sn't Sunday school for people only after they become believers?
Are unbelievers really interested in Bible study? And how can a church attract
unbelievers in the first place?
As On Mission talked with churches about evangelism and Sunday
school, it became clear that methodologies and philosophies vary from the
go-with-the flow method to the highly structured. Although we can learn from
their examples, in the end maybe the most important thing is not how these
churches are reaching people in and through their Sunday schools but that
Following the North Star
With its skyrocketing church growth--zero to more than 1,700 in two
years--the North Star Church of Kennesaw, Georgia, has a backlog of new
believers waiting to be baptized. The church plant meets in the North Cobb High
School with three morning services now and four planned for the fall. To
baptize new believers, the church has to use a pool at a sports center. Each
baptism service includes 30 to 70 new converts. And, according to Teaching
Pastor Terry Nelson, many of the new converts come in by way of the Sunday
Because of their everything-starts-at-pre-school philosophy and because they
have more than 900-plus children and students on Sunday morning, the church
staff decided not to provide too many adult classes where potential children's
workers could relax and hide. Instead, they provide a few Bible-focused classes
addressing adult life stages. Terry explains that these large classes, such as
the one he teaches, don't involve lectures but questions and principles
discussed in a non-threatening atmosphere. They are ideal for unbelievers.
"They can come and be anonymous," says Terry. "We don't put pressure on
people to fill out forms so we can knock on their doors and give them the
typical church treatment. Lost people are going to be challenged. They're going
to hear the gospel, undiluted, in a way they can take at their own pace.
"We had a Jewish woman who started coming with her family. She'd heard that
we studied the Bible. One particular Sunday we were talking about the Jews and
She raised her hand and said, 'I'm Jewish; my family's Jewish.' My response
to her was, 'That's great.
It's just incredible that you're here. Tell us a little about that.' I said
that so she wouldn't feel ostracized or different. She and her family
eventually came to know Christ and were baptized this summer."
Terry admits that North Star's Sunday school outreach is different from that
of many churches and even different from those he had experienced before. He
had previously served at a church which put great emphasis on Evangelism
Explosion. But when the North Star church staff initially studied the
community, they found that local people would not respond to having strangers
knock on their door at night, particularly in the winter months.
"So we try to be friendly to their schedules and their dislikes," he says.
"Our folks are vocal about sharing the message of the gospel with them and
bringing them to class. In the future we will have to become more deliberate in
training our folks to share the gospel, but right now [with space and facility
limitations] we are logistically just trying to hang on as we continue to see
people come here."
Making the connection
All children are at one time unbelievers, but they're often easier to reach
than adults who have grown hardened or cynical. One study shows that 85 percent
of adult Christians came to Christ before age 18. That's one of the reasons
evangelism in and through Sunday school is so important to Dixie Swezey, who
has been the children's minister of the Quail Springs Baptist Church in
Oklahoma City for four years.
"As part of our training of the teachers," Dixie says, "we talk with them
about the approximate age that children will start asking questions such as,
'What is sin?'
or 'Am I a Christian?' Teachers' promotion lists at the beginning of the
Sunday school year show which children have already made professions of faith
and been baptized. That gives them an idea of where the children are. [Several
times a year] we have an evangelistic appeal for children who are in third
grade or older."
To reach unchurched children Dixie includes children in a prospect
visitation plan that is implemented quarterly: "In Sunday school the children are invited to prepare a
packet of materials for a friend they are concerned about. The teachers go with
them. Sometimes we do it on Saturday morning. Sometimes on Friday evening we
make a party out of it."
Dixie has just-for-fun activities to attract children to the church. "I use
B.A.F.--bring a friend--for everything we do," she says. "You have to plan
events that are good enough that the children won't be embarrassed to bring
their friends. My daughter brought a little friend with her to our Fall
Festival. While she was here, the friend, who hadn't been to church before,
asked, 'What do you do here in all these rooms?' Erin was able to tell her what
we do and why we do it."
So what are they doing in Sunday school? Dixie answers, "We are trying to
lay a foundation in children's ministry so that children make the decision [to
accept Christ as Savior] naturally at the point when the Holy Spirit begins to
lead in their heart."
Although Darrin Brown, singles minister of the Southcliff Baptist Church in
Fort Worth, Texas, is dealing with an older group than Dixie's, he also uses
some just-for-fun outreaches to help bring non-Christians into Sunday school
classes. The singles ministry hosts two major evangelistic events each year to
which singles are encouraged to bring unbelieving friends and co-workers: a
catered barbecue dinner and square dance. Creative outreach is needed, Darrin
says, "because Sunday school has lost its purpose to reach out. If somebody new
comes, most likely it's a Christian. It's rare for a non-Christian to come to
He makes sure that none of his singles classes are "closed classes,"
immersed in a heavy discipleship study. At Southcliff, singles use the Explore
the Bible series partly because of the ease with which new members can join the
study at any time.
"All our programs are done with the intent to share Christ. We're going to
begin some classes this fall for new believers," Darrin says. He adds that he
and several members of each class will soon be involved in F.A.I.T.H.
training--an evangelism outreach that could help his church fill even more of
those new believer classes (see "Moving
from F.A.I.T.H. to faith," ).
Sharing the secrets
Marty Godfrey is minister of education at Eastside Baptist Church, Marietta,
Georgia, a church of about 6,000 members. Before he became a minister three
years ago, Marty was involved in teaching classes as a layman for 18 years.
When his classes grew to about 100, new classes were started from them. Because
God prepared him--by letting him "see life from both sides"--Marty has a
somewhat different approach to teaching non-Christians.
To begin with, Marty doesn't recommend any particular curriculum: "We've
found that people want to know that the Bible is relevant to their lives.
Instead of teaching 80 percent content and 20 percent application, you almost
teach 20 percent content and 80 percent application.
"We don't do any different teaching for the lost than we do for the saved
because the teacher is not [just] teaching a lesson. The teacher's job is to
teach the class members--to see them grow, to see lives change. I believe
through the Holy Spirit a Bible study can be led that can feed people at
different levels. For lost folks to come in and see that the Bible is making a
difference in people's lives really communicates to them."
As he's experimented with having non-Christians and new believers in classes
by themselves so the material can be tailored to them, he's decided that isn't
the best way.
"I've found that new believers grow faster and non-Christians are drawn to
Christ more quickly when you put them in a class where there is a mixture of
mature Christians and new Christians. They are rubbing shoulders with those
people whose faith has grown," said Marty.
If your church is growing and doing a good job of reaching out to your
community, then there's a good chance that some of the people in your building
each Sunday are still not quite sure about their relationship with God. My
wife, Linda, and I attend a church located in the one of America's
fastest-growing counties. Each week we worship with people who have just about
every kind of church background you can imagine and many who had no church
experience. That's why, when we partnered with another couple to begin a Sunday
morning Bible study, we wanted to offer something different.
Our church already had plenty of studies for Christians who were maturing in
their walk and digging deeper into the Word. We wanted to create a class for
people who were new to the faith or who were still at the "just checking things
Before we started looking for members we looked for the right curriculum. We
wanted to find something that would connect with people on an emotional and
practical level. We also wanted something with a contemporary
design that dealt with cutting-edge issues. We selected TouchPOINTS,
produced by LifeWay Christian Resources.
TouchPOINTS deals with topics such as life at work, family crises,
real friendship, finances, broken relationships and true happiness. Each lesson
contains two worksheets, one with an icebreaker or discussion-starter exercise
and the other with the lesson's Bible passage. We especially liked the idea of
pre-printing copies of each lesson's scripture. We did not want to embarrass
attendees who might not know where to find a particular Bible passage or those
who didn't bring a Bible at all.
There were other ways we worked to create a relaxed atmosphere in the class.
Our teaching style was conversational and discussion-based, not a lecture
format. We served snacks, coffee and juice every time the class met. We started
each lesson with an icebreaker that encouraged group discussion about a
comfortable topic. We made sure that incorrect answers were set straight, but
we tried to do it in a way that didn't embarrass anyone.
After choosing a curriculum we started promoting the class to our target
audience. We placed a flier in the church bulletin for three weeks leading up
to our class launch. We didn't want to steal people from existing Sunday
morning Bible studies, so our flier specifically stated that this new group was
for people not currently involved in a class. Our church secretary helped us
pull together a mailing list of the adults who regularly attended worship
service but weren't involved in a Sunday school class. We prayed that God would
bring those to he class He wanted there and that we would be open to the work
He was doing in all of our lives.
We were pleasantly surprised the first Sunday when about a dozen people
showed up for the class. None of them had recently been involved in a Sunday
morning Bible study, and several were either brand new Christians or still
exploring Christianity. By returning week after week to this environment, our
new class members began to feel like they had found a home in our church. It
was encouraging to watch the spiritual growth that took place as class members
saw the relevance of God's Word. And it was even more exciting when one member
realized her need for a relationship with Christ and invited Him into her
To order TouchPOINTS call 800-448-8032 or your local LifeWay
However desirable they may be, classes with a mixture of Christians and
non-Christians present a real challenge to the teacher. Marty points out that
teachers of such classes will invariably be stretched and will grow because
"members blurt out questions, about eternal security or whatever. Teachers need
to think about how to explain that, to figure out not only how to help these
people come to know Christ but to grow in their faith. As class members share
life experiences in class, [the members] help teach, and they begin to
understand more how to reach unchurched folks and how to talk to them. It's a
If there's a secret ingredient that is necessary, Marty believes it is this:
"If a teacher does not have a heart to reach the lost, just training them how
to teach more effectively --what to say and what not to say --does little
Evidently many Sunday school teachers at Marty's church have the desire to
reach the lost.
Recently a teacher felt impressed to give an opportunity in class for people
to pray to receive Christ by responding to a brief explanation of the gospel.
Eight people did so that morning.
There is not only a secret to success but a secret to failure. Marty
explains, "I've found that most seeker-sensitive ministries that fail [do so]
because they're trying to replicate a model. Scores of churches have tried to
replicate Willow Creek's model for reaching the lost. The reason it is so
difficult to replicate is that the secret is not in the model, it's in the
passion for reaching lost people.
"If our faith is genuine, then we ought to be reaching people. It has to
start with the heart. I'm convinced that Sunday school is where relationships
are, and therefore it is the perfect place for evangelism. That's my
Don'tuse spiritual terms such as eschatological
(even if you can pronounce it) or "saved." ("Saved from what?")
Don'tuse the royal "we all." (Although Christians
agree on the foundations of our faith, "we all" in the larger Christian
community differ on a few things. Avoid alienating non-Christians over
Don'tcriticize other denominations. (If you do,
without fail, their whole family will be in that denomination.)
Don'tput students on the spot by asking them to
read or comment unless they have made it clear they don't mind. (If you make
them uncomfortable in your class, they won't be back.)
Don'tleave non-Christians fumbling through the
pages of their Bible in embarrassment. (Provide pre-printed copies of your
Don'task a non-Christian to pray in
Dobring the point of discussions back to our need
for Christ (not our need to act or behave in certain ways).
Domake it known that everyone is welcomed and
Vicki Huffman is a freelance writer and editor in Mount Juliet, a suburb
of Nashville, Tennessee. She is the winner of two Amy Writing Awards, has
edited three publications and authored two books. She is a columnist for
the Amy Syndicate.
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