What made this Sunday School atmosphere possible?

What made this moment possible?

There was a moment on a recent Southwest Airline flight that felt more like a Sunday School class than an airline flight. There is a row of seats on Southwest planes that face each other. This row felt sort of like a small group. We laughed and smiled and quoted Bible verses and talked about God a bit. The only thing missing was the closing prayer. What made this moment possible?

Well, the thing that got it started was this guy in the middle seat across from me. He had an amazing gift. He would ask you your birthday, including the year, and he would tell you what day of the week you were born on. I told him I was born on December 21, 1957 and just like that, in less than two seconds he said, "You were born on a Saturday." I watched him do this with several people and I was mildly impressed. Mildly impressed until I checked him by creating an Outlook event on my lap top. He was right, I was born on a Saturday. I doubt my mother knows that. I checked another date and another and another and another. All right and all answered within three seconds. It was pretty amazing. But, that alone did not create this Sunday School atmosphere.

In addition, the guy with the amazing gift was clearly a practicing Christian.  Since I was born on 12/21 he said my life verse could be Romans 12:21, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." He didn’t have a verse for everyone, but he had a verse for about half of those who gave him their birthdays. Amazing. Still, this alone did not create this Sunday School atmosphere.

Perhaps it was because there was a large group of moms and daughters who were coming back from a trip to Las Vegas together. Because they knew each other, it was easier for conversations to develop. This is analogous to the fact that as a Sunday School class spends time together outside of class, it tends to enhance the discussion inside of class. Still, most of these people were spread throughout the plane and didn’t actually affect our conversation too much.

I’d like to think the whole answer is me! My unique group leadership abilities. Surely a leader makes a huge difference in group dynamics. Still, I know better. I am on every plane I am on (now, that is profound, isn’t it?) and this has never happened before.

I am left with one conclusion. There is one thing that made this conversation possible. It was not me or the guy with the magical ability to calculate what day of the week I was born on. It was not so much to do with any particular individual. It was the arrangement of the chairs. This conversation was made possible because 12 people on this plane were facing each other and half of them did not have their back to the other half. Sunday School classes should be set up the same way.

There is something about looking into someone’s face that begs a conversation. There is something about looking at the back of someone’s head that discourages a conversation. Chairs in Sunday School classes should be set up with chairs facing each other.

I have often heard people speak of the glories of home groups–how much warmer and all they are. There is certainly some truth to this. The atmosphere of a home combined with the lack of time constraints tends to make home groups warmer. But, this advantage is offset in my mind by the fact that they require an additional trip out from Sunday morning and there is the constant pressure of figuring out what to do with the kids. (Usually the question centers around what to do with the kids, not how the kids can be taught the Bible as well as adults. Think about it.) For these two reasons, I think Sunday School is here to stay for a long, long time. I think it will still be the dominant expression of group life in churches 100 years from now.

Not that I am against home groups. I believe in a both/and philosophy. But, I am a little weary of hearing how Sunday School groups are lecture-oriented, content-oriented and non-relational. I always want to ask, "Whose Sunday School class?" Certainly not mine. The other question is, "Do they have to be this way?" I don’t think so. I read recently where some of the singles groups at Saddleback are meeting on Sundays so they can have something to do with the kids. Innovative concept.

But, we must candidly admit that many Sunday School classes are lecture-oriented, content-oriented and non-relational. You can pick out the classes that are this way. They are the ones with the straight rows of chairs. One of the first things we want to do to help these groups move in the direction of life changing conversations is to rearrange the chairs.

Another thing you might consider is using some of the interactive video curriculum that I have developed. These videos are not like others videos in that they are interactive. That is, I talk for a while, ask you to pause the tape and discuss a point for a while, I talk again, ask you to pause and discuss again and so forth. Several to the 13-week courses I have developed are:

  • Enjoying God
  • The God We Enjoy
  • The FACTS About Doubling Classes
  • I also have a number of 4 and 5 week courses. These courses can be used again and again by various groups and may help move the group toward a more relational model. The verdict is in. Adults don’t come to Sunday School to hear a lecture. They attend to get to know people. Christianity is not just about a vertical relationship with God. It is also about a horizontal relationship with one another.

    One first step toward making Sunday School more relational: rearrange the chairs.