It's a crucial question, said Art Groomes, one of the speakers at the National Black Sunday School Conference sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
About 250 pastors, church Sunday School directors, leaders and teachers from across the United States -- and even one from Bermuda -- attended the sessions at LifeWay's home office in Nashville, Tenn.
Groomes, bivocational pastor of First Family Baptist Church in Antioch, Tenn., underscored the importance of great expectations for Sunday School in sessions he led for conference veterans.
"People of faith need to be people of great expectations," Groomes said. In their Sunday Schools, he said, they should "expect new people every week; expect people to say 'yes' when asked to participate; and expect classes to grow and reproduce as every healthy thing does."
Achieving great expectations entails planning for good things to happen, especially having teachers who are prepared with the lesson, Groomes said.
"You never know when someone will show up for the very first time to Sunday School, someone you never expected to see," he said. "You have to have thought it through before they get there. Is there fresh coffee made? Are there enough chairs? Are there people there to greet them? Are there enough books and extra Bibles? Are there people who will ask them to sit with them?"
Follow-up also is crucial, Groomes said.
"Follow up with a phone call or visit that very day," he said. "At least don't let it be more than a couple of days. Answer their questions. Ask them to join you for a meal.
"For many new people in Sunday School, it's never as much about the place as it is about relationships," Groomes said. "Help them feel like Sunday School is a safe place, a place they are wanted, a place they are loved."
Elgia "Jay" Wells, director of LifeWay's black church relations area, told the leaders that Sunday School is the best way to help people get involved in a church.
"They come into your Sunday School and you ... let them know they are welcome and important," Wells said. "They like that. Then, you invite them to your worship service where the pastor supports the Sunday School."
Wells introduced Mark Croston Sr., pastor of East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va., calling him a Sunday School-loving pastor.
"If you want to see what a Sunday School pastor looks like, look at Mark Croston," Wells said.
Croston, reiterating that Sunday School is where relationships are formed, encouraged participants to look for people who are wounded and carrying guilt and shame.
"Time doesn't necessarily heal all wounds," Croston said. "Sometimes the wounds are self-inflicted. Sometimes they fester because we don't appropriately deal with them. At the same time, sometimes guilt can just weigh us down. We groan; we're weak. We feel completely overwhelmed by our sin."
Sunday School leaders and members can offer the touch that helps healing begin, Croston said. "Just love on these people," he said. "Help them out."
Participants at the Oct. 22-23 conference had the opportunity to choose from 35 sessions in addition to a large group track for conference veterans and one for new attendees.
Topics included the nuts and bolts of choosing effective Bible study curricula for Sunday School classes; learning how to teach for transformation; age-specific helps on teens in Sunday School; media technology; and developing an effective adult outreach team.
A Good Sunday school curriculum is an important means to an end for teaching people to become followers of Christ, but the Bible is the textbook.
David Francis, director of Sunday School at LifeWay, in leading a session on "Teaching for Life Change," highlighted three facets of teaching in a way that leads to life change in individuals, "three intertwined facets are part of every great Bible study experience":
1) Scripture: "The Bible is the textbook for our Sunday Schools," Francis said, while curriculum is a means to teaching the Bible in a comprehensive, focused and theologically appropriate way.
"The key to discovery teaching and learning is asking questions," Francis added. "Asking questions is a learning method that is appropriate for all ages and learning styles."
2) Story: "People don't just 'have' a story; they 'are' a story," Francis said, noting that stories help connect experience with Scripture.
"To discover someone's story, ask 'What's your story? How does your story intersect with God's story?'"
Jesus is the perfect example of a storyteller, Francis noted. "If you look at how He answered questions, many times it was not with a direct answer, but with a story, a parable. This led people to discover the answer to their own questions."
3) Shepherding: People need to be led; there is security in knowing that someone is looking out for them, Francis said, describing shepherding as the 24/7/365 ministry of Sunday School.
"As a Sunday School teacher or leader, you need to know your sheep, your flock," he said. "Just like the Good Shepherd, you may have to go out of your way to locate a missing one."
Free downloads for Sunday School leaders and teachers are available at LifeWay.com/SundaySchool. Next year's National Black Sunday School Conference will be Oct. 28-29 at LifeWay in Nashville.
Polly House is a corporate communications specialist with LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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