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From Sunday School to Small Groups: Why and How

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a part of a local church for most of my life. When I was two years old, somebody invited my mom to church and she took them up on their offer. I always say it’s because she had this crazy little boy that only God could help her control. Our church was like many churches, with a Sunday morning schedule that included Sunday School and two worship services.

I was in Sunday School classes up until I was about 20 years old, at which point I began teaching a seventh grade Sunday School class. I did that until my wife and I moved on as I joined the staff team to help launch a new church. Today, over 10 years later, I’m still on staff at that same church. Our church has never had Sunday School. Small groups were our primary strategy from the start and that hasn’t changed.

Why

In experiencing both models extensively, I definitely have strong opinions about which method I would choose to utilize. I know this can be a divisive topic. I also recognize neither one is perfect and there are great benefits to both. From my experience, I would use Small Groups over Sunday School every time. Here are five reasons why.

Reason 1: Cost

Sunday School is a more expensive model simply because every class requires a space to meet. Most Sunday School programs have classes for all ages, so rooms are needed for everyone in the church at the same time. A small group model can be implemented in almost any church context because small groups can meet anywhere.

Reason 2: Competition

This list of reasons is in no particular order, but if it were ordered by importance, this might be number one. The reality is that having Sunday School classes for adults directly competes with having great programming for children and students. Reason being, if you want to recruit people to lead Sunday School for children and students, they have to decide to not be in their own Sunday School class unless a church offers classes at multiple times.

Reason 3: Emphasis

This doesn’t have to be the case, but most Sunday School classes place the greatest emphasis on teaching and Biblical knowledge. Now, that sounds like a great thing, and it is. In fact, I would agree that it’s the strongest argument for having Sunday School classes. However, there are other components that I believe are important that receive far less attention in most Sunday School models. Relationships and community are chief among them, since many Sunday School classes are exactly that, classes. Information transfer is the goal. I like a model where one thing isn’t the dominant purpose and instead, there’s an equal emphasis on Bible study, prayer, relationships, care, and serving. This could absolutely exist within a Sunday School model, but the small group format tends to be a better fit for it.

Reason 4: Teachers

The format of most Sunday School classes requires a gifted teacher for every class and classes usually consist of about 8-15 people. I think most churches would have a hard time finding people with the gift of teaching to fill all of their Sunday School classes. The gift of teaching may not be all that common. If that’s the case, then people are being placed in a role they weren’t designed for, and that is not good for anyone. The small group model allows the leader to be more of a facilitator while leaning on other sources (books, studies, videos) for teaching.

Reason 5: Scalability

When you factor in the previously mentioned challenges with Sunday School, they all combine to create another challenge: scalability. I know that all of us want to carry out the Great Commission and make disciples of people who are currently not connected to Jesus. If we do, our churches need to be prepared for that growth. More and more I find myself thinking that church growth is more about removing barriers to growth than it is about making growth happen. We have little influence on the latter, but a lot of influence on the former. A Sunday School model is difficult to grow because it requires more money, more space, more teachers, and more church resources. A small group model is extremely flexible and adaptable, allowing it to adjust quickly and grow rapidly if needed.

How

If you currently use a Sunday School model and are wondering how to transition from that to a small group model, here is the approach I recommend. Please know, however, that every church is unique and it’s important to create your transition strategy with your church context in mind.

“Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs”

Jim Collins uses the phrase “fire bullets, then cannonballs” to illustrate how smart organizations don’t put a ton of resources into a new idea without first testing a smaller version of it. I think the best approach when moving from Sunday School to small groups is to start small. The idea is to allow the transition to happen at a pace that matches what your church can handle.

Before our pastor planted our church, he was the student pastor at another church that was 180 years old and had probably done Sunday School since it was invented. Rather than looking to change Sunday School for the entire church (a planet-sized cannonball), he simply started small groups for sixth graders. The next year, he had small groups for sixth and seventh grade. The next year he had small groups for all of middle school. Around that time they started small groups for adults and over time they were able to completely phase out Sunday School as they truly became a church of small groups.

If you’re like me, you may want change to happen much, much faster. However, you can do a lot of damage if the change is done too quickly. Also, you should probably expect a small percentage of your church to resist the change and never get behind the vision. Keep in mind that leadership isn’t about pleasing everyone. It’s about making the right decision and sticking to it. Carey Nieuwhof’s book, Leading Change Without Losing It, should be part of your toolbox for the work you’re going to do.

Celebrate the Stories

As you make the transition, constantly dig for stories of success in the new small groups model. Ask for them every week and save them somewhere. Take the stories you have saved and share them in emails, videos, huddles, sermons, social media and any other ways you communicate. We have used a small group model since our church launched and the stories are the greatest reminder of why the model works so well.

Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses and I’ve seen them up close. There’s no doubt in my mind that the small group model has been more effective in connecting people to Jesus and helping them grow their faith. If you’re making the transition or would like to, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

It will be a challenge, but it will be worth it.

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