Whether you are transitioning away from Sunday school or simply adding small groups to supplement your Sunday school system, be prepared for resistance. Most people are resistant to change, and in the case of Sunday school and small groups, that resistance can be very strong. Unfortunately, in recent years the two systems have been pitted against each other, and church members often feel compelled to defend the current system while fighting against the introduction of the new system.
As is the case with any change, communication is the key. Use every avenue of communication and use them often. If you are adding small groups with the intention of keeping Sunday school, be sure to let your people know that small groups are just another option for spiritual health. If you are transitioning away from Sunday school, do so slowly—very slowly. If you quickly pull the plug on Sunday school with little or no transition time, you could lose a large percentage of your congregation. Instead of seeing the Sunday school advocates as enemies of your new small group system, recognize them as the faithful servants who have attended those Sunday school classes week after week, perhaps for years.
I suggest that you think of this transition time in three stages:
- Patience. If you were going on a mission trip, you would want to know something about the culture of the people. While you may feel you know your church culture, when it comes to leading change, you will be shaking the very foundations of your church. It is imperative that you understand not only the current culture but also your church’s history and any buried trigger points that may be stumbling blocks to progress.
- Talk to key opinion leaders. Talk to the ministry leaders, but also look for unofficial leaders such as spouses of pastors, deacons, and elders. Talk to the people who work in the office. Interview that administrative assistant or children’s ministry volunteer who has been at the church for twenty years. Ask people in the church who they think are the key opinion leaders. Who has influence and a passion for the future of the church? Who are the strong Sunday school proponents? You will want them on your side. Write down all of these names and be especially aware of names that keep coming up. Then go to those people and listen, listen, listen.
- Survey small group leaders past and current (if any). Find out what worked, what didn’t, what they wish had been done differently. Survey Sunday school leaders and ask them for their thoughts about small groups. What are their reservations? What has been their experience with small groups?
- Honor the past, but progressively move into the future. Be sure to honor the people who developed Sunday school or small groups before you. They may not have done it the way you want to do it, but because of their hard work and sacrifice, you have the opportunity ahead of you. This process is biblical and helps you live in the land of grace. Also, grandfather in any existing small groups. At the same time, however, focus on the new people who are adopting your paradigm (early adopters) rather than those who are waiting to see if you are around next year (late adopters). Remember, if you have existing small groups who have survived for a while with little or no direction, they probably have a maverick spirit and will keep going with little or no encouragement. They may be loyal, but the only way you will win them over is through relationship.
- Prayer. Begin praying for responsiveness from your church. Enlist a group of people to pray for your new ministry. Ask Sunday school leaders to pray for the small group ministry. Hold times of prayer and dedicate times for fasting. When you ask people to fast, you will find out who is dedicated to your ministry! As you are praying, ask God to answer these three questions:
- Who? Who is responsive to your vision? Who is seeing and feeling your passion? Who agrees with your goals and direction for the small group ministry?
- When? When should you implement the plan? Pastor Rick has told me time and time again, “Don’t let problem solving interfere with decision making.” If you insist on every problem being solved before you commit to the decision, faith in God is absent. If you want to do a God-size ministry, you won’t need to have it all figured out. I like to think of the three Ls: Look, Learn, and Launch. Look to see who is with you. Learn all you can. Launch when God tells you—and not a second before or after.
- What? What do you want to do? Microsoft used to have a logo line that I loved. It was, “Where do you want to go today?” It asks a question that requires action. Some churches have no idea where they want to go in a sermon let alone in a week, month, or year. Make sure you have a plan for adding small groups; don’t just add them to your church because it seems to be the trendy thing to do. Groups must be seen as a way to either supplement or replace your Sunday school system. Be honest about this up front and don’t ask your people to give time to something that is not strategic and intentional. Know what you want to do and where you want to go.
- Planning. Failing to plan is the same as planning to fail. If you are going to add small groups to your church, you need to plan the action steps to take during each stage. The planning stage involves three components:
- First is the dream component. Without a dream, nothing will happen. Every great Christian leader had a dream—a vision of what that leader knew God wanted him or her to do. What is your dream? What are you seeking God to do? People don’t give their time to merely fill their schedule, they give their time to follow a vision about which they are passionate. Get together with your team and dream!
- Recognize the obstacles and barriers ahead of you. Brainstorm with your team to determine what those might be before they happen. Also, get together to come up with answers to the questions church members are going to ask. This is a great opportunity to get all your team on the same page. Don’t become discouraged when you hit an obstacle. Recognize it as a moment for God to work.
- Finally, set the plan in motion. This is the action component. Once you commit to a measurable goal with a deadline, things begin to happen. This is also a great time to enlist new people to become involved in your dream. Let them be part of the process. This will give them ownership and give you sanity.
Steve Gladen, Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 199–202.