Published September 4, 2014
DULUTH — The moniker is no longer universal, but the purpose remains much the same. Today, Southern Baptist churches may have Sunday School, small groups, community groups, life groups, or ‘ohana groups, which is Hawaiian for family. There may not be too many ‘ohana groups in Georgia, but the trend is no different. Each represents potential for church growth through discipleship and relationships.
Southern Baptists have long known that Sunday School was key to church growth. In 1920 when Arthur Flake became the leader of the Baptist Sunday School Board’s (LifeWay) Sunday School Department, he championed Flake’s Formula, a systematic way to grow each church’s Sunday School. The formula seemed to work across the convention as evangelistic Sunday School growth exploded.
Sunday School allows people to build relationships and engage in meaningful ministry not just within the class, but also often within their community. With reliable curriculum support from LifeWay that reflects Southern Baptists’ core theology, churches can systematically take their members through a coordinated learning cycle that meets age-graded learning needs.
The Georgia Baptist Convention’s (GBC) research on the state’s fastest growing Sunday Schools and small-group churches proves that under any moniker, having the right plan still works. The churches that are successfully emphasizing and rapidly growing their Sunday School also represent leadership in other key measurements.
“The fastest growing churches account for 2.5% of all Georgia Baptist churches,” said Tim Smith, GBC state missionary responsible for Sunday School and small-group consultation and training. “But those 2.5% of churches account for 28% of all CP dollars. They account for 35% of all baptisms, 32% of all enrollment, and 30% of attendance.”
Peavine has exponential growth
Peavine Baptist Church in northwest Georgia is one of the fastest growing Sunday Schools in the 400-699 attendance range.
“In the most recent years, our growth rate for Sunday School has been inextricably correlated to the number of new classes birthed by Peavine,” said Senior Pastor Stephen Anthony of his church in Rock Springs, an unincorporated community south of Chattanooga. “When we have started/birthed a new class, trained the teachers well, and given them resources that will make them successful, we have had exponential growth.”
Peavine is practicing what the GBC’s Smith often preaches – intentionality.
“We are intentional about our Sunday School growth and how it relates to the overall health of the church,” Anthony said. “Without new classes being birthed we grow in just size but not in stature.
“Having numerological growth is a short-term indicator you have some affirming qualities. Maintaining long-term growth comes from proper assimilation, mentoring, discipling, and equipping new leaders to attract new prospects, members, and future leaders.”
The necessary intentionality begins with a pastor like Anthony who champions Sunday School in his church, Smith said. However, eventually, there must be a point person – paid or volunteer – who carries the banner of Sunday School. Traditionally called the minister of education or Sunday School director, today that moniker has also changed. The title could be minister of discipleship, minister of spiritual formation, family minister, life group minister, small groups s pastor, or something else.
“If they’re growing in Sunday School and small groups, they’ve got somebody who is leading the charge,” Smith said.
Three Sunday School types
Sunday School isn’t as homogenous in structure and curriculum across the state as it once was. Churches either have a traditional Sunday School, a hybrid (Sunday School with some small groups), or small groups that meet outside the church. The emphasis on church planting in Georgia has led to a proliferation of home-based small groups, Smith said.
“The groups are a microcosm of the church,” Smith said. “Biblically, what the church is to be is what my group is to be.”
Besides intentionality, Smith points to other key factors for a successful Sunday School. Among those factors is the understanding of Sunday School’s discipleship objective and no matter what curriculum a church uses, keeping the Bible as the primary textbook, he said.
Going back to one of Flake’s original admonitions, space remains a component of Sunday School growth. AtPeavine Baptist, growth is presenting challenges as they have reached 80% capacity.
“We are beginning to seek out a Wednesday evening small-group discipleship ministry that also employs Bible-based curriculum,” Anthony said. “Soon, we will be sharing with the church the need to utilize Sunday evening for additional Sunday School and discipleship classes.
“There is no more room to grow and no additional classes on Sunday morning to utilize. We must become creative in our usage of buildings and employment of new teachers.”
Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming. The GBC offers multiple Sunday School training opportunities. An estimated 5,000 leaders received training in Saturday regional events during August. On Sept. 9, the GBC will host Side-by-Side Training for churches with Sunday School and small groups. That training will occur at the GBC Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth. Additional training and resources
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