Three Sunday Schools or Two?


"We have really grown. We added a second Sunday School and service; now we are going to add a third, just to accommodate the growth."

"Uh. . . remind me we need to have a conversation about that."

I have had this conversation many times and I always find it a bit tedious to try to explain. It just doesn't feel like it should be true. In fact, it feels like it CAN'T be true. Let me take a shot at it with you.

First, this is only helpful information if you are thinking of going to three services. If not, hit delete. Life is too short.

Second, I was in multiple services for years and had a book published before I realized this. I remember the night. I was visiting my friend Bill and his church was considering going to three. The more we talked about it, the more something just didn't feel right to me. I was up late into the night; I couldn't sleep trying to solve this little mathematical puzzle. Suddenly the light came on.

Let's assume that Sunday School space and worship space is more or less equal, and, that demand is more or less equal. We could use any number in this example; let's use the number 500. Assume we have a 500 seat auditorium and space for 500 in Sunday school. Now, let's put one piece in the puzzle at a time.

  Sunday School Worship
8.30 A  
9.45   500
11.00 B  

Now, what I want you to see is that the total of A plus B cannot be greater than 500. You might have 200 in the early Sunday School and 300 in the later one, or the other way around, or 250 in each, but the total is constrained by the number of people who go to worship so it can't be greater than 500. Let's imagine it looks like this:

  Sunday School Worship
8.30 200  
9.45 500
11.00 300  

The opposite is also true:

  Sunday School Worship
8.30   A
9.45 500
11.00   B

Again, A + B cannot be greater than 500. It could be as it is below, or some other numbers, but the total can't be greater than 500. In this case, the number in worship is constrained by the number in Sunday School.

  Sunday School Worship
8.30   200
9.45 500
11.00   300

So, put it together:

  Sunday School Worship
8.30 200 200
9.45 500 500
11.00 300 300

Total it up

  Sunday School Worship
8.30 200 200
9.45 500 500
11.00 300 300
Total 1000 1000

Now, let's imagine you only do two and two. What does that look like?

  Sunday School Worship
9.45 500 500
11.00 500 500
Total 1000 1000

Bottom line: three Sunday Schools provides zero more seats than two. I have done the math many times and it comes out the same every time.

There are, of course, other issues: like, Sunday School and worship may not be balanced, or space might not be balanced, or you might want to provide the convenience of another worship time, or the alternative of another worship style. But if you are thinking of providing three Sunday School to provide more seats, keep thinking.

A few other thoughts about multiples.

  • Two services and two Sunday Schools does not get you twice as many seats as one, for reasons below.
  • You use the same preschool space both hours. If you fill the building during both hours, you will have to allocate more space for preschool
  • You will never get the services/ Sunday Schools completely balanced. If you have ever heard of the 80% rule, it is more like 60% when you have multiples. You are always constrained by whatever space is full, and it doesn't help that there are empty seats when people don't want to come.
  • Parking and hallways will get really crowded in multiples.
  • The youth hardly ever divide. Sometimes I see where Mid High are at one hour and Sr. High at the other hour, but rarely  do I see half the youth group at one hour and the other half at the other.
  • Growing churches are always in multiples. There is not enough money to pay for everyone to all be together if the church is growing.
  • Law of the pickle jar: you can only squeeze ten pickles in a ten pickle jar, even if you pray about it.

A thoughtful response from Tim Smith of the Georgia Baptist Convention:

Good article.  One thought, in working with many churches through this process it has been our experience that the youth as well as all age groups must be equally divided among the hours of Sunday School.  Putting the youth in one hour is a short term solution that causes many problems in the long run.  The biggest problem occurs soon after going to one hour for youth, the adult classes that have parents of teens are forced into one hour.  If an adult class that works to reach a family with teenagers finally has their prospect attend, they are shocked to learn that their is nothing for their teen at the hour they wish to attend.  The next biggest problem occurs when the 5th or 6th graders, depending on the structure of the church's ministry to children and youth, are promoted out of the children's ministry into the youth.  If they have been attending in the hour where there are no youth, the family is forced to switch hours.  This leads to the final problem and that is without a complete age graded Sunday School at both hours, the church ends up become old in one hour and young in another.  The main reason that youth do not want to do is that they feel it splits the group.  Any growth will naturally cause this to happen.  The youth minister usually does not want to do it because of the strain of leadership enlistment.  In the long run it is better for the entire church that the youth as well as all age groups achieve at least a 70-30% spilt and it is ideal to get a 60-40.  This includes all age groups within the adults.  Many senior adults will want to attend one hour but it is critical that they too have classes at both hours.  If the church is going to duals for a short time period, this is not as critical.  Just some thoughts I wanted to share with you. 
Tim S. Smith, Team Coordinator & Consultant
Sunday School/Open Group Ministries
Georgia Baptist Convention
6405 Sugarloaf Parkway
Duluth, GA 30097-4092

1.800.746.4422 ext. 287
FAX: 770.452.6580