How to Build a Small Group Ministry in a Sunday School Culture, Part 1

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In this five part series I take a look at one of my most frequently asked questions.  There's a chance it's the question that keeps you up at night.  There's an even better chance you know someone struggling with this question right now.  Here's the question:

Q: Is it possible to build a small group ministry in a church with a Sunday School culture? We have an active and fairly effective adult Sunday School program.  At the same time, we're concerned that Sunday School doesn't seem to work for everyone and we'd like to start a Small Group Ministry without destroying what we already have.  Is that even possible?

A: Yes...but there are some keys you will want to keep in mind as you move down this road.

This is a very common question.  It's asked in a variety of ways, but it is one of the most frequently asked questions in conferences around the country.  You may have asked it yourself!  And you've probably heard a variety of answers.

My goal in this series of articles is to help you do what you need to do in a way that makes the biggest difference.  There are several steps in making that happen.

  1. Understand and skillfully communicate the reasons for building a Small Group Ministry.
  2. Develop your plan well in advance.
  3. Think multiple steps, look beyond the first steps to the next and the next after that.
  4. Execute your plan while staying alert to the feelings of people.

In part two I'll provide some ideas to help you understand and begin to communicate your reasons for building a small group ministry.  You can read part two of my series right here.

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  1. Joshua Fuentes on June 3, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    I love Sunday school and think its still effective today. My question is why don’t you consider Sunday school and small groups the same thing? How are they different and what can’t you accomplish in Sunday school that you can in a “small group?”

  2. markchowell on June 3, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    Thanks for jumping in here, Joshua. You are asking some very good questions. Sunday school in its smallest form can be very similar to what should happen in a small group. At the same time, many adult Sunday school classes could better be described as smaller versions of the weekend service. And I’m not really saying that a smaller version of the weekend service is bad…only that it doesn’t include the components that actually create environments that produce life-change.

    Two posts that might help you understand my point of view are right here: and

    Hope that helps. And again, I’m not against Sunday school. I am for strategies that connect unconnected people and engage them in environments that have the ingredients of life-change.


  3. Joshua Fuentes on June 3, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Interesting thoughts Mark. I’ve never heard of Sunday school to be referred to as a smaller version of the weekend service. I don’t agree with it fully, especially since small groups have prayer and a teacher, which one could argue the off campus small group is also a smaller version of the weekend service. If the only difference between a small group and Sunday school is “life on life,” I still have a hard time distinguishing the two. Life on life can’t be confined to a small group, so I’m interested to hear how you define life on life.

  4. markchowell on June 3, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Don’t misunderstand me. As I point out in the article, it’s entirely possible for an off-campus small group to be a smaller version of the weekend service. The fact that they have a “teacher” often precludes the kind of dialogue needed to produce life-change. And many of these same small groups simply take prayer requests at the end of their meeting and call it a night. I’m not suggesting that is the end in mind.

    Your admission that you’re unfamiliar with life-on-life tells me you are new to small group ministry. Even better that you’ve joined the discussion. You might take a look at Essential Ingredients for Life-Change to get a feel for some of what we all believe about the power of a group:

    Joshua, I’m hoping you can participate in the discussion without feeling like you have to defend Sunday school. It has had a place in many churches for many years and still does. It is simply that it can’t provide what it needs to for everyone.

  5. Joshua Fuentes on June 4, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Truth be told, I’m not new to small group ministry. Nor do I feel like I have to defend Sunday school. What I don’t understand is why we talk about Sunday school and small groups as two different entities, when in all reality, they are the exact same thing. What you described as life-on-life from the post you shared is what’s supposed to be happening in Sunday school. Now, if we’re using small groups as a term to designate between on campus and off campus ministries that’s fine, but to talk like they are different in content, or that one is more effective than the other, is what drives me up a wall. Moreover, I believe when a church does Sunday school and off campus groups at the same time, one ministry will eventually suffer (usually Sunday school), because all their efforts begin to pour into the off campus groups. Which makes this a good lead into for your series of post. Looking forward to reading them!

  6. markchowell on June 5, 2014 at 5:55 am

    You’re on to some good things, Joshua. Sunday school SHOULD have a life-on-life aspect. Take a look at my post today on the differences between Sunday school and small groups:

    Be sure and give me your thoughts or questions over on today’s post.