Sunday school in many churches has become a time of fellowship for believers, studying the Bible and caring for each other.
Many of us are missing some very important components; Sunday school was birthed out of an experience of missions, social ministry and evangelism around 1890 by Robert Raikes in Great Britain.
He discovered that many children from poor families had to work during the week instead of going to school. He also noticed that many needed clothing and food.
To address these needs, Raikes began a “Sabbath School” to teach people how to read, provide social ministry and help them read the Bible to discover the gospel for themselves.
Evangelism was essential as part of the original Sunday school in North America around the time Raikes was beginning Sunday school in Great Britain. We have lost the missionary and evangelistic fervor of the Sunday school movement.
Today’s culture needs to retool in understanding the importance of evangelism and how to share the gospel in more effective ways.
Though the street preacher may win a few to Christ, building relationships with people who are not Christians is essential in this day and time.
Reading George Hunter’s book, “The Celtic Way of Evangelism,” is a great place to start in seeking to understand the cultural shift and effectiveness of evangelism for today.
According to Hunter, the typical church today is similar to the Roman church in the time of Saint Patrick (the early fifth century A.D.), in that it ignores two populations:
1. The people who aren’t “refined” enough to feel comfortable with us.
2. The people who are too “out of control” for us to feel comfortable with them.
To put it another way, many church people today are like Jonah from the Bible in that they assume the “Ninevites” do not deserve God.
The Roman model for evangelism consisted of presenting the Christian message, inviting people to decide to believe in Christ and welcoming them into the church and its fellowship if they decided positively – similar to the Western church in the modern era.
The Celtic model for evangelism, on the other hand, took this in pretty much the opposite order, allowing people to belong before they believed.
In other words, the first step was to establish community or bring them into the fellowship of the community of faith. Then, within the fellowship, the next step was to engage in conversation, ministry, prayer and worship.
Finally, in time, as they discovered that they now believed, they were invited to commit themselves.
The supreme key to reaching the West again is the key that Patrick discovered – involuntarily but providentially.
As Hunter explains, “The gulf between churched people and unchurched people is vast, but if we pay the price to understand them, we will usually know what to say and what to do; if they know and feel that we understand them, by the tens of millions they will risk opening their hearts to the God who understands them.”
Brian McLaren makes a similar point in his book, “More Ready Than You Think,” writing, “Postmodern evangelism is relational. In essence, Christians are converted first in authentic spiritual friendship. Good evangelists are people who engage others in good conversation about faith, values, hope, meaning, purpose, goodness, beauty, truth, life after death, life before death and God.”
He continues, “Good evangelism is the process of being friendly without discrimination and influencing all of one’s friends toward better living, through good deeds and good conversations. Engaging in spiritual friendship will not only help others become Christians, it will help us become better Christians, who love God more than ever.”
For Sunday school to move forward in evangelism, it must be about building nonjudgmental relationships with people in our community, understanding their realities and helping them see a God who loves them and wants to provide an abundant life.
Tony Brooks is the Baptist General Association of Virginia’s (BGAV’s) Sunday school / discipleship specialist and field strategist for the southside region. A version of this article first appeared on the BGAV blog and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his blog, and you can follow him on Twitter @TonyBrooks7.