In my book Dancing with Dinosaurs (1993) I had a chapter in which I said adult Sunday School was coming to an end and was being replaced by small groups that meet in homes. You should have heard the negative letters I received. One person called me a heretic. Another called me stupid. I think the best one was the person who said “you not only have a screw loose, you’re just down-right evil.”
The Women’s Society of the Southern Baptist Church, to their credit, choose the book as their major study piece for either 1994 or 95 (can’t remember which). While they had major problems with my prediction (Adult Sunday School had been their bread and butter from their beginning) they could not argue the fact that some new Southern Baptism plants did not have adult Sunday School.
Now let’s fast forward to 2011 and take a look at 12 year old Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi, a Baptist Church. It has some 8,000 in worship and has never had an adult Sunday School, but it does have thousands of people in small groups that meet in homes. I see this pattern all over the country now.
Why did I make this prediction and why are so many new church plants replacing adult Sunday School with small groups? Let’s explore the reasons.
- The history of Sunday School is a short lived phenomenon suggesting it isn’t essential to the ongoing of the church. Sunday School was conceived by Robert Rakes in the mid 1790s. The first Sunday School was an attempt to get young boys off the streets of Gloucester. Before that Sunday School was unheard of in Christianity. So it isn’t something to be considered sacrosanct. In changing times the way things are done also change. Besides that it was never Wesley’s intention for adults to go Sunday School. Instead he had his followers in what he called “Class Meetings” which were similar to small groups today that meet in homes to share life together around the scriptures with emphasis on behavior modification and leadership development.
- Sunday schools are about pouring information into people while what is needed is behavior modification. People go to Sunday School to learn about the scriptures. Oh, I know some of them go there to see their friends. Still, the focus is on learning the Bible. The focus of small groups is on the application of the scriptures which seldom is talked about or demonstrated in Sunday School.
- In the 90s the U.S. was in the first stage of the “experience generation.” Experience was becoming more important than information. The explosion of information through the internet was in its infancy but the handwriting was on the wall- information was becoming easily accessible leaving experience to be the next big thing. During the 80s people were coming to me asking to be rebaptized when they had been baptized as an infant. When I told them that they respond, “No we haven’t been baptized because we didn’t experience it. We want to experience it.” By the 90s young adults were bunging jumping just for the experience.
- In a growing church adult Sunday School is an expensive undertaking while small groups don’t cost the church a dime. Classrooms take money that could be spent on spreading the Good News. It just makes sense to shift away from space saving classrooms that haven’t produced much fruit lately to small groups that meet in homes and don’t cost a dime – and are more likely to raise up new leaders.
- It’s easier to invite a neighbor to a small group that meets in your home it is to invite someone to a Sunday School class. After all, brining people to Christ is the number one task of the church and it doesn’t matter how it happens.
- Small groups provide community for the entire group which seldom happens to an entire Sunday School class.Today, there is no shortage of information but there is a shortage of fulfilling community which is what effective small groups provide. The focus of small groups is on community rather than information and one of the number one things people need today is community. Most teenagers have spent their entire life searching for lasting relationships. Most adults are looking for a place where everyone knows their name. Where they can share intimate issues when people they trust. Sunday School classes seldom offer that opportunity.
- Sunday Schools have a dismal record of producing leaders whereas one of the basic goals of well run small groups is to develop leaders. Every small group leader is responsible for raising up an apprentice who will either take over the small group or leave to begin another small group.
- Small groups that meet to discuss last week’s sermon find it much easier to find leaders because the preparation time is much less. If the church provides a dvd of the sermon and a list of five or six application questions for the leader to start the discussion the preparation time is much less than preparing to teach a Sunday School class. We must never forget we live in an economy in which time is one of the most precious items.
So here’s the skinny. If your goal is for your people to know the Bible inside and out, then focus on Sunday School. If your goal is for you people to know how to apply the Bible to their everyday life in ways that impact your community, then focus on small groups that meet in homes to share their lives around the scriptures with a focus on Christian living and leadership development.
I know. Nothing is quite that neat but you get my drift. I think Adult Sunday School is a far less effective tool for a church than small groups.