This is article three of a ten part series. Click here to view the previous article.
How Small is Small?
Jeremiah prophesied thusly, For my people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns – broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13) Well, I’m no Jeremiah, but I believe that Baptist have committed a sin or two when it comes to Sunday School. Just yesterday, I had a Sunday School Director call me about her Sunday School. She shared with me some information about several of the classes and asked, Why aren’t we growing? Enrollment in these classes had topped 40+ and they had either plateaued or declined. When I suggested that these classes needed to reproduce, she immediately shot back, Oh, we can’t split those classes. The members would stop coming; we’d have anarchy, for sure. This Sunday School had dug cisterns which had become broken, and the fountain of living water had been replaced by the Dead Sea. Our role as Sunday School leaders is to keep the fountain flowing; to remove as many barriers as we can to making disciples and transformation and to create an environment in which the Holy Spirit can do His work.
In the Simple Church Rainer and Geiger encourages the church to develop a simple disciple-making process that connects people to God, to other people, to the lost in the community. Sunday School is that second step that connects people to other people in a transformational small community. Any barrier that keeps the Sunday School from connecting people with people should be removed.
My favorite quote in Transformational Church is, We’ve got to move from sitting in rows to sitting in circles to going out and changing the world. Ed Stetzer. Next Sunday in worship try looking at the backs of the heads of people in front of you to see if you can tell who they are. Can you learn anything about a person by looking at the back of his head? Not very much! But when you look him in the eyes, you can see expression, emotion, and response to you. The eyes are indeed the windows to the soul. Stetzer contends that transformation takes place best in small communities among friends both old and new. Therefore, for transformation we’ve got to move from the sanctuary, sitting in rows to a small group, sitting in circles where we can connect with others and provoke one another to love and good deeds and then to going out to change the world. In fact, I take it a step further. In our Sunday School classes we need to move to even smaller learning groups where interaction takes place around the Bible study. In my Sunday School class of around 9-12 people, we are usually in three learning groups of 3-4 each. Sadly, too many of our Sunday School classes are still sitting in rows or either in large semi-circles where people must communicate across a crowded room. Try it. Next Sunday, move out of those rows or that semi-circle and arrange your class in small learning groups of 3-4 each. Let them connect, share stories, and interact with the biblical truth. Create an environment for connection and transformation. For more information see Transformational Bible Study.
I shared with the Sunday School Director on the phone the following principles that help to eliminate barriers and create an environment for making disciples:
- When a class reaches maximum enrollment/attendance the class is less motivated to reach potential disciples, ministry diminishes, and growth subsides. Solution: Reproduce – start a new class.
- When member / leader ratio exceeds recommended limits ministry and class interaction diminishes; Solution: Reproduce or enlist leaders.
- When space is filled to 80% capacity members are less motivated to make disciples – Solution: Reproduce
These principles are based on ideals and of course we must work with what we have and make progress toward the ideal. These principles can help eliminate barriers to transformation and will assist in developing a culture of disciple-making through the Sunday School ministry. They have the potential for changing those broken cisterns we’ve developed and transforming them to fountains of living water for the renewing of minds. Can we follow these principles, eliminate barriers, and still not be a disciple-making, transformational ministry? Absolutely! Everything depends on how transformed and mission-oriented our hearts are. But, you can bet that life will not flow into a dead organization unless we do follow time-tested principles that remove the obstacles to transformational ministry. We can’t just talk about it; we’ve got to do something about it under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Use the chart below to evaluate your small group ministry:
Phil Stone is the State Sunday School Director for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.