Calvary Road Baptist Church

“THE UNIQUE VIRTUES OF SUNDAY SCHOOLS”

Colossians 1.28

I want to bring a message from God’s Word, a bit of exposition but mostly application, highlighting what I think are the unique virtues of Sunday Schools.

Most of you know that what are commonly referred to as Sunday Schools arose at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and before there was such a thing as child labor laws. It was a time of terrible hardship, grinding poverty, and the employment of young children in mines and factories where they toiled six days a week. Sunday Schools were originally devised as a means of accomplishing a number of goals, the primary of course being evangelizing children with the gospel. Secondary was the efforts of the Sunday School workers to provide all sorts of needed instruction to neglected children, from social skills to reading, as well as teaching them about matters of personal hygiene. Initially, Sunday Schools were primarily external outreaches to unchurched children. Over time, however, Sunday Schools were gradually altered and are now the main babysitting service for churches so parents can attend the preaching services without distraction.

Another development, even more devastating to the impact of Sunday Schools than this mission drift, was the influence of a book titled “Christian Nurture,” written by Horace Bushnell, one of the founders of what is now the University of California at Berkeley. He was a liberal New England minister who decried strong preaching to children, insisting that church kids should only be gently instructed and very gradually brought into the Christian faith by nurturing them. He felt church kids should never be threatened with Hell or God’s wrath as punishment for their sins, believing that such children were not really depraved or dead in trespasses and sins. Though Charles G. Finney was the American author of decisionism, and popularized his brand of Pelagianism which has wreaked so much havoc on the way evangelism is done in the united States, Bushnell may have done almost as much harm to the cause of Christ and to churches in America by creating an atmosphere in which the children of churchgoers were insinuated into professions of the Christian faith as the direct result of utterly denying their sinful natures and depraved condition.

The result of Bushnell’s late 19th century influence is that most children in Sunday Schools in the 20th century were taught by teachers who did not clearly see the youngsters in their classes as hopelessly depraved, as utterly wicked, and as being prone to Pharisaical hypocrisy. Add to that the tendency to teach little ones in Sunday School that they all love Jesus (when, of course they do not), that they are of course unconditionally loved by God (with God’s love typically being misinterpreted as an indulgence to commit all sorts of sins), and that asking Jesus into their hearts is a relatively perfunctory requirement to being saved. Is it then any wonder so great a percentage of the kids raised in church make professions of faith, then live unchanged lives, and eventually stop attending church never to return as soon as it suits them? What little kid is so stupid that he would pass on the opportunity to make his Sunday School teacher, his mom and dad, and his pastor happy with him by simply pretending he has been saved? With naive parents, Sunday School teachers, and pastors who have already been influenced by decisionism, it is no wonder that children are not seriously and scripturally dealt with about their sins. The result is that crisis conversions, of the type shown in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and that so many of you here in this auditorium have experienced, though once fairly common among children in Sunday Schools, are now extremely rare.

   That you have kids who from time to time really come to Christ years after their initial profession of faith as youngsters should only alarm us that the vast majority of such false hopes are never discovered. I must tell you that I greatly fear for those who testify that they were saved as youngsters. Not that youngsters cannot be saved, for that certainly is not the case. However, in most churches these days it is presumed that children are never deceitful, that children fully understand the important details pertinent to the gospel, and that every profession of faith is a genuine conversion. Those are unwarranted assumptions.

The Sunday School movement in the English-speaking world presently bears no resemblance to its vibrant and spiritual origins of more than 225 years ago. That said, I think Sunday School, when spiritual and dedicated people who are not decisionists execute such a ministry with wisdom, can exhibit a number of unique virtues that can prove to be extremely beneficial for a church.

Consider three features of a properly run and wisely staffed Sunday School outreach to unchurched children:

 First, WITH RESPECT TO OUR CHURCH’S PRIMARY MISSION

 Though not limited to Sunday Schools, Colossians 1.28 should certainly apply to any Sunday School. Please turn to that verse and read along with me: “Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” Three comments about this verse with respect to our church’s primary mission, which is outlined in the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ:

First, we warn. May I suggest that Paul’s reference is to preaching Christ, which is to say proclaiming Christ, but doing so by means of two distinct activities? The first activity is “warning every man.” The Greek word for warning is the word nouqetew, which refers to confronting someone, to admonishing someone, to correct someone’s behavior or course of life through instruction or warning.[1] It is confronting with a view to correcting. Every aspect of a church’s ministry should involve this approach to gospel preaching. As a matter of fact, the absence of this aspect of gospel preaching effectively guts the gospel presentation, for why is a Savior needed if there is no warning of wrath to be saved from. Sad to say, many have reached adulthood these days that have no tolerance for correction, who are unwilling to consider the importance of being strongly rebuked for their sins and for their foolish behavior. God help little children who have such a mother and father.

Next, we teach. If warning is connected with repentance, refers to a sinner’s conduct, and is addressed primarily to the heart, then teaching is connected with faith, refers to doctrines, and is addressed primarily to the intellect. You warn sinners that they are guilty and that they need to flee from the wrath to come. Then you teach them how only Jesus is the qualified Savior of sinful men’s souls, Who died on the cross of Calvary as payment for my sins to satisfy God’s righteous demands that sins be punished. Explain that and then urge sinners to come to Christ for salvation full and free. Both components must be present for a balanced gospel presentation that the Spirit of God will be well pleased to anoint with success.

What is our immediate goal when engaged in this two-pronged effort? “. . . that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” Notice that we are after “every man.” I am convinced that “every man” includes every race, kindred, tongue, and tribe. I am also convinced that “every man” includes both adults and children. How can anyone disagree? Presenting every man perfect in Christ Jesus is the goal of our church, and should be the goal of every properly organized, properly staffed, and properly trained and motivated Sunday School. Historically, Sunday Schools have been the primary evangelistic tool of churches to reach out to the young people in the community and bring them to faith in Jesus Christ. I submit that Sunday School should be the primary evangelist tool of our church to penetrate and reach out to the children of our surrounding communities and bring them to faith in Christ.

 Next, WITH RESPECT TO OUR CHURCH’S PROTECTING MISSION

 Our culture is toxic to children. Not only do children learn that they are without real value, alive only because their mothers did not get around to aborting them before they were born, but that they are animals evolved from lower forms of life. Understand, it is not our task to undermine children’s parents and weaken their influence on their kids. However, an effective Sunday School can be wonderfully used of God to declare to children the truth of God’s Word, to show them their value in God’s eyes, to reveal to them that they were given life for a high purpose and for a noble end, and to point them to Jesus Christ through the preaching of the gospel.

Given what we know about the Word of God (Isaiah 55.11: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”), and remembering what we know from people’s experiences (such as my own, saved 17 years after hearing the gospel as a young child), we conclude that there can be no failures when preaching the gospel to children, that appearances can sometimes be deceiving, and that our duty is to be faithful and trust God to so apply His Word that eternal results will issue in their due seasons.

Every time you preach the gospel to a child, you show him the extent of God’s concern for his immortal and undying soul, and what Jesus Christ suffered to save him from his sins, you are protecting that child in the most important way possible, and you may be sparing him from the murder of his soul by this evil apostate age. Sunday School can provide the means whereby the deliverance of a child’s soul can be secured, when teachers and workers do three things, taking our cue from the parable of the soils in Matthew chapter 13:

First, involvement in gathering children by hard work and diligent effort, before properly delivering to them their Sunday School gospel lesson prepares, the soil of their young hearts is prepared for the sowing of the seed of God’s Word. Jesus’ parable refers to four different kinds of soils. There is the wayside of unprepared soil, stony places with not much deepness of earth, soil overgrown with thorns, and then good ground that brings forth fruit.[2] Have you ever thought about how unprepared soil becomes good soil? Effort has to be put into wayside soil to prepare it for planting. Rocks have to be removed from stony places to make them fit for growing. Thorns have to be burned off or pulled up so they won’t choke what is being grown. There is no such thing as good soil that has not first been worked over in preparation for sowing. Every field has to be plowed. Every garden has to be cultivated. What do you think is being done when a child is visited, then befriended, then invited, and then brought, then loved and encouraged, and then treated, and his birthday remembered? The child is being gradually transformed from stony ground to good ground, and from thorn covered terrain to good ground.

Next, the seed is cast forth, the seed of course being the Word of God. We do what we can do, and we leave to God what only God can do. We understand that “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth,” James 1.18. By the same token, of God’s own will He begets others with the Word of God. However, He does not beget with the Word unless the Word is first cast forth. It is our task to cast the seed of the Word onto ground that we have done our best to prepare, buy pulling weeds, picking rocks, ridding the thorns, and then tilling the soil so it is soft and receptive and not hard and crusty. After all, we don’t want the Devil to use the cares and affairs of this world to snatch away the Word we have sown. Sadly, in much child evangelism of our day little thought is given to preparing the soil of their hearts to be good ground. The question that must be asked, of course, is what hope is there for the child who is not visited, who is not met, who is not befriended, who is not invited, who is not brought, who is not loved and encouraged, whose birthday is not remembered, and who is not taught and warned to flee to this Christ he has never before heard of? Without preparation and then preaching, there is little reason for hope.

Finally, prayer is offered to the Lord of the harvest. Most of us are familiar with Luke 10.2, where the Lord Jesus Christ urged His disciples to “pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.” To be sure, there is always need of more workers, more people to turn out on Saturday nights, and workers devoted to Sunday School work. However, to those men Jesus was speaking to who grew up in an agricultural economy, there was something understood that we urban moderns often lose sight of. It was assumed that those urged to pray to the Lord of the harvest for more laborers would already have prayed for the harvest. Farmers start praying in the spring, that late frosts will not come. They then pray for rain at the right time and in the right amount. They also pray no blight, or locusts, or hail will destroy their crop. Additionally, they pray there will be no rain approaching the harvest, that will ruin the grain on the stalks. All of those prayers are offered before the harvest, and then prayer is offered for laborers to reap the harvest quickly before bad weather ruins everything. So you see, prayer is needed all along the way. I would like to urge you to begin praying for two things: First, begin to pray for the whole process of preparing the soil, casting forth the seed of the Word, and the harvest of souls ready for us to gather, had we the Sunday School ministry in place to do the gathering. Second, begin to pray for the laborers needed to bring the harvest in. To protect children from the wiles of the Devil, to protect children from the toxic world they are growing up in, to safely deliver them to Jesus Christ by means of our witness, our teaching, and our warning (in short, our preaching), our church needs a vibrant Sunday School outreach to unchurched kids.

 Finally, WITH RESPECT TO OUR CHURCH’S PREPARATION MISSION

 I am persuaded that a Sunday School is absolutely vital to my responsibility as your pastor to equip you for the work of the ministry, Ephesians 4.11-12:

 11     And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;

12     For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

 Four aspects of the role Sunday School can play in my pastoral ministry:

First, with respect to the role of women in our church. At the church where I was baptized and I met my wife was the Sunday School ministry of a woman confined to a wheel chair. She was a businesswoman who ran a printing business. However, that was just a sideline to her, to finance her real love of reaching children with the gospel. Where there might have been some suspicion of men displaying such interest in little children, there was no suspicion of a woman teaching little children, especially an articulate, sophisticated, businesswoman who had overcome the handicap of a wheelchair. Please be mindful that just because God’s plan for a church is pastors and deacons who are men, there is no rationale for women not fully exercising their spiritual gifts to teach, to organize, to encourage, and to exhibit whatever leadership skills and talents God has given and they have cultivated over the course of their lives. There are so many mothers out there who have no natural affection, who have no more interest in mothering their children than a reptile does after laying eggs, that especially among the younger children, and with girls of all ages, godly women of deep conviction and great love have limitless opportunities to bear fruit and influence lives.

Next, with respect to the role of men in our church. Do I think there are only one or two men in our church who are gifted to teach God’s Word, who desire to preach God’s Word? Of course not. However, what opportunities are there in the normal course of affairs for men to have the opportunity to develop their skills and hone their gifts? Though every child needs a mother, or a mother figure in his life, as boys grow older they need father figures. They need real men in their lives, who are spiritual and godly. Thus, there is a crying need for men to be involved in ministry to children, especially older boys. What better ministry opportunities are there for men than teaching in Sunday School, especially teaching boys? Teaching is a spiritual gift that is frequently slow to develop, and its richness comes with experience, sometimes with correction from the pastor, with study, and with the wisdom resulting from years as a Christian. There is no better way for a woman to develop into a women’s speaker and a man to develop into a men’s speaker than for such men and women to teach Sunday School.

Third, with respect to the role of young people. Christian kids know how to do things other kids their age usually do not know how to do. We have young people in our church who have organizational skills and people skills that they may not later in life realize were skills honed here at church. Even better for young people are opportunities for service and the development of spiritual gifts in a Sunday School ministry. Preaching services are not labor intensive, but Sunday Schools are very labor intensive, with huge opportunities for participation at all skills and experience levels. I have been appalled this last week at the helplessness that I have seen in various public venues, with parents of newborns having no idea what they were doing, parents of toddlers having no idea what they were doing, and parents of grade school age children not knowing what they were doing. Excuse me, people. Dealing with children does not require brilliance, and can be managed by most people unless they are so proud that they refuse to employ the lessons available to learn from their parents and others around them. In addition, Sunday School provides a most excellent opportunity for our young people to further sharpen their skills, so that they will never be such parents as are held captive by a fussy baby, a toddler’s tantrums, or a spoiled child’s demands. Additionally, Sunday School provides exposure of young people to so many aspects of ministry, from organizing and teaching, to observing others dealing with discipline and other difficult issues, and to providing leadership for others, that they will be able to develop their own skills at a much younger age, and will be ready to teach and preach should they ever want to take advantage of an opportunity.

Sunday Schools are where the future leaders of our church are likely to surface, where servants may have their first opportunities in ministry, and even where our future preachers and pastors can get their start. A young fellow helps a man with his Sunday School boys, and then is told that the teacher has a family tragedy and cannot teach his class. The notice comes in too late for the pastor to find anyone else to teach, leaving only two options. The pastor asks the helper, “Would you like to teach the class today? You only have an hour to prepare. Or should I combine two classes? It’s up to you.” The lad thinks about it for a moment and then says, “Pastor, I think I would like to give it a try.” In a year or two, he may have a class of his own, if he wants one. On the other hand, there is a guy who wants to preach. Yet, when he is asked to fill in as a Sunday School teacher he is dreadfully boring to the kids, and to some he appears disinterested in teaching kids, as though they are not important enough for him. That fellow will not be given greater opportunities until he shows himself faithful and effective with youngsters. Such are the benefits of Sunday School

 Folks, I think there is a world of opportunity for our church with a Sunday School that is properly staffed and prayerfully conducted. It would be dreadfully hard work, but hard work is intrinsic to the Christian life. Amen? Ephesians 2.10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”

All of this said, you might be wondering why I have placed so little emphasis on Sunday School for all these years? For the same reason and in the same manner I dealt with our old decisionist Thursday night visitation program. I allowed it to be dormant for so long a time that I could be sure the decisionist tendencies of the most well intentioned among us were minimized. We also still have members of our church who think my concern about decisionism is greatly overblown, and do not appreciate that it is the spiritual cancer that has been most effectively used by the Devil to destroy the usefulness of churches in America over the last century and a half. In like manner, Sunday Schools as an effective evangelistic tool to reach unchurched kids has been so distorted and perverted by Horace Bushnell’s views that even the most well-intentioned Sunday School teachers have in some cases been rendered spiritual poison to the very children they loved and sought to reach with the gospel.

However, I now think our church is far enough past decisionism that I am willing to cautiously take on the great burden of a Sunday School, provided it is staffed by people who are willing to work hard, by people who love children and want to see them genuinely converted, and who despise the damage that has been done to churches, to professing Christians, and to little children who have been more harmed than helped by attending a Sunday School ruined by decisionism.



[1] Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1980), pages 570-571.

[2] Matthew 13.4, 5, 7, 8



Would you like to contact Dr. Waldrip about this sermon? Please contact him by clicking on the link below. Please do not change the subject within your email message. Thank you.

pastor@calvaryroadbaptist.org