It’s a cool, autumn Sunday morning. An eerie mist wafts gently over the cemetery of a white-steepled church. As the local parishioners arrive, they drive in and pull into their same weekly spots with the routine of Shriners in a small-town parade. It is orchestrated by tradition and ensconced in a time from Sundays past. Each person, tidily dressed, moves into the church with the “enthusiasm” of a 3 year-old boy forced to take his nightly bath. Inside, each church member goes to their place – a Sunday School classroom that hasn’t changed in years – and goes through the motions and sequence of every week and possibly for future years to come. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s even uplifting to each to some extent, but even that is fleeting and rarely life-altering. Often, these classes are as dead as the former members in the foggy ground next door. They are mostly inconsequential for the individual. They do little for the ministry of the local church. They do nothing for the Kingdom.
“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
John C. Maxwell, noted author, pastor, and speaker
Many in the church world are familiar with Maxwell’s contribution in the areas of leadership and Christian business, and this quote is relatively well known. However, most people tend to focus solely on the second part, “The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” To ignore the first sentence is to ignore what makes it powerful and life-changing. The key to this mantra is the occasional introduction of intentional – and preferably beneficial – change to the daily routine. In the case of the local church Sunday School, churches should try looking to change their weekly routine.
Maxwell is not the only one to notice the dangers of an unhealthy or even dead routine. Here are a couple of other quotes you might recognize:
- “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein
- “A rut is a grave with the ends kicked out.” Earl Nightingale
Whatever the source, the observation is pretty much the same. If our current habits are no longer effective, we must either change or continue to decline even to the point of death.
Here are several ideas to consider with your Sunday School to mix it up a little and possibly gain some new life, a new song, and new Kingdom results.
- Refresh and Remember your purpose. – Although it does not seem like this would actually be a change, most plateaued or declining Sunday School or Small Group ministries do not have any idea what their purpose is. When a class or ministry begins, there is energy and focus on the task at hand, usually reaching others. However, once we have settled into the routine, we lose sight of the original purpose, and maintaining the routine or tradition becomes the main goal. Matthew 28:18-20 makes our purpose clear. We are to “go,” and we are to “make disciples.” For many of our small group ministries, it has become “come” and “fellowship with our little group.” Group idea: Have your class try to define its biblical purpose for existence and for meeting. Then, discuss openly whether change is necessary so you might perceive God’s purpose for your group.
- Renovate and Restructure your class. – This may mean changing the room setup, the order in which you do things each week, or even what you are studying. Stick to God’s Word, but do things differently every once in a while. A pastor friend of mine is preaching through Psalms during the summer and using favorites of the congregation. One Sunday while preaching through Psalm 40, he paused and made a pertinent observation about verse 3, “I am sure I have read it before, but I guess I never really took notice. The psalmist writes:
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord. (ESV)”
The key here is the “new song.” The implication is that the psalmist had a new experience with God and had to share it. Look at the results: people came to see and fear and trust God. Is it possible our Sunday Schools appear dead because we are doing the same thing over and over and over again and somehow expecting God to bless it? We need to let God do a new work in our lives and make that part of the new routine.
- Reach out, specifically outside the classroom or the group. One of the best ways to grow together as a class and build the Kingdom is to do ministry together. Has your class ever done something like that? Not just taking up money for a special need, but have you “done ministry” together? It could begin by some type of service in the church…babysitting for a young adult class fellowship, feeding the youth on a Wednesday night, or serving in a preschool or children’s class for a quarter to allow teachers to attend small groups themselves. As good as this may be, what if your class did something outside the walls of the church, where you have the chance to be Jesus in the world? One of our greatest barriers when stuck in routine is not just what we do, but whom we do it with. It is a great thing to have close Christian friends with whom we fellowship. It is a blessing altogether different to lead someone to Christ, help them become a disciple, and bring them along in ministry the next time.
No, Sunday School ain’t dead…but some Sunday School classes are or are headed there. In those churches who constantly revisit their purpose, seek God to speak with a new Word and work in new ways, and are on mission as ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), great things are happening, and Sunday School is very much alive. If your class is one that is struggling, begin by making a minor weekly adjustment. Make it part of the routine…but be purposeful. Do it for a godly reason, and see what God does. You might just experience new life and real life change instead of the pending alternative of the cemetery plot next door.