Do you ever graduate from Sunday School?

by Josh Hunt

Rick Warren was the first to pose this question to me. "You graduate from other schools," he said, "why is it you attend Sunday School your whole life and never graduate?" I balked at first. "Of course you don't graduate from Sunday School," I thought. "This is the school of discipleship. You never graduate. We are pursuing perfection and total godliness. You never get there. Jesus called us to be disciples. Disciples are students, learners. You never arrive. You never graduate."

Yeah, but. . .

Doesn't the Bible speak somewhere about growing up spiritually and moving on to graduate school? Eugene Peterson puts it especially well:

So come on, let's leave the preschool finger-painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on "salvation by self-help" and turning in trust toward God; Hebrews 6:1 [Msg]

Question: Does Sunday School ever feel to you like we are still in the finger-painting exercises of Christ?

Saddleback has a kind of both-and strategy to address this. They have ongoing small groups that you never graduate from. But, they also have a series of 101, 201, 301 and 401 weekend seminars. These are all about membership, maturity, ministry and mission. There is more to being a disciple of Christ than completing 4 weekend seminars. That is why they have ongoing small groups that you don't graduate from. But, this approach insures that everyone gets the basics.

Robert Lewis, at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, AR has taken a different approach. He has written it up in the book, The Church of Irresistible Influence. It is worth reading and proves once again that there are a million ways to do church and to do groups.

Here is how it works at Fellowship.

  • Group life begins with a Discovery Group. This lasts 8 - 10 weeks and includes newcomer orientation, small group training, and church membership.
  • From Discovery Group, participants move to Seasons of Life Groups. Young marrieds meet with young marrieds and so forth. These groups lay the foundation for discipleship and prepare members for the next stage--the really fun part. In addition, you establish some deep relationships that can be sustained with or without a weekly group life. Because they are seasons of life, people will tend to have some basic things in common. This group is more or less like a "normal" small group that you might find at any other church, except that the curriculum prepares you to graduate from this level to the next.
  • Common Cause groups. These could be anything from DivorceCare, to Divorce Prevention, to Disaster Follow Up, to  Deaf Ministry--and that is just the D's. They have dozens of opportunities to serve. After the foundational three-year discipleship time, group life is all about serving. At Fellowship Bible Church, group life graduates you to a life of service. If you are interested in this approach, you might see also the old book by Frank Tillipaugh, The Church Unleashed. It is out of print, but available used at --today you can pick one up for $.55 plus shipping. (For more information on Fellowship Bible, see and )

There is a lot to this plan, but I want to highlight one aspect of it. They take a two-tiered approach to discipleship. Everyone gets the basics; they go on from there. Hebrews 6.1 is built into the structure.

This two-tiered approach, widely practiced (in different forms) by many churches I have researched offers multiple advantages.

The two-tiered approach insures that everyone gets the basics.

I was in a Sunday School class recently and was taken aback when the teacher asked, "Have any of you ever thought of Christianity as being a lifestyle?" I thought Christianity-as-a-lifestyle was kind of 101 stuff, but this guy--a pretty sharp fellow--had never heard of the concept until he was preparing for this lesson. I don't blame him at all. Christianity as a lifestyle is old hat to me, but new information to him. A two-tiered strategy could insure that everyone had the basics. I would include such topics as. . .

  • Basic Discipleship. How to have a quiet time. Prayer. Giving. Basics of witnessing. Assurance of salvation.
  • Evangelism. A more complete approach to evangelism that includes the churches strategy of evangelism. You could use a proven approach, like FAITH or The Contagious Christian or write your own.
  • Spiritual Gifts. Willowcreek has its Networking. Saddleback its SHAPE. I would want everyone to know how God has gifted them and how they can serve. One of my favorite books is Peter Wagner's You Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow.
  • Perhaps Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby. I love this book. It changed my life. Every believer ought to have the opportunity to benefit from it.
  • Perhaps Desiring God by John Piper. I love this book too. Christian living is not about duty so much as it is about joy.
  • Perhaps something on my church strategy for doing church. Hey, how about You Can Double Your Class in Two Years or Less!

You may have a different list of basics. But, a two-tiered approach could insure that everyone has the basics. You might want to write the whole thing from scratch, or, use pieces of curriculum that others have developed. I wouldn't make it too long, as people move so often. One thought would be to design the curriculum, then bring the whole church through it, then allow newcomers to start through the beginning. It is a little odd to require newcomers to go through Experiencing God if most of the church has not been through it.

A two-tiered approach could challenge the mature to a higher level.

Can I make a confession? A lot of Sunday School lessons are boring to me. Not that they are not important. If I were designing the curriculum I might cycle into many of the same topics. But I have been there and done that. How many lessons have I heard on, "You are sinning and you need to quit." I looked at the quarterly a few weeks ago. The lesson for the day was on salvation. As it turned out, the teacher did a good job and introduced some fresh ideas to an old topic, but I must confess a yawn when I first heard the topic. Again, not that salvation is not important. It is just that I have studied it and studied it and studied it.

The implication of Hebrews 6.1 is that we ought to move on at some point. But, how do you move on without leaving some people behind? Some people clearly need the basics. The two-tiered approach could insure that everyone got the basics, but once you got the basics you could be challenged beyond the milk of the word.

To be clear, in the Little Rock model, people don't move from the basic tier to advanced theology. They move from a small group to ministry. It is like we do in real life. We go to school for a while, then we go to work.

A two-tiered approach may be a better way to assimilate new members

One of the perennial problems with groups is they grow calcified over time. New groups are more open to new people and older groups become more and more closed. They may say they welcome outsiders, but, truth is, it takes a long time to break in.

We can counter this tendency in quite a number of ways, including strong teaching on the subject and hiving off some members to create new groups. We can expect limited success from these methods. An equally valid method approach relates to the two-tiered approach. Form a new group of all new people. Unlike existing groups of long-time members, new members are eager to reach out and get to know one another. They have room in their social networks and calendar for more people.

This may not work so well in a smaller church as you don't have the critical mass of new people to form small groups of new people often enough. But, in larger churches, it is a real possibility. Many churches do this with a new members class. They form a new members class, then fold that into a regular, ongoing small group.

An obvious issue is that a two-tiered approach could fly in the face of open classes, a mantra of most Sunday School experts. There are no perfect solutions, and there are a million ways of doing church. Think about it.

Give some thought to the two-tiered approach at your staff meeting. Let's give people the milk of the Word, make sure they have it, then move on. I am tired of Sunday School that is synonymous with elementary.