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New Horizons

Setting the Menu: Sunday School or Worship First?

Roger W. Schmurr

COVID-19 has caused significant changes to church ministries. Zoom no longer refers only to the Corvette passing you on the interstate but also to how parishioners have been participating in worship, Bible studies, and fellowship. Even congregations now meeting corporately find themselves distancing from other worshipers, lamenting the closure of the church nursery, and searching for the offering plate at the back of the auditorium.

Some churches may use this time to promote another change that Orthodox Presbyterian congregations started to employ a few decades ago: starting the Lord’s day with the worship service and following that with Sunday school.

Sequence, of course, is important in life. If you are eating in a nice restaurant, hors d’oeuvres come first. And at home, kids must eat their dinner before indulging in dessert. Neither hors d’oeuvres nor dessert probably appear on breakfast menus for OP members preparing for church, but those members are interested in what their first experience at church will be: Sunday school or worship?

Traditionally, of course, Sunday school has preceded the worship service. But the OP church directory shows that 35 percent of congregations now schedule worship first. That percentage has held rather constant over the last twenty years. When the worship wars grew hot in the 1980s and ’90s in the evangelical world and a denominational study committee worked to produce a revised Directory for the Public Worship of God, OP churches began changing their schedules. In 1980, 18 percent set worship first, in 1990 this rose to 28 percent, and by 2000 it reached 35 percent. Why is this? And are these churches serving the main meal first?

To answer such questions, the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education surveyed the denomination’s pastors by email. Interest was high. Of the 275 churches that schedule a Sunday school adjacent to worship, 204 responded to the survey (42 churches hold Sunday school later in the day, between two morning worship services, or not at all).

The responses indicate significant differences among OP churches concerning the relationship between Sunday school classes and worship services. And the sequence of these events can impact attendance at both.

Attendance

Historically, many America churches developed out of the Sunday schools established by the American Sunday School Union. As in England, these schools aimed to educate poor children in both secular and religious studies—and usually outside the walls of the church. However, by the mid-1800s the evangelical church saw the benefit of taking Sunday school under its wing and using it effectively as a teaching tool. Come early to church, and you’ll receive good biblical instruction; arrive later, and you can join in worship. Hors d’oeuvres precede the main meal.

In an attempt to increase attendance at Sunday school, some OP churches have switched the traditional schedule. By placing worship first, these churches hoped that more people (especially adults) would remain afterward for Sunday school classes. Of the 97 churches holding worship first, 28 mentioned attendance results. Of these, 22 reported increases in Sunday school attendance, 5 described no increase, and 1 saw a decrease.

Adam York reports that a few years ago, his congregation switched to a worship-first schedule. “The upshot was that our Sunday school attendance and participation greatly increased.” He added that “no one stopped coming to our church because we changed the order. … I highly encourage other churches to consider it.” Bruce Hollister says that his worship-first schedule “encourages a much higher percentage of our folks to attend Sunday school—consistently 70–75 percent.” Jeffrey Scott says that when his church shifted to Sunday school post worship three years ago, “We saw a large increase in attendance—up to 50 percent of the congregation attend now.” Worship begins at 10:30 a.m., and when Sunday school classes follow, they are preceded by a light lunch. Four pastors remarked that they tried a worship-first schedule but discarded it. Bradley Peppo explained that his congregation turned back to Sunday school first “to accommodate families that couldn’t make the early time [for worship].” Specifically, some pastors hesitate to put worship first out of concern that members who live at a distance or are older wouldn’t be able to make it to worship.

Disconcerting was the admission by several pastors that many adults wouldn’t attend Sunday school no matter what time it was slated. Schedule Sunday school first, and adults arrive later for worship; schedule worship first, and adults leave afterward. (One pastor lamented that some parents take their children to Sunday school classes and then return to their cars to snooze.) John Canales came up with a resourceful solution for engaging more adults in Christian education. With Sunday school first, he schedules fellowship time after worship. During that fellowship time he offers a fifteen-minute, multi-generational session called “Windows on Westminster” during which he teaches portions of the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms. About half the congregation takes advantage of this value-added approach, including Sunday school teachers who otherwise couldn’t attend an adult class.

Some churches question whether such schedule changes are proper. For instance, Ronald Pearce responded that “our session has felt it is manipulative to put the worship service first with the only goal being to increase Sunday school attendance.”

Theology

Bolstering Sunday school attendance, however, isn’t the most significant consideration for churches making schedule decisions. Theology is. Pastors planning worship first believe that worship should start the Lord’s Day since it’s the central calling of God’s people. Those favoring Sunday school first believe that it should be the prelude to worship and preaching and that the latter should be resonating in people’s minds and hearts as they head home.

Is there a correct sequence to feeding God’s people spiritually on Sunday?

Churches that schedule worship first do so to prioritize worship. Lane Tipton describes this as “the church at her very best,” making clear “that we are commanded to worship.” He emphasizes this by using the first fifteen minutes of Sunday school, which follows worship, for discussion of the sermon. Hank Belfield states this boldly: “Having worship first emphasizes the primacy of public worship.” Similarly, Timothy Gregson writes, “The advantage of having worship first is that people come with a mindset for worship.” Larry Wilson says that “we do well to renew covenant with God and his people and then learn [the] implications of … that renewed fellowship.”

A number of churches scheduling Sunday school first responded that they have a combination of theological and practical reasons for this approach. They, too, want to prioritize worship, and that leads them to view Sunday school in these ways:

  • “Most folks are bleary-eyed when Sunday school begins. If we reversed our schedule, they would be bleary-eyed (and maybe disengaged?) for the worship service.”
  • “I think Sunday school first can be helpful to set our minds on things above even prior to entering into worship.”
  • “Sunday school is a good warm-up to worship. We learn about the Lord as fuel for worshiping him the next hour.”
  • Sunday school first “may help people be on time for worship.”
  • With worship second, “you are left with the Word preached primarily on your mind, and the last thing you hear is what you are more likely to discuss that afternoon.”
  • “If someone is going to miss anything (oversleeping, late work shifts), I want it to be Sunday school, not worship service.”
  • “I would rather have worship be the pinnacle of the Lord’s Day, the climax toward which every other church event moves. I would rather Sunday school ‘gets them there’ for worship, both physically and doxologically. … That is, Christian education should lead to and find its reason for being in worship.”

Fellowship and Visitors

The Sunday school-first arrangement usually doesn’t provide for much informal fellowship before worship. By contrast, David Landow says that having worship first “facilitates a robust fellowship time between the [worship] service and Sunday school.” Jonathan Peters concurs: “Refreshment and fellowship time has experienced a big boost. We have to urge people to leave [for Sunday school].”

Most churches count on fellowship meals to promote close associations. However, Sunday school second, notes Brett McNeill, “would make fellowship and meals afterward harder” because that would require a lengthy stay at church—cutting into nap time for young children. Jay Bennett says that this latter challenge is easily handled: “We pause once per month to have a fellowship meal instead of Sunday school—without adding anything extra to the schedule.” A time of congregational prayer for the church’s ministry precedes these meals. This also facilitates attendance at such meals by persons who normally don’t attend Sunday school. And meals together are important, says Benjamin Snodgrass, for “much good happens at lunches for evangelism and shepherding.”

Some pastors expressed concern that a worship-first schedule would inhibit visitors from attending because the culture expects late-morning worship services. Dave Sarafolean, who schedules worship first, states the concern boldly: “I am certain that our worship time prevents some people from visiting.” Also, notes Stephen Oharek, “We want worshipers, including visitors, to be able to fellowship after worship without being expected to also attend Sunday school [later].” But pastors using a worship-first approach didn’t cite that as a significant drawback to having visitors attend. The fact that eight of the ten largest OP congregations schedule worship first may suggest that visitors aren’t necessarily put off by that schedule.

Gregory Thurston schedules worship first but acknowledges that worship second would “enable lunch invitations to visitors to be fulfilled immediately.”

Ministry Strategies

Others respond that in addition to theological concerns, placing Sunday school classes second can help with some ministry concerns. It provides an opportunity for sermons to be discussed, a buffer time for longer worship services, and initiation into small group ministries. Matthew Judd, who schedules Sunday school first, acknowledges that “Sunday school first makes the transition to worship more difficult.”

Young children usually need a mid-morning snack just as adults like a coffee break. Worship followed by a fellowship time handles both concerns, some pastors report. Children are more alert first thing in the morning but begin to get fidgety in late morning. Having children participate in formal worship first and informal classes later helps children benefit from both. Underlining this strategy appears to be the statement in the Directory for the Public Worship of God that “children of believers have … a right … to the outward privileges of the covenant people, the church.”

James La Belle isn’t buying that approach to morning wakefulness. He writes, “We’re all a little dull first thing in the morning, and Sunday school is an informal time to get the blood flowing.” He, too, believes that Sunday school “serves as a means to warm the heart and prepare the mind for worship.”

Several pastors appreciate the worship-first sequence because it allows them to extend worship services for the Lord’s Supper. Anthony Monaghan keeps the morning events from stretching much into the afternoon by limiting Sunday school to forty-five minutes for children and thirty minutes for adults (after a refreshment time). However, James Hoekstra says that having worship second “makes it easier to have a more lengthy service on communion Sundays.” In both cases, the full main meal is served.

Pastors considering a worship-first schedule wonder if people will worship earlier. Time magazine (9-16-19) noted that “with bedtimes getting later [and] the influence of electronic devices in the evenings … kids and parents don’t wake up early enough to get ready for the day.” Of course, most church members rise early during the week to attend school or to head to work. Is it possible that churches expect too little from their members when it comes to worshiping our Savior?

One pastor cautiously acknowledged that part of the problem is that people fill Saturday evening so full that it’s hard to roll out of bed Sunday morning. But as one non-OP wag put it, “On Sunday morning Jesus rose from the dead; on Sunday morning you can certainly rise from your bed.”

A full spiritual meal awaits you—even if you are masked and six feet from fellow worshipers.

The author is an OP minister. New Horizons, August 2020.

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