Sunday School and Small Groups

What’s the difference between an adult Sunday school class and a small group? Why is it important for a church to offer both? Such questions would not have been raised a couple of generations ago. Every opportunity to continue the disciple-making process would be welcome – at least in theory. But I hear these questions a lot today.

Also, most congregations would not have been as intentional as many are today. Purpose statements accompanied by strategies to accomplish specific goals were relatively rare in the Christian community twenty-five years ago.

Both Sunday school and small groups are programs. Consequently, they should be viewed as means to an end – nothing more. If they serve a given purpose, presumably one better than a possible alternative, they are worthwhile. If not, do something else. Time and resources are too important. The task is too big. And the resources, by comparison, often seem meager. My observation suggests that it is difficult for a congregation to put an equal emphasis on both small groups and Sunday school. Invariably one will do better than the other. Let’s look at some specifics.

For the vast majority of churches, the biggest group of people gathers on Sunday morning. That alone makes Sunday morning an ideal discipling opportunity. The traditions surrounding Sunday school can be a significant inhibitor to using the time effectively. But instead of just letting things ride let’s do something about it.

Over the years I’ve had conversations with those who either had or were contemplating abandoning Sunday school in favor of small groups. My first question has been: What will you do to disciple your children? As often as not, that question was overlooked.

In some places a structure has evolved in which children attend Sunday school while the parents are in the worship service. I find that troublesome. Increasingly, we have situations where middle school and even high school students do not attend worship with any regularity. If we expect young people to continue in the church they must be integrated into the full-orbed life of the congregation.

It is possible to have a small group format on Sunday morning that could deal with two problems at once –

1. Childcare is almost always an issue with small groups. To hold them on Sunday morning in conjunction with a children’s Sunday school solves that problem.

2. Both children and adults would have opportunities for study and worship in a two-hour-plus block on Sunday.

But what is the difference between an adult Sunday school class and a small group?

In some churches the small group is primarily for fellowship — an opportunity for people to gather and tell their stories. Other elements such as Bible study are secondary. In such a setting, the difference might be striking because traditionally Sunday school has been a place to study the Bible. Yet it’s also true that the social fabric of some churches is knitted in adult Sunday school classes. In my experience, however, the level of sharing in the small group is almost always more personal – more intense.

That gives us the biggest indication of the difference between Sunday school and the small group. Some in the larger Sunday school class, which is quasi-academic in its setting, would never feel comfortable in a small group.

In small groups that I work with, Bible study is a significant component. So is prayer. It’s also important to have a task – to work together to make a contribution to others. The elements are similar in many Sunday school classes but the setting and the atmosphere make them distinct.

In the Sunday school class, ethics can be approached from a philosophical perspective. In the small group its more personal. Issues such as child rearing and marriage can be discussed more generally and systematically in the Sunday school. In the small group issues confronting members become the backdrop for discussion.

Bible study in the Sunday school can be a bit more academic without forsaking application and in the small group there can be application without neglecting the text. Thus at times the differences may seem subtle, at other points distinct.

In a world that is so ignorant of the Bible and a Christian community so lacking in its understanding of basic tenants of the faith, there is plenty validation for helping people understand the Scripture, the culture and the ways the Christian message applies personally and collectively.

Bob knows training! He has conducted hundreds of seminars across the country as Training Coordinator for CEP. He trains others to do the work of training. His experience is surpassed only by his concern for those struggling with the load that they carry as workers in the kingdom. Bob is a graduate of Covenant College and Westminster Theological Seminary.

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