Sunday School vs. Small Groups: Can they co-exist?

As many of you know I was on staff at a church in Arlington, Texas where over a 5 year period we transitioned from having only Sunday School to having both Sunday School (on campus-centralized) and Small Groups (off campus-decentralized) running simultaneously alongside of each other.

I was on a ‘coaching call’ as a part of our StS coaching network this week with a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I was asked to recap my learning’s.  So I thought I’d share them with you as it might be something you are considering.

Here is the email I received from the church…

“Last year you came to the Tulsa Leadership conference and lead a session on small groups. I attended all the sessions and was deeply moved by the passion. I remember you talking about building a small group ministry alongside and in conjunction with Sunday School and the trail, tribulations, and joys you experienced.

I have been tasked with developing such a membership at our church. There is nothing in place only a passion for small groups and the benefits in sharing in life and the need for this to happen. In fact the initial meeting is next week to discuss.

Any information you have that you would share on how to do this correctly or at least try to do this correctly would be so much appreciated.

Thanks for your time and service to the Kingdom.”

Here are the areas I discussed during the coaching call…

1.  Senior Pastor must lead the way.  If ones senior pastor isn’t in a Sunday school or small group how can the church expect the congregation to follow.  I submit that the Senior Pastor needs to be in a decentralized small group to lead the way.  He/She doesn’t have to lead the group, but must be in one.  For far too long pastors, we have been standing in the pulpit telling people what we want them to do when we ourselves aren’t willing to do it.  Time we lead with integrity.  My former senior pastor in Arlington, Texas led the small group movement and it was successful.  Thanks Pastor Gary! 


2.  Staff must be on board.  Just as important as the senior pastor being in a group the staff and lay leadership must follow suit.  This seems to be a challenge for most churches, but I’m not sure why.  Where did we as staff get in our spiritual journey that says we don’t need to be in a healthy small group?  We need biblical community and a healthy small group just as much as anyone.


3.  Balance & Health is our focus.  Tackle the “them vs. us” challenge up front.  Set the stage early on that launching small groups alongside small groups isn’t a “them vs. us” discussion.  This is us wanting our congregation to be healthy.  Regardless of when or where they meet we want you to be balanced around the purposes of the church and do it with holiness and health in mind.


4.  Leadership Structure needs to be consistent.  Set up the same leadership structure for both Sunday School and Small Groups.  It will help you build community between the two groups and will allow you to develop one consistent training strategy so that you don’t have to do them separately.  The more you have the two leadership groups together the better.  A simple group structure is a Host, Co-Host, and a champion for each of the five purposes. (Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, Evangelism, Worship)


5.  Curriculum – transition Sunday School departments to buying their own curriculum just like the decentralized small groups will do.  Not showing favoritism for either of the groupings is important from day one.  This will take some time, but it is important, plus it frees up financial resources to use in other areas of ministry.  Create a listing of all the publishing companies you are comfortable with and allow both Sunday School and Small Groups to pick and choose from the companies you are OK with.  Give them parameters and then turn them loose to choose curriculum.  Consider putting a curriculum list together.  If you have a library, allow groups to check in/out curriculum.


6.  Childcare – cover this early on.  Childcare isn’t provided for decentralized small groups.  It is a slippery slope.  Don’t start down it, because if you do you’ll have a lot of clean up work.  Give your Small Groups options to consider; such as, the small group hiring their own sitters (in the same house or another house), pool their $$ to cover the costs, everyone is on their own for childcare, etc…


7.  Control – GIVE IT UP!  One of the things about moving to a both/and strategy is giving up control.  I say it like this, “We empower for growth until trust is broken.”  If you are willing to give up control within limits you’ll see the Lord do amazing things.


I have a thousand other little thoughts and I could easily spend an hour on each of these, but for now I’ll allow these to wet your appetite.

I look forward to hearing your comments, suggestions, and learning’s.

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