There are some practical steps you can take to help your Sunday school class maximize its health once your church has decided what its goal is for a healthy follower of Christ. (For Saddleback it is a person who balances the Great Commission and great commandment in his or her heart through fellowship, discipleship, service, evangelism, and worship.)
- Strategically set up your room. Instead of having chairs set up in rows, use round tables. Placing class members around tables forces them to make eye contact with each other and encourages conversation. If your church can’t afford round tables, just set up your chairs in small circles or horseshoes (open end of the horseshoe to the front of the classroom).
- Build consistency at the table. Once you set up your room with round tables (or chairs in small circles or horseshoes), encourage class members to sit in the same spot each week so they can become better acquainted with those sitting next to them. When a group of new people come into the class, encourage them to start a new table. People will not feel safe enough to dive beneath surface-level conversations if they are sitting with new people each week. This will only happen with consistent relationships, which take time to build.
- Understand ratios. If your class is larger than ten, start thinking about who can help you build health into every individual. If one of your goals is to know the spiritual health of each person in your class and encourage him or her to take a spiritual next step, then realistically, you can’t know and follow up on more than ten individuals. Identify leaders at every table to help you in this process.
- Set the table for evangelism. If your tables or circles seat eight, don’t fill the table with eight people. Seat five or six people at the table and ask them to think about who they can invite to fill in the extra seats. Also, once they are seated in smaller circles, attendance accountability is a natural by-product. If you are seated with six people, they will notice if you are not there. Small gatherings like this develop an organic accountability.
- Know your sheep and help your sheep know themselves. Plan a time for everyone to take the Spiritual Health Assessment and develop a Personal Health Plan. When class members take the assessment, they will learn the biblical purpose that is their strength (fellowship, discipleship, ministry, evangelism, or worship) and will be able to identify in which area they need to grow.
- Build spiritual accountability. Once people have identified areas in which they want to grow, have them pair up with someone who will help them by asking the question, “Did you accomplish what you set out to do?” This checkup should be done as a natural part of the relationship. The Sunday school teacher and the table leader don’t need to know what everyone is working on, just that each of them has a person who is checking up on him or her.
- Develop ownership. Ask those who are strong in a particular purpose to help your class in that area. If someone at the table is strong in the area of fellowship, he or she can keep track of birthdays and anniversaries at that table or help the entire class to plan a social event. If someone at a table is strong in discipleship, that person can encourage table members to take the Spiritual Health Assessment and develop a Personal Health Plan. As your class works on each area, those who are strong can help individuals who are weak to grow. If a person is weak in the area of evangelism, the entire class can do an evangelism project, which will help that person grow.
- Know your limits. Realize what you can do in the class time and what needs to be done outside of class. Generally, in a Sunday school hour you can only do discipleship. You can attempt doing fellowship, and maybe you can periodically use a class hour to only worship. The key is that you can’t do all the purposes in one Sunday school hour and you shouldn’t attempt to do so. Determine what you can accomplish during class time and have people at a table or a group of tables work together to do a purpose outside of class time. Release your people to develop themselves. If you try to contain all learning experiences within the classroom, you will limit creativity and suppress the Holy Spirit.
- Think transformation, not just information. Sunday school originally started in England to teach literacy to children on Sunday because they worked in the factory Monday through Friday, sometimes through Saturday. Thus the name Sunday school. Over time, biblical teaching was added, and then even later the secular teachings were dropped as labor laws were created and enforced and free education became available for every child. If we understand the roots of Sunday school, it is easy to see why so much emphasis is placed on teaching. In the context of its origin, that made perfect sense. Now Sunday schools are moving toward a missing piece of discipleship or spiritual formation: application. It is important that we present the information in such a way that the students take the teaching of Sunday school with them and apply it to their lives outside the classroom.
- Don’t underestimate the power of discussion. When you allow people time to discuss, they can talk through the biblical teaching you have given them. Discussion helps people see where they are and where others are, and it allows them to learn from each other. When people talk through issues and develop plans through discussion, accountability starts to form among those who are discussing their plans (whether they know it or not). Your greatest challenge as a teacher is to give your class time to discuss and own the principles you have taught. I encourage a 60/40 format: 60 percent teaching and 40 percent discussion time to explore how to apply it.
Steve Gladen, Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 197–199.