I have had many, many discussions with Sunday School teachers about their class roll. It usually starts with something like, "My class roll is so unwieldy!"
Does that sound familiar? Do you get discouraged when you think about your class roll -- maybe all of the people on your roll who don't attend (and haven't attended in years)? or maybe how small your roll is compared to years past (and keeps on shrinking)? (And then there's the elephant in the room: many experts believe that our attendance will never return to pre-COVID levels . . .)
Let's briefly walk through the purpose of your class roll and what to do if you've gotten discouraged by it. If yours is like many, your roll looks like this:
a handful of people who attend almost every Sunday;
a handful of people who attend very irregularly;
a handful of people who haven't shown up in years;
a handful of people haphazardly marked as guests or prospects.
Because I'm not very creative, I tend to think of these groups as Regulars, Irregulars, Inactives, Guests and Prospects. Every one of those groups is important, and every class roll needs to include each type!
One of the biggest mistakes a Sunday School class can make is to "delete" the people who don't attend regularly, as if there's a prize for perfect attendance. (By the way, some Sunday Schools did give out such prizes; "perfect attendance" is only helpful for a closed group, but Sunday School is necessarily an open group.) Immediately behind that is the mistake of adding anybody and everybody to their roll, as if there's a prize for the longest roll. That's been a part of the confusion and problem in more than one class. Let's walk through each of these groups, point out the place and importance of each, and give some tips on how to handle them if you find your roll out of balance.
Why Do We Need So Many Classes in the First Place?
For this article to make sense, we need to understand the value of multiple small groups for adults. Perhaps the "easy" thing would be to put all of the classes in one large group and let the pastor lead it. I'll never forget my experience of visiting Prestonwood Baptist Church and sitting in a Sunday School class led by Zig Ziglar (!). There were hundreds of us in there. Well, that wasn't truly a Sunday School class. It was an ongoing lecture series that met on Sunday mornings before the worship service.
Remember the purposes of Sunday School: evangelism, discipleship, ministry, fellowship, worship. Those will be key to what I say below. And remember something I try to relay regularly: discipleship happens best in a relationship, and relationships grow best in small groups.
A small group Bible study is uniquely structured to accomplish the purposes of our churches. That means we need multiple Sunday School classes for adults. And those groups are best focused around life stages. A long time ago, this was called "age grading", but that was in a day when people got married at the same age, had kids at the same age, and retired at the same age. That hasn't happened in a long, long time. Life stages refers to major settings in life, like single or married, kids or no kids, ages of kids, and so on. A Sunday School class effectively building relationships for discipleship and ministry most likely has people in similar life stages. This often means similar ages! But that's not always the case.
Understanding that our Sunday School is made up of multiple small groups roughly based around different life stages will help us know what to do with our class rolls.
Class Roll: Regulars
"Regulars" is my term for those class members who are almost always there. They are the backbone of every healthy Sunday School class. They give every teacher motivation to hang in there. Your class needs them.
But it's important that Regulars are spread throughout the Sunday School. If one class has all of the Regulars, and three classes have none, those three classes will wither and die. That's not good for the Sunday School as a whole. If there is a massive imbalance of Regulars in your classes, perhaps the overall structure of your Sunday School needs another look. Or perhaps individual classes need another look. Let's investigate.
Let's say that you just don't have many Regulars in your class. Is that a problem? There's no "rule" for the number of Regulars a class needs to be successful. If things aren't awkward or uncomfortable in group times, then don't worry about your numbers compared with another class. Your smaller group can still be a great Sunday School class.
But let's say you don't have enough Regulars and your class is withering. The best solution is also the most effective: get everyone else on your roll to start attending more regularly, and reach out to new people to join your class! That's really what it's all about. "Poaching" regular class members from other groups is not a good long-term strategy. Why? Because it doesn't address what might have been a problem in the first place. Perhaps your class was withering because there are things you weren't doing effectively as a class. Perhaps your teaching style had stopped connecting. Perhaps your group wasn't being very friendly. Before you grow your Regulars through poaching, do an honest self-evaluation. And talk to your Sunday School Director. Let your classes work together to solve any problems. Actively recruiting someone from another Sunday School class to join your class will not sit well.
Class Roll: Irregulars
"Irregulars" is my somewhat unflattering term for class members who attend irregularly (natch). (Don't use this term in conversation.) They may only attend once a month or once every other month, but they think of themselves as a class member, and they think of you as their teacher. They just don't attend regularly for whatever reason. Believe it or not, your class needs members like this -- though not for the reasons you might expect.
Having Irregulars on your roll is not about padding statistics. It's about measuring transformation. All of us are on a journey with Jesus, one in which every day we are following Jesus just a little closer. That's called discipleship. And discipleship happens best in relationships. And relationships grow best in small groups. Right? A person who is irregular in class attendance is at a different place in his or her spiritual walk with Jesus. They need to have access to mature Christians as an inspiration, as a guide, and as a source of encouragement.
You need to have Irregulars on your roll because we were all Irregulars once, and we needed mature Christians to invest in us. Your goal and desire needs to be that those Irregulars become more and more Regular. (Again, don't say these things out loud.) Every year, you see a little bit more of them. It's not truly important that their attendance is only 25% or 33%. What's important is the trend: is that number growing? And attendance might not be the main thing at all! Maybe they have a thing against the church building. Are they engaging with you outside of Sunday mornings? Maybe that's the "statistic" you need to focus on.
But maybe your Irregulars are trending the wrong direction. Maybe they used to be Regulars. Maybe you're seeing less and less of them. That's a concern. There's always a reason, and you need to know what it is. As often as not, something has happened in their life that needs your gentle support and encouragement. They need to know that you care about them as they work through whatever has happened. They may not be in a place where they want to attend any time soon, but if they feel ignored or neglected, they will almost certainly continue to drift away.
Sometimes there's been a life change. Maybe there's been a divorce, or kids have moved out, or a family member passed away. Those sorts of big changes can sometimes make a person uncomfortable in a small group. That's why it's so important that your church have multiple small groups for adults. Perhaps this person may not fit so well in your Sunday School class any more, but they might fit in another. Your class roll is not something to lord over or be possessive of. Work with your Sunday School director to find ways of letting another class reach out to your Irregular class member who is now in a different life stage.
Very few people stay Irregular for long; they generally trend in either direction. And that's how we end up with . . .
Class Roll: Inactives
"Inactives" is my term for people who haven't attended on a Sunday morning in a long time and don't seem to have any interest in doing so. Every class roll has them. To me, the primary difference between an Inactive and an Irregular is attitude. Irregulars have a positive attitude toward the class; Inactives don't really care.
Class teachers and secretaries usually have the strongest feelings with respect to this group: they don't want to be here, so we should just delete them! That's the wrong response to this group (or to anybody on a church roll). They're people; Jesus died for them; Jesus gave us the responsibility of reaching them. Period.
But as with Irregulars, there's always a reason why a person has become Inactive. With some of these, they were always inactive. I will get to this below, but another way of saying this is that these people should have been considered a "prospect" and not formally listed as a class member. But what's done is done, and I consider this an acceptable consequence of Sunday School having open enrollment.
The Challenge with Open Enrollment
Sunday School classes necessarily have a different approach to enrollment than a church. Church membership is "closed" -- meaning that there are requirements. For a Baptist church, we believe the Bible tells us that only born-again baptized believers should be members of a Christian church. But that restriction doesn't exist for Sunday School. Anyone can be a member of a Sunday School class. In fact, we want to encourage people to enlist others in your Sunday School class! The moment someone is on your class roll, you have their contact information and their implicit permission to contact them with regard to things going on in your class. That's great! That's a foot in the door for building a relationship that might turn someone into a Christian and a church member.
But sometimes, people are put on rolls by an over-zealous former member who didn't really explain what was happening, or maybe a revival service resulted in a bunch of "decisions" that put people in classes who really never wanted to join. There are quite possibly people on your roll who have never had interest at all in being in your class. As in, they were a prospect for your class, but they never wanted to be a member.
That needs to be addressed! But the solution is never to delete them.
As with Irregulars, someone in your class needs to know the life situation of your Inactive. (If no one in your class knows the person, then you move on to the next step.) Members of your class need to make an honest effort of reaching out to that person. Your expectation is not that they become a Regular! Rather, you simply want them to develop a positive attitude toward your class, an attitude that is willing to consider attending a Sunday morning or a group outing. Baby steps.
But let's say that there's no affinity. No connection. No interest. And multiple class members have tried over a period of months (or years). At that point, this person is no longer doing any good on your roll. But you don't delete them! Rather, you work with your Sunday School secretary on a plan for that person.
The Importance of Centralized Membership Tracking
Your church needs a membership database of some kind and people who are in charge of it. Sunday School classes should not be keeping their own rolls that no one else knows about. When a person is added or subtracted or moved, someone in the church office needs to know about it. Why? Because Sunday School classes are not independent churches that cohabit a building -- they are are part your church's overall Sunday School ministry. They work together, not independently.
That said, if you have someone on your roll who will never, ever attend your class again, you need to take this up with your Sunday School director (or secretary). I do one of two things in this situation:
I take all of the information provided from the class about this person and consider if there is another class that might be a better match for their life stage. Here, I will often talk with someone in that class and see what they think. If it's a possible match, we will transfer that person to the other class.
Sometimes, we've already tried that, or we know from the community that this person doesn't want to be in our Sunday School. We still don't delete them. That would be the final crack through which someone could fall. Rather, I've created a set of "catchall" classes that I can quickly access. When we do an "in-reach" ministry, this is the list we start with for member contacts. They're on my roll, but they aren't on a class roll that gets printed every week.
The only time I delete someone from one of these classes is when we know they have become a part of another church, when they're moved and we can't find them, or when they have passed on. Until that time, we consider that person to be our ongoing spiritual responsibility.
Class Roll: Guests and Prospects
These two groups often overlap, but not always, so let me explain what I mean. "Guests" refers to those people who have attended your class but are not a member. "Prospects" refers to those people who are not a member but you think could be. Prospects may not have actually attended your class yet, and Guests may not be prospects. Does that make sense? If someone's sister is visiting from out of town, she is probably not a prospect. But, you want to track her information and treat her with all of the respect of a prospect (1) because she may move to town one day, and (2) because her class-member sibling deserves that kind of care. I prefer to keep these two lists separate because it helps me moderate my expectations.
For this section, I'm focusing on Prospects -- people you think could be a member of your class. You need a prospect list. If you don't have a prospect list, there's a good chance your class will wither away. There are two reasons for this. The first is basic attrition. You probably know that if the birth rate falls below 2.1, our US population will shrink. Likewise, if your class isn't reaching new people, every loss (for whatever reason) is magnified. The second is spiritual. God has left us on earth to multiply and spread the gospel. When we aren't doing that, it's like a handicap on our soul. You probably know from experience that classes that are outwardly focused and growing are much more vibrant and exciting (and, frankly, fun to be a part of) than classes that don't reach out to prospects. Think of it this way: if you're having a great time in your Sunday School class, won't you invite your friends to join?
As above, the length of your prospect list is not the issue, nor the outcome. You could have 50 people who never come, or two people who eventually join -- which was the better list? That question cannot be answered! What is the issue is that your class has a prospect list that they reach out to.
How do you identify such prospects? We've talked about that in years past. I like the "FRIENDS" acronym for this:
Interests (people who share your interests)
Doing Life Together (acquaintances)
Sports (i.e. your kid's baseball team, etc.)
("D" is a stretch, but no acronym is perfect.) This is very much like how we create evangelistic campaigns (at FBC, we used this for our "Who's Your One?" campaign). Anyone you think needs to know Jesus probably also needs to be in your Sunday School class.
What do you do with this list? Well, this might be confusing based on the way I framed this article, but I keep it separate from my class roll. Until someone from a prospect list actually attends a Sunday School event, I don't print them on a attendance sheet. (Yes, this means you can print someone on your attendance sheet who is not a member yet -- just make sure you can tell the difference.) Your class secretary or outreach leader needs to keep this list. I also recommend keeping a copy of the list with your Sunday School director (to make sure multiple classes aren't pursuing the same prospect). In my experience, you have a short window once you have printed a prospect on your attendance sheet: either they will join (see below) or they will make it clear that they are not interested. In other words, don't print them on your attendance sheet until you have reason to believe they might join your class.
And then, every so often, ask your class members how follow-up is going with their prospects. Keeping your class outwardly focused almost always results in your class becoming outwardly focused.
This leads to an important question: when does a prospect become a member? As I said above, many Irregulars on our roll are people who never really wanted to be a class member in the first place. The answer is simple: you can enroll a prospect as a class member the moment he or she gives you explicit permission to do so. At any point in time, you can ask someone to join your Sunday School class. If they say yes, they're a member! That's what "open" enrollment means. This means that they need to give you contact information, and implicit permission to contact them with information about your class.
When you have followed that criterion consistently, you end up with this benefit: you know that every person on a Sunday School class roll at one point in time explicitly wanted to be on that roll. That's a far cry different than looking at a list and wondering if they ever really wanted to be there. That gives you a great deal of confidence in following up with someone who has become Inactive.
Most likely, when a prospect first joins a class, they will attend irregularly. And as I said above, that's okay! Start somewhere, and then help them grow. But keep a close eye on their attendance; not having a history to compare against, you don't know what is "normal" for them and what you need to be concerned about.
But let's say that time has passed and your prospect hasn't responded in any way to anyone in your class reaching out. Well, much like with Inactives, perhaps a different class would have a better chance of connection. Talk to your Sunday School director and see about transferring this person to a different prospect list.
I hope that helps you know how to approach your class roll. Don't be discouraged if your roster seems quite out of balance! Work with your class members and your Sunday School director to bring it into balance. There's no deadline or timetable on things like that.
And then, once you think you have your roll under control, you want to review it with your class about once a year. Add new prospects; remove prospects that have moved on; check up on irregulars and inactives. Finally, every two or three years, do this with other adult classes in your Sunday School. Work together on shifting inactives and prospects to those classes that might now be the best fit for them.
Don't grow weary and don't give up! God will show you evidence of spiritual growth in your classes when you need to see it.