Pastor Steve Gladen

The debate over Sunday school versus small groups continues. Each side debates the merits of their system while pointing out the flaws in the other system. A common question is: “Does your church have Sunday school or small groups?” which is often a veiled way of asking, “Is your church a traditional one that is stuck in the rut of Sunday school?” As more and more churches replace Sunday school with small groups, the common notion is that Sunday school is a system that traditional churches cling to while more modern and progressive churches move toward small groups. The truth, however, is not that simple or clear-cut. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. More important than the system used is the desired result: spiritual growth and health. If the goal is to teach the Word of God and apply the Great Commission and great commandment, does it matter if your people meet in a church classroom or a living room?

Before you decide whether to use Sunday school or small groups as a delivery system, make sure you understand your goal: spiritual health. Once you know what type of attributes you want to see in a healthy follower of Christ, then you can develop a delivery system to align with that purpose. At Saddleback, we believe a healthy follower is someone who is balancing the Great Commission and the great commandment in his or her heart and life. We believe the best way for us to develop healthy followers is through small groups. That doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot use Sunday school to produce healthy followers of Christ.

The first two churches I worked at (one as an intern and one as a staff member) had Sunday school classes rather than small groups. The next two churches I worked at combined Sunday school and small groups. My previous church and Saddleback Church are totally driven by small groups. At each church there were pros and cons to their delivery systems. Looking back, I realize the most important thing, regardless of the delivery system, is to know why you have small groups or Sunday school. Many churches have Sunday school or small groups simply because that is what they have always done. They have given little thought to their desired result and whether the particular system they are using is the most productive for achieving that desired result.

Let’s look at the benefits of both systems:

Benefits Small Groups

  • longer fellowship time is more conducive to building deeper relationships
  • environment of living room is conducive to relaxed atmosphere, and seekers are often more willing to come to a home than a church building
  • infinitely expandable
  • good stewardship of resources

Sunday School

  • convenient meeting time (before or after worship service)
  • convenience of location
  • childcare provided
  • easier to manage the leaders

Steve Gladen, Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 191–193.