Published: 8 years ago

Topical Tuesday: Who Killed Sunday School?

Today we pick back up in our spring series of Topical Tuesday posts, where you pick the topic / ask a question and I wax poetically. Because wax and poetry obviously go together.

Want to ask a question about anything – ministry, theology, life in general? Comment here.

Todd asks: How/when was the decision reached to not have some kind of Sunday School program? Obviously, the emphasis is on small groups, so most of that setting could likely replace a more traditional SS setup. I was curious, since I’ve never heard anyone address it.

Stand by, Todd. You just gave me a chance to use a phrase I’ve always wanted to use. Phrase coming in 3…2…

Back at the turn of the century, the Summit (then known as Homestead Heights Baptist) was a church built largely on a Sunday School model. We were in a traditional church building; we had lots of adult groups that met in lots of classrooms and ate lots of donuts.

When I came on board in 2003, the church had transitioned to a hybrid model: on-campus Sunday School and off-campus small groups. One of my first roles was to complete the transition to 100% small groups, and I was just young enough and just stupid enough to say, “Sure, that sounds easy.”

And by and large, it was easy, compared to finding a cure for the common cold or explaining the popularity of Nickelback. We transitioned primarily because of space issues: the church was growing so rapidly that there wasn’t enough room for all of our adults to meet on site on Sunday morning.

But the transition from on-site to off-site led to a host of intangibles, some we expected and some we didn’t:

  • The church became the church. When everything happens in a centralized building, it’s easy to consider that the building is the church. You don’t have to be a Bible expert to understand that the church is the people. And when the church left the church building, the church became the church in the community. As Bible studies moved into homes and restaurants and onto school campuses, the Summit had officially left the building.
  • Ministry explosion. It’s no secret that ministry springs from our small groups. Once we got beyond the walls, those opportunities for ministry became more evident and more organic. Some of our strongest community ministry ties came from those early interactions with our brand new off-site groups.
  • Leadership development. As groups grew and the model changed, new leaders emerged. No longer did we have one master teacher that taught a class faithfully for years and years. Nope, the teacher was encouraged to raise up a new leader and to send that leader out to plant a new group.
  • Group multiplication. When I came on board, there were somewhere around 20 groups. Today, we have nearly 200. That sort of growth isn’t possible when everything is tied to a couple of hours in one building on a Sunday morning.

Over the years, some people have asked if we’ll ever go back to a more traditional, on-site model. The answer is a resounding “no.” We’ve seen too many benefits to getting beyond the walls. And besides that, we’d never be able to build a building large enough to house all of those classrooms…especially given our current donut consumption.

Let me be clear: I’m not mad at churches who still follow a traditional Sunday School model. I don’t think they’re inferior in any way. Context matters. What works for us in our situation may not be the best for a church in another city or another culture. If you’re a pastor, this is a potential land mine. Work through it prayerfully and carefully, but when it’s all done, don’t be guilty of doing what is comfortable. Do what reaches more people for the gospel.

For much more on this, check out my friend and fellow pastor Spence Shelton’s blog. He’s our resident small groups guru and an all around small group authority.

I’m craving donuts.

  1. Lee Beck says:

    FINALLY – you’ve hit on a topic that I can’t totally embrace. Not that I want to be disagreeable, but I was beginning to worry that I was falling into a trap of blind followship.

    First, let me say that I agree with practically all of how you characterize the SG vs. SS paradigms. Many churches are dying to a large degree because of their unwillingness to break from the traditional church model that is characterized by the “3-points and a prayer” sermon, requisite coats and ties, and yes, Sunday School. I’ve been part of the transition from SS->hybrid->SG and I recognize the benefits of all three models. I currently embrace the hybrid model.

    I’m convinced that you must become connected with fellow believers to grow spiritually. Outside a large worship service setting you can discuss your hurts, needs, and concerns. Among Christian fellows you can find specific, individually tailored ways that Biblical principles and praying with and for each other can lead to comfort, strength, and solutions. The SG model probably does this best; however, it is intimidating to a newcomer who wants more than a Sunday morning sermon but doesn’t want to be thrust into an intimate relationship. The SS model provides a place where a new Christian can visit without commitment. The hope is that he/she will want to continue meeting with the class at the convenient Sunday morning time and place. Hopefully, there is a critical mass of spiritually mature individuals in the class that will follow up with these seekers so that they will want to continue their attendance and spiritual growth. I also hear your observation that “No longer did we have one master teacher that taught a class faithfully for years and years.” I don’t particularly see a negative in having an excellent teacher who is willing to spend time each week studying and then nurturing a group of growing Christians in a teacher/student setting.

    Being a fairly private person, I’m not sure if I would have transitioned from the anonymity of church directly to a SG. But worshiping in a very large setting and then having the opportunity for Bible teaching in a smaller SS setting helped me to grow spiritually. It also helped me to recognize the difference in a community of believers (in a SS class) as contrasted with “the world.” In time, I was ready to align myself with a SG and the intimacy that I now enjoy.

    I actually am now a member of a very large “small group” (about 60 members) that meets on Sunday mornings at the West Club Campus. We have in-depth Bible study and have a prayer time at the end. We are basically the remnants of the married couples class that I joined at HHBC about 25 years ago. We have been blessed with great teachers and I think we’re the only remnant of the former HHBC SS program. The average age is about 60. About half of our SS class is not affiliated with a SG. I’m not sure if they would be getting the in-depth Bible study or the personal support that our class offers if they were forced to choose between small groups or nothing beyond corporate worship.

    My wife and I also meet with a group of five couples in the more intimate SG setting. I find the two groups to be different and both have tremendous value for me.

  2. Jessica Thommarson says:

    “…explaining the popularity of Nickelback”. LOL. I couldn’t agree more!

    Oh, the rest of the post is good too.

  3. Mike Johnson says:

    Our congregation has a classic Sunday School. Our church building was recently destroyed by a tornado. The church has grown in our rented facility, and we are forming the plans for a new facility. Therein is the problem. One half of our congregation attends Sunday School, and the remainder only attend worship services. Most of our growth is with people who only attend worship services. Considering the cost of building a new structure, should we take advantage of this situation to decrese SS room space in favor of more multifunctional space(common areas) This had proven to be a difficult decision especially for older, traditional members. We are seeking help in making this decision. Thanks

    • Danny says:

      Mike, it’s good to hear from you, and thanks for the question! While there’s certainly no one “right” way to approach this, I think you’re wise to view this as an opportunity that you may be able to take advantage of.

      For us, there were many factors that caused us to move towards 100% off site groups. The rapid growth of the church combined with the sale of our building were just two of those.

      I think it would befit your staff team to have some solid conversations with congregational leaders to get as much buy in as you can. If I were doing this over again, I would absolutely make the same decisions we made in order to get to where we are now!

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