Interview: Theology Professor tells about cell groups and Sunday schools in Southern Baptist Church
by Peter Menkin
We talked by phone of the design of the Southern Baptist Church, and I note that it is comprised of more classroom and educational setting than worship space. That isn’t to say worship space is small. We also talked about cell groups, a recent phenomenon of Sunday school where people gather to study scripture and other related Church matters in a small group, sometimes in a home setting.
Will you tell me something of the beginnings of this “movement” in the Southern Baptist Church, and how it has grasped the imagination of Church goers?
Southern Baptists were formed in 1845 around values of winning souls, educating and training members for effective Christian living and service in the US and around the world. In 1909, a man named Arthur Flake was recruited from Mississippi to work for the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville. At that time, there were about a million persons in Southern Baptist Sunday schools. In forty years, that number would grow to six million and well beyond. Some of this growth was due to a book Flake wrote entitled How to Build a Standard Sunday School, which was studied by over a million Southern Baptist workers. This book taught Flake’s famous five-fold formula for Sunday school growth:
1) Know the possibilities,
2) Enlarge the organization,
3) Enlist and train leaders,
4) Expand the space, and
5) Go after the people. Southern Baptist pastors often recited the Flake mantra that “the formula works only if you work the formula!”
Who came up with the Cell Sunday School, or small group, and how have Sunday School students of various ages responded to this?
Can you tell us where in the Bay Area or even California or the U.S. where this is more popular, and something of the character of the Southern Baptist Church that takes this methodology of direction.
(I know, methodology is a big word, so if you want to provide an example to help take it out of the professional level that only the Sunday School teacher really grasps, please do. Or do most Southern Baptists grasp this Small Group or Cell Group Sunday School method today?)
Southern Baptist innovative pastor Ralph Neighbour Jr. first brought cell groups to the attention of SBC churches. He studied the tremendous growth of cell group churches in Korean and published a book called “Where Do we Go from Here?” He later backed away from the argumentative tone of the book, which really argued that cell groups and Sunday school were incompatible in the same church. His book lays out the principles and best practices for starting and multiplying cell churches.
The attraction for Southern Baptists for the cell or small group method has been fourfold. First, Southern Baptists are pragmatists and love to look into if not imitate what’s successful. It’s hard to argue with the success of the Yoida Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea with its near 800,000 well disciple members.
That church is based on cell groups.
Second, Baptists love what’s biblical. They want to be “New Testament churches.” The cell group or house church appears to be the norm for the spread of Christianity in the first century through the ministry of the apostles and other early missionaries.
Cell groups look more like those New Testament house churches than do Sunday School classes on church property, so many SBC churches are moving in that direction.
Third, buildings cost so it is more cost effective and less limiting to growth to simply have cells meet in homes.
Fourth, people wanting to explore Christianity are thought to be more comfortable in a home of a friend as opposed to a classroom on church property. So many SBC leaders believe that cell or small groups meeting in homes is the better way of reaching new people with the gospel.
The education of a Southern Baptist starts in the baby years, and goes through childhood to adulthood, a Discipleship program of some magnitude in conception, and thought out in a curriculum and almost systematic consideration for periods of human development. So I understand in my conversations with various people in the Church who are knowledgeable in the training and education of members, including the education of ministers. You educate ministers at Golden Gate Baptist Seminary located just north of San Francisco in Mill Valley.
As one knowledgeable in such, will you talk a little in this email correspondence about how this helps to make Southern Baptists the “Sunday School Church,” and talk a little of the emphasis for each age range in what they study or look to learn about. Please say something of the Biblical imperative, and the evangelical imperative of the Southern Baptist, if you will.
Southern Baptists (SBs) made their Sunday Schools a center for both evangelism and discipleship and built their campuses accordingly with educational space for all ages equal to or greater than worship space.
To assist this focus of the churches, the Baptist Sunday School Board (now called LifeWay Resources) publishes age-graded Bible teaching literature organized around a cyclical curriculum to cover the sixty-six books of the Bible over a five year period.
SBs were and are serious about sharing the gospel and its implications through the Sunday school and small groups. Most Sunday school leaders are trained to be aware of developmental issues at the formative stages of human development and how the gospel and knowledge of Scripture is best acquired and applied at that stage.
Churches receive coaching and training from their local or state networks called associations at the area level and conventions of churches at the state level. Most of these training events are led by women and men trained in education ministry and human development at one of the many Southern Baptist colleges or six Southern Baptist seminaries for graduate theological education and ministry training.
Most Southern Baptist pastors have a “heart for souls” meaning that they believe God’s Spirit works in the hearts of persons who receive a clear presentation of God’s love and so are drawn into a personal and enduring walk with God.
SBs believe that the mission of Jesus as God’s Son was to remove any barrier to relationship with the holy and loving God through His sacrifice on the cross outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago. It is the Spirit’s work to make that event current as conviction and commitment in lives today.
Southern Baptists are the most self-critical when it comes to whether or not people are being baptized and new churches are being started.
How can a baby go to Sunday School, or a small child? What does this mean for the baby or child?
Infants and young children go to Sunday School as brought by their parents. They learn experientially that church is a safe, loving and interesting environment. They hear music and songs of Jesus and this lays down a rich positive affective memory for their later development as they become more abstract thinkers and are able to read and learn in primary school.
The Sunday school is a large part of Christian life in the Southern Baptist Church. Please let us know why is there so much time spent on Biblical study, and how does a child get to be introduced to the Bible? Can you tell us what you tell the Sunday school Ministers what it is in Christian formation that is key to Sunday school for adult disciples and young people. Tell us, too, what is new in the life of young people in their Christian education. I understand from what I’ve been told this can mean going into the world in a missionary way to help others. What is the lesson here, and what is the need for this for a member in his religious life as a member of the Church?
One of the more interesting changes that is occurring in Sunday School and small group ministry among SBs is the movement, from students to adults, to practice “what we preach” by going on mission locally, regionally, nationally or internationally to show and share the good news.
Teenagers, college students and committed adult adults in many SBC churches regularly build homes and churches, aid at disaster relief sites, conduct training conferences related to health, life and Scripture, and conduct soccer and basketball camps.
This has become so effective that 80% of all meals cooked at Red Cross Disaster Sites are cooked by Southern Baptist volunteers. In preparation for these mission events, the volunteers are trained in personal spiritual formation.
Often called “having a quiet time,” SBs are taught and exhorted to spend time with and for God each day. Many practice the spiritual rule of well known SB evangelist, Billy Graham, “fifteen minutes a day to listen to God (read the Bible), fifteen minutes to talk with God (prayer) and fifteen minutes a day to talk with people about God (gospel evangelism).
Because SBs believe in regenerate church membership (you must have been converted to be a member) and in priesthood of the believers (all members are ministers together), pew sitting in not enough. And the key instrument for mobilizing the members into ministry has been the Sunday school.
What is the role of the Sunday School teacher or staff member in the experience of practicing what is preached?
Church leaders, whether Sunday School teachers or staff members, are the early adapters and eager interpreters of the Sunday sermons. Sometimes the subject of discussion during Sunday School is the sermon. In those instances the teacher leads the members in thinking through the implications and applications from the morning message.
About Rick Durst, who answered the questions in this interview:
Director of eCampus
Professor of Historical Theology
Ph.D. Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary
M.Div. Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary
B.A. California Baptist College
Dr. Rodrick Durst has served as faculty and administration at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary since 1991. He served eleven years as the Vice President of Academic Affairs and, prior to that, three years as the Director of the Southern California Campus.
Dr. Durst loves the classroom. He teaches theology and history from a leadership formation perspective. His passion is for developing life-changing ways of communicating and teaching Christian truth for transformation, retention and rapid reproduction.
His current research includes study of emerging church movements, ecclesiology for rapid cell and simple church multiplication, research into a biblical doctrine of the Trinity, and faith and film.
Dr. Durst tests what he teaches in his local church and in interim pastorates.
He loves cooking, hiking, and art. He and his wife, Kristi, belong and serve at BayMarin Community Church (SBC), San Rafael. The Dursts have three children and one grandson, Donovan.
(These notations are taken from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary website.)