RIDGECREST, N.C. — The Sunday School Leadership Conference at Lifeway Ridgecrest Conference Center this summer impacted people all over the world.
Pastors, ministers of education, state executives, deacons and Sunday school teachers gathered in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains to attend what Bruce Raley, director of leadership and evangelism at Lifeway Christian Resources, said was “likely the largest Sunday school weekend ever in our history.”
Those in attendance at Ridgecrest for the weekend of July 8-11 were only a fraction of those who participated in the event. According to Raley, an estimated 10,000 people were present via simulcast at the online Transformational Church training event.
The theme of this year’s Sunday School Leadership Conference — “Transformational Church Goes to Sunday School” — drew from the 2010 B&H Publishing Group release “Transformational Church,” a book co-authored by Lifeway President Thom S. Rainer and Ed Stetzer, Lifeway’s vice president for research and ministry development. The book, based on one of the most extensive research studies of the North American church, identifies the common attributes of churches that are “transformational” – those that change lives and communities on a regular basis.
The results of this study reveal the critical role of Bible study groups in transformational churches. David Francis, director of Sunday school for Lifeway and author of the Bible study “Transformational Class,” presented the study alongside a panel experts to thousands of viewers and audience members during a webcast at Ridgecrest.
During a diverse sampling of breakout sessions, leaders took attendees deeper with topics such as “Leadership in the Transformational Church,” “Mobilizing Your Sunday School Team,” “Creating an Environment for Transformational Teaching,” and “Empowering Preschoolers Toward Self-Discipline.”
History was a major theme for Chaun Anderson, minister of education of First Baptist Church of Palm Coast, Fla., who participated in a panel discussion during the Transformational Church webcast.
“Most things were invented to be a solution for a problem or a need in a certain people group,” Anderson explained. And Sunday school is no exception.
“Fire escapes were improved so that people can escape,” she said. “Likewise, Sunday school was invented to meet a need of a particular people group.”
The particular need was Great Commission discipleship for a nation still in its infancy.
According to Francis, the history of Sunday school is rooted in missional urgency. During a plenary session Francis recounted the structure of Sunday school unions that mobilized brave men and women who would be deployed into hard places on the American frontier for the sake of the gospel.
“We have a really romanticized view of the Midwest. The Wild West really was wild. This was not Little House on the Prairie,” Francis told a Spilman auditorium echoing with laughter.
Francis lauded the legacy of Sunday school missionary Stephen Paxson who in the mid-1800s started 13,000 Sunday schools that enrolled over 80,000 people. According to Francis, Stephen Paxson was a transformational Sunday school leader — someone who understood Sunday school as primarily centered on the mission of the church. “If you can even imagine it, maybe you are on the way to being a Sunday school missionary [like Paxson],” Francis said.
Francis built on the sermon series given by Tennessee Baptist State Convention leader Randy Davis which began with a charge to engage in the ministry of pastoral care in every Sunday school class.
According to Davis, the vision of Paxson and others for mission-driven Sunday school has been lost. “I believe that Sunday school is the greatest evangelistic tool Southern Baptists have ever embraced,” Davis said. “Would you let this year be the year that someone’s life is transformed in your class?”
“B.W. Spilman’s passion was to help churches start a Sunday school or strengthen one they already had,” Francis told attendees. B.W. Spilman, Ridgecrest’s founder and legendary Sunday school advocate, had a vision for training teachers to train other teachers. That vision is being lived today through the Transformational Church movement.
“The most important question to ask in a transformational Sunday school class is: ‘Have I reproduced me?'” Francis said.
by Devin Maddox