Spiritually Shallow Parents and the Reformation of Sunday School

Those of us leading parents back into primary spiritual leadership with their children have brought a secret out of the closet. Mom and dad may not be spiritually developed enough to lead their children, even if they are active church members. Spiritually, parents cannot take children places they have not been.

How do adults sit in Sunday School (or its synonyms) for 30 years and end up too spiritually shallow to disciple their own children?

In your church, do you see visible evidence that spiritual transformation is taking place in the current adult groups meeting on Sunday morning? Would you say stories of transformation in those groups are rare or are they normative?

How do adults sit in Sunday School (or its synonyms) for 30 years and end up too spiritually shallow to disciple their own children?

I’m pretty sure I know your answers to those questions. I also know the subject of “killing Sunday School” moves you toward a panic attack. You know that messing with that room that has sewn cushions on the chairs—can be vocational suicide.

But what if you didn’t kill anything? What if you quietly started an approach that grew and grew and finally absorbed what we have regarded as Sunday School?

(For the record, there’s nothing wrong with names such as Sunday School, Life Groups, Bible Fellowships, etc. And there is nothing inherently wrong with the general concept of Sunday School. It is our current practice on Sunday morning that is the issue).

For the next few months, what if you spent the School School hour discipling three adults of your gender? Then, what if each of them spent a few months discipling three? And then those twelve each discipled three? And so on. Before long, such an approach would absorb the entire Sunday School—maybe without bloodshed.

Why three? Christ’s investment in Peter, James, and John provides a good model.

What could four of God’s people do together for 90 minutes?

  • Pray deeply. Stand outside any typical adult Sunday School class and listen. You’ll hear members spend ten minutes describing grandma’s gout and a hundred other diseases. Then, you’ll hear the teacher pray a brief, generic prayer that supposedly covers all the requests that have been made. While the teacher prays, the members close their eyes and choose a good place for lunch. But what if four believers studied and then experienced how to really pray? What if they learned how to pray adoration to the King, before asking for anything? What if new openness had allowed them to see the messiness in each other’s lives, prompting very specific prayers over each other? What if the fact that all four were participating actively in out-loud prayer kept minds from wandering?
  • Learn how to handle Scripture. Most adult Sunday School classes don’t go much beyond, “What does this verse mean to you?” But what if the discipling process included, early on, training in how to interpret passages of Scripture correctly? What if most church members came to understand at least the basic principles of hermeneutics? Do you really believe in the priesthood of the believer? Do you believe laypeople can train laypeople to handle God’s Word correctly? Do you believe the complement to the proclamation of the Word from the pulpit is the correct handling of the Word by God’s people?
  • The application of Scripture to life. At present, a Sunday School teacher with 15 or 20 members has to fire scattered birdshot when it comes to application. He cannot possibly know what is weighing on the minds of so many. But someone who is walking life-on-life with only three can fire steel bullets that consistently hit the pressure points of life.
  • Focus on evangelism. In large classes, talk of evangelism sounds like the “wa-wa-wa” adult voices during a Charlie Brown Christmas special. But what if every discipleship group always had an empty chair? What if, every week, there was discussion about who should be sitting in that chair? What if earnest prayer for specific lost persons actually moved individuals to share their faith and to invite the lost to join the group?
  • Compassion. Large Sunday School classes know how to organize casseroles when someone dies. But, they miss showing compassion regarding scores of other issues that go unmentioned. Who wants to be transparent in front of 25 people? Instead, members just sip their coffee and ask, “How ‘bout them Cowboys?” Only when four are doing life together do you hear someone say, “John, I know getting passed over for the promotion has to sting. I am so very sorry.”
  • Grace-filled accountability. A dad may desperately need to say, “I promised myself I wouldn’t, but I cursed my teenage son again this week. You should’ve seen the hurt in his eyes.” Dad will not say that in front of a large, co-ed class. But, fighting back some tears, he may very well say that to the three he trusts with such transparency. In that moment, some brothers guide him to forgiveness. And just down the hall, four ladies share grace-filled accountability regarding issues they never would have mentioned with the men present.

The possibility of adults becoming so transformed that they can disciple other adults probably thrills you. But here’s an even more powerful thought. What if adults become so transformed that they go home and disciple their families? What if parents lead their own children into deep prayer? And teach them how to correctly interpret Scripture? And how to apply that Scripture to their grade school or high school lives? And they mobilize their family for evangelism, missions, and ministry? And family members love each other so deeply that transparency and accountability seem safe and natural?

The first step is for someone to disciple several. Is that someone you? Do you pray deeply? Do you know how to handle Scripture? Are you prepared to connect with three believers at a life-on-life level? The four of you finding an empty room on Sunday morning may be the beginning of a reformation.


Richard Ross serves as professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Learn more about his ministry at www.RichardARoss.com, and follow him on Twitter @RichardARoss.