Josh Hunt

Doubling Groups, Woodstock Style

by Josh Hunt

In one year (1986 - 1987) First Woodstock doubled in Sunday School attendance, from 275 to 651. By 1990 they had nearly doubled again, hitting 1204 in average attendance. By 1996, they passed 2400, doubling again. They are on pace to double again by 2006, meaning they will have doubled 4 times in twenty years. Who says a church can't double every five years or less?

Woodstock has not seen this kind of growth through reaching just Baptists from Alabama, either. They have consistently baptized about 20% of their Sunday School attendance--about twice the national average. And, they have done it through using methods that a lot of people say don't work.

Of course, it doesn't hurt any to have a pastor like Dr. Johnny Hunt. And, their location in the sprawling suburbs of Atlanta doesn't hurt any either. But, they also have a carefully thought through strategy that has helped them double every five years over the last 20 years.

You are in the Army now

Being a Sunday School teacher at Woodstock gives new meaning to singing the old hymns, "Marching to Zion" and "Onward Christian Soldiers." In order to teach, you have to sign a 12 part covenant:

  1. I have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
  2. I feel called of God to serve Him through the Sunday School.
  3. I will strive to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
  4. I will actively participate in training and growing opportunities. This includes monthly training, as well as two major training events per year. In addition, there is a personal evaluation each year. All mandatory.
  5. I will participate in reaching lost and unchurched persons. Make no mistake about it, this means, "come to visitation." It is hard for some, like single moms to come to Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, visitation, teachers meetings, training events and have plenty of time to study the lessons. The Woodstock way is: find time.
  6. I will actively participate in Sunday School Leadership Meetings. These are held on the third Sunday of the month from 4:00 - 6:00 p.m. Only sickness or family death are an excuse.
  7. I will do all I can to make Sunday morning a positive, uplifting experience.
  8. I will be faithful in tithing. And, just in case there is any question as to what this means, it is 10% of gross, pre-tax income. They don't actually check the giving statements, but you are on the honor system for having stated you'll do it.
  9. I will completely refrain from the use of alcoholic beverages. "It is better to err on the side of squeaky clean than on the side of compromise."
  10. I will attend Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services unless providentially hindered. Anything less is a "lone-ranger mentality" and displays a lack of a team spirit.
  11. I will be supportive of the pastor and staff.
  12. I have read and agree with the church's Sunday School Philosophy.

I suspect many of us think these things are a good idea. Most people I know don't have the nerve to put them out there as a requirement for teaching Sunday School.

This raises an interesting question: do you think raising the bar tends to attract people or repel them? What are your standards for Sunday School teachers? Is it spelled out? Does everyone know what is expected?

For another example of a Teacher's Covenant, prepared by Lifeway, see

Old fashioned is still working

Allan Taylor is unashamedly old-fashioned. In his book The Six Core Values of Sunday School, he says, "The Old Formula is true: New units = New people = New Growth." He says in another place, "Many say Sunday School is no longer effective and now fails us. My question is: Has Sunday School failed us or have we failed Sunday School?" One more: "There has been much talk in the last ten to fifteen years that you can no longer go door to door and you can no longer confront people with the gospel. I want to go on record to say: 'Ain't so.'"

When Allan quotes the Bible, he quotes the King James Version. His style "fundamental Baptist" feel to it. He makes no effort to sound modern, hip, or with-it. He is grace-oriented, but I doubt he has a picture of Bill Hybels or Rick Warren in his wallet.

I am a fan of the contemporary. I love Willowcreek and have great admiration for Saddleback. I drove 7 hours last weekend just to attend a Willowcreek service. But, I also have the perspective to say these are not the only ways of growing a church. "It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people" (Rick Warren).

I was talking to one of my hosts in Houston, TX, once who had more than tripled his church in just a few years. "How did you do it?" I quizzed. "Heaven's high. Hell's deep. Gun-barrel-straight preaching."

"Pardon me?"

"Heaven's high. Hell's deep. Gun-barrel-straight preaching."

"Is that good preaching, or bad preaching?" I had no idea where this guy was coming from.

"Heaven's high. Hell's deep. Gun-barrel-straight preaching."

I eventually got it. This is good preaching. But, preaching of a certain style. Don't tell me it won't work. Almost anything will work if you get thoroughly excited about it. God is a lover of variety. He loves the forest and the desert and the mountains and the jungle and the zoo. He created variety and he loves variety. He loves old-fashioned and he loves new-fangled.  To the degree that I love both, I find myself like God.

How did you learn this?

You can learn a lot about someone by looking at their background. Allan Taylor was a coach and looks at Sunday School through the lens of a coach.

Coaching is all about blocking and tackling. Some of the best coaches have a "back to the basics" kind of mentality. The fundamentals are what win ball games. Good coaches reduce their sport to a hand full of disciplines and practice them over and over and over and over and over.

Allan brings this kind of mentality to the Sunday School. It is not about brilliance, or creativity or the novel or innovative. It is about blocking and tackling. It is about executing well. It is about the fundamentals.

Doubling is not rocket-science. It is about reducing what works into a short list of things to do and executing in the details. My list is different from Allan's:

Teach a half-way decent lesson each and every week; nothing less will do. You don't have to be Charles Swindoll to grow a class; it does have to be half-way decent.

Invite every member and every prospect to every fellowship every month. Allan's strategy is visitation-driven. Mine is party-driven. Both can work.

Give Friday nights to Jesus. Alan asks for Sunday night and Wednesday night, I would ask you for Friday nights. This is an informal time of Diet Coke, card playing, and coffee cake. I have seen it happen more times than I can count that if I can get them to the party I couldn't keep them from class. I think in Allan's system you flat wouldn't have time for this. This is why, you can grow in a variety of ways, but you have to choose. You can't do it all. You can't be a party-driven church and a visitation-driven church.

Encourage the group toward ministry. The fields are white unto harvest. The harvest is plentiful; the workers are few. Allan and I are pretty close on this one: inreach leaders, outreach leaders, class presidents, etc. The more people involved the better.

Reproduce your group. One place where Allan and I see completely eye-to-eye is in the need for creating new groups. Contemporary churches and old- fashioned churches, seeker-targeted churches and seeker-hostile churches, charismatic churches and charismatic-hating churches all grow through doubling groups.

You may have a different list altogether. The key is to reduce what you believe works to a simple to understand and follow approach. Then, model it, teach it, insist on it. Pound away, over and over. Evaluate it to make sure it is working.

Question: specifically, what is your plan for growing your Sunday School or small group system?