It is clear that God is doing a work in home group ministry today. It is also clear—at least to me—that there is a lot of fuzzy thinking about home groups.
Let me state up front that I am a fan of home groups. I lead a home group every Wednesday night and am about to start a new one on Tuesday night. For me, there are few things more fun than gathering with a group of people and studying the Bible together.
Home groups have the great advantage of space. Andy Stanley says this is what he loves about home groups. We will never run out of rooms; we will never run out of parking. I talked to someone just the other day whose Sunday School is doing well. Guess what he was having trouble with? Space. The final frontier. He was running out of room. This doesn’t happen in the home group model.
There is something about the atmosphere of a home group. There is just something about the warmth of a home that creates a great atmosphere for fellowship and Bible Study. I usually arrive at my Wednesday group early just to soak in the fellowship.
There is plenty of time at a home group. Our Wednesday night group is hosted by a man who loves to cook. We are a match made in heaven because I love to eat! I usually arrive early. Then we spend an hour or so breaking bread. We catch up on all the gossip—I mean—prayer requests. We move to the living room for a video. We are currently going through John Ortberg’s, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat. Love it. Then we discuss for a while. Then we pray. The whole evening moves at a leisurely pace not enjoyed in a Sunday School environment.
I love home groups.
I also think Sunday School is going to be around for a long time. Here is why.
Caveat: the name Sunday School may not survive. My research shows that most people who do Sunday School don’t call it Sunday School. What I mean by Sunday School in this context is groups that meet on campus adjacent to (in terms of both time and geography) the worship service. There are normally classes for all ages. Although, this is not always the case. When we got into four Sunday Schools and four worship services, every graded Sunday School was not fully-graded. You do what you can.
Sunday School has arguably been used to win more people to Christ than any other single program. Sunday School has a long track record of success. Lots of fads come and go in church world. Remember bus ministry? People might get tired of having to clean their house every week. Sunday School has a proven and sustained track record.
Sunday School is logical and convenient. You are at church anyway; why not stay another hour for Sunday School? There are age-appropriate environments for the kids. On a good day home groups will, “find something to do with the kids.” Sunday School has, historically, started the other way around. We start by reaching the most reachable people on the planet—kids. Then, we add small groups for adults. For a lot of people—inside and outside the church—we care more about the quality of the environment for the kids than we do about the experience for us. Can I be blunt? This is not always true of home group fans. Some just want a night away from the kids and as long as the kids are safe and out of their way, that is good enough. I never hear people in home group world ask, “what can we do to create a first class environment that will reach the next generation?” I hear them ask what we will do with the kids. As long as there is something to do with them, that is good enough.
Sunday School is not actually in competition with home groups. People will normally give you two time slots a week. They will give you Sunday morning and one more. It doesn’t make that much difference how long the first time slot is. Home groups are not in competition with Sunday School; home groups are in competition with Sunday Night or Wednesday Night. If you have robust programing during these two time slots, your home groups will suffer. One of the reasons home groups work at Northpoint is they don’t do much else during the week. Another reason has to do with the leadership of the Senior Pastor.
I actually document this is my book Make Your Group Grow. Everywhere groups work—whether Sunday School groups or home groups—it is because the leadership of the pastor. Groups work at Woodstock because Johnny Hunt is in a Sunday School class. Groups work at Northpoint because Andy Stanley is in a group. Nothing is important until the pastor says it is important. You cannot persuade people that something is important if you don’t do it.
Both home groups and Sunday School need the same things for them to prosper. Leaders. Training. Modeling. Leading by example. Curriculum. Coaching. Vision-casting. If you have these elements in place your groups will do well whether they are Sunday School groups or home groups. Oh, they need one more thing.
Groups grow best in the shadow of a robust, culturally-relevant worship service. Sometimes, the reason Sunday Schools are languishing has nothing to do with the Sunday School. Sunday School is only part of the picture. There is an old saying: so goes the Sunday School; so goes the church. The opposite is also true. So goes the worship service, so goes the Sunday School. In a church where the music is boring or old-fashioned and the preaching is worse, the Sunday School will suffer.
There is a tendency to think this way: Northpoint is growing; Northpoint has home groups; we should do home groups so we can grow. That is like attributing the sunburn to the water at the beach. The sunburn did happen at the beach but it was not the water that caused the sunburn. I guarantee you that if Andy Stanley would have done everything else the way they are doing it but went with a Sunday School model it would have done well. When you have Andy Stanley in the pulpit, the groups are going to do well. When you have the music, the lighting, the video, the graphics, the greeters, the parking lot people, the children’s ministry, etc., the groups do well. They only limitation—and this is a serious one—is space. There is a good chance they would not have been able to build buildings to put all those classes in. This is one of the reasons why successful Sunday Schools routinely and permanently have multiple Sunday School hours. I have talked to many a Minister of Education over the years that could not grow a Sunday School and the reason had nothing to do with the Sunday School. It is hard to grow a Sunday School in the shadow of preaching that is boring or music that is lame.
There is a tendency to think that Sunday School is boring and old-fashioned and stuffy and content-oriented and we need to move to Tuesday night in someone’s home. Truth be told, we do have some stuffy, boring Sunday School classes. I spend every day of my life writing Good Questions so that classes won’t be boring. But here is the deal. You take a boring Sunday School class that meets on Sunday morning in the church building and move it to Tuesday night in someone’s home and it is still boring. You have a bigger problem than location and time.
I am a fan of home groups. They are being used by God to change lives. But they are not the savior some make them out to be. Church work is hard work and it involves a lot of things going well for the church to do well. Both Sunday School groups and home groups can work if we work them.
Ultimately, Sunday School doesn’t work. Home groups don’t work. People work. Prayer works. God works. God works through people, whether they are organized through home groups or Sunday School groups.