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.
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.