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Sunday School.

Small groups.

Home community groups.

How we weigh the strengths and weaknesses of these models depends on what their primary purpose is.

  • The traditional Sunday school model seeks to use the hour before or after a worship service for adult education, which results in an interactive Bible study or topical teaching series.
  • The small group model puts a priority on fellowship within the body, which results in accountability and an emphasis on Bible application.
  • The community group model elevates missional engagement of one’s neighborhood, which results in an open and outward-focused atmosphere.

If the main goal of the group is to invite outsiders to meet the Christians in their neighborhood, then Sunday school and small groups are clearly deficient. Meanwhile, if the primary purpose is Bible study and application, then community groups are off-base. The way we analyze these models depends on what we think is most important to accomplish.

I’m convinced that the purpose for breaking into smaller groups is one of the most neglected areas of discipleship. And when we don’t know what our purpose is, we’re certain not to fulfill it.

For a look at how four different churches envision the purpose of their small groups and Sunday School classes, watch this  video clip from the Adult Education Panel at T4G, where Mark Dever, Michael Kelley, Matt Chandler, and I discuss different models and the purpose of meeting in smaller groups.

Trevin Wax: I want to start off by asking you, Mark, what is the purpose of the Sunday School hour that your church has? What’s the purpose of that smaller group meeting?

Mark Dever: Well, let me begin by saying what it’s not. It’s not the main way of delivering Christian education. That happens through the sermon. It is not the main way of discipling. That happens by one-on-one discipling in the church. We call it a culture of discipling which is what we want to see going on.

We’re trying to do something fairly narrow with that time because we have community groups also. Seventy percent of our members are in them during the week. But what we have on Sunday morning would be a much lower percentage of the congregation participating, probably about 25 percent participating. And we have topic-specific classes. We have several different years worth of tracks of classes. It goes Old Testament and New Testament Introduction, basic Christian stuff including evangelism, stuff about friendship, courtship, dating, marriage, all the way to evangelism, apologetics, missions, worldview, work. So those are classes where we’re trying to supplement the educational life of the church.

Trevin Wax: So would you say that the primary purpose of those meetings are educational even though that’s not the primary place for education in the church?

Mark Dever: Yes. Trying to have regularly available, very specific teaching that’s more specific than we’re going to be doing every Sunday morning. And if we’ve gone through all four years worth then I took each of my kids through them their four years of high school. I would sit through the classes with them. When you get through them all, we say grab somebody else who’s new to the church and take them through them. So it becomes a platform for discipling.

Michael Kelley: Our Sunday School classes are also educational, but we want to make sure that we have clearly defined purposes in our church, too.

So, for example, the community groups that we have is where we see the majority of the pastoral care that takes place, rather than through the Sunday School class environment. So when somebody has a baby, when somebody is sick, a lot of the pastoral care happens through the community groups as opposed to the Sunday School.

Also, we spend the majority of the time in the community groups – not necessarily teaching, but more facilitating discussion and praying. We would spend the majority of time in Sunday School doing actual teaching, whereas in the smaller groups it would be more facilitating what’s happened in the sermons, trying to take the sermon to a deeper level and that kind of thing.

Matt Chandler: We’re a bit of a hybrid, primarily we want to get our members into groups and then those groups are driven by materials based off of the sermon. Sometimes that’s in-house material that we’ve written. Sometimes that’s out of house stuff that we’ve identified and have taken and kind of made our own. And that doesn’t mean stealing it. We purchase a license and then tweak what we want and roll it out that way.

Trevin Wax: It’s nice that you guys don’t steal.

Matt Chandler: I just wanted to throw that out there. We’re not just taking somebody’s stuff and putting our logo on it. But apparently that stuff happens. But that’s the primary way.

And then twice a year for eight weeks we have classes at our campuses that are everything from – they can be theological. They can be – I think some of the ones going on right now is we’ve got a parenting class going on right now. We’ve got a ton of babies and first-time parents and so it’s an eight week class on what does it look like biblically? What’s God’s commands on the husband? What’s God’s commands on the wife? There’s a class down in the Dallas campus that’s primarily 20 somethings on dating, courtship, those things. There have been classes on – I mean I could just go on and on. But that’s kind of the feel. So twice a year you have eight week courses, three at each campus. And then predominantly though we want everybody in home groups.

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6 thoughts on “What is the Purpose of Small Groups and Sunday School?”

  1. JR says:

    The ideal, in my mind, is a combination of the small group model (which cultivates fellowship, accountability and Bible application) and the community group model (with missional engagement of one’s neighborhood). Of course, Sunday School stands on its own as a way of delivering the more formalized Christian Education portion of discipleship.

    In terms of the small group concept (at least the way I see it) the chief end of all of our Bible application, accountability and fellowship ought to be to glorify God by being light and salt in the world – which only happens as we grow in holiness.

    The best fellowship group that I ever belonged to (back in the ‘Jesus Freak 1990’s’) had new people attending every week and was also very intentional about doing things in the community which would involve inviting lots of non-Christians. When non-believers attended the Bible study meetings they saw REAL stuff going on — everyone there engaging the scriptures, asking REAL questions, expressing struggles and doubts, confessing their sins, praying for one another, and they saw real friendship developing.
    That is exactly the kind of attraction that Jesus said the world should see in us and know that we are His Disciples.

    Of course, that was a group of mostly single college and career professionals back in the 90’s. Christians today, whether it is because everyone’s married now and distracted or for other reasons, seem to have a pretty hard time with both aspects — the deep application Bible studies and the missional engagement.
    My ideal would be to prioritize both of these equally. Thanks.

  2. Stan Engeles says:

    Many of us in Community Groups are asking the same question. What is the purpose. We belong, because we’re told “life happens in community”. We keep our lives safely tucked away from one another until the need is more than we can bear. Since we can’t expose our soiled lives, accountability has no root. And so we superficially meet each week for ninety minutes and then retreat into our home lives, seldom sharing or meeting outside the ritual get together. We break for summer, losing touch until fall draws us together … those of us who haven’t left to join new groups (Tuesdays don’t work for us) or simply abandoned (we’re going through a busy period, our daughter is struggling in her relationships, and we need to spend more time with her) the empty experience. Those of us who continue do so to please our elders and to demonstrate our spiritual maturity.

  3. MIke says:

    I am not convinced these SG and CG definitions are 100% accurate. In most books/blogs, these terms are interchangeably used. I don’t think most pastors even understand these definitions. If asked their SG/CG philosophy, I would say most embrace a hybrid model. This would also ring true for the staple SG book, why small groups by SGM. Although it’s a book on SG, it contains the CG elements throughout.

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  5. Jack Vosteen says:

    A pastor or elder looks at a small group like an automobile mechanic looks at car; that is, as something to fix. Step aside, pastor and let the Holy Spirit loosed to work on your small groups. For example, most pastors are besieged with and up to their necks in fellowship … while many small group members are starving for this Christian contact. So strive to put a longer leash on your small groups and Sunday schools. A seminary type curriculum is far less important than individual “face sharpening face” when Christians come together with Christ in their midst. Let God administer any SAT tests while you develop your next sermon …

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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