By Don Anderson
Many churches today are renewing their emphasis on discipleship, including adding or redesigning programs to enhance their discipleship ministries. Some others are hiring staff to lead this renewed emphasis. Regular Baptist Churches also promotes it, as reflected in the tagline coined by National Representative Mike Hess: “making disciples through healthy local churches.”
Discipleship is a Biblical command. In Matthew 28:19 the Lord Jesus instructed His followers to “make disciples of all the nations.” So, any effort churches make in the area of discipleship is welcome. However, in the flurry of interest and activity for discipleship programs, churches may overlook the strongest discipleship ministry they already have—the Sunday School.
The Relationship between Discipleship and Sunday School
Sunday School and discipleship are closely related in at least two ways. First, several Scriptures connect discipleship to Bible teaching, which makes Bible teaching the basis for discipleship. Note the references to disciples, teaching, God’s Word, and maturity in the following verses:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20).
“Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” (John 8:31–32).
“Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Col. 1:28).
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6–7).
This connection of discipleship to Bible teaching indicates that there can be no true discipleship without strong and regular Bible teaching.
Second, Sunday School is the strongest, most comprehensive Bible teaching ministry available to a church today. While a church may have several Bible teaching ministries, all of which are important, Sunday School should be its strongest teaching ministry, because it has a class for every age, meets every week of the year, and, depending on the curriculum, covers the entire Bible.
Since discipleship is predicated on Bible teaching and Sunday School can be a church’s strongest, most comprehensive Bible teaching program, Sunday School can also be the strongest discipleship program. While a church may choose to add other discipleship programs and emphases, Sunday School is the bedrock or foundation of discipleship. I like to think of Sunday School as the front line of discipleship.
Sunday School’s Effectiveness in Discipleship
Sunday School is an effective discipleship ministry because it includes all the components for discipleship and the most comprehensive format.
An effective discipleship program involves three components: a mature leader (a discipler), a small group of people (disciples), and a Bible teaching program. Sunday School has all three.
First, discipleship requires older, mature leaders who can disciple, or mentor, others. A church’s Sunday School already has a number of disciplers ready to go. They are called teachers. The church does not need to look for other disciplers, for teachers are already in place and are usually the older, more mature Christians equipped to disciple others toward spiritual maturity.
Discipleship also involves another person or a small group of people. Each class in Sunday School—from the 2s & 3s to Adult—is a church’s ready-made small discipleship group. The church does not have to find people to disciple; they already come every week to Sunday School. Admittedly not every student is a willing disciple, but Sunday School still affords the opportunity for discipleship.
And finally, since discipleship is based on Bible teaching (cf. Matt. 28:19–20), churches need a comprehensive Bible teaching curriculum. The regular Sunday School curriculum a church uses provides the Bible teaching program to disciple students. No other Bible teaching materials are required.
Sometimes churches initiate a discipleship program, but in their Sunday Schools they already have everything they need for discipleship without adding more people and programs. These three components—discipler, disciples, and curriculum—are present in other Bible teaching ministries as well. So what makes Sunday School more effective? Sunday School has a more comprehensive format than other discipleship ministries.
Let’s return to the three reasons Sunday School is a church’s strongest teaching ministry to see why Sunday School offers the most comprehensive format for discipleship.
Sunday School has a class for every age. Discipleship programs in churches today often focus on adults and perhaps youth, but they really should encompass all ages. Only Sunday School provides a class for all ages, making it such an effective discipleship tool. Sunday School classes are also usually smaller groups of students, which gives the teacher (discipler) an opportunity for more personal work with the students (disicples).
Sunday School meets every week of the year. True discipleship is not a three-month course but should be an ongoing, lifelong process. When Christ stated that making disciples involves “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20), He did not place any time limits on this teaching. Sunday School is the only Bible teaching ministry that meets every week of the year. This regularity, plus consistent contact with students, can make Sunday School an effective discipleship ministry.
Sunday School covers the entire Bible. A church should consider what kind of Bible teaching program it needs to help people become disciples. Is looking only at some key passages from the Bible enough? That kind of Bible study may be helpful for new believers, but growing to maturity necessitates a study of the entire Bible. Second Timothy 3:16–17 states that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (ESV). The last part of this passage is a clear description of discipleship, which can come about only from studying “all Scripture.”
A thorough discipleship program needs to cover the entire Bible, which is something only the Sunday School can do. This “whole counsel of God” approach is a hallmark of Regular Baptist Press curriculum, which makes RBP materials the ideal choice for discipleship.
Leaders’ Role in Promoting Discipleship through Sunday School
Since Sunday School can be a church’s strongest and most comprehensive discipleship ministry, how can a church’s leadership make the most of it?
Promote Sunday School
A church can promote Sunday School in a variety of ways, but it must start with the pastor and church leaders. Their commitment to promoting Sunday School will permeate the whole church. When you promote Sunday School, you are promoting and strengthening discipleship.
Help teachers realize they are disciplers
Sunday School teachers need to realize they are more than “just a teacher.” They play a vital role in their church’s total discipleship ministry. Pastors and church leaders should take steps to help teachers think of themselves as disciplers. This concept should start during teacher recruitment so that from the beginning teachers have the right perspective on their role.
Sunday School is not the only discipleship ministry a church can utilize. Churches can certainly add other ministries and classes to enhance discipleship, especially with new believers. But I believe Sunday School should be considered the foundation for all discipleship ministries. It is the front line of discipleship, and everything else builds on it.
Don Anderson (ThM, Grace Theological Seminary) is an assistant editor for Regular Baptist Press. He has written Improving Your Sunday School and Success in Bible Teaching, both published by Regular Baptist Press.