I'm a Sunday School guy. I say that proudly. I grew up in church hearing the message "You grow a church through it's Sunday School." I even focused on Religious Education in seminary because I believed so much in the small group (i.e. Sunday School) model for reaching a community for Christ.
I still believe the small group is essential, but . . .
Things are changing.
I know many cringe when you hear that word in church. It's almost a dirty word for some. . ."change."
The truth of the matter is, things are changing and yet, in a world of changes, we hold on to the truth that the Gospel never changes. That being said, we must continually discover the best ways to get this unchanging Gospel message to those who need it most.
By the way, those who need it most are the ones who aren't here every Sunday.
While I still believe the small group is a key to reaching our community, the old model and even old terms may not be best. Let me share something I just read from Pastor Matt Carter of the Austin Stone Church in Austin, Texas as they began to discover God's plan for being missional in their city.
We began investigating a new structure for relating to each other and to our neighborhoods, something we called missional communities. We began moving away from a traditional small group model that emphasized church community and evangelism by invitation. While this model continues to be popular at many churches, we saw several barriers in this model that kept us from truly engaging the people of the city who were not from a church background. The very people who needed to hear the gospel weren't able to establish relationships with those who were sharing the gospel.
Existing small group models typically aim for community first, but they often miss the mark and are ineffective at fostering either mission or community. Yet when they aim for mission first, they are effective at fostering mission and developing organic forms of community. When community was the focus, mission and community both suffered. But when mission takes priority, community naturally follows.
We decided that since disciple-making is best done by missionaries who are living out the Great Commission to specific people, we needed to redefine the identity of our community leaders, seeing them as missionaries rather than small group leaders.
(For the City by Patrick & Carter, p. 120)
When I read this, it was as if scales had fallen from my eyes. Community missionaries rather than small group leaders. Wow! I know it's just a term, but it redefines what we do completely. In fact, it's biblical. This doesn't mean that we disassemble the Sunday morning small group ministry, but it does mean that our leaders need to begin thinking of themselves as community missionaries. Look at it this way - if you are a leader in a married adult class for 30-40 year olds (I know the ages don't mean much around here, but you get the picture) then in a real sense, you have been called out to be a missionary for every married adult in our community in that age range. In the past, leaders just saw their "flock" as the group that showed up on Sunday. The emphasis was getting through the lesson on Sunday and maybe organizing the obligatory "fellowship" complete with BBQ and games for the kids every month or so. That's all good. . . .it's just doesn't have much to do with Kingdom growth.
This concept is still ruminating in my mind, but I'm excited about this. This moves our structure into a missional mode. However, names don't mean much unless the vision is understood.
Our ministry is like bifocal lenses - able to see far away and close up at the same time. The larger portion of the lens is the "far away" portion. In other words, the priority of our small groups must be outward mission first, then inward care. Too often we swap these.
Many churches will never get this. The jury is still out as to whether we will. The times, they are a changin'. I fear that what Ed Stetzer said is true, "If the 1950s ever come back, the SBC church is ready."
We must be a church in our time, for our time, for the glory of God.
Interesting. . .and exciting.