Many churches across the nation are declining or plateaued,
and it’s not hard to find research indicating as such. Yet, this does not
negate the fact that the church is still God’s chosen instrument to tell the
world about the hope and salvation found in the gospel.
In light of this truth, LifeWay Christian Resources
published a book last year based on research about transformational churches; churches
truly focused on, as authors Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer write, “the gospel’s
ability to change people.”
The research points to seven elements that help define a
transformational church: missionary mindset, prayerful dependence, relational
intentionality, vibrant leadership, worship, community and mission.
David Francis, director of Sunday School & Discipleship
at LifeWay, recently met with leaders from across the state to talk about how
to apply these transformational church elements to the Sunday School ministry.
The weekend conference was held at Apex Baptist Church in Apex.
Seeking open groups
Sunday School was always intended to work with an open group
In other words, “an open group expects new people every
week,” Francis said. “If you can get this one idea permeated through a few
Sunday School classes, it will mean everything.”
An open group makes sure that newcomers feel included from
the moment they arrive.
The Sunday School lesson for that week should stand on its
own, so that whether or not a person has been to the class or will ever come
again, they can still learn from the lesson.
An open Sunday School class also contacts every member every
week, thus practicing relational intentionality.
Sunday School classes with the most impact are the ones that
create an environment where the classroom is a safe place to invite others.
The truth no one likes to admit is that some classes do not
want new people; they are content with the group they have and the focus is
more inward than outward.
“We are secretly hoping no one comes,” Francis said.
A transformational Sunday School does everything with the
expectation that guests will come.
Even seemingly little details make a difference to
newcomers, such as the door near guest parking that needs to be fixed and the
small classroom preschool space.
Transformational classes, and churches, are those with
church members living close to the church and getting involved in the
“It’s hard to reach the community when you don’t live in the
community,” Francis said.
Need a balance
Francis reminded participants that Sunday morning Sunday
School classes are different from discipleship groups or small groups.
He said small groups are typically thought of as groups
meeting during the week, off the church campus.
Although that may be the case, the defining characteristic
of a small group is that it primarily seeks biblical community.
Discipleship groups, however, primarily aim for biblical
content to be the focus of the group; equipping is the main purpose of the
Small groups and discipleship groups are best able to
fulfill these intended purposes when they function as closed groups, meaning
once the group begins for a certain time period (quarter, semester, etc.)
newcomers must wait for the new time period before joining.
Francis said it’s up to Sunday School to “strike a balance”
between small groups and discipleship groups. Sunday School is not intended to
be everything a small group or discipleship group is intended to be — each has
its own unique purpose and is most effective when leaders understand what they
are trying to accomplish through the group.
All groups function at one of three levels: a class, a
community or a commission. Sunday School classes functioning at the class or
community level are more focused on class members and meeting the needs of
Classes at the commission level are the ones really centered
on the missionary mindset. Their focus is the Great Commission. While they care
about the needs of others, they also focus on lost people and seek
opportunities to share the gospel.
Their evangelism strategy is not just being nice to people
or being attractional; they are intentional in sharing the gospel.
Francis further explained that at the class level members
talk about what they learned, and at the community level members talk about
what others did for them. Yet, at the commission level, the mindset is: “What
did we do for others?”
The Three S’s
A transformational Sunday School is one that includes
scripture, stories and is led by a shepherd.
“The Sunday School’s one textbook is the Bible,” Francis
said. “Curriculum is the plan for teaching the Bible.”
Francis encouraged Sunday School teachers and leaders to
remember that everyone they meet has a unique story. As leaders, the task is to
draw out those stories and then help people connect with one another’s stories.
A gift for teaching is certainly important in a
transformational Sunday School class; but as Francis pointed out, gifted
shepherds may be more important. “A shepherd will tell you who they are
teaching and not what they are teaching,” he said.
“Shepherds pray for people. Prayer is the ultimate secret
weapon. As you pray for people you really get to know people.”
Baptist State Convention of North Carolina consultants are
available to meet with N.C. Baptist church pastors about the transformational
church process. Contact (800) 395-5102, ext. 5649.