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FIRST-PERSON: What 'people groups' is your Sunday School reaching?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Robert Raikes is credited with starting the first Sunday School in Gloucester, England, in 1780. Its goal was simple: provide urban labor-class children the opportunity to learn to read and write using the Bible as the textbook. It became a national movement, which spread to -- and across -- North America by the 1790s. During its 200-year history, the idea of Sunday School has moved across the globe.


A missional Sunday School class and an international missionary have something in common: an assignment to reach a "people group." What people group is the mission of your class? Senior adult men? Empty nester married couples? Forty-something single adults? Nearly-weds and newlyweds? Parents? College students? High school boys? Middle school girls? Preteens? First-third graders? Preschoolers? Babies? A class with a missionary mentality thinks like a missionary, asking the question, "What can we do to serve and reach those within our community who fit our target people group?"

The basic idea behind this missionary strategy is simply to establish -- with as much clarity and specificity as possible -- who it is you want to reach. That is also the principle behind the time-tested model of an "age-graded" Sunday School. The principle is simply this: We will establish at least one open Bible study group for a person of any age. Most churches also age-grade school age children and students. Well, actually, they "grade-grade" them by their school grade or the one they just completed, regardless of age. Some churches have one department for all children while other churches have several departments for each grade. Likewise, students are assigned to classes based on school grade.



Many churches combine the concept of life-stage with the principle of age-grading. One church I visited had all adult classes identified by both life-stage and average age to help guests and those helping them discover the right class to try first. A perfect fit for us right now would be a class for "Empty Nesters" with an average age of 58. The benefits of such a system are: 1), providing multiple reference points, and 2), the ability to start new classes.

The same principle would apply to a class targeted at a specific affinity group (like medical professionals, law school students, motorcycle enthusiasts or even cowboys). Here's the key: You should be able to describe your class in a distinct enough way so that you clearly know what "people group" in your community is your responsibility to reach. It defines your mission, with a missionary mentality. You'll have a different strategy if your class is for "Nearlywed and Newlywed couples without children" than if your class is for "New Parents." If you want to meet your "people group" for the latter class, just go hang out in a baby food or diaper aisle!


There is an emerging trend that merits consideration in the people grouping conversation. After several decades of coed classes dominating the scene in Sunday morning classes and weekday small groups, single gender classes are making a comeback -- and not just among adults. One of the most consistently effective student Sunday Schools in the Southern Baptist Convention has for several years organized all its classes -- for both middle and high schoolers -- into separate classes for girls and boys.


A disturbing trend among Sunday School and small group ministries over the past couple of decades is the emphasis placed on adult groups. The Sunday School movement started with an emphasis on kids, with adult classes coming later, partly in response to the question, "What do we do with the adults while the kids are learning?" Today, unfortunately, that has switched. Sunday School needs to see a revival based on its missionary heritage: a history that has kids at its core.

The question I hear pastors wrestling with now is: "What do we do with the kids while the adults are enjoying their classes or small groups?" I think that's the wrong question. In North America, we have two generations left -- maybe -- before the near extinction of orthodox, church-centered Christianity we see happening in Europe sweeps our own continent. Will it make a difference if your church decides to build a Sunday School fueled by a missionary mentality and focused on kids and their families? I don't know. But I think it's worth a shot.

Whether you actually call it "Sunday School" or ascribe a different label in your church, will you consider enrolling with fresh fervor in this historic and effective missionary enterprise? It will require vibrant leadership, which is the topic of my column for March. If you want a sneak preview, you can download "Transformational Class" at


David Francis is director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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