Small Groups vs. Sunday School?

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?” The question is often a veiled way of asking, “Is your church a traditional one that is stuck in the rut of Sunday Schools?” 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. More important than the “system” used, is the desired result – spiritual growth and health.

Before you decide on using Sunday school and/or small groups as a delivery system for health, make sure you understand what health is. 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. 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. That doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot use Sunday School to produce healthy followers of Christ.

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 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, midweek service, and Sunday night service in and of themselves are not bad. However, absent of a strategic purpose, they could be consuming resources, time, and energy. Worse yet, they may be working against your stated purpose, and as such, they may be 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 small group proponent (which, by the way, does not mean I am against Sunday School), I receive all kinds of questions about Sunday School and Small Groups. During a recent email exchange with Rick Howerton and Mike May they also shared some of the questions they often hear. Rick Howerton is Small Group-ologist/Specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a member of the Purpose Driven Small Group Network. His church, The Bridge, is located in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Mike May is our PDSGN State Point Person for the state of Mississippi. He is also the Education Pastor for First Baptist Church in Brandon, Mississippi, a Sunday School church. Below is a list of some of those questions the three of us commonly hear.

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.

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Steve Gladen has been on staff at Saddleback Church since 1998; he currently oversees the strategic launch and development of small groups at Saddleback as well as the staff of the Small Group Network. He has focused on small groups in several churches for almost 20 years. Steve oversees 2,500 adult small groups at Saddleback and loves seeing a big church become small through true community developed in group life. He has co-authored several books, including 250 Big Ideas for Small Groups, Building Healthy Small Groups in Your Church, Small Groups With Purpose, Leading Small Groups With Purpose, and Don't Lead Alone. Steve does consulting and seminars championing small groups and what it means to be Purpose Driven in a small-group ministry.