One of Many Reasons to Keep Sunday School Classes Small

Wednesday 24th January, 2007

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One of the largest Sunday School classes I ever taught had over 100 enrolled and about 50 in attendance each Sunday. I inherited the class from a well-loved teacher who had changed churches in order to spend more time with his adult children. It was one of the best organized larger classes I had experienced. There were planned monthly fellowships. Care groups were in place. Communication was excellent. But I noticed several things that were not ideal. Some of those on the class roll were not known by anyone in the class. Some missed several Sundays without being "missed." When I began teaching the class, participation in the lesson was by a handful. Within two weeks, I moved to a much more interactive teaching process involving eight small groups. Another thing I noticed was that there were several subgroups (sets of friends) within the class.

In my reflection on the class, I now realize that there appears to be a natural limit to the number of relationships in which we invest. Since that time, I have discovered some group dynamics research that helps me better understand what I observed. For instance, in a group of four, there are six two-way (or two-person) relationships. In a group of six, the number jumps to fifteen. In a group of twelve, the number jumps to sixty-six! The way to calculate the number of two-way relationships (where the size of the group is X) is as follows:  (X * X-1) / 2. Here are some more examples:

  • Group of 15:  (15 * 14) / 2 = 105
  • Group of 20:  (20 * 19) / 2 = 190
  • Group of 30:  (30 * 29) / 2 = 435
  • Group of 40:  (40 * 39) / 2 = 780.

Why am I giving a math lesson? Did you notice the way the numbers of two-way relationships took off as the group size increased? It has been suggested that the maximum number of relationships we can handle is 150.  But that is the maximum. The ideal number is probably much lower.

I would suggest that Jesus was an expert in group dynamics. He had twelve disciples for a reason. Counting Jesus, that would result in 78 two-way relationships. He was God and we are not. His ability is beyond ours.

As classes approach a dozen in size, they begin to naturally break into subgroups (or cliques). This may be an indication that the groups should move toward starting new classes. In order to sustain the group beyond a dozen participants, the teacher would have to enlist additional class leadership and would have to divide the class during group time. This could lead to mid-sized groups or adult Bible fellowship. Check out Steve Lizzio's website, Adult Bible Fellowship Resources:  Turning Classes into Communities for more information. The alternative result without starting a new class, enlisting additional leaders, or revisioning your approach is disconnection of individuals from the group.

What are some other reasons you want to share with others about why to keep classes small? Or what are some other ways to keep the feel of a large class small? Make decisions about group size that lead to change. Be revolutionary!

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