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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Bigger isn’t always better

“How big is too big?” I recently led a workshop for a group of pastors and Bible study leaders in which a pastor asked that question about the best size of a Bible study group. “What is the optimal size for a Bible study group?” asked another attendee. My answer was “It depends.” It depends on a few factors, but generally, bigger groups aren’t better groups. While teaching a large group of adults (30, 50, 65+ people) can be a fun experience, it’s probably not the best option. Here are 4 reasons why bigger groups aren’t necessarily better groups.

Bigger isn’t always better!
  1. Bigger groups provide camouflage. Large groups give people a place to hide out and remain on the fringe. People can attend and maintain anonymity. It’s better for them if they get to know people and are known by people. Dr. Thom Rainer’s research has indicated that 80% of new first-year members will drop out of church if they don’t find a group, make friends, and find something to do.
  2. Bigger groups make it harder to find new leaders. One of the greatest fears people have is of public speaking – that’s a fact. It takes a special Bible study leader to stand in front of a group of 50+ adults and teach the group. Many group members will say to themselves, “I could never do that.” But if the group was smaller in size, say 12-16 people, that feels like something that is doable. One way that churches grow is to start new groups, and a culture of very big groups can actually work against this important goal because you can’t start new groups without new leaders.
  3. Bigger groups must be highly organized.  If a big group is going to be effective (and it can be – but those are rare) it must be highly organized to care for people. There must be a strong care group system in which people are placed into smaller groups for ongoing care and ministry. Care group leaders must be trained on how to properly care for people and how to follow up with absentees each week. A group with an average attendance of 50 people will have that many or more people who are absent (attendance is almost always 40-50% of enrollment). That’s a lot of people who need ongoing follow-up each week.
  4. Disciples usually aren’t made in big batches. If you look at Jesus’ ministry, He made disciples in two primary groups: a group of 12 and a group of 3. Making disciples requires you have a relationship with the disciplee, and that’s just about impossible in a mega-group. If I am going to make disciples as I’m commanded to do in The Great Commission, I’m going to need to be able to relate to my group members on a personal level.

So what’s the optimal group size? In my opinion, it’s somewhere between 12 to 16 people. Rick Howerton and David Francis maintain that 12 plus or minus 4 people is about the right size for a group. I agree. Sunday School (insert the name your church calls this Bible teaching ministry) is best when groups of disciples gather to study, serve, pray, and know one another. In my experience, this happens best when a group is smaller rather than bigger.


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3 Ways to Grow a Sequoia Sunday School

I am planning a 30th wedding anniversary trip to San Francisco later this year. My wife has never been there, but years ago I sequoia-forest-california-_vq9ntrained group leaders on two different occasions about a year apart. Both times the leader of our group of trainers took us on a tour of San Francisco, and of course we ended up at Muir Woods. Just north of San Francisco, it is the home of a forest of Sequoia trees. These giant trees are over 250 feet tall, and some have been around since the time of Christ’s resurrection! But the truly amazing thing about Sequoias is that their roots only go about 4 feet into the ground. It’s so counterintuitive! You’d think the roots would have to extend hundreds of feet to support the giant trees. The secret to their longevity is that the roots intertwine and they support one another – that’s why you don’t see Sequoia trees growing alone – they always grow together in groves. What a perfect analogy for what Bible study groups should be like, right? People growing together, intertwining lives, and being discipled toward Christ-likeness.

If you want to see people connect and intertwine lives in your church’s Bible study group system, you’ll want to consider whether or not the three things below are happening. The good news is that if they are not, that is something that can be addressed just like Hope Church in Las Vegas did.

  1.  The pastor must point.  In a recent lunch conversation with Tom McCormick, small groups pastor at Hope Church in Las Vegas (Vance Pitman is the pastor), he explained the church’s phenomenal growth in its Bible study groups by focusing on Pastor Vance Pitman’s role. Vance believes in his church’s small group system and its ability to make disciples, so he challenges members and guests to be involved. The message of belonging to a smaller group of people is said weekly, and Pastor Vance has begun telling people, “If you only give us an hour a week, don’t hear me preach – spend that time in a Bible study group.” Tom McCormick told me this has made all the difference for Hope Church in Las Vegas. When something becomes important to the pastor, it becomes important to the people. Hope Church has discovered this, and it’s working.
  2. The people must be in small groups. Recently I’ve been hammering this point. I’m not sure it’s getting through just yet, so I’ll hammer some more. Disciples are going to be made in smaller groups – period. “Master teacher” classes with a lecturing instructor are going to create unconnected group members – not Sequoias. For there to be connection like in a Sequoia forest, there must be relationships. Relationships mean there must be conversations. Conversations mean there must be questions. Questions mean that we are discussing life and how the Scripture impacts it. You can get all of this done in groups of 10-16 people, not in groups of 30-50 people.
  3. The people must be in even smaller groups. As good as a church’s primary small group system may be, and even if the groups are composed of 10-16 people, there is still a need to get even smaller! Jesus discipled 12 men, but He also took 3 of them and spent even more relational time with them. Churches today are rediscovering the ability for single-gender groups of 3-4 people to grow as disciples. The church’s primary group ministry (let’s call it Sunday School or LIFE Groups) “catches” couples and singles; they find a place to belong and grow with a group of 10-16 other people like them – similar in age or life-stage. Then those 10-16 are challenged to belong to one more group – a group of 3-4 of their peers for the purpose of praying, relating, studying, and intertwining lives.

If your church does the three things above, you’ll see people moving from pews into groups, and from groups into even smaller groups. Disciples will be made. Lives will be connected in deeper ways. You’ll grow a Sequoia church, not just a Sequoia Sunday School.




6 reasons smaller groups are a good idea

In a recent post, I talked about the ways large, super-sized groups can hurt a church big_dog_little_dog-277x300(accidentally, of course). There are unintended consequences of large “pastor classes” that most of us don’t think about until it’s too late. In this post, let’s consider some reasons why keeping groups to a smaller number of members may actually be a good, or great idea.

  1.  Smaller groups can meet anywhere – A group of 12 people (which I would consider to be “about the right size,” give or take a few) can meet in any on-campus room at the church, and they will fit comfortably in someone’s living room.
  2. Smaller groups increase conversational community – People in a large class tend to remain quiet. Speaking up in front of a group of 40 or 50 peers can be very intimidating, so some really great comments always go unsaid. In a smaller group, the intimidation factor doesn’t exist like it does in a large group. As Dr. Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay Research, said in his book Transformational Groups, “A small group or class Bible study should be a ‘groupalogue.’ A groupalogue is a study built on great questions…Your effectiveness goes up incredibly as does learning when everyone is talking…” (p.24). When is the last time everyone in your group spoke up?
  3. Smaller groups help people connect – People are “social Legos” and have only so many relationships they can give their time, attention, and energy to supporting. Each of us has only so many connections we can make (and keep). Smaller groups tend to help people “Lego up” with one another and connect relationally, in part because of the room arrangement (people sitting in a circle see one another’s faces and this helps form connections, as opposed to people sitting in classrooms with many rows of chairs facing the front of the room).  Dr. Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay, has discovered that 80% of new members will drop out in year 1 if they don’t get involved in a small group, meet new friends, and find a place of ministry. Smaller groups are “sticky” when it comes to helping people find new friends.
  4. Smaller groups are easier to teach – Have you ever tried to recruit someone to teach a large “pastor’s class”? It takes a special person with special biblical knowledge to teach such a large group of people. When that person steps down, moves away, retires, etc., finding a replacement can be just about impossible. In smaller groups, teacher-leaders are much easier to recruit. Guiding the Bible study of a group of 12 is much easier than trying to teach a large class. In a smaller group, it feels like a gathering of friends; “pastor’s classes” tend to feel like you’re back in a college lecture hall full of interested, but disconnected people.
  5. Small groups keep people from falling through cracks – One of the jobs of a teacher-leader is to act as a shepherd for their group. To read more about this, pick up a copy of the book 3 Roles for Guiding Groups. In this book, David Francis and I spend an entire chapter on the role of shepherd, and how a good teacher-shepherd knows his sheep, keeps up with them, prays for them, and watches over them. It is just physically impossible to do this in a large classroom setting with dozens and dozens of people in the group. I teach a group of 16 adults weekly at my church, and between my full-time job, my role as a husband and father, and other responsibilities, it is all I can do to minister to this smaller group of adults! I cannot imagine trying to teach and shepherd a group of 30, 40, or 50 adults.
  6. Small groups are places where discipleship takes place – Jesus taught and ministered to large groups, but His favorite method for making disciples was investing in 12 disciples, not 100 disciples. Even within His group of 12 there was an “inner group” of 3 men with whom He spent even more relational time. Jesus’ model was to use a small group as the basis for discipleship. Somewhere along the way, we’ve gotten away from this biblical example. A teacher who disciples his people knows each of them, their needs, their shortcomings, and what each one needs to progress in their journey toward Christ-likeness. In a large lecture-oriented class, I might make a good presentation, but I won’t generate much conversation and I certainly won’t see as much transformation as I might when I lead and disciple a smaller group of adults.


10 Sure-fire Ways to take H-O-T out of a Sunday School class

If you’re like me, you want to create an environment in the classroom where people feel they can open up and share their thoughts and feelings about the lesson and about their lives.  It sure beats having the same superficial conversations in class week after week.

H-O-T stands for Honest, Open, and Transparent.  Every teacher I’ve known has wanted to have a H-O-T Sunday School class, but they may have unintentionally done things that prevented the class members from becoming more honest, open and transparent.  Here are 10 sure-fire ways that a teacher might accidentally take the H-O-T right out of their classroom:

1.  Dominate the teaching time with lecture, rather than creating interaction between the group members.  It’s all about you anyway, right?  Your classroom, your lectern, your study, and the things you want to pour into your learners.  Don’t give them a chance to share much among themselves…after all, you’ve got a lot of important things to say.

2.  Never share your personal struggles with the group members…keep up the appearance of having it all-together.  After all, you’re the leader, the expert, and the person who is closest to God since you’re the teacher.  Don’t show a chink in your armor, or they may actually see that you’re just like them.

3.  Talk about the comments made, the hurts mentioned, and the struggles shared by members outside of the classroom.  Who wouldn’t like to see an intimate need, prayer request, or struggle posted on Facebook or sent around on Twitter after class?

4.  Don’t show the learners how to connect the lesson to real life…just settle for teaching solid biblical content…they’ll figure it out eventually.  God’s Word is powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, and it doesn’t return void.  But that’s no reason not to help learners connect the dots and see how to use the stories and doctrine found in the pages of Scripture in their family and workplace relationships.  Show them how practical the Bible is, and how its wisdom can help them make excellent, God-honoring decisions every day.

5.  Ignore the fact that people learn in different ways…just teach in the manner you’re most comfortable with – all the time.  How many teachers “stick with what works” Sunday after Sunday?  Their lessons are predictable and boring, and every moment of the class period can be anticipated by the group members.  Change things up, try a new style of teaching, and get out of your comfort zone, teacher!  Not everyone will appreciate your PowerPoint show week after week, or your overhead cells, or your detailed outline.  There are 8 learning styles, so get comfortable using different ones each week.  People will become more engaged in the lesson, and they’ll have a sense of anticipation each week.

6.  Teach points instead of principles.  Principle-centered teaching is a powerful way to lead people through a lesson.  A point-driven outline is often very predictable and quickly loses the attention of the learners.  Principles are applicable in any place, any time, and apply to everyone.  If you think you found a principle to teach, but you couldn’t teach it in a third world country, then you didn’t find a principle…go back to the drawing board!  People love talking about how a principle applies to them…get them in groups, let them talk, and watch the level of H-O-T start to rise.

7.  Pray big, sweeping, general prayers.  Rather than listing prayer requests on the marker board, then praying the “Dear Lord, bless these prayer requests” prayer, place people in triads or quads and allow them to pray for each others’ needs.  They will develop a new level of trust and relationship with the people in their group.  Let them get H-O-T during this kind of prayer time.  When you list a long string of requests on the board, does anyone really pay attention?  Can anyone really remember who needs what prayed for during the week?  I think not.

8.  Keep up the appearance of having a great grasp of biblical truth.  “Never let them see you sweat” was a tagline used in a deodorant commercial some years back – you wouldn’t want anyone else to know you are nervous and don’t  have it all together.  In a Sunday School class, it’s o.k.  for the teacher to admit that they are sweating it out, trying to understand a doctrine, story, or some other aspect of Scripture.  If you want the people to be HOT, you have to be HOT first and admit that you don’t always have the answer, and that you are on  journey to understand the Scriptures, too.  If you feel like you’ve arrived, that’s a clear indicator that you haven’t.  Be honest about your struggles, and they will be honest, too.

9.  Win every theological battle.  Take the HOT right out of your group by beating down the learners who express an understanding of the biblical text different from your understanding.  After all, you’re the teacher and you’ve got all the answers!  Teachers who want to create a HOT environment will allow people to openly express their thoughts about a verse or passage of Scripture without fear of looking stupid in front of their peers.  You’re not going to let heresy be taught in your classroom, but you can give people the freedom to express their current understanding while gently leading them into the truth.  Don’t exercise “the nuclear option” when someone in the classroom challenges something you’ve said or shares a differing viewpoint!  Lead them back to God’s Word and gently correct their thinking.

10.  Don’t organize the class into a Care Group system.  After all, they know you care, right??  Good teachers know that people want to belong and feel cared for, so they lead their classes to establish a system so that class members care for one another.  Guests can more quickly be assimilated into the life of a class if they are assigned to a Care Group, and members use their time and spiritual gifting to show Christ’s love in practical ways.  When the class members and guests gather together on Sunday morning for the class time, they are with a group of people with whom they are sharing life.  Talk about opening up the opportunities for a HOT small group environment to exist!

As you think about these 10 ways teachers often take the H-O-T out of their Sunday School classes, what has been your experience?  Have you seen these things in operation?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas!