By Bruce Raley and David Francis
This article is excerpted from Extreme Sunday School Challenge: Engaging Our World Through New Groups by Bruce Raley and David Francis. Download a free copy of the book by clicking here.
We historically associate a group with occasion and location. “Sunday School” meets on campus on Sunday morning. “Discipleship groups” meet on campus on Sunday or Wednesday evening. Small groups meet off-campus during the week. It is all about occasion and location.
Defining a ministry by occasion and location may have served us well in the past, but we can’t continue to live in that past. The reality is some small groups meet on a church campus, even on Sunday mornings. Some Sunday School classes meet at times other than Sunday and in places other than on campus. Some groups that meet during the “Sunday School time” are actually discipleship groups. “When” and “where” seldom paints a clear picture of the purpose for any group.
When I talk about a Sunday School, here is what I mean:
Sunday School is an organization of open ongoing Bible study groups designed to intentionally balance biblical content and biblical community with a view toward producing disciples.
An Open Group
For many years, Sunday School experts have subscribed to the standard of the open group. An open group is one that expects and plans for new people every time the group meets. Extra seats are ready for new attendees. Extra copies of Personal Study Guides are on hand for new people. Trained and prepared volunteers are ready to greet and welcome new people into the group. And most importantly, there is openness among group members to welcome new people into the group, and ultimately into their lives.
Let’s be clear; if Sunday School groups are to produce disciples, each group must be open to new people. Openness requires more than an empty chair or a blank name tag. Openness to new people must be at the very core of why the group exists in the first place. The deepest desire of each group should be reaching out to new people and including them in the group on a regular basis.
An Ongoing Group
An ongoing group is simply that; a group with no set ending date. Once the group begins, the intent is for the group to continue in some form or fashion, welcoming new people and saying goodbye to others. On the converse, a short-term group has a defined life cycle which is often determined by the length of the particular study and typically “closed” to new participants once the group has begun the study.
Most organizations have a predictable life cycle. The same is true with Sunday School groups. No group will actually continue forever. Children graduate to the next class. People move. People die. The group changes, but the existence of a group can continue regardless of who leaves or joins.
At the same time, making disciples is not a project. Disciple making is an ongoing process. One study or course does not make a disciple. No one ever fully arrives at his or her ultimate spiritual maturity in this life. There is always more to learn and experience in our lifetime journey of discipleship. Discipleship is always ongoing.
A Balanced Group
In the effort to strike a balance between content and community, Sunday School may not be able to provide the depth of some discipleship groups, nor the deeper relationships of some small, home-based groups. Maintaining the balance between content and community, places the Sunday School organization in a position to be the primary evangelistic arm of a church as well as the entry point for the assimilation ministry. When one organization can serve in both ways, the church structure becomes less complicated and more easily communicated.
A Disciple-Producing Group
I (Bruce) enjoy saltwater fishing. In particular, I like to fish for “bottom fish,” such as red snapper and grouper. These fish are usually found around some type of structure (sunken boats, artificial reefs, etc.) or where the ocean floor has a ledge, cave, or uneven surface.
When preparing for a day of saltwater fishing, the first thing a person must determine is the type of fish he or she will seek to catch because different equipment and bait are needed for different fish. Fishing for grouper requires entirely different rods, reels, and tackle than Spanish mackerel or sailfish.
A fisherman can’t just jump in a boat, ride 20 miles offshore, and drop a line with the expectation of being successful. To catch bottom fish, you have to go after them on purpose and that means you know their characteristics and habits. You cannot catch what you can not identify. Who is your group trying to catch? Are you being intentional? Once you catch them, how are you helping them mature as disciples?
What exactly is a maturing disciple? How do we know if our groups are actually producing true disciples of the Lord Jesus?
- How would you define a disciple of Jesus Christ?
- What are the qualities of a disciple?
A principle to be remembered is the desired end product determines the process. Churches and groups cannot simply arrange a calendar full of hot topics, study courses, monthly gatherings, and ministry opportunities and expect to produce maturing disciples. When that approach is used in Sunday School, there is no telling what the end product will be. More than likely, it will be a confused Christian!
Paul called on Timothy to follow a specific plan (see 2 Tim. 2:22). Timothy was living out that teaching and it transformed his life. Timothy had a responsibility: he was to take that which he had learned and embraced, and teach it to others. Third generation learners would then teach even more people. Paul’s plan continues to provide a model for church leaders in establishing clear direction in making disciples.
Sunday School groups strive to reproduce disciples–people who embrace the gospel, live the gospel and take the gospel to others.
Bruce Raley is Director of Church Education Ministry at Lifeway Christian Resources. He served in education ministry roles in churches in Arkansas and Florida before being called to Lifeway in 2006. Bruce and Donna have two married adult children. In 2011, they began a new young adult group at their church in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
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.