Small Groups vs. Sunday School?

Can I our church members attend Sunday School class and a small group?

Sure…as long as they have the margin. Some people fill their schedules with lots of church activities, but are not growing spiritually healthy. Make sure they are not just being busy, but developing their spiritual health.

If doing both Sunday School and small groups, should church members be expected to attend both?

Absolutely not! You want to take them deep not wide. The reason they are attending either is to develop community which serves as the foundation for holistic discipleship. I would be more concerned that they are living out the Great Commission and Great Commandment in their lives than whether they are attending every event the church offers.

What differentiates a Sunday School class from a small group?

Location and title. Other than that, both delivery systems should be aligned to the same principles. The methodologies will be different, but the “end in mind” should be the same. Of course, this may vary from church to church.

What characteristics do small group leaders need to exhibit that Sunday School teachers do not (and visa versa)?

Depending on how you define what you want to see in a follower of Christ, the primary function of both the Sunday School leader and the small group leader is to understand where each student/member is in their spiritual walk, and then encourage that person to take their next spiritual step. Whether that is happening in a small group or a Sunday School class, the leader needs to always be thinking about how to move their people along their spiritual journey. Once the leader understands that, then their particular gift set can be used in either a Sunday School class or a small group. The secondary function should be to teach and apply the five biblical purposes found in the Great Commission and Great Commandment. By doing this you sharpen the strengths of students/members and develop their weak areas.

Will starting a small group ministry weaken a pre-existing Sunday School? If so, why? If not, why not?

When people were debating whether baseball should be televised on this new invention called Television, the naysayers were worried if people watched baseball on TV, then they wouldn’t come to the ballpark. As history proved, this thinking was faulty. The same applies to this question. Having both gives you more opportunities to develop people and reduce the excuses for not doing one or the other. There is strength in alignment and not fearing the other delivery system.  If they are both producing the same “end” it should not matter which they choose. Think about it, a new person doesn’t come to church bent on doing a small group or Snday school, they just want their needs met and grow spiritually. Only you are hung up on Sunday School or small groups.

We have a good Sunday School at our church, why should we start a small group ministry?

If it is in the culture and leadership to do it, yes. This will give more people more options to grow as Christ followers and develop leadership skills. If you are thinking about starting a small group ministry, read my recent article entitled, Things to Think About Before Starting a Small Group Ministry. LINK  We are all on the same team, we all have the same game plan – to bring as many people to Christ as possible and develop them into the likeness of Christ. Why not do it in whatever way works best for your church and your culture?

If you are a Sunday school proponent reading this article, congratulations on having an open mind! The chances are, if you have an adult Sunday school, your delivery system for that church is settled; at least for now. No matter the delivery system, the key is to understand what you want to see in the life of a follower of Christ, and guiding your leaders toward achieving that desired result.

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Steve Gladen
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.