Sunday School / Church GrowthThe Priority of Group Life

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Most of what it means to be the church happens in small groups. . .

  • Most of the caring
  • Most of the loving
  • Most of the encouraging
  • Much of the learning
  • Most of the admonishing

And on and on and on. Until this generation the small group was seen as the front line of the evangelistic/ disciplemaking process. Today, we are enamored by big things. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. We live in a culture that is enamored by big things: big football games, big malls, big Wal-marts, big men's rallies, big worship services. These thing are important and have their place. There is nothing like worship in a big, big crowd. But, let us not "despise the day of small things." (Zechariah 4:10) Most of what it means to be a church happens in, through and around small groups.

Most pastors and church leaders will agree with what I have said here about the priority of small groups. They will nod. You can get an "Amen" out of them. But most don't believe it. I can prove this to you.

Talk is not the proof of belief; action is. Although many pastors talk about the importance and the glory of groups, they do not personally attend. Their actions betray their true belief. They are like parents who drop their children off for Sunday School while they play golf. They tell their children, "Sunday School is important. Church is important. God is important. Run on to Sunday School. I will be at the golf course. Be a good boy. Good bye." This sends one of two messages to the child. The child may see this incongruity and think, "It can't really be important or would be going yourself." Or, the child may see this as a developmental thing. He may think, "Sunday School is important for children. I am a child. I will happily attend Sunday School. I am a child and will act like a child, but when I am grown, I will put away childish ways. When I grow up, I will play golf on Sunday mornings like Daddy. I want to be like you, Dad. I want to be just like you."

In a similar way, when believers see their pastors talk about the importance of small groups but not attending, they notice. They will come to one of two conclusions. Either they will think that Sunday School is not really as important as the pastor says, based on the principle of incongruity. Or they will see it as a developmental issue. They will think, "When I grow to maturity, I will get past Sunday School and will move to the church office where I will sip coffee, eat donuts and act like a 'general officer.'" Pastors, if you are talking the talk of the priority of small groups but are not involved in one yourself, you are sending the wrong message. People are listening more loudly to your behavior than they are to your words. I want to invite you to be involved in the joy of a small group.

Don't read in this any condemnation in this whatsoever. There is no place in the Christian life for condemnation. (Romans 8:1) This is simple truth. Actions speak louder than words. It is not just a truism; it is really the truth. When their is an incongruity between words and actions, the actions will always eclipse the words.

I am not saying you have to attend Sunday School. I am not saying you have to do anything. Your life is your life and you can do whatever you want. But, you can't have it both ways. You can't have people believe you when you say small groups are important if you do not attend yourself. I understand Sunday morning may not work for you. You may want to be a part of another small group during the week. If you choose this route, make your actions visible. Talk about what your small group is doing from time to time. Let your light shine before men. (Matthew 5:16)

You may not want to attend a small group at all. You may disagree with what I say. You may not get anything out of Sunday School. You may think it is a waste of time. I am not telling you what you have to believe or do. I am talking about congruity. If behavior and talk are incongruous, people generally believe the behavior over the talk.

If I were a pastor I would want my Minister of Music to attend a small group. Most Ministers of Music I have known do not. Again, this is incongruous. Small groups are either important or they are not. We cannot have it both ways. I would not want them to attend Sunday School just to be an example. I would not want them to attend as a punishment to them. I would not want them to attend Sunday School because I was singling them out as particularly needing help.

I think we all need help. I think we all need to be loved. I think we all need to be a part of the loving and encouraging and laughing and life of a small groups. I love small groups. They are life to me. I want you to love small groups too. Not just attend. Not just be an example as some kind of duty. I invite you to love the body of Christ as lived out in a loving, laughing, crying, helping group. And I invite you to help the group grow. I invite you to use your gifts to grow your group.

It is not enough to attend. It is not enough to love small groups. Leaders need to be involved. Pastors need to be Sunday School teachers or class outreach leaders or minister through hospitality. In fact, the Bible teaches that being hospitable is part of the minimum criteria for being a pastor. It is listed on the same level as "able to teach." (1 Timothy 3:2 Titus 1:8)

Pastor, your involvement in the growth and reproduction of a group will have two effects on your church. First, the example will be in inspiration to all. Second, if your church is under 500 in Sunday School, you will make a dramatic difference in the overall growth of the church through your single handed effort. The larger the church, the more important the impact of example. The smaller the church, the greater the relative impact of the growth of the group you attend.


Sunday School or Home Group?

You may have noticed that I use the term small group, group and Sunday School class somewhat interchangeably. This is because I believe that they serve similar functions. Some will argue that home groups are relational whereas Sunday School type groups are more content oriented and programmatic. I have two questions: Why? and Does it have to be so? There are some differences between home groups and Sunday School type groups that church leaders ought to be aware of. Let me mention two of them.

Sunday School is still going to be around 100 years from now because it is an inherently superior system to home groups. By superior system, I do not mean that I like it better. I mean it is inherently better, the way gold is better than silver. It is better because it provides a means by which the whole body of Christ can be cared for at the same time and at the same place. More bluntly, it is a better system because it take better care of kids. Jesus has some pretty strong things to say about taking care of kids. (Matthew 19:14) A Sunday School system where mama and daddy can go to run one, Jr. 4th grader can go to room ten and little Betsy Newborn can go to the preschool area is inherently better than telling couples to come to a group and take care of their own baby sitting. It is better than having baby sitting at one house and bible study at another.

Parents care about kids. If you take care of my kids, I will put up with you. Providing great Sunday schools for kids is one of the best things we can do to reach this society.

When people study the success of the cell movement in Korea and scratch their heads as to why it hasn't worked here with near the success, they seem to miss an important point. Cho is not competing with Second Baptist Houston--one of America's great Sunday School churches. When people have the choice between attending the well organized, well equipped, well trained Sunday School at Second Houston, and attending a little Bible study in someone's home, most of them will pick Second Houston. Cho has no such competition. Because Sunday School is an inherently superior system, it is tough for cell churches to compete in the same market.

This is why it is almost impossible to start an effective cell ministry in a strong Sunday School church. People will just naturally prefer the convenience of time--attending one time before or after worship--and the convenience of having quality children education for their children.

Note that when I say Sunday School I do not necessarily mean Sunday. We had Sunday School on Saturday night. We called it Bible Study because we felt the name Sunday School was inappropriate for a Saturday night event. But it was Sunday School. What I mean by the Sunday School system is a time and place where preschoolers, children and youth meet at the same time and place, usually just after or just before a worship service.

Mark it down; Sunday School is going to be around a long time.

The second thing I want to say about Sunday School vss. home groups is that it seems clear to me that home groups are also going to be around for a long time. Home groups do offer some advantages over Sunday School type groups. The biggest advantage is the warmth that the home atmosphere provides. This is a challenge to us to provide better for our Sunday School groups. Sunday school, is the only place in society where people typically sit in folding chairs. Everywhere we go, school, work, ball games, dentists office, you name it, everyone has better chairs than Sunday School.

Another advantage of home groups is that they are limitless. You always have more homes. Sunday School space, by contrast is limited and expensive. I discuss this in detail in Let It Grow! The conclusion is that if we use our Sunday School space over and over this become much less of a problem. The problem is not the cost and availability of Sunday School space. The problem is that we use the space so seldom. No business in America could stay in business using their buildings as seldom as churches do. Professional arenas may be one exception.

There are some advantages that home groups offer. However, I believe the vast majority of believers will prefer a Sunday School system over a home system. I believe Sunday School will capture 90%+ of the market share of small group attendance for many years to come. This isn't just my opinion, this is the opinion of someone who knows what he is talking about. I refereed to John Vaughan's research in a previous work:

Dr. Vaughan has done some research on this and found the facts rather startling. The research revealed that churches with a Sunday School system do a far better job of assimilating people in some kind of group life than do those churches with home cell systems. Independent, non-charismatic churches using home cells average 50% of worship attendance in groups. Independent, charismatic churches have about 30%. Those who employ the Sunday School system, however, range from 75% to over 100% of those attending worship being involved in groups.(1)

I believe that Sunday School is an inherently superior system to a home group system. I believe that home groups will supplement Sunday School groups in some settings, and in church plants will be the primary small group system for years to come.

What I really want to advocate, however, is the primacy of groups, whether they be home groups or Sunday School type groups.

About this time, someone reading this is wondering, "But is Sunday School really the be all and end all? Is it really all that important, or is it one among many important things? Isn't worship important? Isn't preaching important? Isn't preschool important? Aren't greeters important? Isn't money important?" Maybe I'd better do some explaining.


Sodalities, Modalities and Small Groups

Ralph Winter has done a great service to the church by clarifying the biblical distinction between two types of New Testament organizations. First is the modality, which is like a local church. The other is a sodality, which is like a Christian publishing house or mission board or seminary or denominational agency. Modalities (local churches) are more general. They attempt to care for all the spiritual needs of everyone. The criteria for entry is relatively low--normally just profession of having been born again. In some churches baptism is required. In a few churches today, it is becoming stylish to require attendance in a membership class.

My wife and I recently joined a new church. I was having lunch with my pastor when I asked him what I had to do to join. "We will take care of it when we get back to the office." When we got back to the office he wrote our names and addresses on a sticky note. "I will give this to the secretary and she will enter you name in the computer. Then you will be a member." That is a low level of entry requirements. This is how modalities are.

Sodalities are much different. My parents served Southern Baptists' Foreign Mission Board for twenty-five years. In order to get in, they had to write statements of their theology. They had to be graduates of an approved seminary. They had to have so many years in full time service. They had to provide references. They had to have a physical examination. They provided references who provided references who provided references. Their were interviews and screening and on and on. Many are called, but few are chosen. This is an example of a sodalic high level of entry requirement.

In modalities, we do a lot of things. We bury the dead and do weddings and committees and feed the poor and hold potluck dinners. We are generalists in our living out of the Christian faith. By contrast, sodalities are specialists. Wycliff is translating the bible while World Vision is feeding the hungry. The Navigators began when Dawson Trotman realized no one was reaching military people. They began specializing in reaching this part of the market churches were not reaching. Later, they expanded to other specialties, but retained this focused agenda. Similarly, Bill Bright, a disciple of Dawson Trotman, started a special ministry targeting college students. Today, they are known as Campus Crusade for Christ. As with the Navigators, they have broadened to a number of specialties. Still, they are a group of specialist working on a narrow niche of the overall expansion of the kingdom of God.

Modalities can and should have sodalities within them. A Tuesday night visitation team, a food closet committee and a puppet ministry are all examples of sodalities within modalities.

Ralph Winter's point is that this specialized form of organization is a legitimate one. He illustrates this using the model of Paul's missionary band, which was a prototypical sodalic organization. It had high entry requirements and a specialized missions.

Both sodalities and modalities are legitimate New Testament organization. One need not be subject to the other, or play second fiddle to the other. Both are needed, legitimate types of organization. A church is an expression of what it means to be the body of Christ and so is a publishing house and a relief organization and a seminary.

This stretches our definition of what a church is because we are accustomed to thinking in terms of the church existing only in the look and feel of a local church. Winters adroitly smashes this myth by offering ample biblical proof that both sodality and modality are expressions of the body of Christ.

I would like to slice the pie another way.

We often think of church as the worshipping congregation. We say, "I am going to Sunday School and church," as if Sunday School is one thing and church is another. We go to Sunday School, then we go to church. I want to argue that this is wrong. I want to argue that the small group is a legitimate expression of the church. It is not an organization of the church, it is the church. Just as water can exist in the form of liquid, solid or vapor, the church can exist in the form of a large group worship service, a small group bible study or a sodalic publishing house. All are expressions of what it means to be the church. That Sunday School class meeting down the hall and on the left is the church. That group of young couples who gather on Tuesday night for bible study, worship and fellowship is the church. That group of men that meet for breakfast at Denny's and hold one another accountable for the verses they are memorizing is the church. They are not a part of the church. They are not three members of the church. They are an expression of what it means to be church. Further, the small group is best equipped to do most of what the church is supposed to do. The implications are enormous.

The church has five purposes. These are:

  • Worship
  • Evangelism
  • Discipleship
  • Fellowship
  • Service

Which of these would you say is best done by a modality, best done by a sodality or best done by a small group? Here is my answer. You may disagree.

EvangelismSmall group
DiscipleshipSmall group
FellowshipSmall group


Worship is best done is a large group--the bigger the better. The entry requirements are comparatively low. No educational requirements or reference checks. But the worship that a large group of believers can generate cannot be duplicated anywhere else.

Service can be done by specialized, sodalic groups. Whether it is a sodality within a modality, as a Tuesday night Visitation team, or a "para-church" sodality, such as Christian book store, modalities are tops at getting a job done. If you want to get ministry done, organize sodalities. These are the Green Beret of Christian service. Churches ought to work at spawning such groups.

The other three functions of a church can best be done through small groups. Fellowship, for example can best be done in small groups. People can shake hands and become acquainted in a worship service. In sodalities, deep bonds of relationships can develop. But, in a sodality, the task is subservient to relationships. This is why Paul wouldn't let John Mark go on the second missionary journey. You would never be prohibited from attending a small group because you let the group down in the past. A small group is a place where the healing balm of love and forgiveness is liberally applied. Not so in a sodalic group. The task comes first. If you can't cut the mustard you are cut from the team. This is good for the task, but can be hurtful to the person. We have a task to do, so we need sodalities. People need to be loved. This is why we need small groups. Small groups do a better job with fellowship than either sodalities or modalities.

Discipleship is best done in small groups. Jesus made disciples in small groups. It is the New Testament way. The early church met in large group, temple-court type meetings, and in small, house-to-house type meetings.

This topic of how disciples are made is so important I will devote an entire chapter to explore the process of turning sinners into saints.

Evangelism happens best in small groups. People like to come to Christ in the incubator of a loving relationships. When we love them, they will com to love our Lord. Truth becomes truth that matters when someone that loves me communicates it to me.

Fellowship happens best in small groups. Discipleship happens best in small groups. At least we know that is how Jesus did it. Evangelism happens best in small groups. Most of what it means to be a church happens in, through and around small groups.

This is not to say that big groups are bad or that they do not have their place in Christian life. It is just that because big groups are big, they naturally draw attention to themselves and no one doubts their value. It is tempting to forget about the importance of small groups. This is not a competition between the functions, but a team, each type of New Testament organization bringing its best to the team.

Without small groups, a church is only a half church. It is only living out part of what it means to be the church. This is why pastors ought to eat, breath and sleep small groups. It is why the pastor and the staff and the deacons ought to attend small groups. We would readily understand and think it strange if a Minister of Education refused to ever attend worship. We would not accept an answer about scheduling problems or time pressure. We would see it is a spiritual issue, and rightly so. It is also a basic spiritual issues I am talking about here. Small groups are a part of what it means to be the body of Christ. No one should be allowed to remain in leadership unless they joyfully participate.

There are a number of ways a pastor can demonstrate the importance of small groups. One way is by attending. Another way is by insisting that all church leadership attend. Another has to do with the way a church measures success. That is the topic of our next chapter.


20 Questions

1. What have you learned so far in this study that has made a difference in your ministry?

2. Has anything fairly wonderful happened at your church in the last couple of weeks that you would like to tell the group about?

3. Anyone have a prayer concern, a burden, or something you are just flat depressed about? How can we pray for you?

4. Why do you think small groups are important?

5. Why do some church leaders get the idea that it is better to sit in the office and sip coffee than attend a small group?

6. Are you frustrated with any leaders at your church who simply refuse to attend a small group?

7. How would you handle a leader who would not attend a small group?

8. How do you get people excited about small groups who find them childish or boring?

9. What is the difference between a modality and a sodality?

10. Do you agree with Ralph Winter and Josh that the sodality is a legitimate expression of the church? Why or why not?

11. Do you believe that the small group is as legitimate expression of the church as is the worship service?

12. What advantages do you see for Sunday School over home groups?

13. What advantages do you see for home groups over Sunday School?

14. What are some ways we can import some home group advantages into Sunday School?

15. What are some ways you have seen home groups used successfully?

16. Of the five purposes of the church, which do you think the large, modalic group can do best?

17. Which can the small, sodalic type group do best?

18. Which of the purposes of the church can be well handled in a Sunday School class?

19. Of all the things pastors have to give priority to, why should a pastor give himself to leading the small group system of the church?

20. What are some ways a pastor can demonstrate his commitment to small groups?

1. Taken from a conversation with Dr. John Vaughan.