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Small Groups Are Not the Same as Sunday School Classes

I had some good interaction this week with a reader who took issue with some of my assumptions about the differences between Sunday school classes and small groups.  He had read my post, How to Build a Small Group Ministry in a Church with a Sunday School Culture (and later read But We Have Adult Sunday SchoolTrue Community or a Smaller Version of the Weekend Service? and Essential Ingredients of Life-Change).  Mostly…he disagreed.

I pointed out to the reader that there are distinct differences in a Sunday school class and a small group.  He disagreed and said,

“I don’t understand why we talk about Sunday school and small groups as two different entities, when in all reality, they are the exact same thing.”

I decided that it might help to list what I think are some of the key differences between a Sunday school class and a small group.  See if these seven differences add up for you.

First, a few clarifications:

  • Sunday school classes were originally designed for outreach.  In their earliest forms, Sunday school classes were small and functioned like a small group in some important ways.  See also, The 5 Step Formula for Sunday School Growth.
  • Calling something a “small group” doesn’t change what it is.  We’ve all experienced or heard about the tactic of renaming everything a small group.  They are not the same and calling them the same thing doesn’t change this.
  • On-campus vs off-campus isn’t always a clear distinctive.  There are off-campus “small groups” that function more like a class and there are on-campus “classes” that function more like a small group.
  • There are exceptions to every rule.  Read the following to get a sense for generalities, not specifics.

Seven differences between a class and small group:

  1. Classes sit in rows, small groups sit in circles.  Again, there are classes that sit in a classroom in a circle.  They are the exception, not the rule.  See also, What’s Better? Rows or Circles?
  2. Classes have teachers, small groups have leaders.  This is an important distinction.  A small group may have a leader that does some teaching (or they may watch a teacher on a DVD), but a small group leader doesn’t function primarily as a teacher.  A class may have a teacher who leads, but their primary contribution is to “teach” the lesson.  See also, Teacher, Leader, Shepherd, Host: What’s In a Name?
  3. Classes have students, small groups have members.  I know this is an oversimplification.  But I think it is generally true.  When small group members think of themselves as students, they are probably actually in a class (even if they meet in a home); when students think of themselves as members, they are probably actually in a group (even if they meet in a classroom).
  4. Classes are primarily a monologue, small groups are primarily a dialogue.  Classes primarily feature one way communication.  The teacher teaches and the students listen.  Small groups primarily feature two way communication.  The leader asks a question and group members answer the question.  See also, Essential Ingredients for Life-Change.
  5. Classes learn about the Bible, small groups discuss the Bible.  Are there exceptions?  Yes.  Are there some small groups that mostly learn about the Bible?  Yes.  But for the most part, Sunday school lessons tend to be about information and small group studies tend to be about application and transformation.  See also, How to Stimulate Better Discussions.
  6. Classes listen to someone pray, small groups pray together.  Yes, some classes pray together and some small groups listen to their leader pray.  See also, Top 10 Ways to Learn to Pray Together.
  7. Classes have a fixed time slot, small groups have a more fluid time slot.  This is an important distinction.  Most classes have a fixed time slot (i.e., 9:00 to 10:15 am).  They almost always have a fixed start time and a fixed end time (because there is another class beginning in 15 minutes).  Small groups almost always have a more fluid time slot (i.e., we usually hang out for a bit and then get started at 7:30ish and we always try to end at 9ish).  
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mark@smallgroupresources.net'
Mark Howell serves as Pastor of Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, NV. He founded SmallGroupResources.net, offering consulting and coaching services to help churches across North America launch, build and sustain healthy small group ministries. He spent four years on the consulting staff at Lifetogether and often contributes to ministry periodicals such as the Pastor's Ministry Toolbox and ChurchCentral.com.