Whether you are transitioning away from Sunday school or merely adding small groups to supplement your current system, be prepared for resistance. Most people are resistant to change, and in the case of Sunday school and small groups, that resistance can be very strong. That's because the two systems have been pitted against each other in recent years, and church members often feel compelled to "defend" the current system while fighting against the introduction of a new system. It's unfortunate, but it's a reality.
As in the case of any change, communication is the key. Use every avenue of communication at your disposal, and use them often. If you are adding small groups with the intention of keeping Sunday school, be sure to let your people know that small groups are just another option for spiritual health. If you are transitioning away from Sunday school, do so slowly. Very slowly. If you quickly pull the plug on Sunday school with little or no transition time, you could lose a large percentage of your congregation. Instead of seeing the Sunday school advocates as "enemies" of your new small-group system, recognize them as the faithful servants who have attended those Sunday school classes week after week—perhaps for years.
I would suggest that you think of this transition in terms of three stages: patience, prayer, and planning.
If you were going on a mission trip, you would want to know something about the culture in which you would be serving. The same idea applies here. While you may feel you know your church culture, when it comes to leading people through a change, you will be shaking the very foundations of that culture. So it is imperative that you understand not only the current culture, but also your church's history and any buried "trigger points" that may be stumbling blocks to progress.
Do that in three steps:
- Talk to key opinion leaders. These are not necessarily the ministry leaders of your church. Talk to the ministry leaders, yes, but also look for "unofficial" leaders such as spouses of pastors, deacons, and elders. Talk to the people who work in the office. Interview that administrative assistant or children's ministry volunteer who has been at the church for 20 years. Ask people in the church who they think are the key opinion leaders. Who has influence and a passion for the future of the church? Who are the strong Sunday school proponents? You will want them on your side.
Write down all of these names and be especially aware of names that keep coming up. Then go to those people and listen, listen, listen.
- Survey past and current small-group leaders (if any). The goal here is to find out what worked, what didn't, and what they wish would have happened. If they were king or queen for a day, what would they have done differently? You should also survey Sunday school leaders and ask them about their thoughts regarding small groups. What are their reservations? What has been their experience with small groups?
- Honor the past, but progressively move into the future. Be sure to honor the people who developed Sunday school or small groups before you. They may have not done it the way you would have done it, but because of their hard work and sacrifice, you have the opportunity ahead of you.
At the same time, focus on the new people who are adopting your paradigm (early adopters), not those who are waiting to see if you are around next year (late adopters). Remember, if you have existing small groups who have survived for awhile with little or no direction, they probably have a "maverick spirit." They keep going with little or no encouragement. They are loyal, but the only way the new sheriff in town is going to win them over is through relationship.