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.

Are small groups replacing Sunday school?

Small groups and Sunday school don't have to be enemies of each other. They can work together if they are aligned to what you want in producing a follower of Christ. It is true, however, that there is a general trend away from Sunday school and toward small groups. Here are a few reasons churches are making the switch:

  1. Churches need their parking lot emptied for the next service that is starting. Churches that have multiple services and also hold Sunday school during those services usually struggle to find places for their people to park. Attending one service and Sunday school afterward (or before) can tie up a parking space for two service times. If parking spaces are limited, this is a real problem. Without a place to park, new people can't come to church.
  2. Some churches have made the switch for sheer economics. Sunday school requires classrooms. Your Sunday school attendance will always be limited to the number of seats you can provide. It often comes to a point where the money that is being spent on classrooms might be better spent elsewhere in the community or the church. Small groups meet in homes, so space is never an issue for the church.
  3. People often cannot give you two or three hours in one shot. Time is often our most precious commodity. With more demands on peoples' time, attending Sunday school and a church service back-to-back just won't work for some families. It's easier for them to attend a small group later in the week on another day than to "tie up" their entire Sunday morning.
  4. By providing Sunday school as your only means of developing people to be a follower of Christ, you are giving people two options—take it or leave it. In a culture full of options and diverse schedules, people are looking for more options from their church, too.

Could the Sunday night service or the Wednesday night service become times for small groups?

This may be a good starting point because your culture may have developed these times for people to set aside for church. But the power of small groups is the ability to pick the day and time that serves group members best. When a church picks certain times and days, you limit one of the strengths of using small groups as a means to deliver health.

What do we do with the kids if we go to small groups?

This is one of the greatest challenges of the small-group movement. It's not impossible to overcome, but a plan is needed. Where Sunday school has this issue very well taken care of, small groups with children need a POA—a plan of attack!

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Exchange childcare with another small group.
  • Work with the Youth Ministry to make childcare for small groups a serving opportunity.
  • Bring a babysitter to the group meeting and split the cost of childcare among members.
  • Have group members take turns "stepping out" of the group to watch the kids in another part of the house.
  • If two group members live relatively close to one another, ask a babysitter to watch the kids at one house while the group meets at another.

Can Sunday school and small groups co-exist in the same church?

You bet! Sunday school and small groups can co-exist as long as they are aligned and not competing with each other. This same potential for "competing" can happen with affinities such as Men's, Women's, Couples, and Singles ministries in your church. If any program is not aligned with your delivery systems to create healthy followers of Christ, it can deter the effectiveness of your church. I would suggest that the two ministries report to the same person.

Can our church members attend Sunday school and a small group?

Sure—as long as they have the margin. Some people fill their schedules with lots of church activities but are not growing spiritually. Make sure they are not just being busy, but developing their spiritual health.

Should church members be expected to attend both?

Absolutely not! You want to take them deep, not wide. The reason they are attending either is to develop community which serves as the foundation for holistic discipleship. I would be more concerned that they are living out the Great Commission and Great Commandment in their lives than whether they are attending every event the church offers.

What characteristics do small group leaders need to exhibit that Sunday School teachers do not (and vice versa)?

Depending on how you define what you want to see in a follower of Christ, the primary function of both the Sunday-school leader and the small-group leader is to understand where each student/member is in their spiritual walk, and then encourage that person to take their next spiritual step. Whether that is happening in a small group or in Sunday school, the leader needs to always be thinking about how to move their people along their spiritual journey.

Will starting a small-group ministry weaken a pre-existing Sunday-school ministry?

When people were first debating whether baseball should be broadcast on this new invention called television, the naysayers were worried that if people watched baseball on TV, they wouldn't come to the ballpark. As history proved, this thinking was faulty. The same applies to this question.

Having both programs gives you more opportunities to develop people and reduce the excuses for not doing one or the other. There is strength in alignment and not fearing the other delivery system. If they are both producing the same "end," it should not matter which route your members choose.

—Steve Gladen is the Pastor of Small-Group Community at Saddleback Church and author of Small Groups with Purpose (available May of 2011). You can read more from Steve at

free newsletter

Sign up for our free Small Groups 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.