Note: This article has been excerpted from Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen.
Sunday school classes and small groups don't have to be opposing one another. Instead, use the best elements of small-group ministry to make your Sunday school classes healthy and ready for transformation.
There are some practical steps you can take to help your Sunday school class maximize its health once your church has decided what its goal is for a healthy follower of Christ. (For Saddleback it is a person who balances the Great Commission and great commandment in his or her heart through the purposes of fellowship, discipleship, service, evangelism, and worship.)
1. Strategically set up your room. Instead of having chairs set up in rows, use round tables. Placing class members around tables forces them to make eye contact with each other and encourages conversation. If your church can't afford round tables, just set up your chairs in small circles or horseshoes (open end of the horseshoe to the front of the classroom).
2. Build consistency at the table. Once you set up your room with round tables (or chairs in small circles or horseshoes), encourage class members to sit in the same spot each week so they can become better acquainted with those sitting next to them. When a group of new people come into the class, encourage them to start a new table. People will not feel safe enough to dive beneath the surface-level conversations if they are sitting with new people each week. This will only happen with consistent relationships, which take time to build.
3. Understand ratios. If your class is larger than ten, start thinking about who can help you build health into every individual. If one of your goals is to know the spiritual health of each person in your class and encourage him or her to take a spiritual next step, then realistically, you can't know and follow up on more than ten individuals. Identify leaders at every table to help you in this process.
4. Set the table for evangelism. If your tables or circles seat eight, don't fill the table with eight people. Seat five or six people at the table and ask them to think about who they can invite to fill in the extra seats. Also, once they are seated in smaller circles, attendance accountability is a natural by-product. If you are seated with six people, they will notice if you are not there. Small gatherings like this develop an organic accountability.
5. Know your sheep and help your sheep know themselves. Plan a time for everyone to take a Spiritual Health Assessment and develop a Personal Health Plan (available from Saddleback Church). When class members take the assessment, they will learn the biblical purpose that is their strength (fellowship, discipleship, ministry, evangelism, or worship) and will be able to identify in which area they need to grow.
6. Build spiritual accountability. Once people have identified areas in which they want to grow, have them pair up with someone who will help them by asking the question, "Did you accomplish what you set out to do?" This checkup should be done as a natural part of the relationship. The Sunday school teacher and the table leader don't need to know what everyone is working on, just that each of them has a person who is checking up on him or her.
7. Develop ownership. Ask those who are strong in a particular area to help your class. If someone at the table is strong in the area of fellowship, he or she can keep track of birthdays and anniversaries at that table or help the entire class to plan a social event. If someone at a table is strong in discipleship, that person can encourage table members to take a Spiritual Health Assessment and develop a Personal Health Plan. As your class works on each area, those who are strong can help individuals who are weak to grow. If a person is weak in the area of evangelism, the entire class can do an evangelism project, which will help that person grow.