A short time ago, my wife and I saw a movie titled The Walk. It was about the real-life story of Philippe Petit’s amazing (and illegal) walk between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974 (see the actual photo of him to the right). My wife doesn’t like heights, and there were times the cinematography was so real that you felt like you could actually fall to the street below! It was a nail-biting experience, for sure. The one thing that was so impressive was Philippe Petit’s uncanny ability to maintain his balance even when the winds picked up speed and intensity, and he somehow maintained his balance while he struggled with a foot that had received a puncture wound from a nail just days before the walk between the Twin Towers.
Sunday School must be equally skilled at maintaining its balance. Yesterday, as part of my job, I responded to a critical letter from a customer. The lady was very passionate about Sunday School, but was also highly critical of Sunday School curriculum. “There is no spiritual depth to it,” she said. She, a Precept leader and a regular participant in Beth Moore Bible studies, is not pleased with the studies taking place in her Sunday School group, so she wrote to our company president. She lobbied hard for more challenging studies.
The letter allowed me to explain to her that Sunday School and the curriculum that is created for it must find the right balance. Perhaps you feel this tension, too, as a group leader? As I explained to my sister in the Lord, Sunday School is an open-group strategy (which simply means that it is open to new people attending each week) and that it is likely a person like her (more spiritually mature and advanced) could find herself sitting next to a person who is not yet a Christian. That’s the beauty and challenge of Sunday School! In her mind, Sunday School is about giving people lots of information about the Bible and “going deep.” But as I wrote to her, I reminded her that Sunday School exists not just for the saints, but also for those who are far from God. Those spiritually distant people will need relationships with believers, and they will need to be allowed to “belong before they become.” I appreciated the lady’s passion for serious, deep Bible study; I just don’t think that Sunday School is the right venue for that, given its mission to reach the unreached! We could inadvertently scare off someone if Sunday School groups took on the characteristics of a seminary class.
In my friend David Francis’ book Great Expectations, he wrote about the need for balance through the Sunday School ministry. His insight was great – and he helped me and others who read the book to understand the beauty of Sunday School and its ability to strike a good balance between content and community. D groups (discipleship groups) value content above all else. Small groups tend to value community more than content. And in the graphic on p.9 of the book, David showed his readers that Sunday School strikes a good balance between the two extremes. It is a place where people can be taught solid biblical content, but it is also a place where community and relationships can develop and grow. It’s “the best of both worlds.” As David said in this section of the book, “The strength of the Sunday School movement is found in this balance” (p.9).
4 Ways for Group Leaders to be more Balanced
- Cut back on the “information dump” – too many teachers (well intentioned though they are) approach their teaching role with the idea that they are to have a fairly one-sided presentation to the people in their group. Their goal is to study all week long, learn all they can about the biblical passage the group will study next, then pour that learning into the minds of their group members. This almost always leads to long lectures and low interaction on the part of group members. It skews too far to the right side of the graphic above (biblical content).
- Increase the amount of biblical content – just the opposite of #1 above, some group leaders need to add more biblical content. They’ve allowed the group to become too relational, too distracted from Bible study, and they have accidentally frustrated some of their group members who are there to not only build friendships, but also to study the Word of God. This kind of group needs a little more biblical content to strike a balance.
- Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate – after every Bible study session, effective group leaders will ask themselves, “Did I strike a balance today?” They will want to evaluate whether or not they allowed the group to drift, or whether they kept the group’s attention focused on Jesus and the Bible study at hand.
- Adjust, adjust, adjust – As a group leader I must stay in the moment every time I teach. Guiding the group’s study is an art and a science. There are times when I am prepared and ready to deliver a more content-rich study, but if the people in the group are not who I expected to be there (perhaps there are several guests), then it requires me to adjust the content of my teaching. If I am unsure about the people’s spiritual backgrounds, I may not want to provide a heavy-duty Bible study; perhaps this is the time for me to adjust my plans and scale back a bit, and focus a little more on developing biblical community between my regular group members and the gusts who are present.
Philippe Petit pulled off one of the most amazing feats ever seen by stretching a cable between the two buildings of the World Trade Center in August 1974 and walking across them…several times. His ability to maintain his balance in high winds, with an injured foot, and with police on the rooftops of both buildings trying to convince him to get off the wire is something to admire. He is the textbook example of maintaining balance.
How would you say you’re doing in maintaining balance between biblical content and biblical community?