Small Groups vs. Sunday School?

First – churches need their parking lot emptied for the next service that is starting.  Churches that have multiple services and also hold Sunday School during those services are usually struggling with finding places for their people to park. Attending one service, and then attending Sunday School afterward (or before) can tie up a parking space for two service times. If parking spaces are limited, this is a real problem. Without a place to park, new people can’t come to church.

Second – for sheer economics. Sunday School requires classrooms. Your Sunday School attendance will always be limited to the number of seats you can provide. It often comes to a point where the money that is being spent on classrooms might be better spent elsewhere in the community or the church. Small groups meet in homes, so space is never an issue for the church.

Third – people often cannot give you two to three hours in one shot. Time is often our most precious commodity. With more demands on your peoples’ time, giving you a Sunday school and church service at the same time often just won’t work. It is easier for them to attend a small group later in the week on another day than to “tie up” their entire Sunday morning.

Lastly – By providing Sunday school as your only means of developing people to be a follower of Christ, you are giving people two options—take it or leave it. In a culture full of options and diverse schedules, people are looking for more options from their church too.

What about Sunday night service or the Wednesday night service becoming times for small groups?

This may be a good starting point because your culture may have developed these times for people to set aside for church, but the power of small groups is ability to pick the day and time that serves group members best. When you pick the times and days, you limit one of the strengths of using small groups as a means to deliver health.

Should you replace the name “Sunday School” with an alternative name?

If you are going to do a facelift on your current structure and format, then a new name communicates something has changed.  However, if you put a new name on similar structure and format, you will only damage your relationship and credibility with the people attending your church. Your people aren’t dumb. You need to do more than change a name for them to believe real change has taken place.

Isn’t Sunday School lecture-based while small groups focus on discussion and application?

Although most people see the two delivery systems in this context, it doesn’t have to be that way. Without the right strategy, a small group or Sunday School can be nothing but a lecture from the leader. You need both Biblical truths and application. People need a chance to learn and interact with each other as they apply these truths to their lives. If you are just providing lecture-based content, you are in danger of merely repeating what happens on the weekend. With the internet, lectured-based content is easy to come by. Most Christians know far more than they put into application.  Make sure you have a good balance in your strategy.

What do we do with the kids if we go to small groups?

This is one of the greatest challenges of the small group movement. Not impossible to overcome, but a plan is needed. Where Sunday school has this issue very well taken care of, small groups with children need a POA, plan of attack! Here are a few suggestions:

Exchange childcare with another small group. For example, their group meets on Mondays and yours meets on Wednesdays. While some of your group members provide childcare on Mondays, some of their group members provide childcare on Wednesdays.

Work with the Youth Ministry to make childcare for small groups a serving opportunity.

Bring a babysitter to the group meeting and split the cost of childcare among members.

Have group members take turns “stepping out” of the group to watch the kids in another part of the house. Don’t have a couple ever go out together, but use two same sex spouses so at least one of the spouses is getting group time and getting to know another spouses during childcare.

If two group members live relatively close to one another, ask a babysitter to watch the kids at one house while the group meets at another.

Can Sunday School and small groups co-exist in the same church?

You bet! Sunday School and small groups can co-exist as long as they are aligned and not competing with each other. This same potential for “competing” can happen with affinities such as Men’s, Women’s, Couples, and Singles ministries in your church. If it is not aligned with your delivery systems to create healthy followers of Christ, then any program can  deter the effectiveness of your church. So, make sure your Sunday school and small group vision, mission and strategy are working on the same process and not building walls between the two. I would suggest that the two ministries report to the same person.

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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.