Sunday School or Home Groups?

Is God doing a new thing?

Yes, is the short answer.

God is clearly doing a new thing. Everywhere I go, churches are thinking about, or planning, or experimenting with home groups. For some, it is a full fledged ministry that has been up and running for some time. For others, it is still in the thinking stage. For many, it is somewhere in between. The transition to the common use of home groups is about where the transition to the use of contemporary services was five years ago. But, there are some surprises along the way.

Not Sunday School versus home groups

The first surprise is that home groups are not replacing Sunday School. They are replacing the Sunday night service. Or, they are replacing the Wednesday night service, but they are rarely replacing the Sunday morning group time.

Most things in life, like plants and animals have a kind of life cycle. They are birthed, they grow, they live and serve for a time. Then, they decline and eventually die. Wise leaders cooperate with this life cycle, and don't try to fight against it. They don't artificially keep something alive that is dying a natural death.

Businesses sometimes make this mistake. GM did a massive campaign on the theme, "This is not your Father's Oldsmobile" at a time when we all knew it was our grandpa's Oldsmobile. They'd have done better to kill the brand sooner rather than later. When it is dying, there is something to be said to letting it die with dignity and not artificially keeping it alive on life- support.

For many churches (although, not all) the Sunday evening service has been on life-support for a decade or more. Many churches are replacing a dying Sunday evening worship service with a dynamic home group system.

One way to do this is to coordinate with the existing Sunday School structure. Many Sunday classes are too big and need to be divided anyway. One model is to think of the Sunday morning time as a mid-sized group, and Sunday night is small home groups that come out of that.

One question that always comes up about home groups is, "What do we do with the kids?" There is no good answer to this question, and this nagging problem is the reason I think Sunday School is going to be around for a long time. It is inherently convenient for families.

Advantages and disadvantages

Both Sunday School and home groups have advantages and disadvantages, although, not the ones that some say.

Some say, "Sunday School is boring; home groups are vibrant, interesting and alive."

My response: my Sunday School classes were never boring and were very much vibrant, interesting and alive. And, geography just doesn't make that much difference. There are certainly plenty of boring Sunday School classes out there. But, if you were to take this same class and move it to a home group on Sunday night, it would not suddenly become interesting. A boring group on Sunday morning at the church building will still be a boring group if you move it to a home on an evening. Geography doesn't make that much difference. Admittedly, homes provide a warmer atmosphere than an institutional building like a church building. But, the difference is not enough to transform a boring group into a vibrant, alive group.

Some say: "Sunday School is content oriented; home groups are application oriented."

My response: my Sunday School classes were always application oriented, and, again, geography is not going to change this.

Some say: "Sunday School is lecture-based; home groups are discussion based."

My response: My classes were always discussion based. I write two lessons a week to help your classes be discussion based. See www.joshhunt.com/vault.htm

In short, when people speak of the demise of Sunday School and the glory of home groups, what they normally speak of is the negative qualities of BAD Sunday School. And, they sometimes speak of home groups in a rather idealized way. Are there no bad homes groups, led by sleepy leaders?

At the end of the day, home groups don't work. Sunday School doesn't work. Visitation doesn't work. Giving Friday Nights to Jesus doesn't work. What works? People work. People work through home groups and Sunday School and visitation and giving Friday nights to Jesus. Ultimate it is the talent and dedication, not plan or program that is the key variable.

Show me a talented and dedicated Sunday School teacher, and I will show you a thriving group. Show me a sleepy, distracted, or ungifted Sunday School teacher, and I will show you a languishing class. The same is true with home groups. It is all about leadership. It is all about people.

Sunday School in unlikely places

There is a new innovation brewing at some of the hot, growing, high-profile, churches. Attend Willowcreek sometime for example. Stick around and enjoy a meal in the cafeteria afterwards. Look around the room. You will find a number of small groups meeting on campus in the cafeteria while a second service is going on and while there is programming for the children, youth services for the teenagers, and childcare for the preschoolers.

The convenience of both time and geography, combined with the availability of programming for all ages of kids has made this an attractive time and place to do small groups. Why not after the service, we are all here any way? And why not at church? People feel good about their kids being taught and they feel relieved that they do not have to work out a childcare arrangement.  All of these reasons have made meeting at church at a time adjacent to one of the worship services a hot new trend among the churches-of-what-is-happening now.

But wait, doesn't this sound a lot like Sunday School? Don't tell them, because that sounds awfully old fashioned!

Speaking of names

The name "Sunday School" is being replaced by a wide variety of alternatives. I think this is a good thing.

The term Sunday School might mean good things to us, but we can't do anything about the fact that in the culture, it means what it means. For many, it means something for kids. Any time I tell someone on an airplane that I train Sunday School workers, they immediately think I am talking about something for kids. I can explain and you can explain but we are better off starting with a term that caries an adult overtone. It is also good if we can get a term that is not so bookish. "School" as a category is not something we have an "Oh-boy!" reaction to. Sunday School, as a term, does not have as much attraction as we would like. Terms like "Life Groups," "Adult Bible Fellowship,"(ABF), Care Groups, Fellowship Groups, Communities, or the generic Small Groups are all being used today. The term Group is short and sweet and to the point. There are probably a dozen terms that are better than the term Sunday School.

When do groups meet?

Changing the name offers one other advantage. It opens up the possibility of one group system that could meet at a variety of times and places. In this model a church has one group system. A group is a group is a group. If a group meets on Sunday morning at the church building in a Sunday School style group, it is a group. If it meets on Sunday night, it is a group.

One problem arises that I don't have a real good answer for: Counting. If you go with this group is a group is a group concept, how do you keep score? If people come on Sunday morning and Sunday night, do you count them twice? Aren't you fudging your numbers?

Here is my advice. The real value of numbers is just to provide a rough benchmark to let us know if we are moving the ball down the field or losing ground. So, with the new reality of group life, you might consider making a one-time change in your score-keeping system. Maybe you count just the number of active groups (but not attendance). Or you count attendance for everyone, regardless of when and where the group meets, and regardless of whether people attend more than one group. Then, you compare this number to the same number a year ago. As long as you are counting apples and apples, it doesn't matter that some people are attending more than one group and inflating the attendance numbers.

The real change

There is a deeper philosophical issue in the change toward home groups. It has to do with the definition of a church. Is a church a professionally-led, congregational-sized group, or is a house church a legitimate expression of the church. This topic is big enough to deserve its own article. We will look at that next week.