Pastors, ministers of education, state executives, deacons and Sunday School teachers traveled to the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains for the sessions at the LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center.
But they were only a fraction of the participants, with Raley estimating that 10,000 people were present via simulcast for the online training event.
The theme of this year's Sunday School Leadership Conference -- "Transformational Church Goes to Sunday School" -- drew from a 2010 release from LifeWay's B&H Publishing Group, "Transformational Church," coauthored by LifeWay President Thom S. Rainer and Ed Stetzer, LifeWay's vice president for research and ministry development.
The book, based on one of the most extensive research studies of the North American church, identifies common attributes of churches that are "transformational" -- those that change lives and communities on a regular basis.
The results of the study underscore the critical role of Bible study groups in transformational churches. David Francis, director of Sunday School for LifeWay and author of the Bible study "Transformational Class," presented the research alongside a panel experts to the Ridgecrest attendees and thousands of viewers during a simulcast.
In a range of breakout sessions, leaders explored such topics as "Leadership in the Transformational Church," "Mobilizing Your Sunday School Team," "Creating an Environment for Transformational Teaching" and "Empowering Preschoolers Toward Self-Discipline" during the July 8-11 gathering.
History was a major theme for Chaun Anderson, minister of education of First Baptist Church in Palm Coast, Fla., who participated in a panel discussion during the webcast.
"Most things were invented to be a solution for a problem or a need in a certain people group," she explained, noting that Sunday School is no exception.
"Fire escapes were improved so that people can escape," Anderson said. "Likewise, Sunday School was invented to meet a need of a particular people group" -- Great Commission discipleship for a nation still in its infancy.
The history of Sunday School is rooted in missional urgency, Francis noted, recounting in a plenary session the structure of Sunday School unions that mobilized brave men and women who would be deployed into hard places on the American frontier for the sake of the Gospel.
"We have a really romanticized view of the Midwest. The Wild West really was wild. This was not Little House on the Prairie," Francis told a Spilman auditorium echoing with laughter.
Francis lauded the legacy of Sunday School missionary Stephen Paxson who in the mid-1800s started 13,000 Sunday Schools that enrolled over 80,000 people. Paxson was a transformational Sunday School leader -- someone who understood Sunday School as primarily centered on the mission of the church, Francis said.
"If you can even imagine it, maybe you are on the way to being a Sunday School missionary ," Francis suggested.
Francis built on a sermon series by Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, which began with a charge to engage in the ministry of pastoral care in every Sunday School class.
The vision of Paxson and others for mission-driven Sunday School has been lost, Davis lamented. "I believe that Sunday School is the greatest evangelistic tool Southern Baptists have ever embraced," he said. "Would you let this year be the year that someone's life is transformed in your class?"
The passion of B.W. Spilman, for whom the Ridgecrest auditorium is named, was to help churches start a Sunday School or strengthen one they already had," Francis told attendees. Spilman -- Ridgecrest's founder and legendary Sunday School advocate -- had a vision for training teachers to train other teachers, a vision continuing today through the Transformational Church movement.
"The most important question to ask in a transformational Sunday School class is: 'Have I reproduced me?'" Francis said.
Sunday School Leadership Conference 2012 will be July 20-23 at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center. For more information, visit RidgecrestConferenceCenter.org.
Devin Maddox is an internal communications specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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