Health and Growth

The Perfect Sunday School Lesson: 11 Teaching Principles & 6 Lesson Ideas to Boost Engagement and Attendance

Master these audience engagement skills to grow an engaged Sunday school lesson audience (without sacrificing depth).

The Perfect Sunday School Lesson: 11 Teaching Principles & 6 Lesson Ideas to Boost Engagement and Attendance
by

Paul Maxwell

Sunday school lessons have a reputation for being dry.

Is that fair?

Maybe.

The google image results for “Sunday School Lesson” contain a horde of small text, 90s clip art, and simplistic concepts, and child-oriented language.

But your church doesn’t have to choose between making your Sunday school lessons (1) a dry theology lecture, and (2) a kiddy 1st grade flannelgraph.

You can host engaging, interesting, and exciting discussions during Sunday school that all ages find instructive, and don’t sacrifice depth for simplicity.

Achieving an engaging Sunday school culture in your church all comes down to following a few key principles about audience engagement.

People are more than willing to listen to audio lectures, books, and talks for hours.

TEDx talks have billions of views online.

Podcasts are currently the largest source of consumed media in the world.

Companies such as The Great Courses, Audible, and Master Class all keep hundreds of millions of people captive for hours.

In this article, we’re going to help unpack and apply those audience engagement principles that make deep content exciting, and then apply those principles to a few Sunday school lesson ideas to help you start planning a new kind of Sunday school lesson for your church—the kind that attracts interested (and interesting) people, but doesn’t sacrifice depth for teachability.

Let’s jump right in.

Principles

The principles we will unpack here are the often overlooked rules that every master communicator follows. However, we’re going to articulate them in a way that makes sense for Sunday school teachers so that we don’t have to translate foreign concepts into the Sunday school environment.

Master these skills, and you’ve mastered the foundation of building an engaged Sunday school audience.

1. Engage (and Know) Your Audience

This is the most important thing.

If you give a 13 year-old a lecture, they’re going to tune you out in 10 seconds. They have a nose for these things.

If you give an adult a lecture, you can basically expect the same thing.

If you apply childish principles to the design or content of your Sunday school lesson, they’re going to tune you out, because they feel condescended to.

However, you need to apply child-appropriate activities, participation opportunities, and teaching tactics to a room of children if you’re ever going to teach them anything.

What’s the TL;DR here?

No matter your audience, you need to be engaging. The burden is on you to be engaging, not on your audience for being attentive.

If you bring an entitled attitude to your Sunday school lesson, you’re going to have a dying Sunday school ministry. Nobody will want to come back.

Once you’ve decided to take the responsibility to be engaging, you need to ask yourself: Engaging for whom? Children? Adolescents? Late teens? Adults?

Then, adjust accordingly.

Children want to be physically engaged. Get them acting physically in unison. “Raise your hand if…” “Touch your nose if…” “Has anyone ever…?” Think: Controlled chaos. Pick one point, and spend the whole time illustrating that point with physical participation. Keep it to one point.

Pre-teens want to be humorously engaged. Do you want to hear a joke backwards? You do? Very good, start laughing. Ha. … But seriously. If you can make them laugh, you can make them cry. No joke—come with at least 10 jokes. Seriously. This is not a joke. Keep it to one point.

Late teens want to be engaged existentially. They want to know how things apply to real life. They’re going to assume that anything you say is just as boring and irrelevant as biology class. Start where they are, then move on from there. Keep it to one point.

Adults want to be engaged intellectually. This is the one audience who can track with you for more than one point. However, don’t just give them a firehose of information. The best way to get adults interested in what you’re saying is to ask an intriguing question.

Why is it that when Jesus is accused of blasphemy, he responds with this question: “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?”? Why does he respond to blasphemy with a question? See what I did there? Why didn’t he just say, “I’m not a blasphemer!” Why did he ask a question in response to this serious allegation?

Now you want to know the answer. Boom. Consider yourself Sunday schooled.

Apply these audience-specific principles to your Sunday school lesson preparation as you write your lesson plan.

2. Choose a topic OR a text

Don’t complicate things.

Are you teaching on a topic or a text?

What do a topic and a text have in common?

They both contain ideas.

No matter what, you’ll be trying to communicate what preachers call “The Main Idea.”

But don’t try to use a text as a platform for some hobby topic, or use a topic as an excuse to talk about theology without any application.

Both will require biblical reflection.

Both will require conceptual unpacking and application.

But narrow down very specifically:

Am I teaching on a topic or a text?

Then: What topic or text am I teaching on?

Pick only one.

3. Don’t teach “On.” Teach “That…”

Even if you have 3 points, you should be able to summarize your idea in one claim.

Don’t say “I’m teaching on forgiveness.”

Say: “I’m teaching that forgiving others is crucial for experiencing God’s forgiveness.”

Don’t try to stay on-topic. Try to stay on-claim.

Thinking in this way forces you to always stay on-claim. It doesn’t let you start sermonizing, rambling, getting off track. It forces you to always come back to the claim: “How does what I’m saying right now unpack, illustrate, defend, or deepen our understanding of this claim?”

4. Fit everything on a one-page

This is a good discipline for every teacher.

Don’t print 10 pages of notes and read them to your students.

Putting everything on one page forces you to make eye contact with your students, master your content, and engage your audience face-to-face.

Nobody needs you to read an article to them.

Sunday school should never be reading a manuscript.

If you need notes so badly that you have to read them verbatim, it means you’re not sufficiently prepared.

Teach a concept that you understand well enough to teach from a one-page.

5. Make no more than three points

We have already said that you should keep it to one point. More than that—one claim.

However, it’s fine to break that point down into multiple sub-points.

Often, the very nature of teaching is breaking down a simple concept into multiple more nuanced concepts.

This is fine.

Just make sure that you are always explaining how your sub-points relate back to your main point.

6. Illustrate every single point

If you can’t illustrate it, you probably don’t get it.

This puts you back again to your preparation.

None of us could illustrate every idea we understand on the spot.

But with some prep time, I could probably come up with an illustration for every concept I truly understand.

Do your students the same courtesy.

If the lesson is too abstract, it won’t stick with them.

People don’t remember abstract concepts. People remember pictures, smells, sounds, and stories. Use those elements as the prime matter of your lesson.

7. Pre-write at least 3 Q&A prompts

I can’t stand it when people end lessons with “Any questions?” and then wait in silence.

What questions should I be asking?

Could you take the lead?

As a teacher, lead discussion, not by asking “Any questions?” but by asking your students a question: “What came to mind when Jesus did this …?” “How did you feel when David …?” “Why do you think Paul said this and not that?”

By coming up with questions, you are engaging your audience’s imagination throughout the lesson, giving them less time and opportunity to space out.

8. Keep it simple

Even for complicated topics and texts, speak in vocabulary, concepts, and ways that are as simple as possible.

Don’t use a Sunday school lesson as an opportunity to show how smart you are.

There’s some wisdom about acting that applies here. If you’re watching a movie and think to yourself, “He’s a fantastic actor!” then he’s not a fantastic actor. If you’re watching a movie and think “That character is so evil! I hate him!” That is a good actor.

Same for teaching.

Help your students to be in awe of the ideas and stories about Jesus, not you.

9. Make It Interesting

Don’t do a lesson on Romans or John unless it’s a “New Christians” class.

Pick a topic, perspective, angle, or approach that is novel.

Most Christians have heard all the cliches, books, and lessons already.

Give them something new. Find a way to make Sunday school fresh, and rescue it from its reputation of being so stale.

10. Don’t always think in terms of a “Series”

Sunday school lessons are notorious for being “Series.”

Don’t fall into this trap.

The problem with doing a series is that if people miss one lecture, they feel they can’t come to the next for fear of being lost.

It’s not bad to do a series.

Just make sure that not all your classes are a sequence or series so that people feel they can come even if they missed a few weeks.

11. Write your one-page first—change later if necessary

We already mentioned that you should write a one-page for your Sunday school lesson.

But more importantly, you should write your one-page before you do anything else.

Establish overall conceptual coherence and flow first. If you don’t do this, you will simply be writing a stream-of-consciousness treatise. It is extremely hard to create coherence and flow from a stream-of-consciousness manuscript.

Create order first.

Builders don’t put up the drywall, hang the lighting fixtures, and paint the house before they build the frame. That would be ridiculous.

Frame first.

Same with planning your Sunday-school lesson.

Prompts

These prompts are intended to give you a starting point for writing your Sunday school lesson plan. They are categories of Sunday school lessons that you can use to build an exceptional one-time lesson, or a short series, depending on what your church audience enjoys.

1. Modern Issues

There are many modern issues which capture the minds and hearts of church members that are ripe for biblical engagement. You simply need to ask: “How do I think of these things biblically?”

  • Politics
  • Social media
  • Technology (latest apps)
  • Mindfulness and meditation techniques
  • Mental health

These issues not only provide stimulating conversation, but will likely draw more people to come to Sunday school in order to hear what the Bible has to say about these important issues.

2. Neglected texts

Christians deeply desire to understand their Bibles.

Sunday school teachers and pastors have the opportunity to open up difficult texts and explain them so that God’s word can become clear to them.

People want to know what these texts mean—the witch of Endor, the baptism of the dead, Paul’s entrance into the third heaven … what do they mean?

Even if you explain the “common views” and don’t come down on an interpretation yourself, people will at least be instructed in the common ways of making sense of a passage that, on its face, is nearly impossible to understand without historical and theological help.

3. Church History

The church didn’t just zap into existence 30 years ago.

It’s existed for 2,000 years.

Some say it is the oldest, longest-lasting institution in the history of the world.

That informs what it means to be a Christian.

People have been struggling with issues Christians face for thousands of years.

How did people in the middle ages face the problem of infant mortality?

How did people in the Reformation deal with the issue of church in-fighting?

What can Augustine’s conversion teach us about what God can do in the human heart?

The lives of the saints (and sinners) that compose church history are instructive for us.

4. Theology

Some people find theology itself very interesting.

I find it best to find topics closer to the heart of peoples’ interest in theology—such as theological mysteries, including the problem of evil, prayer, and the like.

By digging more deeply into theological issues, you may be serving a demographic that hungers for understanding where they only see mystery. You can help them to gain clarity and resolution about confusing issues at the heart of their faith journeys.

5. Bible study and application methods

Many Christians want a deeper relationship with God, but aren’t sure how to study and apply the Bible to their own lives.

It’s possible to teach a hermeneutics 101 course in just an hour with the best online resources people can use to aid their study.

If your one-hour class (including Q&A) generates interest, you can create a longer course.

Over to you

Use these principles of audience engagement and lesson planning to build a deeply engaged church audience.

If you do, you will find that by word of mouth, more people will show up to Sunday school.

People will start treating your Sunday school lessons as an exciting new live podcast—and not as a dry old lecture that’s all about showing everybody how smart the teacher is.

Use these principles.

Draw from these prompts.

Grow your Sunday school attendance from the lingering faithful few to an eager and lively community of engaged learners.

Why Write Church Donation Letters?

In a previous blog post, I shared the different ways your church can thank donors—from automated emails to year-end giving reports. Printed donation letters also play an essential role in your church’s stewardship efforts.

Donation letters are the Swiss Army knife of your church’s gratitude arsenal. It may not be the most powerful—but it’s versatile, handy, and gets used often.

Your basic church donation letter can serve many different purposes, including:

  • Acknowledging that you received a donation
  • Thanking the giver for being generous with their finances
  • Sharing other ways the person can support your church
  • Allowing the donor to write the gift off on their taxes
  • Encouraging supporters to make recurring donations
  • Requesting future donations from church members

A single, well-crafted donation letter can pull together several of these things simultaneously. Better donation letters lead to more giving, which leads to more donation letters—thus creating a cycle of on-going church generosity.

Church Donation Letter Samples

Here’s the good news—you don’t have to write an individualized letter for every person who gives to your church. That would be tough to do for even smaller churches. And most donors don’t expect you to. They’d rather you be putting their gift to better use in the community, instead of ceaselessly writing thank you notes.

With the possible exception of some unique circumstances, your church can use template language for the majority of your church donation letters. You’ll have to add in custom details like the donor’s name and gift amount, but you can write everything else in advance.  

To make this even easier on you, here are a few basic church donation letter templates you can copy and paste. Keep in mind that not all of these have to be in print—you could just as easily turn some of these samples into email appeals.

1. Donation Acknowledgment Letter

The Donation Acknowledgement Letter is a basic way you can confirm and affirm a monetary gift to your church. Sending these is standard practice in church and nonprofit culture.

Dear [first name],
I want to personally thank you for your donation of [gift amount] to [church name]. We’re honored you would bless us with your generosity. Donations like yours make a big difference in the work our church is doing in the community.
Without givers like you, our church can’t have an impact or influence in our community. With your support, we’re partnering with local nonprofits, sending out global mission trips, and hosting small groups on topics that help real people like you. Together, we can make a difference.
Because we’re a tax-exempt nonprofit, you also get to write this donation off on your taxes. This letter serves as official proof of your donation, so keep it in your records come tax season. At the end of the year, we’ll also send you an annual recap with how much you’ve given to the church.
Thank you for supporting [church name]!
Sincerely,
[your name]

2. Donation Request Letter

Not every church member realizes the importance of giving, or understand Bible verses about tithing and giving.  So a Donation Request Letter helps to spread that awareness and encourage a spirit of generosity.

Dear [first name],
How are the finances in your household? That was a rhetorical question, so you don’t have to answer—besides, this is a letter so we wouldn’t hear you anyway. But we still want you to think about that question.
Money is a uniquely human issue, one we all struggle with to one degree or another. Even if you’re financially blessed, you still have the burden of stewarding your money wisely. And we believe that one of the best ways to invest your money is into the local church.
Tithing (giving 10% of your income) on a regular basis not only supports the work we do at [church name]. It doesn’t just support local missions and community growth. It also shows an obedience to God by making his work a financial priority in your life.
So if you find yourself ready to put God first in both your heart and your wallet, we encourage you to make a one-time gift or sign up to make recurring donations. That way, you won’t have to ever wonder again about the financial status of your household.
Sincerely,
[your name]

3. Monthly Giving Letter

Many church donations aren’t just one-time gifts. Plenty of givers contribute monthly—and that should be acknowledged.

Use this template to correspond with recurring givers.  

Dear [first name],
Thank you for being an active and faithful member of our church community. By giving to our church on a monthly basis, you’re showing that our church has a meaningful place in your heart. We just wanted to write this to let you know that you’re in our heart, too.
Donating to the church monthly allows us to preach the gospel, make disciples, and support others in our community who need help. Others like the local food bank and the nearby homeless shelter. We’re answering the cry of the needy, and it’s all thanks to contributors like you.
We earnestly appreciate your ongoing support and want to let you know we’re here for you. If there’s ever anything we can do for you and your family, don’t hesitate to reach out. You are a valued member of our church family. And you’re financial support is making a difference.
Sincerely,
[your name]

4. Year-End Giving Letter

At the end of each year, it’s customary to give your church supporters a summary of their gifts. The primary reason is for tax purposes, but it’s also a way to recap everything your church has done over the past year with their support.

Dear [first name],
You’re getting this letter because you gave to [church name] at some point during the past year. That might have been a one-time gift, or recurring donations. Either way, we want to thank you for your generous support. Every contribution helps.
One of the official reasons for this letter is for tax purposes. That’s right—you get to write these donations off on your taxes. Which is why we’ve included a summary of all the contributions you’ve made to our church this year.
But the other reason for this letter is to let you know what we’ve done with the money you gave. We take stewardship very seriously, which means we value spending our time and resources wisely.
During the year, our church supported local nonprofits, sent global missions teams, and baptised quite a few people. It was a great year for us—thanks in large part to donors like you.
So thank you for your support of our church, and we hope you’ll consider continuing to contribute to our mission in the coming year.
Sincerely,
[your name]  

5. Church Fundraising Letter

Sometimes you need to make a more significant financial push using tried and true church fundraising ideas. Some churches call this a Stewardship Campaign or a Church Capital Campaign. Either way, the goal is to raise a certain amount of money for a big project. And typically, a solid letter of appeal is an integral part of that.

Dear [first name],
God has a plan for everyone and everything. That includes you, and it includes [church name]. None of us can fully know God’s plan—the best we can do is pray and listen for clarity. Our church leadership has been doing just that and are excited to announce our latest church project.
[Detail the outline of the major church project—this could include a building campaign, or raising support for a global mission trip. Anything specific to your church that requires a fundraising letter. Be sure to include a fundraising goal so everyone knows what you’re shooting for.]
But we can’t pull this off without your support. Whether you give to the church on a regular basis, or just attend on occasion, we’re asking you to consider contributing to this massive undertaking prayerfully. It’s something we need our entire church community’s help with.
Even if you can’t make a large gift, know that every little bit helps. It’s more about coming together as a community united behind a common cause. We hope that you’ll consider making a donation towards this great step forward that we’re making together.
Sincerely,
[your name]

Tips when writing church donation letters

It’s not enough to just copy and paste this content and send away. The key to an effective church donation letter is a touch of personalization. Follow these tips to take your donation letters to the next level:

  • Examples: Add specific examples of how your church will use the donation. Tell a story about the work your church is doing in the community and connect that with giving.
  • Personalization: For regular donors, don’t be afraid to add a short, handwritten personal note. This shows that you’ve singled them out with praise.
  • Timeliness: Sending donation letters quickly reminds people you’re thankful for them. But this also takes organization and efficiency. All the more reason to use pre-written templates.
  • Storytelling: Everything is better with stories—including donation letters. Weave in a specific narrative of how your church is making a difference and how the money will be used.

There’s no one right or wrong way to write a donation letter or request contributions. You’ve got to do what is right for your church and congregation. But if you stick to these general tips, you’ll probably start to see some traction when it comes to giving.

What’s next?

Most people don’t love talking about money in church. But it’s a necessary and vital part of your church. And maximizing your efforts when it comes to donation letters will help make those conversations more comfortable. So what do you do next to put this into effect?

  • Customize these letters: Take the samples above and make them work for your church. Personalize the content. Remove the stuff that doesn’t sound genuine and add in stuff that does. Remember that these are just a starting point.
  • Create some systems: Develop processes that make it easy for you to replicate sending donation letters. Use a letter template that allows you to drop in names and details. Then develop guidelines for when these letters will be sent out.
  • Empower a champion: Find out who is going to be responsible for making these letters happen. Rather than thinking of this as adding more work to their plate, think about how you can elevate their work. This could be a staff member, or a volunteer.
  • Start sending: All of this will be for nothing if you don’t actually send out the letters. Take the time to get it right and get them into the hands of your church donors.

And if you’re looking for ways to grow your church’s giving capacity, Tithely can help.

We provide several different ways your church members can support your church financially—from online giving, text to give solutions, and giving kiosks.

Tithely’s systems make it as easy as possible for people to give to your church. Now all you need to start doing is generating a culture of gratitude. There’s nothing standing in your way. Go unleash generosity in your church.

How does your church use donation letters to spread generosity? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Editor's Note: This is a guest post from Robert Carnes. Robert is a writer and storyteller. He's the author of The Original Storyteller: Become a Better Storyteller in 30 Days. A former church communicator and nonprofit marketer, Robert works as a managing editor for Orange in Atlanta.

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The Perfect Sunday School Lesson: 11 Teaching Principles & 6 Lesson Ideas to Boost Engagement and Attendance