Small-Group Sunday School – Getting Practical about the Great Commission

Mark Gillmore

FrontLine • May/June 2008

Editor’s Note: Great Commission leadership is one of the core values of the FBFI. It is something that we must do, not just talk about doing. One of the ways in which the Great Commission is being accomplished effectively is through local church small-group Sunday school ministry. The following article is meant to be a help for someone who is considering revamping a Sunday school ministry to be more effective. It is not necessarily the only way to do it, but it might be the most effective way of doing it today.

One of the greatest challenges a spiritual leader faces is the challenge of making a vision practical. The Great Commission is the overriding purpose of the local church. Church exits are often marked with the reminder, “You are now entering the mission field.” Keynote addresses by pastors and evangelists hold before the people the absolute necessity of reaching out with the gospel and discipling converts into mature followers of Christ. This is familiar territory we would all embrace . . . in theory. But do the daily life and weekly schedule of our church and its members reflect our ideal? Are we succeeding in the administration of our divinely supplied resources (such as people, time, rooms, money) so that the Great Commission is being fulfilled in our local church for real? It’s time for church leaders to “get real” about the Great Commission by seriously considering the use of small-group Sunday school to implement God’s will for a local congregation.

Biblical Convictions of Sunday School

The local church has been given a Biblical mandate, the Great Commission. When Christ first spoke His command in Matthew 28:18–20, He did not expect future generations to doubt and dismiss His last command. He promised His overcoming power and all-pervading presence to enable the accomplishment until the very end of this age. The Great Commission is not the Great Suggestion; its accomplishment is not an option—it is a mandate! Sunday school is not merely another church organization; it is the entire church organized to practically fulfill its greatest purpose. When you take the largest church organization and focus it on the greatest church task, you have a recipe for revival, because our priorities now match God’s power and His promises. Do you really expect the Great Commission to be literally fulfilled during your lifetime through your local church? This expectation is the passion and power of Sunday school, an organizational plan that truly matches a Great Commission expectation.

Sunday school rests upon the conviction that every believer is supernaturally gifted by the Holy Spirit for ministry and must therefore be employed in the local church. Most ministry structures expect a few to serve while the vast majority sit and soak and sour. Ephesians 4:16 states, “the whole body [is] fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part.” A believer who is not serving is quenching the Spirit and is inhibiting his own spiritual growth and that of his entire church. Sunday school provides for every-member ministry, from the youngest believer to the most mature leader.

Pastors and evangelists have been called and enabled by God to equip and oversee the members as the members do the work of the ministry. The Great Commission is not a one-believer activity. The entire body of believers must work together as each member in that body fulfills his or her Spirit-empowered role. Pastors and evangelists do not do the entire ministry but rather have God-given insight and abilities that they pass on to others so that all can profit and serve (Eph. 4:11, 12). Sunday school is a commitment from pastors to fulfill their role to train and equip the people. Unlike small-group ministries that operate largely out from under pastoral oversight in various homes and nonchurch settings, Sunday school equips the people to do the ministry under the close supervision of pastors.

Critical Tasks of Sunday School

“And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matt. 9:35). As Christ lived out the Great Commission, He taught people the Word of God, reaching people with the gospel (the word “preaching” is literally “evangelizing”) and ministering to people’s needs. Allan Taylor, in his video series Sunday School Done Right,[1] points out that these are the three critical tasks of Sunday school:

  • Reaching people—The gospel saves souls!
  • Teaching people—The Word changes lives!
  • Ministering to people’s needs—Acts of love demonstrate God’s glory!

If we reach people, teach people, and minister to people’s needs in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, the gospel will advance in our community, and nothing can stop it. Success in these three tasks is not optional.

The small-group Sunday school organization assigns people as leaders to “own” one of these three tasks. In the children and youth divisions outreach and care leaders are department-wide or division-wide assignments, but the ideal adult class has three leaders. The Outreach Leader accomplishes the Great Commission by making sure that reaching efforts are organized and activated successfully. He leads by example, by identifying new prospects, by organizing visitation teams and assigning visits, by assisting the pastor in evangelism training, by exhortation and testimony. His goal is to see folks enrolled in Sunday school and brought to a saving knowledge of Christ.

The Bible Study Leader accomplishes the Great Commission by overseeing all reaching and ministering efforts and by making sure that teaching efforts are prepared and presented successfully. He or she leads by prayer and faithful Bible study, by focusing on nonattending class members, by personal discipleship, by weekly phone calls and visits, by coordinating all class ministry, and by identifying and developing new leaders.

The Shepherding Care Leader accomplishes the Great Commission by making sure that ministering efforts are organized and activated successfully. He or she leads by frequent contact with all class participants through phone calls and visitation, by identifying needs and getting the class involved in prayer and generous, sacrificial hospitality and care, and by personal spiritual growth.[2]

Time is another vital resource that must also be assigned to enable reaching, teaching, and ministering. The Sunday morning schedule provides specific time for each task.[3] Time should be prioritized on an individual basis throughout the week as leaders pray, make visits and phone calls, plan ministry, meet needs, and study Bible lessons.

To accomplish these three tasks in an ongoing and coordinated way demands training and planning meetings. An annual series of training events and a weekly workers’ meeting provide for effective communication and personal advancement in specific leadership roles. Division Leaders should work closely with new leaders and guide their entire division to stay “on task” and “on target” for the Great Commission.

Functional Dynamics of Sunday School

There are three functional dynamics that stand behind the genius of the small-group Sunday school. They are (1) open enrollment, (2) age-graded small groups, and (3) levels of leadership.

Enrollment is a tool that enables a church to reach, teach, and minister to its members and to the lost and unchurched in a community. Sunday school enrollment is the core of a comprehensive Great Commission strategy. When enrollment is increasing, ministry opportunities are increasing and growth is sure to follow. However, when enrollment is decreasing (such as when names are dropped because some are not attending), ministry is decreasing. Great Commission ministry stands in jeopardy.

Open enrollment. “Enroll anyone, anywhere, anytime, so long as they agree.” One Sunday school expert noted in a study of growing churches that when open enrollment is practiced, one-half of the total number enrolled will be unsaved. Of that number of unsaved persons, one-half will be saved and baptized into the church within twelve months.[4] Another Sunday school leader pointed out from historical study that fifty percent of those enrolled in Sunday school will attend and grow.[5]

There are key differences between open enrollment and closed enrollment both in philosophy and in effect. In closed enrollment, enrollment is the commitment of the enrollee to attend, so the focus of the leaders becomes attendance, and ministry “grows” only if the person is attending. In open enrollment, enrollment is the commitment of the leader to minister to someone who has given him permission, so the focus of the leaders is on ministry, and ministry “grows” whether or not the enrollee is presently attending. In closed enrollment the leader is passive about his role, often wanting to drop from the roles anyone not attending. In open enrollment the leader is active about increasing his enrollment, realizing that each new name is a ministry opportunity that will bear fruit by the Spirit’s power through class involvement in that person’s life. A successful class focused on ministry will have about fifty percent of its enrollment attending with new names being added regularly (minimally once a month).

Age-graded small groups at all age levels. Jesus Christ was the greatest small-group leader ever as He demonstrated the potential in the life of a select group of twelve disciples. Mark 3:14 tells that “he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth.” The key dynamic is that they were “with him.” As Jesus lived with them, involved them, taught them, responded to them, confronted them, restored them, and filled them, He transformed them into humble, Spirit-filled, sold-out servants of God. Do you realize that Christ impacted the world through these twelve in the very best way it could have ever been done? Also, consider that the family is another ingenious small group design by God. You cannot improve upon it—small groups work when you work small groups!

There are so many benefits to age-graded small groups: they involve more people (providing a multitude of leadership opportunities for both men and women); they develop new leaders; they are educationally sound through greater student-involved learning; they direct immediate assignment of prospects; they pray specifically; they encourage team spirit; and they simply minister to more people.[6]

Following the small-group dynamic, Sunday school multiplies by dividing. A single small group accomplishes the Great Commission and grows over the space of twelve to twenty-four months. It is divided into two small groups with several new leaders employed. This birth of a new class is a mighty victory in the Lord’s work! It is vital that enrollment and attendance ceilings are followed so that no small group outgrows its range of most effectiveness. These figures are available upon request.[7];.))

Levels of leadership. When Moses faced a crisis of leadership in Exodus 18, God gave the answer through his father-in-law: identify faithful men and organize levels of leadership, or else you will wear out yourself and the people (Exod. 18:18–21). If Moses did not work in concert with other leaders, his own human limitations would jeopardize the spiritual unity and accomplishments of the Israelite nation.[8] Leadership levels apply divine wisdom.

A well-organized Sunday school will have at least four divisions, each with a Division Leader and Secretary: preschool, elementary, youth, and adult. Each Division is divided into departments, which will have within them three to six classes.[9] A Department Director oversees department activities and sees that each class is on task in its leadership and output. The class is the real unit of ministry, led by the Bible Study Leader (teacher) who works with a Shepherding Care Leader and Outreach Leader. Charts of specific numerical breakdowns are available.[10];.))

There are churches that will never be able to cross the attendance thresholds of 125 or 300 people as long as their pastor continues the same leadership style. Effective leadership is not merely about a particular leader’s style or capability. For the pastor, effective leadership multiplies ministry so that the Great Commission is accomplished and the rate at which people are reached for Christ increases. The Great Commission demands the employment of levels of leadership.

Make a target of the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18–20. What would be the bull’s eye? You find four rings on the target: going, discipling, baptizing, and teaching to observe to do all things. While winning a soul to Christ is vital, we must recognize that completing the Great Commission involves teaching and training believers so that they are now observing all things and functioning as spiritual leaders in the cause of Christ. That is the goal; that is the bull’s eye. The power of Sunday school is that in a single organizational structure of the local church, a person progresses from pre-conversion and initial enrollment all the way to service as a fully equipped believer in Christ, prepared to replicate this process in another life. By the power of the Spirit of God flowing through the people of God, Sunday school is the strategy that successfully implements Great Commission ministry in the local church.

Mark Gillmore is associate pastor at Falls Baptist Church, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2008. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

Sidebar to original article:

Great Commission Leadership:

Resolution Affirming the Legitimacy of the Sunday School


The legitimacy of the Sunday school as a means of fulfilling the church’s mission in this age has come under attack;

The Sunday school has suffered from neglect and decline both in and outside of Fundamentalism;

The FBFI affirms the legitimacy of a Biblically principled, well-run Sunday school in the local church for the evangelism of the lost, the edification of believers and families, and the fulfillment of the church’s mission throughout the world. While the Sunday school as an institution is not a New Testament requirement, the legitimate goals of the Sunday school are indeed New Testament mandates. We encourage churches within Baptist Fundamentalism to recommit themselves to evaluate and rebuild Sunday school ministries and to aid one another in planning, developing, and implementing effective Sunday school ministries for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  1. Sunday School Done Right by Allan Taylor. Sampson Resources, Dallas, TX, 2007. []
  2. This position is a perfect “entry-level” ministry opportunity for the new and growing believer. []
  3. In our Sunday school ministry seventy-five minutes is dedicated to these three tasks with the following breakdown: Fellowship Time—fifteen minutes (informal “meet and greet” time with refreshments); Announcements—five minutes (led by Department Director); Outreach Time—ten minutes (focus on reaching people with the gospel); Care Group Time—fifteen minutes (focus on ministering to one another’s needs); Bible Study Time—thirty minutes (focus on teaching the Word of God). []
  4. Sunday School for a New Century by Bill L. Taylor and Louis B. Hanks. Lifeway Press, Nashville, TN. 1999. []
  5. Building on Basics by Leon Kilbreth, video series; out of print. []
  6. Although under attack in recent years, age grading can be quite effective with quality teachers and curriculum, good communication with the family, and the clear understanding that the chief disciplers in any child’s life are the parents. It is a time-honored practice that finds it roots in OT synagogues and even in the OT temple (Samuel’s childhood is an example). Grading by age is the perfect solution to an otherwise complex problem of forming, supporting, dividing, and ending small groups. Grouping by age is quick, is clear and effective, applies to everyone, is known by everyone, is ongoing, draws people of common interests and needs together, and keeps ministry fresh. []
  7. Contact the author at