Small Groups and Sunday School

Small Groups and Sunday School

Rick Howerton is a church consultant in the south-central region of Kentucky

During challenging days of ministry, I always knew whom to call. Rick Howerton has a warm, kind, indefatigable personality. He’s a pastor to pastors. Many years ago, when I was serving a church in Kentucky and he was working at LifeWay in Nashville, he asked me to participate in a panel discussion about small groups and Sunday school. At the time, I oversaw one of the largest hybrid programs in America. The truth is, however, Rick didn’t need my input. His expertise was far beyond what I brought to the conversation.

When it comes to adult Sunday school and small groups there is probably no one with more knowledge, wisdom, and experience than Rick Howerton. Besides his pastoral experience, Rick served twice as Small Groups Champion at LifeWay, as a Small Groups Consultant for NavPress, and now serves as a church consultant in the south-central region of Kentucky. He’s also the author of a terrific book, A Different Kind of Tribe: Embracing the New Small-Group Dynamic, which was released a few years back.

Rick, you’ve ministered in a variety of settings. The Southern Baptist Convention has a rich history of Sunday school and you offer a unique perspective as a pastor who loves and appreciates both. Let’s start with a simple question. What do Sunday school classes and small groups have in common?

Sunday school and small groups share the same primary goals, the goals Jesus commanded just prior to His ascension. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19 – 20a, ESV). Evangelism and growing the evangelized toward spiritual maturity are both included in this command. These are the primary goals of both Sunday school and small groups.

Small groups and Sunday school also share these commonalities (traditional and stereotypical models).

  • Group size is about twelve.
  • Both group types strive for koinonia. Small group ministries call this “community.” Sunday school classes call this “fellowship.”
  • Both group types study the Bible. Sunday school classes are more about someone teaching information. Small groups are more about group members having a conversation.
  • Both group types believe in and practice communal prayer.
  • Both group types long to invite others to be part of their group. Small groups often use the “empty chair” concept while Sunday school classes “invite prospects.”
  • Both group types strive to practice the one another’s. Small groups are oftentimes proactive in teaching and expecting this while Sunday school classes tend to be more intuitive in this practice.

Thank you for that thorough comparison. I don’t know anyone who could do it better! Small groups and Sunday schools each do some things better than the other. Where are they most different? What does each do slightly (or significantly) better than the other?

Let’s start with a couple of graphics. All biblical groups share four quadrants of group life. Biblical groups are theological (study the Bible), relational (Christian community), restorational (allow God to use them to restore brokenness), and missional (evangelize and care for those less fortunate.) The first chart depicts a biblical Sunday school class. While they strive to live out all four quadrants, the primary goal is to study and learn the Bible so the chart shows 50 percent of their focus is theological—Bible study. When you look at the small group graphic, you’ll see that small groups also strive to carry out all four quadrants but they are primarily relational. Small groups focus primarily on relationships and the Bible is their guide for how to do life together. These are the differences that influence the distinctions between the two group approaches.

Sunday School Class

Small Group

I wouldn’t say that one group does something better than the other. I say this because culture determines what is best in a given setting. For instance, in most traditional denominational churches, it’s best to be a Sunday school class having “monthly fellowships,” rather than being available to one another 24/7. It would be fitting to say that small groups meet one another’s needs better than Sunday school classes do but, if that doesn’t fit the church’s culture, it would upset the apple cart and ultimately be negative.

Because small groups are primarily relational and Sunday school classes are primarily theological, other differences are natural outcomes. I’ve listed those below.

  • When Sunday school classes meet, their Bible study is content-driven and led by a teacher.
  • When small groups meet, their Bible study is conversation-driven and led by a facilitator.
  • Sunday school classes meet in church buildings.
  • Small groups typically meet in homes.
  • Sunday school classes have no agreed-upon expectations of class members.
  • Small groups have substantial expectations of group members and often require group members to sign a covenant agreement.
  • Sunday school classes connect at the weekly class meeting and for monthly or quarterly “fellowships.”
  • Small groups agree to be available for one another 24/7.

If I was to overlook culture and give you a quick list based on your question, it would read as follows:

  • Sunday school is better at Bible knowledge than small groups.
  • Small groups are better at doing life together than Sunday school classes.
  • Small groups are better than Sunday school classes at creating a welcoming environment for those who have been hurt by the church in the past.
  • Sunday school is better than small groups at creating a positive environment for the long-time, institutionalized church member.
  • Sunday school is better than small groups at hosting an environment where people can remain anonymous.
  • Small groups are better than Sunday school classes at reaching those far from Christ, people who would be very hesitant to enter a church building.

How could you start small groups out of a Sunday school? How could an education minister start a Sunday school from small groups?

First, how could you start small groups out of a Sunday school? It’s extremely difficult to start true small groups with people who are in a Sunday school class together for the following reasons:

1) The intuitive boundaries of intimacy are already set. Small groups are about vulnerability and honestly. If people have been in a Sunday school class together for years, it will be extremely difficult for them to overcome the vulnerability line that has already been subconsciously written in the stone.

2) The shift from a teacher teaching them to them conversing with one another will be difficult. It will happen over time, but it will take time.

3) These people are used to meeting Sunday morning. Changing to an evening experience may be difficult for them.

But, if you are starting small groups out of a Sunday school class, consider the following.

Step 1 – Do an experimental group with three people and/or couples who will lead their own group. The staff member in charge should lead this group. The goals of this group include modeling what all future groups will do and experience, attendees having an extremely positive experience, but most importantly, positive stories that can be told to others who would leave a Sunday school class to join a small group.

Step 2 – Launch three more groups using those who had a great experience in the first group, the experimental group, as the group leaders. Be sure that the Senior Pastor is talking about small groups in worship services and sermons. Ask those who were in the experimental groups and now leading groups to share testimonials about their experience. This should happen in Sunday school classes where the Groups Pastor wants groups to come from.

Step 3 – Launch a new set of groups at least a year after starting your first experimental group. By this time, the church should have been inspired by those who have had a great experience.

An important NECESSITY…your leaders will need to be in a group, not just trained in a weekly training experience or a training retreat. The principle is thi, when people get nervous, they revert to that which is most natural for them. Leading a group for the first time will be somewhat nerve-racking. If they don’t experience group life over a substantial period of time, they’ll revert to what they know best, Sunday school. When this happens, you’ll end up with Sunday school classes that are meeting in homes, not small groups. I’ve seen this pattern over and again in many churches. In one year, the small group ministry is shut down and the phrase that is stated again and again is, “Small groups don’t work.”

How could an education minister start a Sunday school from small groups? Let me be very honest, I don’t believe this is possible. If small groups are relational and Sunday school classes are more informational, I don’t think this will work. I’m not suggesting it’s not a good idea, I just don’t believe it is achievable. People who have experienced true Christian community, doing life together, cannot do without it. While I personally don’t believe that most Sunday school classes are relationally cold, compared to a great small group, it will feel that way to those who have experienced a healthy, thriving small group. People will give up gaining knowledge for deep, intimate, Christ-centered relationships, but most won’t give up deep, intimate, Christ-centered relationships for the gaining of knowledge.

Please don’t hear me slamming Sunday school. I am not! I believe deeply in Sunday school and more so now than ever before.

I know you aren’t slamming Sunday school. That’s why I wanted you to respond to these questions. You love them both! Let me ask you about one of the deepest concerns senior pastors often have about small groups. A risk of small groups is the development of cliques and clubs. How can you keep this from happening?

An online definition defines a clique as “a small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together and do not readily allow others to join them.” The problem is the second half of the definition “do not readily allow others to join them.”

I believe this can be easily overcome. When the group is started, include in the group covenant adding people to the group. Give them guidance on how to recruit people into the group. Check with the leader on an ongoing basis to see how they’re doing in connecting with those in need of a group. And finally, when a group adds someone to their group, celebrate that in the presence of other groups members. What you celebrate gets repeated!

What advice would you offer a small group director who is pioneering or leading this ministry in a church with an established Sunday school culture? How should they think? Where should they begin? What should they avoid doing?

They need to think “outside their well-established box.” Small groups and Sunday school share some commonalities, but they are not the same thing. Think about how to connect people in relationship with one another, not how to recruit people into classes. Think about small group leaders investing in the lives of group members, not teaching a class for students. Think about small groups as a group of people doing life together deeply, not a group of people meeting weekly.

Begin with one group that you lead. Each of the people or couples in the group need to know that they’ll be leading a group when they finish the group you’re leading. This is generation one. When you feel the people in that group are ready to lead a group of their own, set them free to do that. This system and process is vitally important because people do what they’ve seen done not what they’re told they’re supposed to do. This means that the groups pastor or education ministry has an incredible opportunity to model everything they want every future group to do. If they do, they’ll have an incredible groups ministry someday.

Avoid pitting small groups against Sunday school. Small groups are NOT better than Sunday school and Sunday school is NOT better than small groups. They are just two different ways to build relationships and grow spiritually. When speaking of either model, never compare the two; always celebrate both.

Some senior pastors express concern that small groups may become fertile ground for complaint and division. How do you address those fears? How do you keep groups from becoming the very thing the pastor fears?

Small groups should never be a place where complaints and division are welcomed. To avoid this, when training your small group leaders, let them know in writing that small groups are about nurturing people to spiritual maturity and any conversation that questions the church leadership or decisions made by the church leadership cannot happen in the context of a small group. Train them on how to respond when a group member starts a conversation of that nature. When necessary, and I’ve had to do this, attend a meeting of a group that is involved in these kinds of conversations and remind them of the biblical guidelines for confrontation (Matthew 18), of the consequences of these kinds of conversations (division in the body of Christ), and that these kinds of conversations cannot occur.

Thanks, Rick, for sharing your insight with us! I’m always encouraged and challenged by you, and I know our readers are, too!

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