Why We Are Going From Small Groups to Sunday School

This fall we are going to do something that will seem crazy to many. We are going 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.*

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 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. Beginning Sept. 10th, we will replace 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, and more.

To Develop Teachers

This fall 14 people will be added to the Sunday teaching rotation. They will be trained, equipped and developed. As the church grows, more tracks will open 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 takes away any burden of what to do with the kids.

What about space? A huge thanks to Oxford Middle School where our church meets for solving that problem. We have more rooms than we would ever need.

To Foster Deeper Community

Sounds counter intuitive, right? Any small group that thrived was predictably homogenous. We also saw that there were as many people meeting in small groups organically as were organized institutionally. This means that 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 are going on the free market. Now people have an extra evening in the week to pursue the relationships they feel called to pursue, both Christian and otherwise.

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 and limited relational interaction, we will have rotating adult education, a break for everyone to fellowship (while the children are still in their classes:) and all go in to worship together. We can also finally have one service!

Currently, there is nothing for grades 7-12 on Sunday mornings and parents of 1st-6th graders have to pick between sending their children to a Sunday school they love or worship. It’s feasible that a child at Grace would not go to worship until the 7th grade! The new middle and high school tracks could be among the biggest wins.

Won’t this segment the church by age? No, everyone over the age of 18 will be together. Not only will we not be segmented by age, we won’t be segregated by neighborhood which makes this more inclusive than small groups.

To Engage The City More

Aren’t Sunday school classes anti-mission? Not if the goal is to equip. Would you call boot camp or rifle training anti-mission? I would argue that Sunday school (at least the way we will 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 very successful ministry to underprivileged students, recovery groups, men’s and women’s ministries and more. But not one of them began institutionally. None are overseen by staff or elders. All are lay led and developed organically. This model will produce better equipped men and women with more time to fruitfully engage the city.

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 playing match maker and promising friends. The role of the church 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. We teach these things, but we don’t bear the burden of organizing them. We put small groups in the same category. We equip and trust the Holy Spirit to grow.

Conclusion

We are not saying this 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. Our hope in this transition is that more people will be equipped, more teachers trained, more small groups developed, more friendships established and more non-Christians engaged with the gospel.

 

*A special thanks to JD Shaw who saw all of this well before the rest of us. The inspiration for this article came from a presentation he gave to our church.

31 thoughts on “Why We Are Going From Small Groups to Sunday School

  1. OK, so what will the service afterwards look like? Will it still be 15 minutes of musical worship and 35 minutes of teaching? Do we really need to amplify the teaching so much and reduce the musical worship?

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    1. It’s a good question. We actually increased our singing this past Spring. We currently have 18-22 minutes of songs depending on the week. This week will be five songs, two of which have tags so it will be more in the 22 minute range. The plan right now is for that to continue. If we increase it any more, our service will get closer to an hour and a half which is too long for a few reasons, but mostly the childcare. Hope that answers your questions.

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  2. Hey Trent! I agree that small groups are probably still as good as classes at church if they are led well by faithful people who have been trained to evangelize, disciple and train. And this does happen organically to some degree. The main problem we ran into was coordinating everyone’s crazy schedules during the week. People are tired Sunday afternoons, they have kids activities during the week and Saturday has never really worked. It was more a pragmatic decision to get the most teachers and the most involvement. They were already going to be on site on Sunday and we have something for their children to do. If a church can accomplish this in homes and have high buy in, I say go for it!

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  3. This is interesting. These are exactly the reasons I remember my church (which had a very healthy Sunday School program for decades) giving. I especially agree on the amount of teacher prep for a class vs. small group.

    Will you have people sign up, or just offer the classes like “break out” sessions at a conference? Also, do you have a bio somewhere here on your blog? I couldn’t find one. Thanks! 🙂

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  4. Thanks for the comment Shannon. We have a registration system on our website Gracebibleofoxford.com. That allows us to monitor the size of the class. There is a bio if you click the menu in the top right part of the page.

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  5. Here comes the dissenting view. So, you are basically following the public school model? Don’t see that biblically. Who is responsible for training up the children regarding biblical truths according to the Bible?

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    1. I welcome dissenting views Scott:) The responsibility is certainly on the parents. It’s up to the parents what the children do. Some choose children’s Sunday school and some will have their children go to the adult class with them. I have four children and don’t feel like I’m abdicating in any way if we split up for an hour. I appreciate the comment!

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  6. We’re still doing Community Groups (for one reason could not do SS due to space). And then we offer specific classes on Sunday nights. But I love the flexibility. I think the question of how to to discipleship/community will continue to be asked/adjusted until Jesus returns. I’m very leery of anyone who says, “We’ve got it! We’ve finally discovered THE answer.”
    Praying God works through this new move in your church!

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    1. Thanks Jeff. I certainly hope I didn’t communicate that we have discovered THE answer. My aim in the article is simply to clearly articulate why we are making the changes we are. We hope it will be a bigger all-round win.

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  7. It seems like you are making most of the these decisions because people only go to church two times per month and don’t read their bible as you stated in the first paragraph. If this is the case in your church why do you think they will go to Sunday School when they don’t go to church? I believe you might want to address the problem more directly by meeting with members individually and finding out as best as you can the real status of their faith. Every case is different but if someone told me they go to church a couple of times a month and they don’t read the Bible they might not even be a Christian. I also noticed that you stated that small groups are rarely a time of teaching but Sunday School is. This may be the case in your church but it certainly doesn’t have to be this way you could implement almost all the changes you mentioned in the existing small group structure if you wanted to. I am not saying you are doing the wrong thing necessarily but your reasoning for change are not very well thought out in my opinion.

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    1. Good thoughts Mike. Thanks. I do think we trend above the average with members and at the average with non-members. I feel confidant that our members are in church when they are in town and healthy. I don’t want to discount the spiritual issue, but sadly, this is just a reality of the mobile world we live in. Secondly, I do think the majority of our members are int the Bible regularly, I was referring to books that cover topics like history, biblical theology, systematic theology, evangelism, marriage, etc. Your last point is a strong one. Why don’t we just make our home group a Bible teaching setting? Others have made the same point and it is well received. If you can do that well in your church I say go for it. The majority of our church is made up of young families and they are simply more available Sunday am than any other time. The added benefit of childcare was a big deal as well. I hope that is helpful!

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  8. What curriculum are you using for the classes? We’ve been interested in doing something similar and would love to hear what and why you chose what you did. Thank you for articulating the reason why this decision was made. My God bless your efforts.

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  9. Thank you for this article. You state that Sunday School teachers prepare all week and also that the curriculum is provided. Two questions: Who are the Sunday School teachers? What is the curriculum?
    Grace and peace,
    Tom Williams

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  10. Jim,

    I grew up in a church that utilized Sunday School, but I felt it was one more thing I could check off my “good Christian” checklist easily without having to sacrifice more time in my week. How would you respond to people saying, like me, that small groups are good because they require you break out of the Sunday Christian mold and encourage you to think about the gospel other than Sunday?

    Also, due to my naivety, most small groups I have been in have been dedicated to teaching and reading of the Bible. Is this abnormal, or what evidence have seen that says otherwise? –I might have reworded this last question 20 times, but my intention is pure curiosity and not deemed as accusatory. I know my experiences do not define the average.

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    1. Thanks Kyle! Didn’t sound accusatory in the least. Unfortunately, I’m sure more than one person in our church will have the same experience. Some of that is out of our control, but we will combat that in our preaching and prayer. Hopefully they will hear preaching and engage in relationships (accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit) and not see it as a check list. Small groups are still good. I’m simply saying they are going on the free market. They will still happen, but not organized by us. We have lay people organizing Bible studies, neighborhood outreaches, men’s and women’s events, book studies and more. The main difference is that they will not be organized by the staff. My hope is still that everyone is some smaller group during the week. Lastly, if you have been a part of a small group in a home that is dedicated to reading the Bible, praise God. I would say that most are geared toward the relational side than the teaching side for a number of reasons. I hope that is helpful!

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  11. I guess our community groups are structured differently- but we spend a majority of our time in Bible study. Perhaps we are doing S.S. just under the community group name. Our groups are also multi-generational as well. But we offer midweek services with a variety of classes from Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, evangelistic living, etc.

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    1. If you can successfully do both, I say do it. I don’t think many churches will be able to pull that off. They end up being competing entities. I am certainly not the first to note this. People tend to not have the bandwidth in our day and age for both. I would say that in my context it would be bad cultural exegesis. Make one primary and the other secondary. If you make them both primary, people will feel under the pile and guilty if they can’t do both. In the end, neither thrive. In addition to that, most churches don’t have the resources to do both well even if the church cooperates. But that is a lesser issue. Does that help?

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  12. Reblogged this on Brian Olson – Christian Speaker, Bible Teacher and Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and commented:
    The points that Jim Davis presents are well worth considering. While I understand the intent of small groups and see them as historically sound, from Zinzendorf to Wesley, I believe that the points that Davis presents here are dead on where many churches have dropped the ball: Biblical knowledge, Developing of Teaching Gifts, Deeper Community, Cultural Engagement, and fulfilling the Role of the Chruch.

    1) Biblical Knowledge – Do a quick search on Biblical Illiteracy and more than 71,000 results come up. The first three listed are “The Epidemic of Bible Illiteracy in Our Churches”, “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem” and “The Crisis of Biblical Illiteracy.” It is recognized across the board that Biblical Illiteracy is a problem in the church today. Davis presents why the small group model is often not enough to counter this.

    2) Developing of Teaching Gifts – Romans 12:6 – 8 tells us “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” While small groups have a reason for existing, they do not allow the opportunity for those with teaching gifts to truly exercise and develop them.

    3) Deeper Community – As Davis states, this one seems counter intuitive. Most churches will tell you that one of the purposes of small groups is to develop community.  Yet while it can produce relationships within the group, there are two clear negatives that seem to arise. First is that these relationships need to be organic to truly grow, yet most small groups are artificial in their development, put together by the church leadership. Second, when these relationships do flourish, it is very easy to not become a community of the church, but little communities (or cliques) within the church.

    4) Cultural Engagement – Here is the purpose of gathering on Sunday morning. Ephesians 4:11 – 13 tells us, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Sunday morning is the time to “equip his people for works or service.” Here God’s people come together to learn, to fellowship, to be built up, so that they can, in turn, take Christ to the world. Yes, small groups can prepare members for this, but too often it is just a time to gather with their group of friends, thinking inward and not outward.

    5) Fulfilling the Role of the Church – This is a natural follow-up to the previous point. The role of the church is to teach and build-up the body for service. It is not to entertain or to, as Davis puts it, play matchmaker. When the church fulfills its God given role, we may just find that what the small groups have tried to manufacture, God will grow organically.

    Final Thoughts

    Am I saying that this will solve everything? Am I giving a guarantee that what Davis has presented is indeed the answer to any challenges in the church? Of course not. No one can do this, and I certainly do not have all the answers. Yet I believe that we need to be open to honestly evaluate our current practices. Are we doing them because it has become what everyone else is doing? Is our current model truly accomplishing what we intend it to do? 

    Is there a place for small group? Yes. But are small groups the miracle answer that many have come to believe? No. Whether we choose to use small groups or not, I think Davis’ point of the importance of Sunday School can not be dismissed.

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