Setting Up New Units in Your Sunday School
Creating new units is the process of enlarging the Bible study ministry of your church to assure that peoples’ needs are met effectively and to make certain everyone has a place. New units can be departments or classes. Creating new units is an essential element of church growth.
A growing Sunday School is constantly creating new classes and departments. This idea of creating new classes is rooted in Scripture. Jesus told His disciples—I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful (John 15:1–2).
Jesus was using the image of tending a vineyard. Vines were pruned each year. New growth came at the cut. The trunk, with its strong root system, supported and nourished the new growth, but did not bear the fruit. The fruit was produced on the new growth, not the old. A growing Sunday School is constantly creating new classes to bear more fruit.
A Mississippian by the name of Arthur Flake was one of the first persons to realize the linkage between creating new units and reaching more people for Christ and for Bible study. He became the “Field Director” for the Baptist Sunday School Board in 1909, and then founded the Sunday School Administration Department in 1922. He created a systematic approach for enlarging a Sunday School. Flake’s Formula became the standard for effective Sunday School ministry.
Flake’s Formula had five basic components
1. Know your potential.
2. Enlarge your ministry.
3. Equip the people.
4. Provide the environment.
5. Go after the people.
Creating new units by this simple formula propelled Southern Baptists to become the largest Protestant denomination in North America. For decades before a “church growth movement,” Flake’s Formula helped churches reach new people through Bible study. This numerical strength allowed a compounding influence in many areas of our culture by the end of the twentieth century. Creating new units is still crucial to an effective Sunday School. But, is it as easy to create new units today?
ME, MYSELF AND OTHERS
Although we are challenged in Scripture to find focus beyond ourselves, the self-centeredness of our present culture is a fact. Many people are struggling to “find themselves”, “help themselves”, and in general “be good to themselves.” We are a “ME” group of individuals trying to make sense of life in general and our lives in particular. As church leaders, we can decry the “ME” syndrome as a bad thing or we can use it to assist us in extending the church’s effectiveness in reaching persons for Christ. We may be in the most opportune time ever to make a difference in the world by reaching our friends and neighbors for Christ. We can so impact their lives that they want to be involved in the life of the church. We can take the focus of our culture and make it a force for growth in our churches.
The secret is developing a process for creating new units and then keeping people highly involved in that process. Input, relationships, empowerment and evaluation are at the hub of any process for beginning new units. Involving people means allowing members to have a part of the overall plan for starting new units of any kind. Given a cause to rally behind, an objective to reach, and a specific, realistic outcome to strive for — they will become involved.
WHY START NEW UNITS?
Based on the signs of a healthy church, new units help us reach people and witness to more lost persons. More persons attend church because of a relationship with another person in a given church than for any other reason. In fact, many people first come to church looking for a friend. When our structures are not able to provide an environment for that to happen and flourish, we create a roadblock to be able to reach those people.
Here are a few more positive reasons for beginning new units:
• New units provide opportunities for more adults to discover and use their gifts and talents in Christian service. Every member of a class should be involved in some function or ministry of the class. This is called “assimilation.” The Team approach to adult organizations offers one of the better structures for involving adults. Ministry Team, Prayer Team, Missions Team, Teaching Team and Fellowship Team are just some examples that can be in a team-based adult organization. The types of teams can be expanded as the class grows.
Remember that new Christians and new members might need to be asked to take “entry level jobs.” Those are tasks that do not require extensive Bible knowledge or teaching skills. They may include fellowship team member (to bring juice and donuts one Sunday a month), a “secret greeter” within the class making sure that there are enough chairs or that first time attendees are welcomed, and so forth. Every adult unit must identify and provide those entry-level jobs. Without them you may not get the newer, more introverted persons involved. The idea is that every member of the class should be involved in some ministry in the class.
• When classes get beyond a reasonable number of persons enrolled, workers are stretched too thin in ministering to class members and prospects. The only way to eliminate this is to constantly enlist members to be a part of some team within the class. As stated prior, the goal needs to be to have an organization that has a specific purpose (every member involved in something) and is fluid enough to provide those opportunities. One reason it has become difficult to enlist new adult teachers is that they have seen the enormous amount of work that has to be done if the class is to grow. Since many leaders try to grow a class themselves, they reflect a negative model of organization. A consistent plan for beginning new units and involving more and more members will help alleviate that problem.
• When a class becomes too large for ministry to be done effectively, the result is that people tend to drop out all together or become inactive. In other words, a class is too large when ministry to members and non-members ceases! The question is often asked— what is ideal size for an adult class. Probably there’s not an ideal number. Many factors enter into making a class an optimal size— the space available, the passion of the class for God, the effectiveness of organizational structure, the abilities of the class leaders, and so forth.
The ideal class in the 1940s and 1950s was around 10. That’s why many church buildings built during that period have tiny rooms that will accommodate about 10 persons. Today, many churches have discovered that larger classes can be very effective. They have designed buildings with larger spaces to accommodate larger classes. But the larger the class, the more crucial the organization of that class becomes. Every person on that roll needs to have what they feel is a significant role in the class. Be certain that everyone is given opportunity to be a part of something bigger than him or her self. There are no insignificant jobs to be done at church. Everything has a purpose. When the small things are not done they become very obvious.
When plans are being made to begin new units, several factors must be considered.
1. Space: Every unit needs some place to meet — it does not always have to be at the church!
2. Options: Every unit needs to be able to provide some kind of options for people you are trying to reach. Today’s young adults are accustomed to having options. This is part of the “ME” syndrome. Provide options that will be attractive, in many cases short-term by nature, and consistent with the purpose of your church.
One option can be found in the way your organization is set up. There is NO RULE that says every Bible study group has to be organized in exactly the same way. Take into consideration the age of the group. Many senior adults, for instance, like having a president, vicepresident, Sunshine Chairman, and so forth. Most young adults would prefer to work on teams. Every group should be organized in a manner that would help it be effective in reaching, in ministering, in participation and, yet, allow them to be fluid enough so they can branch out and start another group without a lot of stress and pain.
3. Times and Places: Other options to consider are when and where new groups will meet. You will need to be as creative as possible in this part of your new unit strategic planning process. For example, not all groups need to meet at the church on Sunday morning. You may want to look for places near the church like subdivision or apartment complex meeting rooms. Schedule new units to meet at different times of the day as well as different days of the week. People who must work on Sunday are automatically left out of your Bible study or support groups if they are all conducted on Sunday. Is it possible to take the study to the people where they work? Seek out possibilities in your community where no one is providing studies during the week and build relationships that will open the door for you to start new units all over your community.
4. Short-term vs. Long-term Units: The question is, “must this group continue until death us do part?” Or, is this a short-term group that is meeting to complete a specific task? For instance, a group might meet to conduct a 6–8 week course for new Christians or to address specific incidents relevant to your community such as teenage issues, divorce recovery, grief recovery, and so forth. Many groups that are short-term by their design can become an ongoing group.
HOW TO CREATE NEW UNITS
Here are some options when creating new units:
1. The paper class: a list of prospects is given to a teacher who is instructed to build a class. 2. The divided class: the roll of a class is simply divided into two equal units — some of all types of members in each unit. 3. The dropout class: this class is formed by giving a teacher a list of Sunday School dropouts. 4. The seed class: select persons are enlisted to begin a new class. This class probably has the greatest potential for growth and success.
Time Out! Consider what you have read about new units.
l. What are some areas in which new units are needed?
2. What are some options that are available?
Class Composition Knowing the composition of a class is crucial to creating a new class successfully. Almost every Sunday School class has a discernible composition. It looks like this:
T—Teacher: the primary class leader to whom members look for instruction.
C—Core: class members who are committed to Christ, who enjoy Bible study, who delight in Christian fellowship.
H—Half-timers: these members are in attendance approximately 50% of the time. They consider themselves faithful, but they are easily drawn away.
Q—Quarter-timers: these members are present about 25% of the time— they might spread their attendance equally over the year, but they might attend their 25% of the year in one quarter and not show up for another nine months.
S—Spasmodics: these members rarely attend and when they do it is a total shock to everyone, including themselves.
D—Dropouts: the reasons vary, but the result’s the same—they don’t attend.
P—Prospects: potential members—these may be only suspects, some have never attended.
Analyze any class that has been in existence a year and this pattern will be found. This basic configuration must be considered when creating new classes.
The best way of creating a new class is the seed class. “Seeding” a class with a good teacher and some core members gives the greatest probability for success. Look at the following scenarios to see why this is so:
Scenario One If you create a paper class, the teacher seeks to enlist people who are prospects for the class. Some of these, possibly all of them, have not visited the church. If they are invited, some of them will attend. Commitment levels are slight to non-existent. Growth in this type of class is extremely slow. The leader/teacher must be tenacious and not easily discouraged. Some of those who come initially might be uncomfortable with few persons in attendance. A high dropout rate is to be expected. The class can be built, but time and tenacity are required.
Scenario Two If a class is split—each class receiving equal representations of each member type—an extremely disruptive situation develops. Friends are separated. Some members, who attend only occasionally because of relationships with other class members or the teacher, find themselves assigned to separate classes. Some of the quarter-timers and spasmodics return to find a new teacher in a new room. These disruptions can be enough to cause some of these persons to drop out.
Scenario Three If the new class is composed of dropouts, the group will grow with great difficulty—if at all. Some dropouts can be brought back into the life of the church. Some will bring negative attitudes that can infect the spirit of the class making growth difficult. Patience,determination, and a caring spirit must characterize the teacher assigned to this type of new class.
Scenario Four This scenario has the greatest probability for success. A teacher is enlisted and then selected persons from a class’s core group (or possibly from several classes) are enlisted to create the core group of a new class. These persons should be committed to Christ, to Bible study, and to reaching others for Bible study, Christ, and church membership. Because these members are enlisted for the task, they understand their purpose as growth agents. Their consistent attendance creates a receptive group to welcome prospective members.
When enlisting members for the new class, be careful to leave a strong core group in the original class. The original class needs strength to maintain itself. It should not be sacrificed to a new group. Usually, several months are required for the older class to restore itself to the point it was prior to the beginning of the new class.
What happens when a new class is seeded with a core group from an existing, strong class? 1. The outer fringes pull in together—some of the half-timers become core members. Faithfulness increases. 2. Some of the fringe are drawn to the new class—this might be a re-entry point for some of the dropouts. 3. The new class will attract new guests to a far greater extent than the existing class. Guests know it will be easier entering and becoming established in the newer class than in an older class with a history.
When to Create New Classes Timing is important. Knowing when to do something is almost as critical as knowing what to do. As in nature with the ebb and flow of tides, with the seasons of the year—a church has its cycle. Knowing this cycle can aid the probability of success or the ease of creating new classes.
January–March is the most stable period of attendance. Colder more unstable weather discourages travel and recreational involvement. With no major holidays, parents of school age children maintain consistent routines.
April–June is marked by improving weather patterns, the latter days of the school year and the beginning of summer.
July–September is middle of summer and the beginning of school. Vacations are often taken during the last two months of summer.
October–December is stable for the first half of the quarter. Then the holidays hit. Attendance fluctuates wildly during this quarter. It is not unusual to have the year’s high and low attendance during this quarter.
When making changes, two periods need to be considered—one is the beginning of the church year, the other is the beginning of the calendar year in January. Both of these are followed by periods of consistent attendance. Both are times when new commitments are being made. Both are times when many changes are made in other areas of life. Psychologically, people are more receptive to change at these times than at other times. The two periods of relative consistency around these periods allow the changes to become normative before periods of lower attendance or inconsistency begin. January might be the best time to create new classes because it is after the holidays, it is the period of highest attendance, and it allows the longest period of consistent attendance before the disruptions of spring/summer holidays and schedules take effect.
Guidelines for Creating New Classes Know the annual attendance patterns and select the optimum time to begin new classes. Cultivate relationships with those members who will create new classes—you will get more done through relationships than through detached administration. Creating new classes cultivates an environment of growth. This environment helps members fulfill their commission to reach others for Christ. Remember, church is an organism and not an organization—a finely structured (graded) organization might look good on the charts, but it might be a hindrance to growth. Don’t worry if the structure is a little fuzzy. You can even have overlapping age divisions—a little competition is good.
Move with the movers—don’t wait to win over recalcitrants.
Avoid restructuring classes above the age of 50—generally, there’s no need. Most viable Sunday School prospects are below this age.
Those with the vision must be the ones to fulfill the vision. If left to others without the vision, confusion at best, failure at worst, will result. This means one of two things. First, the ones with the vision must do the work of creating the new class or department or, second, the ones with the vision must help others catch the vision. Even then, a great deal of encouragement, coaching, and guidance is necessary.
Communication is critical. Use every means available to inform those involved in creating the new class—both the class or classes from which the new class is created and those involved in creating the new class.
In the initial stages, however, involve only those persons necessary in creating a new class. Change always unsettles people. The more people who are told in the initial stages of creating a new class, the more people there are to get upset. Wait until the change is certain in the planning or in reality to inform the larger body of a department or the church as a whole. Less disturbance will result if you wait until the action is settled in the minds of those involved in the change.
Find the teacher, then form the class. Each teacher will attract a certain following initially.
Channel prospects to the new classes. Without histories, new classes are a better environment for new persons.
Assign dropouts from other classes to the new class. The formation of the new class might provide just the opportunity needed to re-activate these members.
Create as many favorable circumstances for success as possible.
Pay close attention to the new classes—care for them as you would a new child. Offer encouragement to the teacher and class leaders.
Tell the story to others. Stories shape opinions and attitudes quicker than anything else. Facts and figures won’t do the job for most people. Putting a face with those facts and figures helps people believe and care.
Close the back door. It’s not enough to reach new people, if they just file through. Keep those you reach.
A VARIETY OF GROUPS TO REACH A VARIETY OF PERSONS
A number of different kinds of new units can be started. Each new unit has the possibility of reaching a different group of persons. However, planning and preparation for each of these groups is a key ingredient to their success. Here are just a few ideas for creating new units:
Gender-specific Groups If you currently have all co-educational groups, you may want to consider gender-specific groups as well. Gender-specific groups during the Sunday morning Bible study have recently had a renewal of interest. The ideal goal would be to provide a co-educational group, an all women’s group, and even an all men’s group for each of the adult age groupings. (The possible exception to that might be in the senior adult groups.)
Affinity Groups People have a variety of common interests or concerns that create a bond between them. These affinity groups may be formed based on their professions, the ages of their children, common needs, or for any number of factors. Often the interests or concerns can be a basis for beginning a new unit.
Special Education Groups Many people with special needs are living longer and for most churches the needs of adults with special needs are not being addressed. Group homes exist where adults with special needs can live independently. You might want to provide Bible study times for them.
Senior Adult Groups Have you visited a Retirement Center lately? They are equipped with wonderful facilities and for the most part the people who live there are well able to take care of themselves. Many are still able to drive their own cars, shop and do many things they did when they lived in their homes, but now they don’t have to if they don’t want to.
The director of activities for one of these retirement centers asked a local minister to come out for a preview of their new center. The minister asked a couple of senior adults to accompany her. During the visit they were asked if their church would like to provide a weekly Bible study for the residents. Both of the senior adults with the minister immediately agreed and one even volunteered to help get things set up. Do not miss a wonderful opportunity for a new unit in your community. The rewards are great. As a result of that Bible study, the church had four people to become members. Every week the Bible study group at the retirement center has increased.
Weekday Groups A large number of persons in our culture are required to work on Sundays. Not all of us have the privilege of being home with our families during the weekend. Think of many single mothers who have to work on Sunday. When you pass a fire station, think of the fire fighters on duty. When you go out to eat on Sunday, have you ever wondered if those who prepare and serve the meals have had an opportunity for Bible study? Almost every community has persons in similar situations. Can classes be arranged for these during the week or off-site on Sunday? Bible study is not just on Sunday anymore, or at least it shouldn’t be!
The above article, “Setting Up New Units in Your Sunday School” was written by Larry Garner. The article was excerpted from “A Coach’s Guide to Sunday School” by the Sunday School Department of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board. Used by permission. November 2017.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”