Small Groups Versus Sunday School

Do these vital programs have to be at war?

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.

free newsletter

Sign up for our free Small Groups Newsletter newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Resource Review: Small Groups with Purpose
Resource Review: Small Groups with Purpose
Steve Gladen's book is a long-awaited addition to the field.
Twelve Tips for a Successful Campaign
A step-by-step guide from a campaign superhero
No More Ministry Hogs
Here's how to get everyone in your small groups to serve.
Small-Group Host Orientation Guide
Small-Group Host Orientation Guide
This guide has been specially designed to provide orientation and basic training for your church's small-group hosts.
A Balanced Small-Group Strategy
How small groups can apply the five purposes of the church.