A missionary Sunday school class or small group is focused on reaching new people and ministering to people it has already reached. Today many Sunday school classes and small groups have lost their way. What is the purpose for your small group or Sunday school class?
On several occasions during my local church ministry, concerned teachers and members approached me about providing a marriage enrichment class during Sunday school. Beyond their own felt need, they wondered how many more people could be involved if the class were offered on Sunday. In most cases, the suggestion was to offer the marriage enrichment class for a quarter in place of the regular Sunday school class. On the surface, this sounds and looks like a great idea. While I never doubted the need for the marriage enrichment and was eager to respond to the request; I realized it would take the class away from its purpose and focus.
First, Sunday school classes are purposed to be an “open group.” An open group provides a class for anyone to attend anytime and be accepted. You might say, “The marriage enrichment class is open to anyone.” Your response would be partially true. On the other hand, the class would not meet the definition of an “open group.” The class would be “open” for a couple of weeks as it was getting started, but “closed” for the remainder of the 13 weeks.
So, what will happen to guests and those who do not attend regularly once the class begins? The answer is, “there is no place for them.” Providing this class during Sunday school could ultimately exclude up to two-thirds of the class members and most of the guests for an 11-week period. In contrast, a missionary class always has a place for people.
Over the years, I have discovered we have “closed” classes for another reason. Some classes become so strongly bonded they appear to repel guests. I have observed a guest enter a room where all the chairs were taken and have to go hunt a chair on their own. Many of these classes say guests are welcome, but you can feel the resistance in the air when you enter the room. An open group has empty seats and acts as if they are expecting guests.
Secondly, Sunday school classes are purposed to be an “ongoing group.” An ongoing group is available every Sunday in the case of the Sunday school or every week if a weekday small group. To reach new people, churches need ongoing missionary classes or groups. Hence, the marriage enrichment class request also leads the Sunday
school away from its ongoing missionary strategy. This subject-oriented study, marriage enrichment, is not “ongoing” for all. A true “ongoing” class is open-ended, including openness to everyone week after week unendingly.
I have noticed three disturbing trends impacting “ongoing groups,” including closed groups, a lack of accountability for members and periodic schedule reaks. Many churches have not clearly identified the need for ongoing groups nd have allowed many “closed group” topics to fill the year’s schedule. This roduces times when there are not places for everyone. These closed group topics lead to the second trend, a lack of accountability. If I join a Sunday school class, the leaders become accountable for connecting, communicating and ministering to me. In the case of short-term topics, teachers often change after 13-weeks and in many cases members get to pick a different class and teacher. The accountability for the members is weak or not existent. Thirdly, some churches are intentionally taking breaks in their schedule. The most common of these is not providing a Sunday school over the summer. This is done with the intention of giving people a break, but it leaves a missionary vacuum in its wake. The church does not have an ongoing opportunity for members and guests to participate in Bible study. An ongoing missionary-minded Sunday school or small group is available every week and guests are welcome.
Tom Belew has served as Small Groups and Childhood Specialist for the California Southern Baptist Convention since 2002. He previously served as Minister of Education in churches in Arizona and California.