It may seem hard to fathom, but a microscopic virus is doing some good things in the church’s most important ministry – Sunday School. It’s difficult to say when churches will officially return to the campus to reopen Bible study groups (some are already doing this – others are on the verge – and still others are watching and waiting for their opportunity to restart groups on campus). In the meantime, COVID-19 is teaching us 5 things about Sunday School.
If we’ll all pay attention and learn from these things, Sunday School can be stronger and more vibrant than ever – if we are paying attention. Has COVID-19 taught you anything about your church’s Sunday School ministry? I’ve come to understand five things about Sunday School, especially relevant in our COVID-19 world. When groups return to the church campus, here are some things we’ll need to keep in mind:
- Groups will need to intentionally reclaim people. It’s hard to believe, but some adult Bible study groups have not met since March! Whether because of technology challenges or a belief that the church would quickly return to the church campus, some groups have gone 16 to 18 weeks without meeting. Even now there are reports of “Zoom fatigue” among those people meeting online, and attendance in those virtual Bible studies has diminished. Some Christians are growing out of the habit of meeting regularly with their Bible study groups. The church is going to have to reclaim its own members when Bible study groups restart on our church campuses. Savvy group leaders are reaching out to every member on their group’s ministry list to maintain contact and to encourage them to stay plugged in prior to the return to on-campus groups. It’s almost unthinkable, but we are going to have to go plow our own fields and harvest our own people, without losing sight of the thousands of people all around our churches who are not members of any church or any Bible study group! There’s going to be a lot of needed ministry, and it’s going to require us to reclaim people who once sat down the row or across the circle from us.
- Group and individual Bible study is more important than most of us realized. Church leaders are discovering (or rediscovering) that groups are just as important – and some would say even more important – than the church’s worship gathering. Robby Gallaty, pastor of a large church in the Nashville area, said in his book Growing Up, a book on Christian discipleship, that preaching to make disciples is like going to the church’s nursery, spraying the kids with milk, and saying, “I just fed the kids.” In a similar way, Dr. Brad Waggoner’s research for his book The Shape of Faith to Come presented what it takes for a person to grow as a disciple. He wrote, “The number one factor…most correlated to the highest maturity scores is the practice of reading the Bible….the simple discipline of reading the Bible has a major impact on Christians. Spiritual leaders need to take note of this. We put a lot of time and energy into preparing sermons, as we should. But we make a huge mistake if we think our sermons, regardless of their quality, are enough to create sustained life transformation…our people need daily exposure to the life-transforming power of God through His revealed Word” (p.68). Online groups, on-campus groups, groups that meet in homes, and groups that meet in other places provide much-needed relational glue for the church. People connect people – programs don’t connect people. Studying apart and then studying together fuels the life transformation brought about as the Holy Spirit leads and guides Christians into all truth. Couple the group experience with a daily Bible reading and study experience and you have postured people to grow as disciples. Since this is true, why have so many groups taken the summer off? What have we let COVID-19 keep us from gathering in some form or fashion (there are ways to practice physical distancing and to put other safeguards into place!). I am sensitive to people who do not want to regather because of health concerns related to the virus – my son had COVID (he lives in our home) just six weeks ago and has recovered, so I understand the dangers. What I have a hard time understanding is why so many groups have taken an extended break from being together when they could have been meeting some other way – either online or in a modified in-person way. COVID hasn’t kept us from running errands, eating out, going on summer beach trips, and everything else under the sun. But when it comes to church, it’s stopped us in our tracks.
- Bible study curriculum can be a strategic part of a discipleship strategy. Bible study groups that have weathered the COVID-19 storm have done two things. First, those groups have continued to meet (primarily via Zoom). Second, they have remained committed to studying the Bible by using an ongoing Bible study series. My company, LifeWay, produces a number of ongoing Bible studies in a variety of formats (book-by-book, topical, and chronological). But no matter which study a group uses to study the Bible, LifeWay’s studies are created by experts, built on long-term discipleship plans, and have highly trusted content. By following the discipleship plan built into the curriculum, group leaders don’t have to create their own studies each week. Instead, they can spend that time investing in people – which was Jesus’ model. His plan for making disciples was by doing it life-on-life.
- Smaller groups have advantages in disciple-making. Jesus’ plan for making disciples was simple: he focused on relationships with 12 men, plus a smaller inner group of 3 men. He spent most of his time instructing them, relating to them, and participating in ministry with them. If large gatherings were the model for making disciples, Jesus would have held many more open-air hillside teaching events than he did. Instead, he knew the power of small. Today, smaller Bible study groups have disciple-making advantages, especially during and after COVID-19. Groups can meet in places that larger ones cannot (physical distancing in large groups has made it almost impossible for them to gather during COVID-19). Living rooms, backyards, parks, pavilions, and side rooms in restaurants have provided the meeting spaces that smaller groups have used to their advantage while larger groups have not been able to meet. Discipleship has continued, even during COVID, through smaller groups that proved to be nimble, agile, and flexible. Thankfully, many larger groups are beginning to reorganize into smaller ones – groups within the group. These new groups are under the leadership of someone from the class who stepped up to teach and lead 1/3 or ½ of the group. Now the formerly large group has a fighting chance for its people to meet, especially if COVID-19 flareups cause states to roll back to “phase 1” restrictions on gathering this autumn.
- Sunday School is getting a once-in-a-lifetime reset. Yes, we may be witnessing history in the making. COVID-19 has given us the chance to experience a “hard reset” in Sunday School. In computer terms, a hard reset restores a device (phone, tablet, laptop) to its original factory settings. Sunday School may get a needed reset and go back to its roots of evangelism, outreach, teaching, training, and multiplying by starting new groups. Now there are numerous opportunities for Sunday Schools to do things they haven’t been doing, but should have been, as groups return to the church campus. Churches are discovering that through technology like Zoom, a regular cadence of training can take place online; training is going to be easier, less expensive, and more accessible than ever in a virtual environment. Some groups are going to reorganize, dividing their adult groups into much needed care groups (which should have been done pre-COVID). The focus on outreach, assimilation, and evangelism could return to the forefront of why churches have a Sunday School in the first place. If the church misses this opportunity to do a hard reset, it will miss one of the biggest opportunities to institute a course correction in its largest and most important ministry.
Yes, COVID-19 is instructing us. It’s telling us how to improve Sunday School. It’s serving as a teacher to students who are paying attention in the classroom of life. COVID-19 is showing us where we’ve been weak, and how to improve. If the church’s Bible study groups return to the campus and do business as usual, then we will have missed a great opportunity to restart our groups with a focus on Sunday School’s roots.
How will your group and your church’s Sunday School ministry change because of COVID-19? Have you been taking good notes? COVID-19 has been teaching. Are you ready for the test? It’s coming.