This article is part of a three-view series on small groups and Sunday school. For other perspectives, see “Sunday School and Small Group: Friends Who Need No Reconciliation” by Allen Duty and “Cookie-Cutter Methods Make Half-Baked Disciples: Our Approach to Small Groups” by John Butterfield.
Update (January 9, 2019): The author of this article and Grace Bible Church of Oxford have since embraced a both-and model of Sunday school and small groups. Their hope is to provide as many viable avenues for people to engage in Christian community as possible. Providing more opportunities for people to engage has enabled Grace Bible Church to see most of its membership in real community with one another. Grace Bible Church works hard to make sure every member is plugged in somewhere and growing in community. This includes Sunday school, community groups, recovery groups, various Bible studies, and more.
This fall we did something that will seem crazy to many. We moved from a small group model to a Sunday school model (under a different name).
Most church-growth material over the past 20 years would advise against this move. We are a young, growing, contemporary church. Why would we make that change?
Here are five reasons.
1. To Grow in Biblical Knowledge
The average committed evangelical today goes to church twice a month. Many churches don’t have an evening service, so that means only two times a month people are being taught the Bible. Couldn’t they just open a book? Yes, but most don’t.
Small groups are rarely times of Bible teaching, but Sunday school is. Small group leaders prepare for about 10 minutes, while Sunday school teachers study and prepare all week. In early September, we replaced discussion groups about the sermons (which tend to happen naturally) with classes like Christian Essentials, Engaging the World, Church History, Systematic Theology, Old Testament, New Testament, Marriage, Parenting, Unity and Diversity, and more. We adapted these from the Core Seminars at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
2. To Develop Teachers
We have added 14 people to the Sunday teaching rotation. They have been trained, equipped, and developed. As the church grows, more tracks will be added, and more teachers will be developed. Our small group leaders were trained in small group facilitation dynamics (a much harder task), but not Bible teaching.
What about the organizational strain of developing teachers? It requires no more effort than identifying and training small group leaders. In some ways, it’s easier. The curriculum already exists. No homes need to be identified, advertised, cleaned, and opened. We do no matchmaking. We are using a time already occupied in their schedule. On top of all that, children’s Sunday school removes the burden of what to do with the kids.
3. To Foster Deeper Community
This one sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But any small group that thrived was predictably homogenous. We also saw there were as many people meeting in small groups organically as were organized institutionally. This means the thriving homogenous groups would likely be meeting in some form anyway. They don’t need to be organized. Small groups aren’t going away; they’re going on the free market. People now have an extra evening each week to pursue the relationships they feel called to pursue, both Christian and otherwise.
Small groups aren’t going away; they’re going on the free market.
For years, people told us they didn’t really get to know people outside of their small group. Now, instead of coming in and out for worship with limited relational interaction, we will have rotating adult education, a break for everyone to fellowship (while the children are still in their classes), and then corporate worship together.
Won’t this move segment the church by age? No; everyone older than 18 will be together. And not only won’t we be segmented by age, we won’t be segregated by neighborhood—which makes this plan more inclusive than small groups.
4. To Engage the City Better
Aren’t Sunday school classes anti-mission? Not if the goal is to equip. Would you call boot camp or rifle training anti-mission for the military? I would argue Sunday school (at least the way we seek to do it) is more outwardly focused than small groups.
In our church there are neighborhood parties for outreach purposes, ministries to serve the school, a thriving ministry to underprivileged students, recovery groups, men’s and women’s ministries, and more. Not one began institutionally. None is overseen by staff or elders. All are lay-led and developed organically. We hope this model will produce better equipped men and women with more time to fruitfully engage the city.
5. To Embrace the Role of the Church
The main way to plug into the church is to plug into the church—the whole church. For years we took on the role of matchmaker. But the role of church leaders is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11–13). As we embrace our call, by God’s grace and his Holy Spirit, we trust that meaningful relationships will blossom along the way.
There are many vital elements to a thriving church: private prayer, personal evangelism, confession of sin, accountability, and Scripture memory, to name a few. Our leaders teach these things, but we don’t bear the burden of organizing them. We put small groups in the same category. We equip, and then we trust the Holy Spirit to grow.
Challenging the Assumption
We are not saying this change is a silver bullet. Certainly the Lord has and will continue to use the small group model. We would, though, like to challenge the assumption that small groups accomplish all they claim. There is a growing sentiment among pastors in younger churches that small groups will go the way of the church organ. We’ll see.
We hope in this transition that more people will be equipped, more teachers trained, more small groups developed, more friendships established, and more non-Christians engaged with the gospel.
Also in this series: