This is part 5 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.
- Transformational Church Goes to Sunday School
- Missionary Mentality, Part One
- Missionary Mentality, Part Two
- Vibrant Leadership
This excerpt is adapted from Chapter 2, “Vibrant Leadership,”, pages 16-19
Missional Sunday School classes are driven by two principles on which they refuse to compromise: open groups practicing open enrollment. Much has been written about open groups versus closed groups. I’m actually an advocate for both. In fact, I believe that both discipleship groups and small groups function best as closed groups.
Discipleship groups are typically short-term with high accountability for preparation and participation around a course of study that involves deeper biblical content than the typical Sunday School class. In “D-groups,” disciples are challenged to grow in one or more of these areas:
- Devoting themselves to being disciples, declaring their identity in Christ,
- Developing spiritual disciplines,
- Displaying Christlike character,
- Defending the faith,
- Discipling others—beginning with their own household,
- Deploying their gifts in missional ministry,
- Depending desperately on the Holy Spirit.
D-groups work best as closed groups—that is, once the group starts, it is no longer open to additional participants.
Sunday School classes and D-groups have one thing in common with gatherings typically called “small groups.” They all tend to be more effective if they are actually small! But the term small groups usually implies more than just size. A common goal of small group ministry is developing deeper biblical community among a group of believers and some not-yet-believers who long to “do life together” in an environment of redemptive trust. Trust requires time. With the same people. That’s why small groups tend to be closed, whether they’re designed to be or not! North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, answers a frequently-asked question about small groups on one of its Web sites:
Q: What makes North Point’s groups model unique from others?
A: Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of our model is the closed group structure. We believe relationships take time to form and anything that gets in the way of the group building relational capital with one another works against this goal. Groups stay closed for a predetermined time of twelve to twenty-four months. At that time they multiply to form at least two new groups. (If a group loses members along the way, they are free to add new couples or individuals if everyone in the group agrees.)
I think closed groups are great. In fact, if I was practicing Christian Education in a local church today, I would strive for a merger of a small group and D-group ministry. That’s exactly what Pastor Nelson Searcy and his team did at New York City’s multi-campus Journey Church, as described in the book Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups. Groups, which are closed once they start, start and stop three times each year. That’s not so different from the discipleship trimester approach popular in many churches except that Journey’s groups can meet anywhere on any day instead of on Sunday or Wednesday at the church campus.
Sunday School Classes Designed as Open Groups
What distinguishes Sunday School classes, including weekday off campus small groups that are functionally equivalent to Sunday School, is an open group strategy. Sunday School classes study the Bible, and therefore help people discover the eight “Ds” identified with D-groups on a foundational level. Sunday School classes also help people connect and experience fellowship, ministry, and a sense of community, though probably more on a social level than on the intimate level that is the goal of many small groups.
So what makes it open? This short definition explains it best:
AN OPEN GROUP EXPECTS NEW PEOPLE EVERY WEEK
If you really expect new people every week, then the strategy changes. Leaders arrive early. The room is set up with newcomers in mind. Name tags are worn consistently. Every lesson is a complete and satisfying Bible study experience. And all this goes against the grain. The natural inertia of any group is to become closed. It takes vibrant leadership to continuously exhort a Sunday School class to remain vigilant about staying open. To be a welcoming place for newcomers every week. To be an easy next-step for someone when they decide to move beyond worship attendance alone. To be a safe place to get to know more about Christ—and Christians—before making a deeper commitment to Him.
Sunday School classes are designed to be open groups that practice open enrollment. Open enrollment means:
YOU CAN BELONG BEFORE YOU BELIEVE
Enrolling as a member of a Sunday School class is a great first step for someone who has not yet decided about whether they want to join the church, pledge allegiance to Jesus as Savior and Lord, identify with Christ publicly through baptism, or while they explore Christianity and experience the powerful words of the Bible. They need to understand that enrolling in Sunday School does not make them a member of the church. Nor obligate them to become one. It’s just a safe place to belong before they believe. Whether they ever do or not, vibrant leaders know that open enrollment is one path to keeping 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.