Should Adults Promote Up in Sunday School?

Today’s blog post is compliments of one of our fellow blog subscribers, Lyndie. You can thank her for her excellent real-world question! She recently sent me a message that asked the following:

Ken, do you have any hints on how we get people (especially in the older years) to promote up? I work in Adult 1 (the oldest age group) We can not get anyone from Adult 2 to promote. Our current department is one by one promoting to heaven. I know we aren’t the only church who experience this. Do you know of any ways to make this happen? Thanks Lyndie.

I’ve experienced exactly what Lyndie’s church has experienced, so I’m pleased to try to answer this question on behalf of her and any of you who have a similar situation. My answer may not be what you expect, though! Here goes.

Don’t stress about the lack of promotion! While it makes total sense to have kids and students promote up into the next grade level as they do so in school, we’ve tried to carry that same philosophy into the adult Sunday School. Most of us have discovered that is just doesn’t work the same way with adults. Here are a few reasons why it may be best to leave the adult groups alone, and use a different strategy (which I’ll share with you):

  1. Adults are different than kids and students.  Kids and students’ years are based on the school system’s cycle and promoting into the next grade is exciting and fun. Adults haven’t done that since they were 18 years old.
  2. Adult groups are built on relationships, not just an age range.  It is a really difficult thing to ask adult group members to promote up to a new class and leave some of their friends behind – it’s just not going to happen. Adults are loyal to one another. They move as a group or not at all. And many adults join a group because of some kind of relationship they have with the group leader/teacher. The people are there in the group because they want to be there.
  3. Adults don’t want to admit they are getting older (especially Boomers!).  This may be bigger than you think! I’m 54 and holding. I don’t want to get a senior adult label placed on me – yet. I don’t want to use a large print curriculum. I’m a Boomer. I’m young at heart. I still want to change the world and do important things. Moving me up means my time may have passed, and I’m not going to accept that yet. I don’t want to deal with my mortality, and when I promote up, I realize I’m one step closer to heaven.

Solutions to the Promotion Dilemma

If we aren’t going to ask/request/force adults to promote up to new groups as they age, what are we to do? If a Sunday School is arranged by age or life stage, won’t there be a train wreck at some point if the adults are not moving up and out of their current groups? Yes. So here are the two ways you deal with that:

  • Change the label on the group. Hopefully your adult groups are arranged by short age spans (Adults 25-30, adults 30-35, etc) and not names like “The Joy Class” (group names should describe the people they are designed to reach). As the people in the your groups age up, simply change their label. This avoids the problem of having a group of “young adults” with 45 year-olds in it (which I’ve actually seen!).
  • Start new groups. In the above example, let’s say the people in your youngest adult group (age 25-30) have aged up. You change what you’re calling the group on brochures, the sign on their door, etc. But now you need a new group for 25-30 year-olds. So at the same time you change the label on one group, look for the gap it creates and start another group simultaneously. Problem solved.
  • Focus on outreach. Because adults don’t want to promote up, the growth of groups will come as they stay outwardly focused. Keep evangelism front and center. Train them to think about growing by sharing Christ with lost people, not by depending on an annual internal promotion that sends them new people! That’s the purpose of Sunday School anyway, so it keeps us focused on the main thing.

It’s really that simple. If you force adults to promote up, you’ll create a war you cannot win. So simply change the target of the group, and start new groups to fill in gaps. That way you can continue to reach people and bless those who’ve been with you for a while.

I’ve always chosen my battles, and years ago I had the same dilemma that Lyndie has found herself in. I chose to plow around stumps rather than expend the energy to pull them up. I kept my job, the people were happy. New people had groups with right labels. New groups were started to cover our gaps. It was a win-win for all.

Feel free to disagree and push back if you have a different thought about this!

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