Does my church have to choose between Sunday school and small groups?
The church should be a place where training and growth occur so that Christians flourish.
A debate over Sunday school versus small groups has developed over recent years. Many are rethinking the value of small groups, deciding to make a shift back to Sunday school or a similar model.
Some churches have decided to keep Sunday school while adding groups, some have always held true to the Sunday school structure, and others abandoned Sunday school altogether for the goal of having a “simple church” made up of the gathering and small groups. There are many factors that influence the decision to go with either Sunday school or small groups. The reality is that some form of both are necessary for accomplishing Christian formation.
It’s “both and”
While there is no explicit biblical mandate for Sunday school or small groups, a developed and deliberate structure is necessary where education, equipping, confession, and accountability, alongside other practices can take place. Sunday school, or some form of education ministry, can and should exist alongside small groups for the purpose of fully forming disciples of Christ. To understand why this is so, churches must understand the specific purpose and capacity for each ministry model.
Sunday school: more traditional means
Religious education is as old as the Bible itself, but the particular brand of education called Sunday school has a varied history. This history weaves between catechetical schools within Reformed and Anglican churches in the Reformation through industrialized England working with poor and orphaned children. What eventually emerged was a generally lay-led education ministry of the church, fueled by various curriculum organizations, for the purpose of educating both children and adults in biblical literacy.
This model continues today, with Sunday school curriculum created and distributed by various denominations and organizations for training Christians in various aspects of Bible knowledge. Sunday school, or classes, historically have sought to educate and train the people of God in biblical literacy and theological comprehension. This has most always been the main goal. But what about small groups? Doesn’t education and equipping also take place in this environment? Yes, sometimes, but the real question is should that be the main goal? Let’s explore.
Small groups: slightly newer means
Small groups, like Sunday school, has a varied history. As many have argued, their roots are in the very earliest church gatherings. Such an argument carries some measure of truth, but it’s certainly not the whole picture. With the newly formed and forming church, the small group gatherings were likely an expression of larger gatherings that were taking place within synagogues and home churches.
Though groups of Christians have always met in various ways outside the weekly gathering, small groups as an official ministry of the church were simply not a facet of church life for much of the history of Christ’s church. Fast forward to John Wesley in the 18th century and his various levels of small group meetings, all meant to “watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation” (Wesley, General Rules). The goal was to disciple church members through Scripture reading, sermon discussion, prayer, and care for one another.
In the American colonies, numerous examples of similar gatherings began to sprout up. As an official ministry model, the small group developed within the 20th century to provide an outlet for experiencing Christian community on a small scale (particularly with the rise of the megachurch), focused on prayer, reading of Scripture, and caring for members throughout various trials of life. The purpose was to “live what was taught,” practicing the “one anothers” of the New Testament.
Not a matter of “better”
But one might ask, “Isn’t it possible to do this in a Sunday school or class setting?” Perhaps, but the better question here is whether or not an environment focused on education is best utilized for such a task. The issue may not be which one is the better model, rather, the issue is defining the purpose of each and seeking to facilitate Christian formation in the most effective manner possible.
Often, when the New Testament describes training and equipping, it speaks of gaining practical wisdom and abilities. We also see the idea of training as a discipline, like conditioning for a sport or physical activity. The ancient ideas of paideia (disciplined guidance and instruction) and phronesis (practical wisdom and discernment), along with training mental faculties, permeate the New Testament descriptions of training for godliness. The New Testament also contains numerous “one another” directives which include actions such as confessing, loving, showing hospitality and honor, and more. These actions are the practical outflow of a transformed heart, they are to be continually practiced and encouraged.
With the call to be trained and equipped, and to consistently practice Christian fellowship, the church should seek to be a formational community where these things occur and flourish. Many have chosen either small groups or Sunday school to accomplish the task. The question then becomes, can both equipping the saints and the effective practice of Christian fellowship take place in one without the other? Perhaps, but likely for many churches, a diligent effort to create an environment of true Christian formation will include both education in the form of a Sunday school, as well as the practice of community in a small group setting. There will certainly be overlap, but creating a structure to maximize the effectiveness of both may be the best path forward.
How do we do it?
So how can this be accomplished in the church, especially in a church where resources may be tight? A few things.
- Assess your needs and your abilities. What first step do your people need to take towards greater biblical literacy or theological knowledge? Don’t give steak if your people need milk. Also, what skills and abilities are present among the pastoral and lay leadership? Seek to take advantage of what you have, not lament what you don’t.
- Start small. Use already established structures within the church to build out training and equipping. An established Wednesday night meeting can be dedicated to training in Bible and theology, or a Sunday morning group meeting can begin to focus more on member care, accountability, and prayer. No need to add meetings to the calendar until your people are ready for a change. From there, you can build out a strategic plan to increase the church’s effectiveness in these areas.
- Take advantage of free materials available from numerous biblically sound and theologically rich sources. Ministries such as Desiring God, 9Marks, Ligonier, TGC, and TVC Resources offer numerous resources for training. Many seminaries have lectures and resources online. No need to spend money on resources that can be acquired with a little online digging.
Both are needed
So with the ongoing debate between the value of Sunday school versus small groups, likely a form of both are necessary to accomplish the pedagogical mission of the church. No need to pit one against the other.
To train for godliness and equip the saints, specific structures should be in place to ensure these tasks are accomplished. Christians must be trained in doctrine, and they must have a place for live out that doctrine. A multi-million dollar budget is not necessary to train and equip, simply an understanding of the call and a desire to use the resources that are available. Christian formation in a secular age demands that we take both equipping the saints and training for godliness in the church seriously.