoral teaching should have the same weight and emphasis as sermon preparation. When a pastor claims teaching as central to execution of ministry, maturity among the laity is soon to follow. The position of teacher, from the pastoral office, translates to growth in the life of the church.

With this as their posture, clergy can recover the training office through impacting the Sunday School. When the pastors attend Sunday school classes, their presence illustrates the importance of the work. Because the pastor attends, others realize their attendance is important as well. Christian learning gains significance because the pastor models its importance.

Teaching a Sunday School class is another way to reclaim the teaching ministry. Congregants relish an opportunity for closeness with the pastor. Learning at the pastor's feet offers time, not merely for doctrinal and creedal pedagogy; this is a chance for clergy to share what God has placed on their hearts and in their minds. Dr. Walter Kimbrough says, “The pastor's class is a primary place to share, with members and especially with upcoming leaders, God's vision for your church.” God's personal revelation can better impact the church through the teaching pastor.

Second, the pastor can advocate for the Sunday school. Pastoral attention or inattention signifies the priority of most congregational ministries. When the pastor says that something is important, the congregation listens! If the pastor ignores a ministry, that demonstrates irrelevance or inconsequentiality

Communicating the importance of Sunday School can happen in several ways. Included among these are:

  • Sermon illustrations

  • Pastoral announcements

  • Newsletter and/or web site articles

  • “Drop in” on classes. Offer encouragement and pride in the ministry that happens. See teachers periodically by merely showing up and offering thanks to them while they are teaching

  • Call for classes to stand in the weekly worship experiences, extolling their work and curriculum

  • Honor teachers on a regular basis in the worship experience

Learning the faith is how the church deepens commitment, discovers giftedness and clarifies ministry calls. When the pastor says this and shares this, related to the Sunday School, persons will “get it” and join up!

Third, clergy can set goals for the Christian education ministry, featuring the Sunday School. Because those who learn faith are more inclined to share faith, a teaching congregation is a growing congregation. Knowing this, clergy who guide churches to expand the teaching ministry also lead the increase in numbers and maturity.

Why not challenge all adult Sunday School classes to “birth” a new class each year? Starting with one class, 16 classes could result in five years. If every class discovered one person with the spiritual gift of teaching each year, the outcome could be staggering. Called teachers, excited about their weekly encounters with the Lord, would invite and impel students to learn faith, to hear God's call, to discover their gifts, pursue their ministries and invite others to their classes. Can you imagine the impact?

Why not set a goal of doubling attendance each year? What really can keep us from doing that, if we believe God desires that? One class of three persons could become 48 persons in five years; forty-eight persons who we empowered by a saving relationship with Jesus can revolutionize a community! With a band of nondescript and illiterate men, only a quarter that size, Jesus changed the world. If we dare to set a goal, do we dare to believe that Jesus might do the same through our congregations?

Clergy that work on the teaching ministry of the congregation do essential work in the evangelistic mission of the church. It is mature faith that remakes congregations, improves lives and transforms communities. The Sunday School, an institution that is here to stay, can be a crucial building block in discipleship systems that assure just that.

About the Author

Vance P. Ross

Vance P. Ross is senior pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. From 2015 to 2018, Ross served read more…
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