Small Groups vs Sunday School


Most large congregations choose between small groups and Sunday school when it comes to selecting a vehicle for educating, assimilating, discipling and caring for members. I rarely encounter congregations that are strong in both small groups and Sunday school.  Churches with a history of demonstrated strength in Sunday school attendance have difficulty creating sustained small group ministries.  Similarly, congregations that host dynamic small group ministries  have difficulty creating enduring educational programs that involve ongoing weekend classes.   The absence of churches that tend both venues well leads me to believe that there is something fundamentally different in the culture that supports Sunday school and the culture that supports small groups.

I’m currently working in a congregation with an impressive track record in both Sunday school and small group ministry. Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham Alabama operates a Sunday school that has historically been in the top 10 UMC Sunday school programs east of the Mississippi river. They operate a huge church campus that has maxed out its space for Sunday school classes. Sunday school attendance has always equaled or exceeded worship attendance (1,200+). They also host 30-50 active small groups (that they know of) that engage over 500 adults on an ongoing basis. Some of those groups are ongoing “life” groups and others are of a shorter term study or service nature.

This week I had the opportunity to sit down with Senior Pastor, Bill Morgan and Executive Pastor, Warren Nash, to talk about how they balance their emphasis on Sunday school and small groups and to figure out why it works so well at Canterbury. First, we have to acknowledge that Canterbury operates in a region of the country where Sunday school participation is a cultural norm. So, they start with a natural leg up in that arena. That factor aside, here are some interesting points I picked up on in our conversation, things that seem at least a little different from other congregations where one venue is emphasized over the other.

  • The cultural DNA of the congregation emphasizes the core values of worship, learning and service. The continual emphasis on all three elements (3 legs of a balanced stool) is conducive to the nurture of both Sunday school and small groups.
  • The Senior Minister continually focuses on linking what’s happening in worship with what’s happening in learning.  During each liturgical season, in-house curriculum is developed that Sunday school classes and/or small groups are invited to use. The curriculum always links weekly learning with weekly worship themes.
  • Both Sunday school and small groups are sheltered under the umbrella of the leadership/learning umbrella of the church. Both are housed under the same director on the staff team.
  • Small groups are never scheduled on Sunday mornings so there aren’t any natural conflicts between someone’s involvement in Sunday school vs. small groups
  • The church operates a leadership academy that develops leaders for both Sunday school and small groups. The curriculum is taught at a seminary level and teaches skills in biblical interpretation, theological reflection and the practical skills of facilitation.  Leaders are not prepared for one venue or the other; they are just prepared to lead/facilitate groups.
  • Small groups are primarily internal learning, caring and support communities. They may serve some evangelical function but that is not their primary purpose in the life of the congregation. Worship is the primary evangelical focus. (I’m not sure if that makes a difference or not in why Sunday school and small groups co-exist side by side, but it seems distinctive.)
  • Small groups and Sunday school are lay generated and invitational in nature. The staff team doesn’t create small groups (with the exception of seasonal small group during lent/advent etc.) and doesn’t manage a sign up or invitation process. Lay leaders give birth to groups and do the inviting to fill the roster.
  • Staff leadership publishes a single annual catalogue that describes all known educational venues for the year, including Sunday school classes, ongoing and seasonal small groups, and special one time learning opportunities. Staff leadership operates with a philosophy of “we’ll lay it all out there and you choose what you want to be a part of”.
  • An organic culture of permission giving and empowerment surround both the formation of Sunday school classes and small groups. The church does little to control what happens in either venue. If a leader expresses an interest in starting a new class or small group they are encouraged to do so. The leader doesn’t have to jump through hoops to satisfy requirements to lead. The group doesn’t have to satisfy any requirements to be considered part of the Sunday school or small group line up.

What do you think about Canterbury’s approach?  Does your congregation take a unique approach that embraces both Sunday school and small groups? Do you know of any other congregations that do this well?

Photo Credit: Jonathan Gayman 

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