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The End of Sunday School?

Posted by Chance on September 10, 2006

I am not here to bash anyone’s ideal model of how a church’s ministry system is set up. But as a layperson, I just wanted to provide a perspective on a trend I see in churches today, at least non-denominational ones.

Small Groups, or Life Groups, are the new craze in the non-denominational churches, and not just the mega-churches. Basically, people at church form small groups of, say 5-10 people or 4-6 couples, just to list an ideal size. These groups typically meet at a person’s house some time during the week, and not necessarily Sunday.

I don’t know the whole story or history behind it, but this way of doing extra-sermon activities became popular in the mega-churches on the West Coast, and the idea has grown more popular, at least in the area in which I live.

The idea behind small groups is that they allow members of the church to have more intimate and genuine relationships. I’ve heard it said as people “doing life” together. In some ways, small groups are preferable to the Sunday School model, because it allows (forces?) people to be more open and accountable with each other.

For the reasons listed above, I do see small groups as a great thing. I think many times we show up at church, and maybe even Sunday School, and do not form meaningful relationships. I believe Christianity has become, to many people, a place where we put on our best face on Sunday and pretend like everything is okay. Small groups allow people to get real.

But here is the issue I have. Small groups appear to be replacing Sunday School, not complementing it. Very few non-denominational churches in my city actually have Sunday School; they do just about any ministry beyond the sanctuary through the small group format.

So why is this a problem? When my wife and I moved to this city, we wanted to go to a church where we could connect with people our age. Now, I don’t think we should choose a church solely for such a reason, but fellowship is important. We thought a church with a young adult Sunday School would be ideal. As a couple visiting a church, it is very hard for us to jump right into small groups, and I believe it is that way for many couples. For many, small groups cannot be a first step when it comes to connecting with people. How awkward is it to show up to some stranger’s house? Furthermore, what if it turns out you do not even like the people? Here you are, starting a class at some person’s house with people you with whom you do not connect.

That is why I believe Sunday School is necessary for people to connect. It provides a place to meet people in a less-intimate setting. From there, small groups can form more naturally. No, people should not choose a group based on where their friends are, but the Sunday School does provide a nice intermediate process between sanctuary and close relationships.

Here is a criticism I have heard against this model. People can spend their life attending church and Sunday School without forming close relationships. They just show up, without actively engaging in any way. With small groups, this is less likely to happen. That is true. But I believe the church can only do so much when it comes to encouraging their members to form close relationships. Also, those people who are not truly engaged in Sunday School are not very likely to enter a small group in the first place. When you give such a person the choice between a small group or nothing at all, they will stay home.

By having a Sunday School and small groups, a church can have a setup that is more welcoming to new people and have options available for people to engage in more intimate relationships. The church should encourage formation of small groups, but they can only do so much to encourage this, and eliminating Sunday School, in my view, is not a reasonable option.

I know a few of the readers of this blog are or have been involved in the ministry, or are close to someone involved in the ministry, or they may just attend church regularly. I would be curious to know what their thoughts are on this topic, and if it has even been an issue in their church at all.


11 Responses to “The End of Sunday School?”

  1. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    My big problem with small groups replacing rather than complementing Sunday School is that they are seldom focused on sustained, serious BIBLE STUDY.

    As I will soon post on my blog, the state of biblical illiteracy in the U.S. churches is abysmal. (By contrast, in many areas of the world where it is difficult for every member to own a Bible, much less several translations, the average member has more knowledge of the contents of scripture than many a GRADUATING seminary student here.)

    It is common to claim that this biblical illiteracy is worse among churches with lower views of biblical authority than those with very high views. That sounds logical, but I can’t find the evidence to back that up. In many a self-proclaimed fundamentalist church where the term “inerrancy” is used frequently, the actual knowledge of the Bible is about the same as the level at the local Secular Humanist club. (Maybe worse. I’ve known several humanists to study Scripture closely–skeptically and with a debunking attitude, but still closely!)
    Fundamentalist preachers now frequently preach topic sermons rather than expository ones and the amount of Bible discussed is slim. At least at most Episcopal churches, however liberal the priest may be, every week the people hear long sections read from the Psalms, other parts of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Epistles–as part of the service.

    There is much else that a church must do and many of these functions are aided by small groups. But there is no substitute for weekly Bible study and if the small groups don’t engage in that, then they shouldn’t dare think about replacing Sunday School.

  2. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    Chance, check out my blog posts on biblical literacy today, please, and pass on to others. I’d email you about this, but your blog doesn’t list your email.

  3. The Prophet said

    Chance, I haven’t heard of churches in this area dropping the Sunday School for small groups, although small groups is very popular down here as well.

    It’s easy especially in larger churches for people to get lost in the crowd. Small groups started in order to allow for the church to grow smaller while at the same time growing larger.

    Good Points.

  4. Chance said

    Josh, it is very surprising here, but then again, it seems to be a trend among the non-denominational. To my knowlege, Baptist, C o C, etc… seem to have the regular Sunday Schools.

    Michael, thanks for the comments, and your blog posts on this topic was very insightful. They allude to another problem I didn’t mention with small groups, in that a church has less control over the substance being taught in these groups. I’ll provide more comments on your posts later.

  5. preacherman said

    I love U2 man!
    I saw them on the Pop-Mart tour.

    I see Sunday School usually as something that churched people are more like to go to. I am not against Sunday school at all. I think is great to meet and share the word together. It is usually for “churched”. Subjects delt with are geared to “churched.”

    Small groups on the other hand is more comfortable setting that allows for conversation. Non-threatening. Homes. Great for building personal relationships and outreach.

    I believe that churches should have both.

    I have been at churches who just met in homes on Sunday for worship and loved it. Thought it was great. It felt like real worship instead of same old same old.

    I don’t agree with churches that are against Bible studies and class. How can that be? Doesn’t make sense.

    There are alot of resources out on small groups.

    Small group evangelism.

    I hope this helps.
    Thanks for posting on my blog.
    Love for you comment anytime.
    I appreciate your thoughts and comments are great.

    I enjoy your blog too.

  6. The Prophet said

    One thing that must be noticed is that the church goes through phases in order to be relevant to its target audience.

    I just hope that Sunday School isn’t being “phased out” in hopes to focus more attention on the “unchurched”.

  7. Chance said

    Thanks for the comments preacherman and Josh.

    In my view, the main service is really what the masses go to. If the unchurched go to a church, they go to the service, without going to SS or Small groups. Some will stay in this mode. Some, however, will take the step of participating more. In my view, Sunday School is better in attracting the unchurched.

    When a church has only small groups, in my view, that will attract the already churched, and not the unchurched. It will be people who have gone to that church for years and years and have already established relationships with people, and feel perfectly comfortable going to someone’s house. The unchurched, however, are more vulnerable. They may not live the “churchy” lifestyle or have a lot of biblical knowledge, so they will feel initimdated getting into intimate relationships so quickly.

    I think only small groups preserves the “us (church-reared people) and them (outsiders or new people)” division, whereas having both can sever the wedge.

  8. Wasp Jerky said

    Living in the suburbs of Chicago, I know of only one church that still has Sunday school. I’m sure there are plenty more, but it’s the only one I know of.

    From another angle, keep in mind that Sunday School is only about 230 years old. It’s hardly a traditional church practice.

  9. Chance said

    Good point Mr. Jerky,
    Sunday School is relatively new. It is not the be-all-end-all in churches.

    I wonder how the folks back in 1st century A.D. did it. Did they have something like a Sunday School, followed by a church service, followed by a cozy little picnic? Or were they too busy avoiding being killed?

  10. Wasp Jerky said

    Well, from alter calls to one person preaching, I doubt there’s much of anything about the modern church service that resembles what the early church used to do. So who knows.

  11. Dan Trabue said

    I suppose they were too busy writing the Bible to read it…

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