Sunday School is a Tree

“Sunday School is a tree.”
That is what I’ve finally concluded after all these years of trying to explain what Sunday School is to people in a way that was simple, imaginative, and yet profoundly true.

Sunday School is the tree Zaccheus climbed up to see Jesus.

It’s the tree Jesus called Zaccheus down from to bring salvation to his household.

Yes, “Sunday School is a place we  teach the Bible to kids” –but how wordy and uninspiring! (just like so many Sunday Schools themselves). In many churches the support for Sunday School has been  lackluster for so long that the program has gone from and issue of “vitality” to an issue of “mortality.”

Sunday Software, New Tools for a New Generation

Part of the problem is the program itself -and I’ve dedicated a large portion of my ministry toward breathing new life into it via engaging Bible software and overhauling Sunday School via the Workshop Rotation model.

But I’ve also concluded that Sunday School has a P.R. problem. People aren’t “sold” on Sunday School anymore. Its lackluster performance has eroded people’s belief in its importance and purpose.  Churches and parents think they can do without it, or reduce it, or replace it with fun fellowship groups.  Yes, they can, and many are, but it comes at the expense of preparing our kids to encounter Christ, and to lead biblically informed lives.

We need new ways of explaining the importance of Sunday School that intuitively, visually and VISCERALLY sticks, –especially to a generation of parents, pastors and church leaders who seem ready to abandon it, or at least, let it whither.

The visual, visceral, and sticky possibilities of “TREE” are rich and plentiful.

The tree is what Zaccheus needed to get above the crowd,

…and away from the things that were crowding him out,

…and perhaps, get AWAY FROM the crowd itself. They didn’t like him.

The tree allowed Zaccheus to see Jesus coming from far off.

It allowed him a place to get ready for an encounter with the Holy One.

The tree helped Jesus too.  Jesus could clearly see Zaccheus’ heart by where Zaccheus had placed himself.  It wasn’t just a nice idea, being up in that tree was a statement he was making to Jesus. Jesus reached up and out to him -through the crowd, and above the crowd. You could say, that tree raised Zaccheus up in the way he should go.

I find it FUNNY, humbling and hopeful that it took me 25 years to arrive at this very satisfying and invigorating metaphor. It happened quite simply. I had been writing a new lesson plan for Zaccheus to go along with my Awesome Bible Stories CD, and one evening the word TREE jumped off the page at me. A thousand times before in that story it had never done that. But there it was.  “TREE”

Later that evening I was working on some online lessons for and came across the name of a Methodist Church’s Sunday School.
They called their Sunday School, The Tree House“.

How cool is that?

What kind of Sunday School Tree do you have at your church?
Is it sickly? Does it have bugs? Does it need new soil? Does it need pruning? Has someone poisoned it? Are they thinking about cutting it down and replacing it with …nothing?

More importantly… does it look like the kind of Tree that a KID would want to climb up and spend time in?  Preaching the importance of something deadly-dull is counter productive. We need to make Sunday School a tree worth climbing.

<>< Neil


The story of Zaccheus and his tree is found in our Awesome Bible Stories CD

Awesome Bible Stories CD

Read more of my articles on the importance and future of Sunday School:

Too Good to be True (but it is)Collection of research statistics pointing to the positive effects of church participation in the lives of children and youth NOW and throughout their lives. (Part 1 of my CE research series)

Are Kids Too Busy for Sunday School? –some amazing research about “what are kids doing with their time” and research into the question about whether they have enough time for Sunday School. Plus some thought provoking commentary. (Part 2 of my CE research series)

Characteristics of a New Ministry to Children -a draft of what Children and youth ministry might have to look like to be successful. (Part 3)

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3 Responses to Sunday School is a Tree

  1. Lora Haynes says:

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! I am a high school sunday school teacher. And I have had a great concern for the student in my class past and current. They are forced to come to sunday school and show it by not wanting to participate. So once they reach 18, I never see them again. But thanks to you, I will try the suggestions that you have given in these articles.

  2. Neil says:

    You’re welcome Lora. Hopefully you saw my other articles here in my blog about Youth Ministry and putting teens in servant roles. That said, we need to be in for the long-haul and not have expectations for immediate results. Rather, the RESULTS we seek will take years of making changes that “GROW better teens” by shaping their attitudes when they’re younger.

  3. Lisa Holmes says:

    Yes, thank you Neil! I am the Education Director for my church. We have steadily been seeing a decline in attendance in Sunday school. So many other children activities have taken the place of the Sunday school hour. I have been struggling myself to figure out to get through to the parents, how important it is to have the children come to Sunday school. It was like a light bulb that went off in my head. I shared your words in our monthly church newsletter and weekly bulletins. Great job! I am going to decorate my Sunday school hallways with the tree with a house in it! Hopefully I can post pictures of it once I am finished!
    Lisa Holmes
    Education Director
    Our Savior Lutheran, Mesquite, TX

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