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Small Groups Versus Sunday School

Small Groups Versus Sunday School

Do these vital programs have to be at war?

Steve Gladen  |  posted 12/06/2010

If the goal is to teach the Word of God and apply the Great Commission and Great Commandment, does it matter if your people meet in a church classroom or living room? The debate over Sunday school versus small groups continues. Each side debates the merits of their system while pointing out the "flaws" in the other system.

I often overhear the question, "Does your church have Sunday school or small groups?" This is often a veiled way of asking, "Is your church a traditional one that is stuck in the rut of Sunday school?" The common notion is that Sunday school is a system that traditional churches cling to, while more modern and progressive churches move toward small groups.

The truth, however, is not that simple or clear cut. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. And more important than the "system" used is the desired result—spiritual growth and health.

Know Your Goal

Before you decide on using Sunday school and/or small groups as a delivery system for health, make sure you understand what health is. At Saddleback, we believe a healthy follower is someone who is balancing the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in their heart and life. We believe the best way to do that is through small groups. But that doesn't mean your church cannot use Sunday school to produce healthy followers of Christ.

Once you know what type of attributes you want to see in a follower of Christ, then you can develop a delivery system to align with your purpose and your church's culture.

The first two churches I worked at (one as an intern and one as a staff member) were Sunday school only churches. The next two churches I worked at combined Sunday school and small groups. My last church and Saddleback Church are totally driven by small groups. At each church there were pros and cons to their delivery systems. Looking back, regardless of the delivery system, I realize the most important thing is to know why you have small groups or Sunday school.

Many churches have Sunday school or small groups simply because that is what they have always done. They have given little thought to their desired result and whether the particular system they are using is the most productive for achieving that desired result. It's the same reason churches have a mid-week services or a Sunday-night service. It's not about strategy, but it is how we have always done it.

It is important that you understand me clearly on this: small groups, Sunday school, mid-week services, and Sunday-night services in and of themselves are not bad. However, without a strategic purpose, they could be consuming resources, time, and energy that could be better spent elsewhere. Worse yet, they may be working against your stated purpose and confusing your people.

Everyone in your church has 168 hours a week to give. The world is competing with you for those hours. The church is only going to get so many of those hours. With this full realization, ask yourself: What is the best use of your peoples' time? What would be most effective in making them a follower of Christ?

As a proponent of small groups (which, by the way, does not mean I am against Sunday school), I receive all kinds of questions about the intersection between Sunday school and small groups. Here are some of the most common.

What differentiates a Sunday school class from a small group?

Location and title. Other than that, both delivery systems should be aligned to the same principles. The methodologies will be different, but the "end in mind" should be the same. Of course, this may vary from church to church.

Topics:Community, Connecting, Launching, Models, Purpose, Purpose driven
References:Matthew 22:37-40, Matthew 28:19-20
Date Added:December 06, 2010

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December 09, 2010  12:20pm

My hope is to clear up what may be a bit of confusion. The term Sunday School is defined differently by many churches. In this article, and others like it, Sunday School refers to Sunday morning adult Bible studies, often a classroom lecture style teaching event. However, in many churches the term Sunday School only refers to the Sunday morning Children's Ministry event. You can see how this can be very confusing (it was for me), because to some it sounds like you are debating the value of a Children's Sunday School Program against adult Small Groups. In almost every instance the debate between Sunday School and Small Group specifically refers to adult ministry.

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December 08, 2010  1:54pm

Being a small groups facilitator for some time, I find that small groups will definitely grow a church and see it through tough times. If small groups are not promoted and nurtured by the leadership and the preacher from the pulpit , the small groups program will never grow and so goes the congregation. Sadly, the Sunday School program seems to be more popular with the "older" congregations as they like the teaching verse by verse. Small groups are not designed for the individual who feels the need to study each verse for its spiritual meaning, Small groups is the door in which unchurched individuals feel welcomed into a christian community. Then they can feed upon the meat of the word as they mature.

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December 08, 2010  1:34pm

Two observations: One, in agreement with Steve, spiritual maturity is more about actions than knowledge. It has been my observation that many of those concerned with having opportunities for "deep study" are not yet consistently practicing the things they already know. Second, there need be no limitations on the depth of Bible study that groups can undertake. Our small groups generally have more time for Bible study than do our ABF classes (we're a church that has both), and the availability of video and other curriculum sources does not peg your capabilities to those of the individual group leader. I'd rather have a church full of people who are loving God and loving their neighbors (and have a basic understanding of the gospel message that they can explain to others) than a church full of Bible scholars who are not practicing what they know. (There was a group like that in Jesus' time. They were called the Pharisees.) It's great to have both, but I know which one I'd prefer.

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Steve Gladen

December 07, 2010  2:55pm

Trisha, I hear what you are saying. At Saddleback, discipleship is about "being" in Christ, knowing the cognitive part and the action part (holistic in balancing Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, Evangelism and Worship) in a believers life. Many Christians know far more than they are putting into practice. But to your point, it is important to make sure groups have a good diet in the curriculum selection so that they are gettting books of the Bible and doctrine in their learning. If you want to see our planner, go to and check out the curriculum planner. Just because you haven't seen it done doesn't mean you can't develop it in groups.

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December 07, 2010  12:33pm

Unless effective Christian education and discipleship as programmed through small groups is aimed at those who are children, youth and teens, parents will still have to schedule Sunday School time. The article seemed to suggest that small groups equaled babysitting opportunities. For me, this was a major disconnect on how we schedule our activites in an increasingly crowded calendar.

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