Sunday school vs. Small Groups

Don Johnson

A recent blog opened with this shocking statement (shocking to some, at least):

This fall we are going to do something that will seem crazy to many. We are going from a small group model to a Sunday school model (under a different name). Most church growth material over the past 20 years would advise against this move. We are a young, growing contemporary church. Why would we make that change?

Churches, like teenagers, are highly influenced by fads and peer-pressure. (Actually, teens probably get a bad rap on this point — does peer pressure ever end? Do we ever outgrow fads? But I digress…) Evangelical churches often appear to be dialed into some central office where worship styles, ministry organization, service order, presentation and so on seem all to be directed by the same central planning committee. It takes courage to buck the trends. The church pastored by this blogger is doing just that in abandoning small groups. Perhaps someone will want to take his “trendy pastor” ID card back! Jim Davis, the pastor in question, offers five reasons for the change:

1. To Grow in Biblical Knowledge
2. To Develop Teachers
3. To Foster Deeper Community
4. To Engage The City More
5. To Embrace The Role of The Church

I’ll leave the details of his explanation to Jim Davis. I’d encourage you to go on over there and have a look. I think all of his reasons have value.[1]

The theme of Davis’ post touches on something I have long held about the local church and that is the Scriptural metaphor of “body.” Before I develop what I mean by that, let me offer a couple of early concessions. “Small groups” as practiced by many churches are a legitimate way for Christians to minister to one another in the local church. Some churches have both Sunday school and small groups. More power to them. The matters we are discussing here are within the sphere of “indifferent things.” Churches can carry on ministry in a variety of ways depending on their circumstances, culture, location, leadership, commitment of members, and so on. I would also like to point out that the question is, to some extent, more of a large church problem. Most churches are small churches and small churches are small groups. (Well, okay, they are usually a bit largish for a small group, but some of the benefits of the small group approach are lost on churches that are small to begin with.)

Back to the concept of “the body.” The Bible describes the church by many metaphors. The church is the building of God, the flock of God, the temple of God – and the Body of Christ. Of all the metaphors for the church, the one that resonates most in my mind is the metaphor of body. Of course, all are weighty, and full of meaning, but the body concept is one that speaks to me most of what the church should be. Here is a list of the references to that metaphor:

  • The concept of the body in the strife over tongues: 1 Cor 12.12-27
  • The concept of the body as the fullness of Christ: Eph 1.22-23
  • The concept of the body as the reconciliation of nations: Eph 2.13-16
  • The concept of the body as a marvelous mystery revealed: Eph 3.3-6
  • The concept of the body as a manifestation of union with Christ: Eph 4.1-6, 4.11-16
  • The concept of the body as the object of Christ’s sacrificial love: Eph 5.23, 29-30
  • The concept of the body as submissive to Christ: Col 1.18
  • The concept of the body as receiving spiritual sustenance from Christ: Col 2.18-19
  • The concept of the body as the place of peace: Col 3.15

The most defining passage is the Ephesians 4.11-16 passage:

Ephesians 4:11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: 14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; 15 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: 16 From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.

The body of Christ is fitted and joined together by spiritual ligaments (“every joint”), inter-connected, interwoven, intertwined, mutually strengthening and supporting, dependent on the strong and the weak to complete the body of Christ. What a picture!

When it comes to life in the local church, it is vital for Christians to spend time together. Church services should maximize that interdependence. Each local church, if it is healthy, will find ways to build those bonds and relationships will develop between the believers outside of church activities as well. This has been our experience in our ministry.

Some advocate, based on principles like this, for no segregation in any service of the church, at any time, for any reason. Is that going too far? I think, perhaps, it is. I think the same of the emphasis on small groups. At the same time, small groups can be a way for churches to build some connections among church members that is spiritually healthy. However, they do seem to me to be a somewhat contrived means of building relationships. Better to turn the local church into one where all are regularly involved with one another in larger groups, letting small group fellowship develop “as nature takes its course” as families and individuals interact with one another outside the church.

I don’t intend to settle the “Sunday school vs. Small Group” question my title poses. But I do intend to advocate for as much “togetherness” as possible for the local church. Our church has a potluck meal every Sunday. It occurs after our Worship service and Sunday school, and before our afternoon service. Then we go home. We have a great time together each week. I think it is obvious that our way of doing things can’t work for all, and there may come a time where it won’t work for us. But I will say that our church is lively, with a mix of all ages, with growing relationships with one another and with a welcome for visitors that is often remarked on.

How can your church get your whole gang together at the same time, in fellowship with one another?

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. I should note that while I appreciate a lot of what is said in this article, the overall ministry philosophy of the pastor and church in question is quite different from that of the FBFI and its members. Our citation should not be in any way construed as an endorsement, but we appreciate good thinking when we see it. []