This is part 2 of a series of posts from David Francis’ Transformational Class: Transformational Church Goes to Sunday School . Click here for a free download of the book, as well as training materials to help you present the material to your leaders.
Have you noticed that the first category in the Transformational Loop has only one element? The category and the element are similar but there is a subtle difference. A church or class can seek to understand its cultural and socioeconomic context using something as simple as an observation technique like a windshield survey or as sophisticated as demographic mapping tools. It takes another level of commitment to prayerfully and intentionally make it your mission to reach out to others within that context. Discernment is therefore a requirement throughout.
Missionary Mentality: Hope for Sunday School Revival
I support the Discipleship movement and am a leader in it. I appreciate the Small Group movement and am an advocate for it. But I love the Sunday School movement and have dedicated my life to its advance. I have concerns about the movement. But I also have great hope. Some say the movement is dead. I say they are dead wrong! Sunday School does need to experience a revival in many places. The key to the revival of the movement of Sunday School globally, the program of Sunday School congregationally, and the ministry of Sunday School in your class, is rediscovering the people group(s) we are seeking to reach.
Sunday School as People Groups
What is a people group? Foundational to an effective missionary strategy is the ability to identify—and identify with—the people group we are called to reach. Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins says: “For gospel strategy purposes, a key principle [concerning people groups] is to define a strategy … within which the gospel can spread through ‘natural’ social networks.” You don’t have to cross an ocean to find your people group. There are hundreds of people groups in places like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, or New York City. And at least dozens where you live, too!
The Principle Behind Graded Classes
The basic idea behind a missionary strategy is to establish—with as much clarity and specificity as possible—who it is you want to reach. That is also the principle behind the time-tested model of an age-graded Sunday School. The principle is simple: We will establish at least one open Bible study group for a person of any age. Some churches have one department for all preschoolers, for example. Other churches have multiple departments for bed babies, crawlers, and toddlers—based on the age and developmental stages of the preschoolers. (If you choose this approach, make sure the class structure is clear to parents and to the volunteers who help the parents find the right class for their children. Create a grid for preschool classes, listing birth years across the top and the 12 months down the left side. In each block, put the class designation and room. Greeters will know where to direct,parents of preschoolers based on the year and month of birth of the child. Update the chart frequently; it’s well worth the effort.) Most churches also age-grade children and students. Actually, they grade them by the school grade they are currently in (or in the summer, the one they just completed). Some churches have one department for all children; other churches have several departments for each grade.
Grouping Adults More Challenging
Children, students, and their parents typically don’t complain about “Promotion Sunday.” In fact, they look forward to experiencing a new room with a new teacher. However it’s often more challenging with adults!
Age-grading is a proven strategy for adults but it is not the only way of grouping them. Many churches combine the concept of lifestage with age-grading. One church we visited had adult classes identified by life-stage and average age to help guests and greeters discover the right class to try first. A perfect fit for us right now would be a class for Empty Nesters with an average age of 58. The benefits of such a system are 1) providing multiple reference points, and 2) the ability to start new classes. The same principle would apply to a class targeted to a specific affinity group (medical professionals, law school students, motorcycle enthusiasts, or cowboys!). Or a small group for a specific neighborhood. Or a combination of all these. The key is being able to describe your class in a distinctive way so that you clearly know what people group you are responsible to reach. It defines your mission, if you decide to accept it. With a missionary mentality!
David Francis is Director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources. Before joining LifeWay in 1997, he served as minister of education at First Baptist Church in Garland, Texas. David and his wife, Vickie, love teaching preschool Sunday School and are helping start a new adult class in their church in Hendersonville, Tennessee.