What’s the Difference Between a Sunday School Class and a Small Group?

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I had some good interaction this week with a reader who took issue with some of my assumptions about the differences between Sunday school classes and small groups. He had read my post, How to Build a Small Group Ministry in a Church with a Sunday School Culture (and later read But We Have Adult Sunday School, True Community or a Smaller Version of the Weekend Service? and Essential Ingredients of Life-Change). Mostly...he disagreed.

I pointed out to the reader that there are distinct differences in a Sunday school class and a small group. He disagreed and said,

"I don't understand why we talk about Sunday school and small groups as two different entities, when in all reality, they are the exact same thing."

I decided that it might help to list what I think are some of the key differences between a Sunday school class and a small group. See if these 7 differences add up for you.

First, a few clarifications:

  • Sunday school classes were originally designed for outreach. In their earliest forms, Sunday school classes were small and functioned like a small group in some important ways. See also, The 5 Step Formula for Sunday School Growth.
  • Calling something a "small group" doesn't change what it is. We've all experienced or heard about the tactic of renaming everything a small group. They are not the same and calling them the same thing doesn't change this.
  • On-campus vs off-campus isn't always a clear distinctive. There are off-campus "small groups" that function more like a class and there are on-campus "classes" that function more like a small group.
  • There are exceptions to every rule. Read the following to get a sense for generalities, not specifics.

7 differences between a class and small group:

  1. Classes sit in rows, small groups sit in circles. Again, there are classes that sit in a classroom in a circle. They are the exception, not the rule. See also, What's Better? Rows or Circles?
  2. Classes have teachers, small groups have leaders. This is an important distinction. A small group may have a leader that does some teaching (or they may watch a teacher on a DVD), but a small group leader doesn't function primarily as a teacher. A class may have a teacher who leads, but their primary contribution is to "teach" the lesson. See also, Teacher, Leader, Shepherd, Host: What's In a Name?
  3. Classes have students, small groups have members. I know this is an oversimplification. But I think it is generally true. When  small group members think of themselves as students, they are probably actually in a class (even if they meet in a home); when students think of themselves as members, they are probably actually in a group (even if they meet in a classroom).
  4. Classes are primarily a monologue, small groups are primarily a dialogue. Classes primarily feature one way communication. The teacher teaches and the students listen. Small groups primarily feature two way communication.  The leader asks a question and group members answer the question. See also, Essential Ingredients for Life-Change.
  5. Classes learn about the Bible, small groups discuss the Bible. Are there exceptions? Yes. Are there some small groups that mostly learn about the Bible?  Yes. But for the most part, Sunday school lessons tend to be about information and small group studies tend to be about application and transformation. See also, How to Stimulate Better Discussions.
  6. Classes listen to someone pray, small groups pray together. Yes, some classes pray together and some small groups listen to their leader pray. See also, Top 10 Ways to Learn to Pray Together.
  7. Classes have a fixed time slot, small groups have a more fluid time slot.  This is an important distinction. Most classes have a fixed time slot (i.e., 9 to 10:15 am). They almost always have a fixed start time and a fixed end time (because there is another class beginning in 15 minutes). Small groups almost always have a more fluid time slot (i.e., we usually hang out for a bit and then get started at 7:30ish and we always try to end at 9ish).

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Green County

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  1. Joshua Fuentes on June 5, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Great thoughts Mark, and I appreciate your willingness create a brand new blog post to clarify! Yet, I still think small groups/Sunday school are the exact same thing, and all we’re really doing is switching terms, or meeting places, to give the illusion there is a difference. Teacher/Leader/Facilitator or Student/Member are all doing the exact same thing. What matters is if we’re willing to teach each party what their purpose is in the group setting. I will agree with you that there is more fluidity to an off campus group compared to a Sunday school, but no one ever said the discussion has to end when Sunday school is over. If anything that’s creating a culture where all members feel they have the freedom to continue the conversation outside of class (life on life), even to the point of missing a worship service. I just feel like we’re pigeon-holing this stuff, and creating more restrictions, and dare I say being legalistic, than we really ought to be. In the end, I appreciate your work and believe you’re creating great dialogue so people can grow as disciple of Jesus Christ! Keep it up!

  2. David Francis on June 5, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Always stirring things up, aren’t you bro?! I’m not going to argue with you point by point. When it comes to SS vs. small groups, we have talked before about comparing a negative straw man of one against an aspirational description of the other. Your history is close to right. A better treatment is in my book Missionary Sunday School than in the one you linked to. Five Step was the first of my ten books. (All are free at http://www.lifeway.com/davidfrancis or at the iTunes store.) It’s retro look was part of a marketing campaign, but I can see how its dated appearance helped you prove your point. I have learned a lot in the past decade from people like you. My newest book, 3 Roles for Guiding Groups, was my best attempt to attempt neutrality in the fight you resurrected today. It was ordered on the same day for use by a small groups pastor you know well to train 250 small group leaders and the Minister of Education in a Sunday School church to train 25 teachers. Working on the next book with Rick Howerton. The live “debate” we did a few years ago is still available: http://www.lifeway.com/Article/Leadership-Training-Webcast-Sunday-School-vs-Small-Groups. My hope is that we will get to a place in some preferred future where the question will finally cease to be “which method is better?” and become “How can we connect and disciple people through groups anywhere and anytime?” The difference between a SS class and a small group is reduced significantly if both are actually small and actually sitting in a circle. “New” and “small” fit my aspiration for both. The polar opposite of your description.

  3. Jonathan Carlson on June 5, 2014 at 10:38 am

    This actually helps clarify it a LOT for me. Before today in my mind I just saw them both as basically the same thing just meeting in different locations/times. But as I reflect on it more after reading your article, at its purest form, Sunday School tends to be structured more like a classroom with the focus on someone imparting knowledge to the rest of the class, while small groups tend to be structured more like a discussion group with the focus on each person contributing to the process of dissecting and relating to a Bible passage, topic, curriculum, etc. No one person is supposed to be looked to in a small group to be the “answer-giver,” unlike the typical Sunday School class. While there may be some elements that cross over between these two structures in different contexts, Sunday School classes and small groups tend to resemble their basic structures. Mark, would you say my understanding of this fits with your description?

    As a church, we’ve been struggling to figure out what direction to go for a while now with these two ministries, because some people prefer Sunday School while some prefer small groups. It seems like Sunday School can teach sequential biblical truths and impart a greater quantity of knowledge in a focused amount of time than the typical small group, while small groups can help people connect better relationally and gain a deeper, more personal understanding of biblical truths and application than the typical Sunday School class can.

    However, in my context, Sunday School isn’t an effective outreach tool for adults; it tends to be the same group of people week after week. The kids classes do get a few more visitors, but they are structured more as a hands-on large & small group format. The small groups tend to attract new people, especially nonbelievers and people who aren’t comfortable with attending church. That’s why we see a focus on small groups as a better investment of our time and resources.

    I still think they both have strong sides and can meet different needs. It would be nice to have just one so we could focus more on it and put more time and energy into it, but it doesn’t seem like we can get everyone to jump on board with just one of them. And I also read how Mark says that in a Sunday School culture “where it isn’t essential to eliminate adult Sunday School it is almost always ill-advised to do so” …. I’m guessing that’s because of not only the resistance we would receive but also the value that people who are attached to Sunday School feel for it?

    You’ve given me a lot to think about, as you can tell by all the processing I’m doing in this post– I’ve read a lot of your articles and they are stimulating a lot of thoughts and discussion among our pastoral staff (myself included) and our core leaders. Thanks for writing and keep up the great work!

  4. Rick Howerton on June 5, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Love ya’, Mark. But even I am going to have to join the fray on this one. First off… You’ve created a stereotype when all Sunday Schools are not the same. Just like your small group ministry isn’t like the one down the street from you, across the country from you, or in another country than you, there are many variations on the Sunday School thems. Many Sunday School classes, probably most, sit in circles in rooms that meet at the church and those rooms won’t hold more than about 12. And they have a dialogue that is often as personal and profound as a small group. Secondly, you insinuate that Sunday School classes aren’t about application and transformation. Most all Sunday School curriculum (and most Sunday Schools are very careful in their choice of curriculum, moreso that most small group ministries for sure) ends with Obey the Text, not just “remember the text.” Concerning Sunday School learning the Bible and small groups discussing the Bible… We tread on thin ice here, Mark. If a small group doesn’t first learn what the Bible says (instead of discussing what they hope it says or determining what it ought to say in today’s culture, etc…) then discuss it, a whole lot of false assumptions can most certainly land. Great small group leader discuss toward determining what God is saying and, if the truth were known, either declare the truth prior to discussing it or use a video that unearths truth before the discussion begins. Groups pastors who use video driven resources use them, in most instances, so that the truth is taught before the discussion begins. Let’s face it… the question is not, “Which one are you?”. The question is, “Are you a biblically functioning group?”. No matter what you call yourself, when you meet, etc… if you are biblically functioning, disciple making group, then you’re more than alright, you’re accomplishing the right things.

  5. markchowell on June 5, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks again for jumping in here, Joshua. There are definitely small groups and Sunday school classes that do exactly the same thing, both good and bad. I want the essential ingredients of life-change to flourish in both forms.


  6. markchowell on June 5, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks David! I look forward to the day when our ambition becomes “How can we connect and disciple people through groups everywhere and every time!”

  7. markchowell on June 5, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Thanks for jumping in here, Jonathan! I think your understanding fits mine. And I believe there are problems, upsides and downsides to both strategies. Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have.


  8. markchowell on June 5, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks for jumping in Rick. I appreciate and agree with your perspective on several things. And as I indicated, I really do believe there are groups that function more like classes and classes that function more like groups.

    I especially agree with you that a “biblically functioning, disciple making group” is the end in mind…and I want to see that in every strategy and model.


  9. Rick Howerton on June 6, 2014 at 6:10 am

    Love the conversation, Mark. Thanks for starting it. I do think we need to be careful though. When we decide that the methodology is more important than transformation we find ourselves creating unnecessary and divisive differentiators. Is it possible that every group, no matter if they call themselves a small group or a Sunday School class, if they are led by a wise disciple maker, must determine what is needed in the lives of the group they lead at a given time? That is, should the teacher of a “class” evaluate the group and sometimes determine that setting aside the predetermined curriculum for a time is important as the group may need time to process life together. And shouldn’t a wise small group leader sometimes “teach” so that biblical truth can be instilled in the group members systematically. It’s not about the differences between these two methodologies that’s important. It’s whether or not we’ve trained those who lead them to make disciples.

  10. markchowell on June 6, 2014 at 6:34 am

    You’re exactly right, Rick. And that really is an embedded point in this post. There are many Sunday school classes that function like a small group and there are many small groups that function like a class.

    I wrote this post to point out distinctions between forms, primarily in response to a reader who maintained that small groups and Sunday school classes “are the exact same thing.” In my experience, they are sometimes the same but often not. My parents and our oldest son and his wife are in Sunday school classes that sit in rows, listen to the announcements and a master teacher, and eat donuts and drink coffee during the “fellowship time.”

    There is certainly a range of experiences in Sunday school forms (as there is a range of experiences in small group forms). This is the point of my post: True Community or a Smaller Version of the Weekend Service: http://www.markhowelllive.com/true-community-or-smaller-version-of-the-weekend-service/

    I am a fan of any method or strategy that produces authentic community and makes followers of Jesus. On campus or off campus. Sunday school class or small group. Doesn’t really matter to me what the form is as long as it does those two things. Calling the form that is really a smaller version of the weekend service the “exact same thing as a small group” matters very much to me.


  11. Robbie Norman on June 16, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    It is helpful when you have had experience leading both a Sunday School class and a small group for a period of time so one can experience the differences and similarities. When reading this post, I am glad I recognize the differences between the two as Mark does. It doesn’t mean one is bad and the other is good. Both serve a purpose.

    The church I am blessed to serve at has been one that has had Sunday School since its beginning and still have Sunday School today. We began having small groups in addition to Sunday School because for us, Sunday School was not hitting the home run for discipleship. Small groups allow us to go deeper in discipleship, moving people forward in their spiritual formation, build authentic relationships, and open bigger doors of service for the kingdom. However, we won’t eliminate Sunday School from our ministry because we have discovered Sunday School is still valuable for achieving certain things small groups can’t (i.e. ministry care groups) and a large number of our church find great value in their Sunday School experience.

    I “operate” my Sunday School class like a small group and have found it to be more effective than “operating” it like a traditional Sunday School class. For me and those in our class, we are seeing greater growth in people as they walk with Christ. The only hinderance is with the fixed time slot. I also lead a small group, which I prefer over Sunday School for the 7 differences listed in Mark’s post.

    For each church’s context, leadership must determine what is the best way to create environments that foster life change and multiply disciples.

  12. markchowell on June 16, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Thanks for jumping in here, Robbie! I appreciate your perspective and you’re right…it is helpful when you’ve had experience leading both a Sunday school class and a small group. And they both can provide important and needed elements.


  13. Rusty Richardson on September 1, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    While what you describe as Sunday School would have been almost universally true across the area I serve (Arkansas and Northeast Texas) 20-25 years ago, it is now universally the exception. In fact only #7 comes close to being true today (and even then there are many exceptions). Groups are defined by their purpose and evaluated by how well they succeed in acomplishing that purpose and not by labeling them based on outdated assumptions (see 1-7 above).

  14. markchowell on September 1, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Glad to hear that’s true in your area, Rusty.


  15. Jimmy Acree on November 13, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Robbie, I’m a pastor who has both SS and small groups and would love to talk to you. Here’s my email if you’d be interested in chatting about how you guys do that and how its working. Thanks, Jimmy bcbc@baconscastle.com

  16. markchowell on November 13, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Hi Jimmy…not sure Robbie will see your comment. His comment was about a year ago. If you’re on Twitter you might connect quicker there. You can see his Twitter handle by clicking his name in his comment above.