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FIRST-PERSON: Vibrant leadership in Sunday School

Editor’s note: This is the third in an eight-part series of articles summarizing each of the chapters in David Francis’ free online book, “Transformational Class: Transformational Church Goes to Sunday School,” which can be downloaded at LifeWay.com/SundaySchool. Francis is addressing the seven elements of Thom Rainer’s and Ed Stetzer’s “Transformational Church” book and examining how they might apply in a small group or Sunday school class. Today’s element: “Vibrant Leadership.”

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–If you’ve read about organizational leadership, you’ll recognize the idea of the “inverted pyramid.” Vibrant leaders see themselves as servants at the bottom of a pyramid, whose primary job is to exhort and support those charged with carrying out the organization’s vision and mission.

Vibrant leaders keep organizational energy focused on a few key principles. My boss at LifeWay, John Kramp, urges me to guard against letting an issue “spin out into complexity!” That’s a particularly good word for Sunday School leaders. Volumes have been written about administering effective Sunday schools. I’ve written a few myself, which you can download free at www.lifeway.com/sundayschool, including the newest — Transformational Class: Transformational Church Goes to Sunday School. But at its essence, effective Sunday Schools have vibrant leaders who may try different organizational schemes or experiment with new ideas, but who hold fast to two key principles and one irreducible law.


Vibrant leaders champion missional Sunday School classes that operate on two uncompromising principles:

1. Open groups that practice open enrollment. “Open” is what distinguishes Sunday School classes from discipleship groups that are “closed” for the purpose of studying deeper content, or “closed” small groups that develop deeper relationships. Closed groups are not bad. They’re just closed. Sunday School classes are essentially open groups.

2. Open groups that expect new people every week. That’s a short definition of an open group! If a group really does expect new people every week, it will change everything about its strategy. Leaders will arrive early. They will arrange the room with newcomers in mind. Members will consistently wear nametags. Every lesson will be a complete and satisfying Bible study experience.

“Belong before you believe” — that’s a short definition of open enrollment. Enrolling as a member of a Sunday School class is a great first step for those undecided about becoming Christians, being baptized, joining the church or exploring Christianity, while they experience the powerful words of the Bible. They should understand that enrolling in Sunday School neither makes them church members, nor obligates them toward membership. It’s simply a safe place to belong before they believe, whether or not they ever do.

These principles go against the grain, because the natural inertia of any group is to become closed. Vibrant leaders continuously exhort Sunday School classes to:

— remain vigilant about staying open.

— create a welcoming place for newcomers every week.

— facilitate next steps for those deciding to move beyond worship attendance alone.

— offer a safe environment to learn more about Christ — and Christians — before making a deeper commitment to Him.


That’s the irreducible law of kingdom growth! This law would probably also fit under the first element, “Missionary Mentality.” I wrote about that element last month (http://bit.ly/gx6KTy). On the mission field, this means starting new preaching points, new missions and new churches. In established churches, it means starting new groups for discipleship, ministry and evangelism. For Sunday School, it means starting new classes. It takes incredibly vibrant leadership to persuade and equip classes to reproduce themselves.

The average Southern Baptist church has about 93 people in Sunday School, meeting in nine or 10 classes, each week. A church with 50 in attendance has about five classes. Only about 3,000 SBC churches have more than 250 in attendance, and most have at least 25 classes. In all, about 4 million Southern Baptists will attend one of 400,000 Sunday school this Sunday. Do you see the pattern — and the promise? Assuming that churches can enlist and train new leaders and provide them space and resources, any “double-digit” church should be able to exceed 100 in Sunday with 10 or 11 classes. This is the “law of 10.”

You might be surprised to learn that many of the transformational churches LifeWay interviewed were smaller churches. The churches I interviewed in New England each had about 120 in attendance. They were all transformational congregations. None seemed “small.” Why not? Vibrant leadership!
David Francis is director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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