Almost 88% of vibrant churches have Sunday School

If you think this is Sunday School, think again!

The words “Sunday School” cause people to react in different ways.  Some people have fond memories of their experiences in Sunday School. They remember a favorite classroom, good friends, a beloved teacher, or asking Jesus to come into their life as Lord and Savior.  Other people may have different impressions about Sunday School.  They associate it with boring lessons, or something that “their parents’ church” does.  In some places, Sunday School has gotten a bad reputation, and that’s too bad.  Sunday School is a significant ministry that teaches God’s Word, assimilates people into the church, shares the gospel, provides foundational discipleship, and mobilizes people for ministry.  And the research proves it!  Have you given up on Sunday School?  Don’t.  Keep reading and learn what’s happening in vibrant churches.

David Francis, Director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources, conducted a survey of the 400 vibrant churches that were surveyed for the book, Simple Church.  He was able to gather data on 94% of the vibrant churches (a vibrant church was identified as one that had experienced at least 5% growth for 3 consecutive years).  He discovered that 87.5% of those vibrant churches conducted Sunday School adjacent to the worship service on the Sunday morning schedule.

Simple and complex churches utilize Sunday School as a strategy, but HOW they utilize Sunday School differs greatly.  Simple churches are using Sunday School strategically, but complex churches are simply putting on a program.  David Francis and Eric Geiger identified several characteristics of simple churches that utilize Sunday School strategically.  Click here to go to the article.

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Limiting your group’s age range – good or bad move?

A few weeks ago I led a time of training for a group of adult teachers and class leaders. I made a comment about how much more effective a Sunday School is if it’s organized by age or life-stage grouping where the participants have no more than a decade of difference in their ages. Narrower than 10 years is even better if possible, but there was one lady in the group who seemed to disagree with the idea of assigning an age grouping to a class. “Why not just let ‘whosoever wills’ come to any group?” was her question.

I came across the following quote from Steve Parr of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Here is what Steve, a recognized expert in Sunday School and groups ministry, says about this issue of narrowly defining the class by an age range in his book Sunday School that Really Works:

“You will find it difficult to experience sustained growth if you organize based on those who are attending…The adult Sunday School functions best at reaching and assimilating new people when organized by life stage or more narrow age groupings. Do not be afraid of assigning an age grouping to each adult class. Remember that a class name does not communicate who the class is intended for. Include age targets with class names or name classes by life stage such as Parents of Preschoolers, College, and New Career…Your members may think that it makes sense for everyone to go where they are comfortable. The reality is that a commitment to reach the lost and to connect them to the congregation requires that we organize in a way that assists in reaching and assimilating them” (Sunday School That Really Works, p.106)

That’s almost exactly what I told my sister in Christ at the training event. I could tell that she, and possibly others, struggled to grasp this. But when we think like “missionaries” who are trying to reach the unreached, narrowly defined groups help both us and the unreached person know exactly which group contains people most like them.

Do the following:

  • Examine your church’s group options.
  • Identify groups that have a “multi-generation” approach.
  • Look for groups that have an age range for the members greater than 10 years.
  • Talk with your church staff leader about more narrowly defining your groups and adding new groups where you find “gaps” (if you have no group for single moms, perhaps you should consider starting a group for those people).

Should you re-brand Sunday School?

Ghostbusters 2016

Spider-man. Star Trek. Alien. Ghostbusters. Baywatch. CHIPs. Each of these movie franchises has been re-branded in the last few years to reach new audiences. Did I mention The Fantastic Four? I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve tried to re-brand that movie franchise! If you think it may be time to put a fresh coat of paint on your church’s Sunday School by calling it something else, let’s make sure you’ve thought through the positives and negatives. It may be the right move for your church. And on the other hand, it may not. Let’s see if we can reason through some of the pros and cons of re-branding your church’s Sunday School.

Pros

Star Trek re-branded itself with a younger cast playing iconic characters
  1. Sunday School isn’t 100% about Sunday. Having the word “Sunday” in the title may lead people to believe that Sunday School is about that hour before or after worship when you gather in age-graded classes to study the Bible. That’s unfortunate, because many good Sunday School groups “do life together” outside of the Sunday morning group experience. They fellowship together, pray together, serve together, and minister to one another. These groups have come to believe that Sunday School isn’t just about Sunday. Good for them!
  2. “School” can be a negative term. Many people associate the word “school” with something difficult, or perhaps boring. It also conjures up images of teachers who lecture, or who are harsh in the way they deal with their students.
  3. In some denominations, Sunday School is just for the kids. Southern Baptists are not alone in their Sunday School philosophy, but they might be outnumbered. Many churches only offer Sunday School groups for kids and teenagers.

Cons

  1. Sunday School already has “brand identity.” When you say the words “Sunday School,” most people know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s the hour adjacent to the worship service on our calendars.
  2. People may not accept the new name for it.  LIFE Groups, Adult Bible Fellowship groups, Adult Groups, Small Groups, or whatever other name you can come up with may never be accepted by members of your congregation.
  3. Verbiage changes slowly. I know of churches that changed the name of Sunday School years ago, yet the majority of their members still call it “Sunday School.” Don’t underestimate people’s unwillingness to change.

If you and/or your church have changed the name of Sunday School and survived it, I’d love to hear from you. Post your comments and help your fellow brothers and sisters wrestle with the decision to be more culture-shaping and culture-impacting by changing the name of Sunday School. We’d like to hear words of caution, and we’d also like to hear stories of success!

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Don’t Give up on Sunday School…”It’s not quite dead”

Shot by an arrow, Concord, the servant of Sir Lancelot, maintained “I’m not quite dead, sir.”

It’s confession time – I like British-style comedy, and I’ve been a fan of the movie “The Holy Grail” for a number of years. The storming of the French castle, the knights who say “Ni,” the three-headed knight who said “We waaaaaant – a shrubery,” the trash collector yelling “Bring out your dead,” and a certain attendant of Sir Lancelot named Concord, shot in the chest by an arrow, yet maintaining, “I’m not quite dead…in fact, I think I’m getting better.” If you haven’t seen the movie, you cannot appreciate the humor in the scenes I’m trying to describe. Let’s focus on the words of the character, Concord, who  was “not quite dead.” If you asked me if Sunday School has a fighting chance to survive, I’d tell you a resounding “yes” – it’s not quite dead. Don’t count it out just yet. In fact, in many churches, “it’s getting better.”

The words “Sunday School” cause people to react in different ways.  Some people have fond memories of their experiences in Sunday School – a favorite classroom, a beloved teacher, a lesson that really made an impact on them.  Other people may have different ideas about Sunday School.  They may associate it with boring lessons, or something they were made to endure as children and teens.  Sunday School has gotten a bad reputation in some places, and that’s too bad, because Sunday School is an excellent ministry for teaching God’s Word, providing foundational discipleship for people of all ages, assimilating people into the church, and mobilizing people for ministry.  And the research proves it!  Have you given up on Sunday School?  Don’t.

Vibrant Churches Are Using Sunday School

“Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time.”

David Francis, Director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources, conducted a survey of the 400 vibrant churches that were surveyed for the book, Simple Church.  He was able to gather data on 94% of the vibrant churches (a vibrant church was identified as one that had experienced at least 5% growth for 3 consecutive years).  He discovered that 87.5% of those vibrant churches conducted Sunday School adjacent to the worship service on the Sunday morning schedule.

Simple and complex churches utilize Sunday School as a strategy, but HOW they utilize Sunday School differs greatly.  Simple churches are using Sunday School strategically, but complex churches are simply putting on a program.  David Francis identified several characteristics of simple churches that utilize Sunday School strategically.  To read the full article, click here!

Galloping through the countryside, but without horses

The research doesn’t lie.  Almost 9 out of 10 vibrant churches have continued to discover the power of Sunday School. It’s often “step 2,” the second thing that churches want members and guests to become involved in after committing to attending worship services. Sunday School is foundational discipleship.  Call it what you will – Sunday School, LIFE Groups, Adult Bible Fellowship, GROW classes, or other creative terms that are now in use. Just don’t feel like you’re out of step or that you’ve made a mistake by endorsing Sunday School. Perhaps if Sunday School could talk it might say, “I’m not quite dead…I’m getting better.”

The future of Sunday School is in your hands

Mondays on my blog are reserved for presenting you with an excerpt from a book on Bible Missionary SSteaching, Sunday School, or small groups. Today I’ve chosen one of my favorite books – Missionary Sunday School. Like the author, David Francis, I’d like all of us to think more like missionaries as we go about leading our Bible study groups.

David provides his readers with a great, succinct overview of the history of Sunday School in his book. One thing stands out very clearly: Sunday School sprang up as a missionary movement. And if you’re involved in it today (or whatever your church may call its Bible teaching ministry), you’re a missionary, too. You may not be on foreign soil, but you’re a missionary none-the-less. Here are David’s own words:

Once in a while, you hear people say that Sunday School had its turn and it’s time to move on to something new and innovative. I’m not against new and innovative. I think we should use the tools God gives us to reach the world for Christ. Internet conferencing, messaging, and smart phones all have their place. What disturbs me are the words better or more effective are usually left out of the discussion. When Sunday School is done right, with excellence and missionary purpose, it continues to be a proven and effective way of reaching the lost in our communities, involving the saved in service, and mobilizing the local church for ministry. There are other ways of drawing a crowd or taking a small group of believers deeper in their faith, but I’m talking about a Sunday School organized to think like and function as a missionary. I see it time and time again: Sunday School…works and works well…if the leaders are willing to do the work. It is not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. The future is in our hands.

So, group leader, do you see yourself as a “Sunday School missionary”? Do you believe that you are part of an almost three hundred year old movement to reach people with the gospel? Or do you see yourself as a Sunday morning, on-campus, information dispenser?

As I lead my own Bible study group each week, I want to view myself as a missionary to the culture. I want to be a missionary to my town. I want the men and women I lead weekly to view themselves in that way, too. I want my Sunday School group to be a missionary group. I want my church’s Sunday School to be a missionary Sunday School.

Pick up a free downloadable e-version of Missionary Sunday School by clicking here. David Francis would like you to have a free copy for yourself.

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3 ways to get your group members to talk

Cricket, cricket.

If you’ve ever heard that sound in your Bible study group, then you’ll want to know more talk-clipart-talking13about how to get your group members to talk. Encouraging people to speak up is both an art and a science. Talking during a Bible study is not a waste of time, as some teachers might be inclined to believe. Talking actually helps group members process the concepts they are learning. Ed Stetzer, in the book Transformational Groups, said  “A small group or class Bible study should be a ‘groupalogue’…Your effectiveness goes up incredibly as does learning when everyone is talking…” (p.24).

Here are three ways to encourage your people speak up:

  1. Use a Bible study curriculum that has great discussion questions – Crafting great discussion questions takes time and experience. Expertise is required. Most Bible study leaders have difficulty creating questions that generate conversation. I know of several people online who offer help by providing questions they’ve generated, but when you examine the questions they’ve created, you quickly realize they don’t know what they’re doing. Just because a person can write a question and put the appropriate punctuation at the end of it doesn’t mean it’s a good question. Sam O’ Neal, in his book Field Guide For Small Group Leaders, writes about several kinds of poor questions he frequently sees people write. Some of those questions include:
    • Idiot questions
    • Leading the witness questions
    • Long-winded questions
    • Compound questions
  2. Don’t ask a question on the fly – One of the worst ways to ask a question is to make one up on the spot and blurt it out. Great questions require time to think. If you make up a question in the heat of the moment, chances are it’s going to be a poor question. It would be better to write out your questions in advance, review them, alter them if needed, then present them during the group’s Bible study.
  3. Wait for your group members to answer a question – In the book Basics of Teaching for Christians, author Robert Pazmino presents research that informs us of a basic truth: if you want people to talk, you must wait at least 20 seconds for them to respond. That means you, the teacher, cannot answer your own questions when no one else does initially. For more on this, click here to see an earlier blog post where I more fully presented this subject.

Remember this admonition:  The Yakety-Yak Principle states that people learn better when they discuss what they are learning (Teaching the Bible Creatively, p.61). Ask questions. Wait for answers. This will change your group!

 

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.