Training Programs: Sunday School, Small Groups

Throughout the New Testament, believers are warned of false doctrine and charged with the responsibility to make, train, and encourage disciples.  Jesus, after instructing the eleven disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” told them that they must also, “[teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20, ESV).  Too often it seems that preachers will preach on a passage and follow it up with an invitation for non-believers to accept Christ as Savior, right then and there; not after years of training to understand all that Jesus commanded those eleven disciples.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it is extremely limited in its training extent.  Therefore, it seems that the believer’s journey with the preacher or teacher is not done.  And if a Christian is to understand what is good and what is false doctrine, a process of biblical education is necessary.  Traditionally, disciples spent a lifetime listening to elders teach on the Scripture, and they (if they could read or had access to scriptures) would keep a regular routine of Bible reading.  Eventually, additional training programs were implemented, generally called "Sunday school."  In recent years among some churches, this training has shifted to a mid-week gathering in members’ homes.  Although the name (and the format) has changed, the principle remains—“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 29:20, ESV).

For the sake of brevity, only a brief offering of scripture will be offered here.  In Acts 17:11, Luke, the author, praises the brothers in Berea for “examining the Scriptures daily” (ESV).  Paul instructs Titus in Titus 1:9 that an elder or overseer “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it” (ESV).  To Timothy, Paul suggests that elders should be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2) and discern the difference between sound and false doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10, Timothy 6:3). In Ephesians 4, Paul suggests that a poor understanding of doctrine is like a child “tossed to and fro by the waves” (Ephesians 4:14, ESV). Training is expected of the members of the Church, as Paul sees teaching as a gift given by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28); and it is a reasonable assumption that in teaching, he means teaching the Word of God and sound doctrine.  And remember, Jesus warns that false prophets will come in sheep’s clothing, but will be recognized by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-16). It is clear even from these few selected passages that the Church must understand correct doctrine and to do so requires teaching from those able and spiritually gifted to teach. In the modern church, Sunday school programs and small groups fill this role, in part.

W. A. Criswell sees Sunday school programs as an evangelistic tool. He writes of Sunday school, “This is the great outreaching arm of the church. This is our primary instrument of visitation, soul-wining, and Bible teaching” (Criswell 1980, 176). While this may have been true some years ago, and it might be (or was) happening in Criswell’s church, my observations in my area suggest something different.  And based on the Scripture provided above, evangelism and training differ in that one is a starting point and the other is lifetime of teaching and learning.

In the church today, Sunday school and home group programs serve to build up the body.  As members learn the teaching of the Bible, they grow.  As they grow, they tend to become bold.  As they understand the gospel and doctrines of the Bible, and as they become bold, they become powerful evangelists in their circles of influence, such as in their places of work and circle of non-believing friends.  It is in this way that Sunday school programs and small groups strengthen evangelist work.  But that is not where it should end.  Leaders do have a responsibility to build up the believers.  Sunday school programs and small groups are also are inline with the scriptures directing members to know doctrine.  Classes, taught by believers that are gifted with the ability to teach, help build the foundation, under girding, and framework that the Holy Spirit uses to bring about spiritual formation in the lives of the believes.  Therefore, Sunday school is a natural extension of Jesus’ instruction to teach all that he commanded.

Criswell, W.A. Criswell's Guidebook for Pastors. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman Press, 1980.

* I have no material connection to this book. This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website. 

** Photo taken by Flickr user Old Shoe Woman and is registered under  Creative Commons License.