Changing the culture of a church is one of the most difficult things for a pastor to do. But over the last decade our church has discovered an unexpected tool for changing a culture: adult Sunday school.
HOW SUNDAY SCHOOL CHANGED OUR CHURCH’S CULTURE
Here’s an example. For some time, our elders were concerned that dating in our church too closely resembled dating in the world. People dated for fun, and only sometimes with an eye toward marriage. They treated their roles interchangeably, failing to view their interactions as a chance to prepare for the complementary roles of husband and wife. For instance, men would not lead and shoulder the risk in relationships, but instead sit back to see if a woman was interested before he put his cards on the table. And of course many couples maintained cavalier attitudes toward physical touch.
Periodically, several married men in the church conducted evening seminars for single men and women in an effort to inject biblical teaching into their thinking. And, while helpful, these seminars did not accomplish the culture change that the elders desired.
Enter a Sunday school class on dating and marriage. The elders asked a man in the congregation to prepare seven weeks of material on marriage and six on dating. The first seven described the goal of marriage, while the next six applied the principles discussed there to the process of finding a spouse. This class has been repeated each year for ten years now.
The class was controversial, especially at first. The questions became so lengthy and involved that the leaders quickly decided to devote an entire class to Q&A, and for several years they held an additional Q&A session at an elder’s home on a weekday evening.
But today, the culture of dating in our congregation is markedly different. Not all dating relationships in our church are conducted according to biblical principles, but most of them are. And while only a bare majority of our single members have taken the class, virtually all of their conversations about dating are overshadowed by the content of that class. Couples more naturally ask, “How can we make our relationship more biblical?”
Sometimes, people have those conversations in reaction to the class: “I’d like to start dating you, but I want you to know that I’m not completely in line with X, Y, or Z from the dating class.” But even statements like these show how much the class has changed members’ expectations about dating. It provides the basic framework for discussion, even for people who have never taken it.
Wonderfully, our adult Sunday school program has effected changes not only in our church’s dating culture, but in other areas as well. Conversations about church discipline, fear of man, evangelism, gender, and singleness increasingly embody the content of their respective Sunday School classes. Just recently we have developed a class on work.
In fact, the lack of a Sunday School class on an important topic has sometimes inhibited culture change. Without a single, comprehensive body of material that adequately covers a topic, the job of teaching and influencing thinking in the church is left to sermon application that, while helpful, is neither comprehensive nor interactive. A topical sermon series can help, but a preacher can afford to preach topically only so often. And even when a topical series touches on some matter, it touches the matter just once. Most of our churches are increasingly transient, which means that some subjects need to be addressed regularly.
HOW TO USE SUNDAY SCHOOL TO CHANGE A CHURCH’S CULTURE
Of course, not every adult Sunday school program is equally effective at changing the culture of a church. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned across the past ten years about how to make Sunday school into a tool for changing a church’s culture.
1. Teach each class on a recurring basis.
It was only in the fourth or fifth year of teaching the dating class that we began to see a real culture change take place. If you address a topic only when someone “has a burden” to teach it, or when your denomination publishes curriculum on it, you will most not likely make a different in your church’s culture.
2. Make your notes available to everyone.
Our church has always posted class notes (including the teacher’s manuscript and handouts) on our website. Our initial goal in doing this was to give other churches that chance to use our material, but along the way it has given our members’ the ability to study those notes when a class is not being taught.
3. Encourage discussion outside of class.
As they teach, our teachers suggest books to read alongside the class. They set up informal times of Q&A outside of the class, especially for controversial topics. And they put their email address on a class handout and encourage the class to ask questions throughout the week. Ideally, Sunday school is not merely an event but the instigator of a dialogue.
4. Take the time to comprehensively cover a topic.
An effective Sunday school class does not need to answer every question, but it must be thorough enough to provide a framework that could answer any question. We’ve generally found that six to thirteen weeks is long enough to develop and apply such a framework.
5. Reference adult Sunday school in your preaching.
As a pastor preaches through Scripture, they often hit upon sermon applications that cover the same terrain as a Sunday school class. In moments like these, the preacher has the chance to direct people to the class: “If you want to think about this further, consider attending…”
6. Use the class to teach Scripture.
One of the dangers of topical teaching is that the substance of the class becomes wise advice, with the Bible used merely as proof text. Of course, there is a time and a place for wise advice, and a time and a place for proof texts. But while your people may change their behavior in response to wise advice, they are more likely to change their thinking and attitudes in response to a better understanding of the Scriptures. So wherever possible, we have found it helpful to walk people through larger passages of Scripture related to the topic at hand.
Suppose, for example, that you are planning a class on why we must live lives that support our evangelistic witness. You could brainstorm six different guidelines with a Bible passage for each. Alternatively, you could spend the whole time walking the class through the book of 1 Peter. This will probably cover those same guidelines, but much more as well. Along the way, you will not only ground your teaching directly in Scripture, but you will help your class to see things they have never seen before (such as the fact that submitting to earthly authority helps the church’s witness to the gospel—a key theme in 1 Peter). What’s more, your church members will walk away knowing a section of Scripture better so that they can mine it for years to come.
Jamie Dunlop is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
(This article originally appeared in the January-February 2012 9Marks Journal.)