Book Review – Sunday School That Really Excels

Parr, Sunday SchoolParr, Steven R. Sunday School That Really Excels. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2013. 204 pages, pb. $14.99. Link.

Sunday School That Really Excels is not the type of book that I usually review on Reading Acts. My reason for wanting to read the book is that I am involved in a local church that values Sunday school and I have regularly taught an adult Sunday school class for many years. I am always interested in improving what I do as a teacher and helping our church to improve as an organization.

Steve Parr has two other books in this series. In Sunday School That Really Works Parr lays out several principles for helping local churches develop their Sunday school programs. In Sunday School That Really Responds (2011) coaches leaders through challenges that Sunday schools may face on an organizational level.

But Sunday school is not considered important in many churches, especially for adults. Even the name “Sunday school” sounds a bit too old-fashioned for most modern churches. My own church re-named our Sunday school “Second Hour” in order to avoid the aversion to the word “school” that some people have. But as Thom Rainer says in this book, there is a correlation between church health and a strong Sunday school program (p. 27). Churches that reduce Sunday school or replacing it entirely with small groups run the risk of not providing a full range of discipleship for their congregations.

In Sunday School That Really Excels Parr illustrates some principles of excellent Sunday school programs in a variety of contexts. Each chapter is written by a director of education at a church, a pastor, or educational specialist familiar. Some chapters focus on a particular cultural context for doing Sunday school such as “the middle of nowhere,” Rural ministry, small congregations, or multicultural communities. Other chapters focus on Sunday schools excelling in a particular situation, such as an established ministry, a declining ministry, “on the heels of a crisis,” or in coordination with an attendance campaign. Each chapter describes a success story of a Sunday school that excels in a particular context. The author then draws some principles from that positive example that may help other churches in similar situations.

Two chapters address doing Sunday school along side of small groups. Many churches have already moved from a traditional Sunday school to a more socially oriented small group program. It is possible to argue that a traditional Sunday school simply does not work with modern young adults, for example, but a small group gathered for fellowship and Bible is attractive to that particular demographic. Elmer Towns offers some advice on the transition from a Sunday school to a small group program. Sunday school specialist Tim Smith’s chapter offers some advice on combining Sunday school and small groups.

Parr himself contributes a chapter on the “state of Sunday school today” as an introduction to the book. The chapter consists of an interview with Thom Rainer, former dean of the Billy Grahm School of Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and currently the president of Lifeway Christian Resources. Rather than list a series of statistics drawn from a Barna study to frighten readers about the state of the church, Rainer describes positively how a strong Sunday School contributes to the health of a church and to evangelistic community outreach.

In his final chapter, Parr offers a plan to help “excel-erate” a Sunday school program. Bad pun aside, this chapter takes the non-word “excel-erate” and presents a series of common sense principles that will help any church to improve and “accelerate” a Sunday school program. Because he is creating an acrostic, the order of these suggestions are not very well organized. But the list of principles are simple and clear. Each couple be expanded beyond the paragraph Parr is able to spend on them in this short book.

Conclusion. This little book illustrates how Sunday school can contribute to the health of a local church in a variety of contexts. For those who attend Baptist churches, the situations described by these chapters will be familiar. This does not mean that other denominations cannot find value in the book, but it is a decidedly Southern Baptist text. In addition, I would have liked to have seen the book organized better, however. The chapters seem a bit random at times, perhaps gathering all of the chapters dealing with different types of churches into a single section and chapters dealing with leadership issues into another section would have been helpful. There is a typo on page 163, the verb “live” is missing from the quote from Mark Twain (“I can live for two months on a good compliment.”)

These criticisms aside, this is a valuable book. It collects in very brief form some valuable suggests for “doing Sunday school” with excellence. Sunday School That Really Excel is an inexpensive book and would make a nice gift for Sunday school superintendents, pastors and teachers in order to encourage them in their ministries.

Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.