Interview: LifeWay Southern Baptist teacher David Francis about Sunday school, the strong program, by Peter Menkin


What is the prime difference in approach between youth and children, and where does it break? Will you tell us something of the “care and feeding of babies” in the Sunday school experience and approach? This seems unusual, that babies get religious education.

LifeWay is one of the few–if not the only–publisher that produces a line of Sunday school curriculum especially for babies. We believe strongly that that the preschool years are the most important in spiritual as well as physical, emotional, and intellectual development. If nothing else, babies can learn that church is a safe place to go and that people who care for me there love me and love Jesus. One of the Levels of Biblical Learning documents focuses on babies and what we believe they can learn about 8 basic biblical concepts.

What music do you use?

Think I answered that above. We have actually been pleasantly surprised at the success of the new Baptist Hymnal (also published under the name Worship Hymnal) which LifeWay Worship published just last year as the “hard goods” part of an ambitious next generation online platform called The Worship Project. This project promises to put great musical accompaniment at the fingertips of even the smallest church.

Why do you think Sunday school practice, that is the Sunday school itself as educational entity in the individual church is so high in the Southern Baptist church? I note the Wall Street Journal article says Sunday Schools are on the decline:

“Why Sunday Schools are Closing,” by Charlotte Hays says, “Fewer children are having that experience, though. Like West Olive United Methodist, many churches have drastically curtailed or given up entirely on Sunday school for children. Two years ago, Bruce Morrison, an official with the Missouri Baptist Convention, wrote about attending a “ministry conference where several denominations were represented.” During a break, he recalled, “I overheard a discussion between several of the attendees about the value of Sunday school in today’s culture. The implication was that Sunday school ministry in the local church is obsolete.”

Two responses, not in order: (1) I would recommend that a careful reader of the cited article read the comments posted in response to the online article. Some challenge the accuracy of the reporter’s conclusions. Enough said. (2) Sunday School–or more broadly, Bible study in age/life-stage appropriate groups–is just important to Southern Baptists.   Maybe it’s a cultural thing. A historical thing. And it is typically year-round. No summer break. Not just for kids while mom and dad go to worship. For the typical Southern Baptist church, the first two steps of its disciple-making process are worship and assimilation/foundational discipleship/fellowship/ministry through small group Bible study. As I note in the conclusion to an analysis conducted as a follow-up to the popular book Simple Church, “What could be simpler? Accomplishing the first two steps of your discipleship process, with every member of the family, on one trip to the church?!?” (Just Google “Sunday School in Simple Church” if you’d like to see the entire paper.)

I was interested to hear you say the worship experience is number one in the Sunday school experience. Will you say more about that and something of the role of the Sermon?

I think my point is the same as above: The worship service is the primary/first step in the discipleship process for most churches today. Sunday school used to be. In fact, Southern Baptist churches were not asked to report worship attendance until 1990, at which time average annual Sunday school attendance was 85% of reported worship attendance. That ratio has steadily declined to a about 2/3, with a typical Sunday finding 4 million people in Southern Baptist Sunday Schools and 6 million people in worship (including preschoolers being cared for during worship, children’s worship, any separate youth worship services, etc.).   That is still strong versus the same ratio in other denominations. (Assemblies of God and Nazarenes may give us a run for the money!) 

  Images: (1) Man at prayer. (2) Dramatic Praise “Chef” Chantéa Kirkwood and the LifeWay choir, led by LifeWay Worship Director Mike Harland, perform in “The Joy of Christmas,” LifeWay’s 2007 Christmas program. Photo by Kent Harville.  (3) Quiet white Snow creates a peaceful scene around Holcomb Auditorium at LifeWay’s Glorieta Conference Center outside Santa Fe, N.M. Photo by Kent Harville. (4) The preacher Billy Graham, April 4, 1966. This is a representational and popular photograph of the Reverend (Wikipedia has photo). He is currently 91 years old.  (5)  Gathered Dozens of men come forward to commit and rededicate their lives to Jesus Christ during an invitation offered at the Be the Man conference May 8-9, at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center. Photo by Kent Harville.  Photographs courtesy LifeWay. Slideshow photographs, courtesy LifeWay (Southern Baptist Church).

Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA (north of San Francisco).

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