Robert Raikes is known to be the father of the Sunday School movement. He believed that education was an effective tool to battle moral decline and determined to develop an experimental school to test his theory. Initially, he was legally barred from developing the school until England passed the Enabling Act in 1779. In 1780 he enlisted children from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds of Gloucester, England to be involved in his first Sunday School.
In 1785, two years after Great Britain had declared the thirteen original colonies a free and independent nation, the first Sunday School was started on this side of the Atlantic. William Elliott arranged to have the white boys and girls instructed in the Bible every Sabbath afternoon in his home. The Negro slaves were taught at another hour. In 1801 the school was transferred to the Burton-Oak Grove Methodist Church in Virginia and Elliott became its first superintendent.
Southern Baptists incorporated the Sunday School into their denomination in 1857. The greatest period of growth for Southern Baptist churches came between 1940-1960 which paralleled the growth of the Sunday School ministry in the local churches. Over the last quarter of the twentieth century Sunday School enrollment flattened among Southern Baptists and drastically declined in most denominations. This decline was traced to a decreased emphasis on evangelism in Sunday School and to an increased emphasis on the believer. During this time Southern Baptists continued to be leaders in providing Bible study curriculum materials for the Sunday School teaching ministries.
Thom Rainer’s study, Effective Evangelistic Churches, indicated that Sunday School can still play a major role in the growth and ministry of the church. I believe a church can benefit greatly by focusing on the five purposes of the church intentionally through the Sunday School. As a part of my doctoral ministry project at Mid America Baptist Theological Seminary, I led my church to focus on evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, worship, and ministry. Sunday School is an awesome place to focus on the Biblical purposes of the church. My project was called Incorporating Life Groups Into the Sunday School for Evangelism, Assimilation, and Care.
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