4 Things Sunday School Can Learn from Small Groups

It’s confession time: I am a fan of Sunday School. Maybe not your Sunday School. But I am a fan of Sunday School as I know it in my context.

I’ve served two churches as an Education Pastor. Sunday School was my responsibility. The groups under my leadership operated like hybrids between what many people perceive Sunday School to be, and what small groups are perceived to be.

In my experience (both as a staff leader and now as a group leader for over 5 years), Sunday School at its best is a mixture of the traditional elements of Sunday School combined with the best elements of small groups.

That’s the Sunday School I know. That’s the Sunday School I love. When people are critical of Sunday School, my blood pressure rises. I get defensive. And then I remind myself, they don’t know Sunday School the way I do. Perhaps they’ve never been a part of a Sunday School group that operates slightly more like a small group. Sunday School groups would be healthier, and they would be more viable options for a lot of people if they incorporated elements of small group life.

Sunday School can learn a lot from the small group movement. I believe the reverse is also true. But for now, what can Sunday School learn from small groups? At least 4 things:

  1. Circles trump rows. The best Sunday School groups I know arrange the chairs in a circle, or a half-circle. People can see one another’s faces. Conversation is encouraged by this arrangement.
  2. Conversation trumps presentation. Sunday School groups that are often criticized become targets because of the monologue that is delivered week after week by a well-meaning teacher. Sitting behind a small desk, or teaching from behind a podium, some Sunday School teachers have emphasized the transference of information to the neglect of encouraging group members to more fully engage in the Bible study as active learners.
  3. Ministry trumps  just meeting together. It’s hard for me to picture a Sunday School group meeting together just to meet together, but it happens. Evidently a lot. People come together, study, and go home. The group never gets together outside of the classroom. What a shame! My Bible study group goes out to eat almost every Sunday. We serve one another in difficult times. We’ve collected monies to help fellow group members with unexpected needs. We’ve had seasons of prayer when we lift up the needs of group members, guests, and others. We’ve served together in the community. We exist not just to study the Bible, but to do life together.
  4. Smaller groups trump larger ones. I like the idea of smaller groups. I’m not a fan of “pastor classes” or groups that have 30+ people in attendance. That’s what has led to Sunday School getting a bad reputation over the years. Instead, I prefer a smaller group of 12-16 people (about the number you could crowd into my living room). This way, we can know one another, and we have room for others to join the group (keeping us functioning as an open group). But the smaller size makes us nimble, and able to meet needs and to know people relationally.

I really do grieve when someone takes a shot at Sunday School. They are normally reacting to a version of Sunday School I’ve never known. I wish they could take part in my Bible study group and then re-evaluate their opinion of Sunday School.

Sunday School groups have a lot to learn. They have a lot going for them, like a convenient time on the church calendar, and a group for every person to belong to. And the environment for learning is better for children in Sunday School than in the upstairs bedroom or bonus room while parents meet downstairs at a group member’s home.

Perhaps in time Sunday School groups will learn to incorporate the best elements of small groups as they meet on church campuses. Perhaps people who are fans of small groups might encounter Sunday School groups that operate more like small groups they know and love.

While the debate rages on as to which approach to Bible study is best, our communities are growing, and the church is losing ground. We aren’t keeping up with the growth, and we are losing the battle for the culture.

Maybe it’s time we learn from one another and quit debating about who is right about the time and place we gather for Bible study. Sunday School isn’t 100% right, and neither are small groups. Both have strengths. Both have weaknesses.

Let’s take advantage of the best of both worlds for the sake of the gospel.

I’m tired of the church being pushed around by Satan. I think it’s time we push back. And we push back darkness one person at a time. So do whatever it takes to create a Bible study environment in which people study, relate, pray, serve, and minister. Who cares when it meets or what it’s called?! The goal is to make disciples, and we do that one person at a time.

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