By Ken Braddy
It may seem hard to fathom, but a microscopic virus is doing some good things in a critical church ministry: Sunday School.
It’s difficult to say when churches will officially return to the campus to reopen Bible study groups. Some are already doing this, and still others are watching and waiting for their opportunity to restart groups on campus.
In the meantime, COVID-19 is teaching us that Sunday School can be stronger and more vibrant than ever—if we’re paying attention.
When groups return to the church campus, here are five things to keep in mind.
1. Groups will need to intentionally reclaim people.
It’s hard to believe, but some adult Bible study groups haven’t gathered at all (physically or virtually) since March.
There are reports of “Zoom fatigue” among those people meeting online, and attendance in virtual Bible studies has diminished.
The church is going to have to reclaim its own members when Bible study groups restart on our church campuses.
Savvy group leaders are reaching out to every member on their group’s ministry list to maintain contact and to encourage them to stay plugged in prior to the return to on-campus groups.
We’re going to have to plow our own fields and harvest our own people without losing sight of the thousands in our community who are completely unchurched.
There’s going to be a lot of needed ministry, and it’s going to require us to reclaim people who once sat down the row or across the circle from us.
2. Group and individual Bible study is more important than most of us realized.
Church leaders are discovering (or rediscovering) that groups are just as important—and some would say even more important—than the church’s worship gathering.
Robby Gallaty, pastor of a large church in the Nashville area, said in Growing Up, a book on Christian discipleship, that preaching to make disciples is like going to the church’s nursery, spraying the kids with milk, and saying, “I just fed the kids.”
In a similar way, Dr. Brad Waggoner’s research for his book The Shape of Faith to Come presented what it takes for a person to grow as a disciple. He wrote:
The number one factor…most correlated to the highest maturity scores is the practice of reading the Bible….the simple discipline of reading the Bible has a major impact on Christians. Spiritual leaders need to take note of this. We put a lot of time and energy into preparing sermons, as we should. But we make a huge mistake if we think our sermons, regardless of their quality, are enough to create sustained life transformation…our people need daily exposure to the life-transforming power of God through His revealed Word.”
Online groups, on-campus groups, groups that meet in homes, and groups that meet in other places provide much-needed relational glue for the church. People connect people; programs don’t connect people.
Studying apart and then studying together fuels the life transformation brought about as the Holy Spirit leads and guides Christians into all truth.
Couple the group experience with a daily Bible-reading and study experience and you’ve postured people to grow as disciples.
3. Bible study curriculum is a strategic part of a discipleship strategy.
Bible study groups that have weathered the COVID-19 storm have done two things. First, those groups have continued to meet (primarily via Zoom).
Second, they have remained committed to studying the Bible by using an ongoing Bible study series provided by the leaders at the church.
By following the discipleship plan built into the curriculum, group leaders don’t have to create their own studies each week. Instead, they can spend that time investing in people—which was Jesus’ model.
His plan for making disciples was by doing it life on life.
4. Smaller groups have advantages in disciple-making.
Jesus’ plan for making disciples was simple: He focused on relationships with 12 men, plus a smaller inner group of three men.
He spent most of His time instructing them, relating to them, and participating in ministry with them.
If large gatherings were the model for making disciples, Jesus would have held many more open-air hillside teaching events than He did. Instead, He knew the power of small.
Today, smaller Bible study groups have disciple-making advantages, especially during and after COVID-19. Groups can meet in places that larger ones cannot (physical distancing in large groups has made it almost impossible for them to gather during COVID-19).
Living rooms, backyards, parks, pavilions, and side rooms in restaurants have provided the meeting spaces that smaller groups have used to their advantage while larger groups haven’t been able to meet.
Discipleship has continued, even during COVID, through smaller groups that proved to be nimble, agile, and flexible. Thankfully, many larger Bible study groups are beginning to reorganize into smaller ones—groups within the group.
These new groups are under the leadership of someone from the class who stepped up to teach and lead one-third or one-half of the group.
Now the formerly large group has a fighting chance for its people to meet, especially if COVID-19 flare-ups cause states to roll back to “phase 1” restrictions on gathering this autumn.
5. Sunday School is getting a once-in-a-lifetime reset.
Yes, we may be witnessing history in the making. COVID-19 has given us the chance to experience a “hard reset” in Sunday School. In computer terms, a hard reset restores a device (phone, tablet, laptop) to its original factory settings.
Sunday School may get a needed reset and go back to its roots of evangelism, outreach, teaching, training, and multiplying by starting new groups.
Now, there are numerous opportunities for Sunday Schools to do things they haven’t been doing, but should have been, as groups return to the church campus.
Churches are discovering that through technology, a regular cadence of training can take place online; training is going to be easier, less expensive, and more accessible than ever in a virtual environment.
Some groups are going to reorganize, dividing their adult groups into much needed care groups.
The focus on outreach, assimilation, and evangelism could return to the forefront of why churches have a Sunday School in the first place.
If the church misses this opportunity to do a hard reset, it will miss the chance for a course correction in its largest and most important ministry.
Doing business as usual when groups come back to the church will mean we’ve missed out on reorienting Sunday School and its groups.
Yes, COVID-19 is instructing us. It’s telling us how to improve Sunday School. It’s serving as a teacher to students who are paying attention in the classroom of life. COVID-19 is showing us where we’ve been weak and how to improve.
How will your group and your church’s Sunday School ministry change because of COVID-19? Have you been taking good notes? COVID-19 has been teaching. Are you ready for the test? It’s coming.
KEN BRADDY (@kenbraddy) is Lifeway’s Director of Sunday School and is a 30-year veteran of church education ministry. He is a blogger, author, and practitioner – serving a church in the Nashville area as its director of Sunday School and discipleship ministries. Ken also manages Lifeway’s adult ongoing Bible study series.