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Is Sunday School Still
A Viable Strategy
In The 21st Century? Part 2

by Dr. Bruce Morrison

In Part 1 (August 2011, SER Newsletter), I defined both Sunday School and small groups, noted the structural differences, and stated that the local church needs both Sunday School classes and small group ministry. The bulk of Part 1 was devoted to understanding Sunday School classes, their advantages, and the role they play in the overall accomplishment of the biblical mandate for the local church to fulfill the Great Commission.

After reading Part 1 you might have concluded that I am a "Sunday School only" kind of guy, but you would be wrong. I firmly believe that you should have both Sunday School and small group ministries in the local church. In this article I will explore the role of small groups in the local church, specifically discipleship groups.

There are several different categories of small groups found in the local church today. Some typical small groups categories are:

Task Groups exist to accomplish a certain project. Church committees and boards are usually task groups.

Fellowship Groups engage in developing a connection with others through activities (i.e. Dinner Clubs, Sports, etc.)

Teaching Groups communicate knowledge and information. The church's discipleship groups and in-depth bible study groups are in this category.

Growth Groups focus on helping people become more aware of felt needs or strained relationships. These groups focus on growth in areas of marriage, family, and work life.

Support Groups focus on specific emotional or relational needs (addiction groups, recovery groups, etc.).

(Rapha's Handbook for Group Leaders by Richard Price and Pat Springle, Rapha Publishing, Houston, TX, Page xvi, 2.)

A working definition of a small group is:

"…an intentional gathering of three to twelve people who commit themselves to work together to become better disciples of Jesus Christ."

(The Big Book On Small Groups, Jeffery Arnold, Intervarsity Press, 1992, Page 9)

There are some key words in this definition we need to explore. First, small groups are "intentional gatherings" of people. These "gatherings do not happen by chance. These people are seeking a common goal or outcome for their investment of time and study. The second group of key words is "three to twelve people". This defines the size of an optimum small group. A larger group will diminish the dynamics of group interaction, making it harder to include everyone in the activities of the group. The third set of key words is "commit themselves to work together". The commitment to work together is paramount to effective group interactions. This commitment also strengthens the connection between the participants, adding to the sense of "community". Finally, the ultimate goal of all small groups is to "become better disciples of Jesus Christ".

The activities common in each category of small groups are giving information, encouraging discussion, facilitating process, and planning. The following chart describes the intensity of these activities in the respective groups.


Giving Information
Encouraging Discussion
Facilitating Process
Planning Action

(Rapha's Handbook for Group Leaders by Richard Price and Pat Springle, Rapha Publishing, Houston, TX, Page 4).

For the remainder of this article, I will provide an overview of the structure, role, and functions of discipleship groups. In order for us to understand the process of discipleship, we must first define what "discipleship" is all about. George Barna states it this way:

"We might define discipleship as becoming a complete and competent follower of Jesus Christ. It is about the intentional training of people who voluntarily submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ and who want to become imitators of Christ in every thought, word, and deed. On the basis of teaching, training, experiences, relationships, and accountability, we become beings transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Discipleship, in other words, is about being and reproducing spiritually mature zealots for Christ."

(Growing True Disciples, George Barna, Issachar Resources, 2000, Page 20)

In the local church, discipleship groups are small, content-focused groups that meet at a time different than Sunday School. Some churches find a period of 60 to 90 minutes on Sunday afternoon, prior to evening worship time. Others use a week night that fits their unique schedule. Some churches have week day classes. Many churches use a combination of these time periods to meet the scheduling needs of their members.

The first step in beginning or revitalizing a discipleship ministry in the local church is to determine the desired outcomes or goals of the ministry. The outcome should focus on the development of fully committed followers of Jesus Christ. Once stated, the goals give direction to the remaining steps of the process.

The next step is to determine the "needs" of the congregation. A congregational survey that asks questions to determine the scheduling and content needs is a good way to discover the desires of the congregation. The following list of questions is not all-inclusive, but rather a sample of questions you might ask your congregation:

What is the best time for you to participate in a discipleship class? (Give your members options that fit your unique calendar).

What would you like to study? (Give your members specific titles with content descriptions, i.e. a new Beth Moore study, James' Mercy Triumphs a study of Jesus' brother and his journey to become a true disciple of Christ or an in-depth study of the Gospel of Matthew, etc). See www.lifeway.com for information on the new Beth Moore study.

What length of class will you commit to? (i.e. 6 weeks, 8 weeks, 12 weeks, etc.).

Would you consider leading a study? What subject?

The results of the survey will give you sufficient data to structure and plan your offerings and schedule. Consider planning a calendar that covers 12 months. This will give your members a chance to "look ahead" to select groups they have interest in or would like to explore.

After scheduling has been determined, the number and content of the classes being offered need to be decided. Discipleship classes are "closed", meaning that after the first week or two, no more individuals will be added to the class. The size of the discipleship groups is best if kept to a maximum of twelve participants. Additionally, leadership for the groups needs to be enlisted and equipped to effectively lead the group assigned. I would suggest this equipping process be separate from the equipping of Sunday School teachers as the dynamics of the small group are different than the dynamics of a Sunday School class.

It should be apparent that this process of establishing or revitalizing a discipleship ministry is not a two week process. You need to give at least six months to the planning phase. While the planning process is ongoing, there is no reason why you can't have a class or two functioning in your church. I would suggest selecting a class that would address spiritual growth of every member. A study about sharing the Gospel with the lost or spiritual renewal and revival are examples of groups you could offer. If you have more than twelve members sign up for the class, have multiple groups studying the same topic.

A "bullet point" look at the above process may help you clarify your actions.

bullet Establish your goals and desired outcomes for the discipleship ministry.

bullet Survey your congregation to determine "needs".

bullet Develop a calendar and course content schedule (for a 12-month time frame if possible).

bullet Recruit and equip group leaders.

bullet Implement plan.

bullet Make adjustments (fine tune) as needed.

The title of these two articles asks the question "Is Sunday School Still A Viable Strategy In The 21st Century?" The answer is a hearty yes! But there is so much more to consider in answering this question. In order to accomplish the "Great Commission" given to the local church, the answer should not be "either / or" Sunday School or small group strategies, but rather "and / both". The local church needs to use the Sunday School to accomplish the five functions of the church outlined in Acts 2:42-47 AND small groups (i.e. discipleship groups) to develop a fully committed follower of Jesus Christ.

If you want a more detailed look at discipleship ministry in the local church I suggest the following resources to give a more in-depth look at making disciples in the local church:

The Disciple-Making Church, Bill Hull, Fleming H. Revell, 2010.

Strategic Disciple Making: A Practical Tool for Successful Ministry, Aubrey Malphurs, Baker Books, 2009.

Growing True Disciples, George Barna, Issachar Resources, 2000.

Imagine what the local church could accomplish if they had members that were fully committed to the accomplishment of the "Great Commission" in every aspect of their daily walk. God has given us His design in His Word. Those of us that lead local churches are assigned the mission of implementing His plan for the advancement of His Kingdom. May God empower you to lead as He directs.

Author: Bruce A. Morrison, D.Min.
        Senior Coach/Consultant
        Church Growth Consultants