The Original Small Group Experience

Sunday School Logo
Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently unveiled a new Sunday school theme: “Sunday School-The Original Small Group Experience.” The slogan has attracted some criticism from Adam Feldman who says “they just… don’t… get it. Do they?” This sparked an ensuing discussion on the emerging SBC leaders blog. I have to agree, at first glance the promotional phrase does seem a bit pretentious. Christian small groups pre-date the modern concept of Sunday School by roughly 1900 years. After all, what was Jesus and his motley crew of 12, other than a “small group?” Of course they didn’t call themselves a “small group” but neither did the early church call what they did “Sunday School” even though they gathered on the first day of the week for instruction – among other things. (btw I noticed the Wikipedia Sunday School entry needs help. 🙂 ) Tangling over terminology probably doesn’t advance the conversation much. Whether we call it “Sunday School,” “cells,” “small groups,” or whatever, the focus ought to be on what we do and who we are, not just what we call ourselves.

Adam observes that the modern model of Sunday School often takes the form of “sit still while I instill.” I think he is right. I’ve often seen that myself. Adam adds, “in seminary, I learned it was normal/to be expected/to be sought after to have the larger Sunday school environment.” I had a different experience at NOBTS where my professor bemoaned the trend, in many SBC churches, to the master teacher and large class model of doing Sunday School. He suggested that class/group sizes should be small enough for casual and intense conversation. This echoed the suggestions coming out of Nashville, but in spite of that, the trend still persists. Why? I do not know, but I’m not sure we should blame Lifeway for it.

As far as I can tell, Lifeway has been trying to discourage the large group lecture style Sunday School for a very long time. Instead of seeing the new slogan as a cheap marketing tool, I see it as another step toward promoting something like the type of small group that many younger leaders are talking about. The material Lifeway produces lends itself to small groups. In order to use the material in large lecture class settings, the teacher has to disregard most of what comes in the leader pack. For example, I have the Youth “Family Bible Study” material here within arms reach. Looking at yesterdays session I notice that the suggestions for group time involve games, activities, case studies, and conversation starters – no lecture. One involved having a student empty a tube of toothpaste onto a trey and having the class work on getting all the paste back into the tube. This impossible feat served as the backdrop to open ended questions about the difficulty of taking back words spoken by an untamed tongue. (James 3:1-12)

I believe that Lifeway wants to produce resources to help churches facilitate small group interaction, innovative instruction, relationship building, outreach, and spiritual growth within active communities of faith. Printed resource material can only go so far – that doesn’t mean we ought not let our voices be heard and try to guide the conversation in a productive direction.

For example, one thing that I think would be helpful would be for churches to stop viewing Sunday School as an event. That might prove difficult as long as we hold onto the temporal day based title, “Sunday School.” I do not understand why they have not jettisoned that terminology long ago. I guess old language dies hard. We lost part of it when we transitioned from the “Sunday School Board” to “Lifeway Christian Resources” and as far as I can tell most of the material uses alternate words like “Bible Study” instead. I’ve heard Lifeway representatives remind folks that Sunday School doesn’t have to meet on Sunday. Saturday night, Tuesday morning, and Saturday night classes have been suggested for workable schedules. That’s a good idea, but I’m talking about something deeper. One difference I see in the two terms “Sunday School” vs “Small Group” is that you go to “Sunday School,” but you are a “Small Group.” How can we make that a real transition and not just words? I do not know exactly, but its worth pursuing and thinking about.

I doubt simply changing the name will suffice. Small groups need to break out of the one hour time slot and see themselves as an organic team on mission rather than just a group of people who meet once a week. Perhaps adding missions projects, mid-week interaction, and other things that foster integrated community building would lead toward this ideal. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas on this.


I think your observation about the time slot is really important. One problem we always have had with college sunday school is that they arrive late, and by the time you get settled, everything else is rushed.

Having small group at a different time, without such a tight time constraint, seems to work better. Plus it affords a much “safer” environment where participants feel free to share their opinions. And eating together is always good, too. : )

Good analysis Don! For most churches it could take a “rogue” class to become a small group – but then we will still have those who won’t know what to do with themselves the hour before worship too!!!!

Regarding the size of Sunday School classes: I think the main issue is getting teachers. I’ve been in large and small churches, and currently pastor a small church, and the problem seems universal (in my limited experience, anyway).

As for having classes where students come in late: The best cure I’ve seen for this is ruthlessly starting on time. It seems to me that people say “well, we need to wait 5 minutes because people are still coming in.” Not only is this obnoxious for folks who arrive when they’re supposed to, but that 5 minutes tends to slide to a larger number. If people come in and the class is going already they will (usually) try to arrive earlier.

don~ thanks for the mention. i also agree w/ your analysis. thanks for taking it to the next level. interestingly, i am an nobts grad myself. funny how we heard 2 different messages from the same school.

peace and coffee.

Don, I had a S.S. Class that took me up on an offer to be more than a class. They went to Mexico on Spring Break. They funded the trip themselves, arranged it themselves. I gave them the entire Sunday Morning Service when they came back to report and encourage others. I have been thinking about Adam’s post I am beginning to see his point also. But I think you know that I am struggling with the Emerging Church thing. Adam has some good insights as do you. I usually check on your blog daily. Jeff

Excellent post, Don. While many in emergent circles are talking about re-inventing church, the real impact is at the educational level of the small group. Large group SS classes are often about power and prestige rather than effective education.