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Sunday School and Small Group: Friends Who Need No Reconciliation

Editors’ note: 

This article is part of a three-view series on small groups and Sunday school. For other perspectives, see “5 Reasons We Switched from Small Groups to Sunday School” by Jim Davis and “Cookie-Cutter Methods Make Half-Baked Disciples: Our Approach to Small Groups” by John Butterfield.

About two years ago, I had a conversation with an older couple who had just moved to the area and joined our church. They came from a congregation that offered small groups in place of more traditional Sunday school classes, and they were glad to see we offered formal discipleship classes as well as small groups.

This couple had no problem with small groups and saw great value in them, and have faithfully attended one since they joined our church. But they also believed small groups were insufficient as the only avenue for making disciples in a local church, which is a conviction we share.

Many churches today—especially newer church plants in America—are rejecting Sunday school classes in favor of small groups. Others have rejected small groups in favor of more traditional Sunday school classes. What we should reject is the false dichotomy between Sunday school classes and small groups.

Master Content in the Classroom

In reality, neither Sunday school classes nor small groups can bear the weight of what many churches ask them to bear. When churches offer only Sunday school classes or small groups, they are expecting the classroom to do what the living room does best, and the living room to do what the classroom does best. Churches are expecting either Sunday school classes or small groups to be a silver bullet for discipleship.

When churches offer only Sunday school classes or small groups, they are expecting the classroom to do what the living room does best, and the living room to do what the classroom does best.

In Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus instructs his followers to make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” Our assignment is to make disciples who know and obey everything Jesus commanded, and the best way to do that is to employ both the classroom and the living room.

In the classroom, gifted teachers can take Christians on a journey through the Scriptures, helping them understand and apply verses, chapters, even entire Bible books. Topics can be explored at length and in depth, which is vitally important. After all, we are studying an inexhaustible God who has revealed himself through his inexhaustible Word. The classroom environment minimizes distractions and maximizes the potential for processing information. It’s an ideal venue for mastering content.

Master Compassion in the Living Room

But the Christian life cannot be boiled down to content mastery. If it could, Jesus would have praised the Pharisees for their scriptural knowledge, evidenced in their broad phylacteries and long fringes. Instead he rebuked them, calling them blind guides and hypocrites. They knew the law forward and backward, but failed to do what it requires—to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbor as themselves.

This is where the living room finds its place in a church’s discipleship strategy. In the living room, Christians learn to put the Word of God into practice. We learn to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to mourn with those who mourn. We learn to live in unity and to love each other, particularly those who look and act differently than we do.

The living room is a messy place filled with messy people leading messy lives. We all need the Word of truth spoken to us, prayed over us, and lived out before us. It’s an ideal venue for mastering compassion.

The classroom is ideal for mastering content. The living room is ideal for mastering compassion.

Both Needed

I understand the appeal of the small group over the classroom. Younger generations, perhaps because of all the posturing that takes place on the internet and social media, long for authenticity and community. Because we are made in the image of God, every person wants and needs meaningful connection to others that the classroom setting often fails to provide. You can meet people who become your friends and co-laborers in Christ in the classroom, but it’s hard to cultivate deep relationships there.

And believe me, as the father of three school-aged children, I understand the appeal of the classroom over the small group. Adults—especially parents with young children—crave time alone with other adults. Christian parents in particular long for unhurried times of prayer and conversation they (vaguely) recall from the season of life before diapers and bottles and ballgames and homework. You can try to have a robust discussion about Romans 9–11 in the living room, but it’s hard to do that with people coming late and leaving early and spilling coffee and babies crying and kids arguing.

So yes, I get it. I understand why churches offer only Sunday school or only small groups. In different seasons of life and ministry, I’ve thought about punting either discipleship classes or small groups in our church.

But after nearly a decade of ministry in our church, I’ve seen the fruit of offering both discipleship classes and small groups. I believe our church members understand the Bible’s content more fully because of our classes, and are more compassionate toward one another and the lost because of small groups.

So let me encourage you to reject the false dichotomy in your church. Ten years down the road, I’m confident you’ll be glad you did.

Also in this series: