Sunday School and Its Rivals
As Christians, we believe that the Scriptures play an essential role in the discipleship process. As much as we need accountability, close relationships, and a missional outlook, we must not overlook the foundation that makes these things possible: biblical truth.
But how does discipleship best take place? What role do smaller groups within a large congregation play? How essential is biblical education to the discipleship process?
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS?
Church leaders who agree on the gospel and the importance of Bible study often embrace different methodologies related to adult education in smaller groups. There are a number of models available to us. The following is a generalized categorization of various models that encompass a wide spectrum of ministry practices.
Sunday school goes by a variety of names: connect groups, life groups, adult Bible fellowship, and so on. Whatever the name, Sunday school classes usually meet on the church campus and put priority on Bible study. Most groups meet before or after a worship service, although they will often connect for fellowship in homes outside of the Sunday school hour. One of the key features of the Sunday school class or on-campus small group is that the group remains open to new people.
In contrast to Sunday school classes on campus, the small group typically meets off-campus at other times during the week. A more casual setting creates a more interactive dynamic, with fellowship usually taking a higher priority than Bible study. In order to foster accountability, many small groups are closed. Newcomers to the church are expected to join new groups, not existing ones, at least in my experience. (Churches that lack education space will often incorporate a Sunday school open-group Bible study philosophy within a small group framework of meeting off-campus.)
Community groups also focus on fellowship and off-campus meetings, but tend to meet in homes within in a geographic region. Instead of dividing by age or life stage (like Sunday schools and small groups often do), these groups form around the neighborhood. Community groups prioritize outreach and mission by inviting newcomers and non-Christian neighbors into their fellowship to see the body of Christ in action. Many community groups choose to align their weekly discussion with each week’s sermon outline.
No doubt, many churches do something combining different elements of each of these.
WHAT’S THE PURPOSE?
How we weigh the strengths and weaknesses of these models depends on what their primary purpose is. The traditional Sunday school model seeks to use the hour before or after a worship service for adult education, which results in an interactive Bible study or topical teaching series. The small group model puts a priority on fellowship within the body, which results in accountability and an emphasis on Bible application. The community group model elevates missional engagement of one’s neighborhood, which results in an open and outward-focused atmosphere.
If the main goal of the group is to invite outsiders to meet the Christians in their neighborhood, then Sunday school and small groups are clearly deficient. Meanwhile, if the primary purpose is Bible study and application, then community groups are off-base. The way we analyze these models depends on what we think is most important to accomplish.
Clearly, the Lord can and does use each of these models to bring forth fruit. But for the purposes of this article, I believe we should focus on the primary change agent in a Christian’s life: the Word of God. It’s true that the elements of fellowship, accountability, and missional living all contribute to the shaping of a disciple. But what gives fellowship and mission their power is the Word. Without a strong emphasis on Bible study, the why of fellowship and mission eventually gets lost. For this reason, I choose to focus on biblical education as the lens through which we examine these three models.
COMMUNITY GROUPS: STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Certainly the strength of a community group is its emphasis on reaching one’s neighborhood by inviting newcomers into the fellowship of the body. Spiritual maturity is not measured merely by the amount of biblical knowledge we acquire, but by our being about God’s mission to seek and save the lost. That said, community groups are not known for serious engagement with the Bible, and this lack of Bible study can actually short-circuit the motivation for mission in the long run.
For example, many churches have chosen to align the teaching/discussion time of a community group with the weekly sermon. This alignment can be helpful, especially if it gives the opportunity for participants to go deeper into the biblical text. Unfortunately, in practice, the model often leads to commentary on the pastor’s sermon rather than engagement with the biblical text itself. Further, if the pastor preaches slowly through books of the Bible, it is possible that participants in community groups will never get a grasp of the Bible as a whole.
Imagine this realistic scenario: A pastor preaches through Hebrews over the span of three years. A newcomer to the church hears the gospel, trusts Christ, joins the church, and is included in a community group. The new believer’s only guided Bible study during this time is the pastor’s preaching on Sunday and the discussion he has about that pastor’s sermon during the week. After a couple years, the new Christian moves off to another city and joins another church. From an educational standpoint, he will be a relative expert on his former pastor’s view of Hebrews, but he will have missed the opportunity to engage substantively with the rest of the Bible. The community group succeeds at what it attempts (fostering relationships), but it is deficient when it comes to the biblical educational side of discipleship.
SMALL GROUPS: STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
The small group model emphasizes candid discussion regarding Scripture and the fostering of accountability in relationships. There are many benefits of belonging to a closed group. One can study the Scriptures with other believers who hold each other spiritually accountable.
Small groups do well at what they seek to accomplish, and yet I’ve had numerous people tell me, almost embarrassed, “I have never had a satisfying Bible study experience within a small group.”
SUNDAY SCHOOL: WEAKNESSES
The image that many church leaders have of traditional Sunday school is a group of older ladies reading straight out of a quarterly. Moving past the perception and toward the reality, we can point out some weaknesses that surface in many Sunday school classes. Sometimes, half the hour is taken up with fellowship and prayer requests. Unprepared leaders rush through the lesson. The discussion can be awkward, the curriculum can be shallow, or the leader might deliver a long and boring lecture without leaving any room for discussion and personal engagement of the truths being presented. Like any imperfect model, Sunday school certainly has its weaknesses.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: STRENGTHS
Still, I am convinced that, when it comes to the educational component of discipleship, the Sunday school model holds the most promise, for a number of reasons.
1. Making the Most of the Gathering
First, having a meeting on campus (when possible) and close to worship time takes advantage of the fact that believers are already gathered. The educational opportunities during the time surrounding the worship time are many.
A few years ago, a friend asked me to consider transitioning our church from traditional Sunday school to community groups. I’m always open to exploring new ideas, so I called some leaders in churches with community groups. The results surprised me. Whereas our church had 80 percent of the congregation attending a Sunday school class each week, many of these churches only had 50 percent of the congregation enrolled in a small group, and out of that 50 percent only 60 percent were attending in any given week. I quickly realized that the Sunday school model, with all its problems, was probably the strongest, at least in terms of its ability to equip the most people in our congregation. I could either blow it up and try something untested or I could make better use of the fact that 80 percent of our congregation was already meeting in smaller groups. I chose the latter option.
2. An opportunity to give concentrated biblical teaching to our children
The Sunday school model began as a missionary effort to teach children how to read the Bible. The beauty of the Sunday school model today is that children can learn the Bible at age-appropriate levels. In the other models, the children often get shuffled away into a room to watch a movie while the adults do Bible study and community. These churches still recognize the need for some level of age-appropriate teaching for children, so they compensate by doing a children’s worship service that can easily result in dividing the church body and failing to incorporate children into the life of the church as a whole. Sunday school makes it possible for children to get age-specific teaching and be a part of the church community in worship. (Adults and teenagers also benefit. Teaching a children’s class can be great training ground for church leadership. James K. A. Smith, when asked by a seminary student what one should be doing to become a theologian replied, “That’s easy: teach third-grade Sunday school.”)
3. Keeping the Model Flexible
Despite the perception that Sunday school is done in a one-size-fits-all manner, the model is actually quite adaptable and flexible. There is not one right way to do Sunday school. Churches must consider their ministry context in light of the Scriptures in order to determine how best to accomplish the educational aspect of discipleship. This adaptability is evident in the various practices associated with the Sunday school model.
For example, some churches choose to do both Sunday school (for Bible study) and small groups (for personal accountability). Others utilize the Sunday school hour for Bible study and then the group meets off campus for fellowship and accountability. Some do inductive-Bible studies, while others do topically-driven courses, almost like a mini-seminary. Some churches orient their groups by age group or life stage, while others pursue multi-generational Sunday school classes. Still others advocate separating men and women in pursuit of a Titus 2 type of relationship that will lead to growth and discipleship. Some classes are small and others quite large. Some rooms have chairs arranged in rows, while others have chairs arranged in circles. Even within the same church, you can often find multiple variations of Sunday school. The elasticity of the model makes it useful in a number of contexts.
I know of a pastor of a large church who for many years championed the use of off-campus small groups. Recently, he announced a new development in the church’s small group practice: “We’re going to move our small groups on campus, so that we can do a better job with the kids! Not only that, it’s going to be easier to go to a small group, since it will meet around the worship service time.” A friend chuckled and told him, “Brother, you’ve just gone back to Sunday school.”
In this article, I have examined how well three kinds of meetings accomplish the educational aspect of Christian discipleship. It is true that Bible study is not the only ingredient in discipleship. There is certainly a need for small group accountability as well as missional engagement. The problem is that often churches expect too much from one program. Instead, we ought to be adaptable and flexible regarding our methods, taking care not to champion something just because it’s new or to cling to something just because it is old. Let’s examine their strengths and weaknesses in light of the Scriptures and move forward with a model that is effective for our particular contexts.