If you asked a dozen teachers what the purpose of Sunday School is, you’d hear a variety of things – there would not be consensus among them. Some would argue that Bible study is the primary reason Sunday School exists. Another person would passionately plea that evangelism is the number one goal. Still others would say fellowship or ministry to others are the main reasons why groups exist.
I believe that Sunday School groups exist to make disciples. The Great Commission is at the core of what churches are supposed to be about. We should be able to measure our effectiveness against that biblical mandate.
You may be a member of a large Sunday School class, or your church may allow large groups to exist in their Sunday School structure. Large groups are normally have an attendance of 25+ people, sometimes bordering on 40-50, and in some cases even more. I have spoken to group leaders who proudly say theirs is the largest group in their church. The teacher puffs up, sticks out his chest, and lets me know that his group has the most people, and everyone in the church knows it – and knows what a good teacher he is. I grimace when I am a part of those conversations, because large groups actually hurt the church. Here are four ways those big groups are not helping the church:
- Most people cannot speak in front of large crowds – it limits who can teach. It is a fact that the fear of public speaking is one of people’s worst fears. If you’ve ever had to give a report, make a speech, or talk for an extended time in front of a crowd, you know this is true. “Few people have the gifting to speak in front of thousands. But most of us feel okay speaking to a few people we are really getting to know. In a small group, we can develop skills that may give us the ability to speak in front of many more. Everyone needs a starting point, and a small group is the perfect place” (Real Life Discipleship, p.59). The larger the class, the fewer the number of people who feel capable of teaching such a large group. If the teacher is absent, finding subs is more difficult. If a teacher moves, quits, or retires from his teaching ministry, it can be extremely difficult to replace him. But not so when the group is around 12-15 people.
- Big classes sometimes like to go on power trips. “You aren’t going to split our class” and “You need to move us to a bigger room” are phrases that staff leaders have heard from large classes. Big groups of people quickly learn there is power in numbers, and staff leaders are often unwilling to confront them because of the political and social power the group tends to wield in the church. Big classes can turn into bully classes, demanding their way, or else. This is certainly not the attitude of Christ. A giant class can influence the vote at a business meeting, it can apply pressure on the pastor and staff to do what the group wants, not what is necessarily the right thing to do.
- People fall through the cracks. Teachers are shepherds, and as shepherds we have sheep to protect and care for. Think about the way a rancher would check up on his sheep – he’d have two options. First, he could do the hard work of driving around his ranch, counting sheep, and recovering those who have wandered off or put themselves in danger. Second, he could sit by the watering hole – eventually all the sheep would come around for a drink, and he could note the ones not there. Teachers of big groups tend to be shepherds that hand out by the watering hole. It’s difficult to teach a group of 50 and be a great shepherd to them all. “When a disciple maker is responsible for shepherding more than twelve people, it is far more likely that some will fall through the cracks because there are just too many people to get to know all of them well” (Real Life Discipleship, p.53)
- Disciples are not being produced. This is the most serious of the reasons why big groups are a bad idea. People sitting in rows, listening to a lecturing teacher, are not going to be turned into the kinds of disciples Jesus envisioned. As I have said to group leaders, “You can’t disciple people from a distance,” and big groups create distance between the leader and the people in the group. The only way a leader can effectively help his people progress as disciples is to know them, to know what they need, and to give them the tools, the challenges, and the opportunities to grow as disciples of Christ. As Jim Putnam said in his book Real Life Discipleship, “When it comes to discipleship, relationships are the pipe. They are the conduit that delivers the precious ingredients of discipleship” (p.47). While Jesus did preach to large crowds, the majority of His time and energy was poured into the 12 disciples and even smaller groups. If teaching the masses was the way to produce disciples, Jesus would have preached a lot more sermons to a lot more people than He did.
Big Bible study groups are not necessarily bad, but they almost never produce disciples the way smaller groups can. It may strike a blow to the ego of a teacher who has become popular, maybe even more popular than his pastor, to know that his group is not effectively producing disciples. Teachers who embrace their role as disciple-makers will not allow their group to become super-sized groups; good teachers know and follow Jesus model of discipleship, which means they keep their group to around 12-15 people, and when it grows, they simply lead their people to start a new group. It’s just that simple.
My friend and colleague, Rick Howerton, is an expert in small group ministry. He released a blog post this morning on the same topic as this blog post! I am tempted to say “great minds think alike.” He and I did not consult about today’s topic, but evidently the Lord led us both to address the topic of large groups. Check out his post by clicking here and see what he thinks about large groups from someone who is in the small group movement.