Sunday School vs. Small Groups: Why You Must Choose

Do you love small groups?

Not necessarily YOUR small group, but the idea of small groups? If you’re a pastor, you might be required to answer “yes.” So here are a few, better questions:

Do you love your small group strategy?
Is your church excited about small groups?
Are people joining your small groups?

As a pastor, I recognize community is a vital element of spiritual growth, yet it can be difficult to convince the crowd at our church of this truth, and even more difficult to convert the disengaged into active group participants.

Here’s the reality every pastor understands all too well: Engaging people in small groups can be a battle. Unfortunately, many churches are their own worst enemy. While there might not be one secret sauce to moving people out of rows and into circles (that’s our church’s terminology), there are some definite ways to thwart and undermine your attempts.

Here’s a small group enemy short list:

1. Competing programs.

If you want to run Sunday School, that’s fine, but don’t expect Sunday School and small groups to thrive in tandem. I have a definite (and experienced-based opinion) on Sunday School. I’ll save that for later. But for now, let’s acknowledge and important, strategic fact: Sunday School creates competition for small groups. I know some churches attempt to create small group systems within their Sunday School context, but that’s not ultimately realistic – especially if authentic community matters.

The bottom line (and common sense): Creating competition for small groups will inhibit participation in small groups. Collective “duh.” But think about the significance of this concept. Creating program competition actually limits participation in both programs. Lose, lose.

This is why we do not offer Sunday School at Watermarke Church. We believe small groups create a more dynamic environment for authentic community and spiritual growth. That assumption might be wrong, but assuming we could effectively execute both would be a worse choice.

2. Uninvolved leadership.

This should be a given. The number of pastors and church leaders who want others to engage in small groups while they sit on the sidelines amazes me. Lack of moral authority removes our influence. This is true in every aspect of leadership. You can’t ask people to do anything you’re not doing yourself. If you want to fail in your small group strategy, don’t join a group while telling your church they need to be in a group.

This principle repeats in every facet of leadership, as well, including generosity, relational evangelism, serving … you get the point.

3. Minimal budget.

As with our personal budget, where we prioritize church funding ultimately shows what we value. At Watermarke, we prioritize a significant portion of our budget toward our small group environments, including staffing, resources, trainings, and meeting space. Take it a step further: We reimburse families for childcare while they attend small group. If that doesn’t send the right message, I’m not sure what does. I think it’s called “putting your money where your mouth (or strategy) is.”

4. Lack of oversight.

Everything rises and falls on leadership (thanks John Maxwell!). This is true for small groups, too. If your church is going to succeed in small groups, you must provide point and supporting leadership.

5. Insufficient promotion.

We cannot assume the people at our church understand the importance of small groups. People today are so busy. Small groups can too easily sound like just another commitment. If we want people to engage in circles, it is mandatory as a church to actively educate and promote groups.

At Watermarke, we spend at least one entire Sunday each year preaching the importance of groups, but the topic is consistently woven into our ongoing teaching. We also hold monthly gatherings after each Sunday service where we introduce people to group as their logical next step.

6. Lack of options.

Lastly, if you want people to join a group, you must provide the options for your congregation. At Watermarke, we offer:

    • Starting Point Groups for people new to faith or exploring faith.
    • Topical Groups (Short-Term Groups, 6 – 10 weeks) for people not ready for a long-term community commitment, but interested in exploring a specific concept while meeting some people along the way. Our Short-Term Groups provide a taste of community without the commitment, making them very effective at leading people into long-term community in time.
    • Community Groups for people seeking a longer, more connected community experience. Our Community Groups meet weekly (except during summer months) for 18 – 24 months before multiplying into new groups, expanding their influence.

The point is simple. We must create the right options for our people, from introductory groups to long-term community.

7. Teaching focused, not conversation driven.

If you want to kill small groups, remove the interaction of conversation from the group. Works every time. Conversely, focusing your small groups around conversation and dialog bolsters relational connection (which keeps people coming back) and increases personal spiritual interaction.

We work hard at Watermarke to train our small group leaders to be facilitators, not teachers. This is a difficult transition for some, but it is worth it – especially in our Starting Point groups, where people exploring faith need room to discuss, think, interact honestly with the content.

Engaging the church in a small group strategy is difficult enough, but when we allow these small group enemies to creep into our strategy, we ensure a lack of participating and success.

I’m certain there are more ways to destroy small groups in the church. What other enemies have you seen? I’d love to know so I can make sure we avoid them! Let me know by commenting below, and please share this post with other leaders so we can learn from each other.

  1 Comment

  1. Jim   •  

    This was incredibly insightful. It really made us think long and hard about the role of Sunday school and the competition it creates. thanks for sharing.

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