FIRST-PERSON: The life cycle of a healthy Sunday School class
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--There are obvious life cycles in nature. Tadpoles emerge as frogs, and caterpillars spin cocoons and reappear as butterflies.
Couples experience life cycles, too. They begin as married with no kids and transition through raising a family, adjusting to the empty nest and then retiring. Of course, there are dozens of stages in between including challenges like illnesses, relocations and deaths.
Even Sunday School classes have life cycles. But sometimes, like the cocoon that fails to produce a butterfly, Sunday School classes get stuck mid-cycle.
Take a moment to consider how your Sunday School class is progressing through its life cycle.
This is the most exciting stage for a Sunday School class. The class is probably relatively new, and the leaders and members are still very motivated to reach out to each other and prospective new members.
Absentees are contacted. Teachers strive to learn the stories of their members. Preschool and children's department workers get to know each child and his/her parents, and documenting things like allergies is of urgent importance.
There is energy around building the group and enthusiasm for seeing boys, girls, men and women grow spiritually. It is an exciting phase of the class life cycle.
Unfortunately, it tends to lose steam as the group grows and matures. Without intentional effort, the class is likely to settle into a comfortable routine where reaching takes a back seat.
This phase is rarely found naturally after the first two years of a group's life.
Sometimes a class that has been together more than two years gets fired up again about reaching -- reaching out to prospects, reaching in to members and reaching up through a new commitment to Bible study and prayer.
This situation isn't unusual in a class that has teams participating in FAITH or a similar Sunday School-based evangelistic ministry, or whose leaders have attended a training event such as Sunday School Week or other associational or state convention-sponsored training.
This phase can last as long as the class leaders keep the fire stirred up, but without their enthusiasm, the natural life cycle will prevail.
Another healthy way to prolong the growth of an adult class and keep it "on mission" is for class leaders to consistently encourage members to serve in the preschool, children and student departments.
Great classes are proud of these "members in service" and recognize them in various ways including displaying their names on a poster or bulletin board or posting digital photos of these "missionaries" at work in their rooms. Class leaders should make sure that the best group leaders are assigned to stay in touch with these "associate members," passing along prayer needs to the teacher, communicating class news and inviting these "members in service" to social activities.
By releasing members to serve, room is made for new folks and the reaching phase is prolonged.
Eventually, a healthy growing class must face the decision of whether to reproduce itself by releasing several members to start a new class.
Great classes plan for this decision ahead of time by having apprentice leaders in key positions -- teacher, outreach leader, etc. -- all along. Many of these apprentices will also be serving as care group leaders.
I once heard a teacher refer to his class as "pregnant," meaning it was approaching the size where it needed to birth a new class.
Like childbirth, this event will be both painful and joyful, and it should be anticipated like the birth of a new child. This could mean getting a new room ready or maybe even having a "shower" during which the new class receives a coffeemaker and other items that make a room welcoming. Providing leadership training for the new class "parents" should also occur.
Sometimes so many classes have reached a saturation point, age groups are so mixed up or room-to-participant ratios are so out of kilter that it is just time to reorganize the whole Sunday School program.
This phase can be avoided if enough classes are releasing and reproducing. At some point, however, this phase becomes necessary if the Sunday School program is to return en masse to the reaching phase.
Is your Sunday School at that point? Do you have the courage to restart the life cycle in order to get back "on mission" to reach people for Christ and assimilate them into His church? I encourage you to take some time and assess the situation.
David Francis is director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.