Sunday School and Small Groups Side-by-Side

My wife and I recently enjoyed an excursion to a local ice cream parlor. As I conecontemplated my many choices, I opted for a chocolate and vanilla swirled cone. I thought it would give me the best of both worlds. I was right. The ice cream was wonderful, rich, and creamy – plus I didn’t have to settle for just one flavor.

Then I realized the swirled cone could represent something else – something that many churches are trying with success: Sunday School groups and small groups “side-by-side.”

The Goal of Groups

Whether you’re in a small group (a group that typically meets off-campus) or a Sunday School group, the goal is the same – to make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Both models for discipleship are valid and effective. You and I may have a preference based on past experiences, but both models can serve a church well in its disciple-making process.

Not Mutually Exclusive Ministries

There is no need to see Sunday School and small groups as “either-or” or an “us Vs. them” ministries. The two can co-exist and sit side-by-side in a church’s strategy to reach and disciple people. Sunday School isn’t necessarily better than a small group ministry, and a small group ministry isn’t necessarily better than a Sunday School ministry. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and both can reach people the other one can’t. Sunday School tends to reach people who have a history with the church. Small groups may do a better job reaching those with little or no history with the church.

The big decision you and your church’s leaders must consider is this:

  • Is it Sunday School and small groups (you expect people to attend both).
  • Is it Sunday School or small groups (you expect people to pick only one to attend).

Options for time-compressed people

A Sunday School ministry gives busy families a great way to experience Bible study and group life. This ministry is normally adjacent to a church’s worship service on the church calendar, and is very convenient for families with young children or teenagers. Families can experience worship and Bible study in a three-hour window on Sunday mornings. There’s a group for every member of the family. For time-compressed families, Sunday School may be the best option rather than venturing out on a weeknight for Bible study in a home (when you’re battling kids’ homework, sports, and general fatigue).

Small groups can reach a different kind of time-compressed person or family. According statistics, 21-25% of people in our cities cannot attend a Sunday morning worship service or Bible study because they are at work. Small groups provide an alternative for these kinds of time-compressed people who are busy working and serving the people of their communities on Sunday mornings.

Small groups: a good option when you’re out of space

Some churches are out of space to start new Sunday School classes. One option is to launch off-campus groups that require no classroom space on campus. It’s an affordable way to launch new groups and a way to be missional – those off-campus groups can be encouraged to reach new people who live in proximity to the host home.

A Sunday School of small groups?

Perhaps starting off-campus groups isn’t right for your church, but you feel that the church would benefit from the kind of environment often created in home groups. Why not ask your Sunday School teachers to make incremental moves toward becoming a Sunday School of small groups? A few changes and you could have a small group feel in Sunday School:

  • Place people in circles, not rows.
  • Create more opportunities for discussion within groups.
  • Divide groups into smaller ones to create a more intimate environment. Groups should have approximately 12 people, plus or minus 4.


Subscribe to my Sunday school/groups blog today! If you haven’t already, please subscribe to my blog. I post regularly about the topics of Sunday School, small groups, and other things related to these important ministries. There’s no cost, and you can opt out any time. Your name and email are never sold. I began this blog as a ministry to those of you who lead groups or have a responsibility for leading the groups ministry at your church.

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