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Top Ten of Effective Sunday School, part 1

Both David Miller and Matt Ward created "top ten" lists for effective Sunday School. Let's start with Matt's list. These points will be developed into their own articles and linked here. The order is really not as important as the content.

Ten Things Necessary for Your Sunday School Class to Be Effective

10: Care about your room and supplies.

Your environment is more important than you might appreciate. Long gone are the days when a church could put a Bible study group in a closet and leave them alone. We want all of our groups to be in quality spaces so that their communication (and invitation) can be maximized. This is not to cater to consumers--this is to make it clear to everyone that they are valued by the church family.

Start with the basics. Is your room clean? Tidy? Is it cluttered with old papers or filled with junk? You have more control over this than you might realize. Of course, follow good sense:

  • If someone else shares your room, make sure not to throw away their stuff! Work with the leader of that group to tidy up your room.

  • If your church has a janitor, communicate to the the staff what cleaning you would like to see done. If not, work with your class members about volunteering some time to do some cleaning. Do it safely, but be thorough!

Once your space is clean, go on to the next list of question. Do you have enough chairs? Are they comfortable? Has the carpet and walls been updated in the past half-century? Do you have the A/V equipment you want? If you want an improvement, ask for it! If your church doesn't have the money or manpower to make it happen, perhaps your class can donate toward it:

  • Paint is cheap. Just make sure you clear it with church leadership before you start doing things to the wall!

  • While asking the church to give you a laptop is probably unnecessary, asking for a quality television is not. They are cheap now, and there are cables that allow you to connect your phone and run your presentation from there.

  • Do you need an updated whiteboard? New set of maps? Ask!

Get input from your class members what they think would be helpful for your class to grow. But be careful what kind of personal investment you want to make in your current space. If you do grow, you'll probably have to move into a different space!

9: Be Early

This should be self-explanatory. Under no circumstances should a guest be the first person in a room, sitting alone, wondering what's going on (possibly even in the dark if no one has turned on the lights!). That's a terrible first impression. You want to be in your room at least 15 minutes early, and maybe before. Here are some complicating factors:

  • You have other responsibilities before Sunday School (like "coffee duty" or music rehearsal).

  • You have a small child and have to wait for that teacher to arrive.

Those are legit. There are two ways of handling this. First, just appoint someone else in your class to arrive early and let them be the greeter. Second, work with the other leaders in your church where this is not a problem. Children's Sunday School teachers need to arrive extra early for this reason. Rehearsals need to be done in plenty of time for those participants to be able to go to Sunday School. Perhaps some simple communication will take care of this complication.

8: Know How to Control Discussion

This is one of the hardest parts of being a teacher (or leader, if you don't want to be called a leader), but it is also one of the most important. There are a few things that always rub people the wrong way and may leave a poor impression on a guest:

  • One person who dominates all discussion.

  • One person who brings up uncomfortable or inflammatory topics.

We've all been there. We all know that after long enough, some of our people will get fed up and stop coming. So what do you do? Here's what I recommend:

  • Go out of your way to develop a relationship with all of your vocal class members. Make sure they know you personally (that goes a long way if you ever have to confront them). By the way, this presupposes that you truly care about everyone in your group. I consider that to be a given for being a Sunday School teacher.

  • When you're going through your lesson, mark potential pitfalls or other parts of the lesson that might lend themselves to testy situations. If it's not central to the lesson, try to arrange your comments so as to avoid it. If it is central to the lesson, learn different perspectives so as to "be ahead of the game".

  • Have a stock way to interrupt controversial topics or rants. I usually go one of two ways. If it's a rabbit trail that I want to avoid, I'll be very direct and say, "That's taking us away from the direction of the lesson, so let's hold off on that until a future lesson." If it's something that I'm just not sure how to moderate, I'll admit it and say, "You know, I don't know a lot about this, so let's cut that off here and let me do some research this week. Maybe we can get together for lunch and talk more."

  • If one person talks over and over again, I will start calling on specific people for answers. I try to make sure not to call on someone who is not comfortable talking in public! And if the loquacious person doesn't get the hint, I'll go to them directly and ask them to make sure that everybody has a chance to participate. Yes, that seems condescending, but it's better than the alternative. Perhaps that person doesn't realize it.

7: Organize for Success

This point requires a separate page with more detail, but it's basically this point: if you want to lead the most effective Sunday School class possible, you want to involve as many of your class members in positions of responsibility as possible. Here's a summary of a common structure:

Someone who tracks attendance and gets contact information from guests.

Someone who keeps up with a list of prospects and tracks progress with them.

Someone who maintains a prayer list and coordinates efforts to meet any needs.

Someone who makes sure that the class gets together for fun and fellowship.

Someone who is prepared to fill in for you when you're unavailable.

6: Bite-sized Applications

This one is rather simple (and I think very important). As you'll learn in another article, Sunday School exists to help guide members toward spiritual transformation. Transformation is a whole lot bigger than information. We don't want our class members to leave our room with knowledge that they'll never use. We want them to leave with a vision of the change God wants in their lives so that they can pray for the Holy Spirit's help in making that change.

Consequently, we don't want our lessons to be filled only with information. We want our class members to apply whatever truth taught to their life in such a way that it impacts what they do. But here's the thing--that's not always easy. In fact, the truth is that applying the Bible to life can be very hard. This happens in three ways:

  • Your class member simply isn't willing to take the hard look at their life and really get into the changes the passage wants them to make.

  • Your class member hasn't built up the skill of applying truth. Think of it this way: did you ever take a class in school where you learned everything but then never used it in life? Yeah, some people do the same thing with the Bible.

  • Your class member gets hung up on one potential application and never gets past it to the deeper applications.

As teachers, then, we are to help our learners see examples of how this passage might apply to their life. There's a reason why people complain about the applications in the quarterlies--they're deliberately vague and broad. They have to connect with people in almost every walk of life. You, on the other hand, know your learners and their lives. You can help them make the applications they need.

But get this: focus on one application. It is possible to load a Christian up with so many possibilities that they get overwhelmed and shut down. What's better: to learn many applications and do nothing with them, or to learn one application and attempt to do something with it? Further, make that application measurable. This is what I mean by "bite-sized". Make sure it's something that everyone in your class can understand, implement, and measure. "I need to read the Bible more" is usually a trap. "I am going to read 3 chapters of the Bible this week" is doable, memorable, and measurable. Finally, try to make that application immediate. Make it something that your class members can act on that week, even that day. Don't give them time to forget or get distracted!

5: Encourage Relationships.

It has been well-said that discipleship best happens in the context of relationships, and relationships happen best in the context of a small group. Indeed, relationships are the key to everything in Christianity. Why? Because God created us for relationships--not just relationships with each other, but also with Him. If your Sunday School is to be effective, you need to do everything you can to enable the people in your class to build relationships:

  • Relationships with one another that turn into friendships.

  • Relationships with the rest of the church that turn into commitment.

What brings people back to a small group? Friendships. The feeling that you're in a place where everybody knows you and wants you to be there and cares about you. (Like "Cheers" except real.) That's also the key to helping someone become a committed church member. Let them learn what's going on and how they can be involved, and then pray that the Holy Spirit guides them into the ministry roles He created them for.

There are a few ways you can do this:

  • Make name tags for everyone. Not knowing someone's name can be a damper.

  • Make legitimate time for small talk, but don't let it be wasted. Guide small talk to matters of importance like jobs and families and interests.

  • Lead in prayer requests; let everyone know what's going on in your life in the hopes that they might open up about theirs. But always be careful to maintain everyone's dignity and privacy.

  • Give opportunities for relationships to build. This usually doesn't happen on Sunday morning. Organize lunches, dinners, get-togethers, whatever works.

  • Do things with other classes and the church at large. Ministry together is a great way to build more connections and help people feel wanted and important.

By the way, as before, I'm assuming that your church and class are places where you truly want to see people become a part of your family of faith and grow together. That's non-negotiable.

4: Train another Leader

Most churches complain about not having enough people to teach a Sunday School class. We've all been there. But if every class made an effort to make sure they had one person prepared to fill in, this "shortage" wouldn't be such a shortage. There are two practical effects to having a "substitute":

  • It takes the pressure off the leader who might otherwise feel trapped and unable to travel or get sick. That's not good.

  • It creates a pool of church members who can be a part of a new class. (I'll point out in another article the importance of creating new classes.)

So, how do you groom such a new leader? Here's my recommendation: go to someone in you class whom you think might be a potential teacher and ask them to fill in for you. Give them all of the prep material, and even sketch a potential lesson plan for them. The best way to learn something like this is to do it. Some people find they enjoy it and are quickly on the path to leading a class. Some people don't enjoy it at all, but you have confirmation from other people in the class that they did a really good job. You follow up with them on a comfort level for leading. Maybe they won't be a permanent teacher, but maybe they'll lead a short-term group or be a super-sub. That's just as important! And maybe it's really obvious that they're not cut out for the role. No problem! Not everybody is. At least you know.

3: Have an Open Group

I think this sis one of the real keys to Sunday School, and I'll go into it in more detail in another article. There are some general guidelines to groups:

  • Short-term groups have a definite beginning and end.

  • Long-term groups plan on continuing indefinitely.

  • Open groups are such that anyone can join at any time.

  • Closed groups are designed for a specific group of people.

A Sunday School class should be a long-term, open group. This means that anyone can join you at any time, and they can stay with you for as long as they want. (There are important places in a church for a short-term, closed group! Sunday School isn't one of them.)

This affects the way you prepare and lead your group. Here are some tips:

  • Watch our for insider language or inside jokes. Those are fine, but you need to explain them immediately for anyone who might feel left out.

  • If you want to make a reference to a previous lesson or event that most of your class members understand, make sure to explain it for those who do not. Again, this is about the feeling of exclusion.

  • Make your questions open enough that someone can contribute who might not know others in your group. This generally means making them broad and open-ended. If it doesn't go the direction you want, no matter--you can clear that up later.

  • Make your applications open enough that they can apply to anyone present. Make sure that everyone there believes that you attempted to think about them in your planning.

  • Never put someone on the spot--never ask someone to read scripture or pray out loud without warning them in private first. Some people are incredibly uncomfortable with this, and doing so would leave a terrible taste in their mouth.

  • Make sure you have class members who are always looking for new faces and willing to sit with them, introduce them around, and make sure they know what's going on.

Most importantly--this means that you need to be prepared for non-Christians and non-church people in your group. In fact, you need to encourage it! Plan every lesson under the restriction that someone who has never read the Bible before is sitting in your class. How does that change the way you plan to communicate? Indeed, a big consequence of this is that you will want to make sure you have a gospel presentation worked in to every lesson. It doesn't have to be an "invitation" like after a sermon, but rather that the truths of the gospel are clearly presented somewhere in every lesson. But more about this in another article.

2: Prepare for Multiple Learning Styles

Again, this will take a separate article to flesh out, but there's a simple point. People learn in different ways (some people learn by listening, others by talking, other by reading, others by doing, etc.). We tend to teach in the way that we learn. (For instance, I generally write and lecture because that's how I best learn.) Forcing ourselves to be aware of other learning styles helps us avoid this rut. It can be hard to branch out from your style because other styles are unfamiliar and awkward. As a result, you may have to learn on other resources for a while until you develop your own skills at creating a creative lesson plan. There are some very simple ways you can begin to do this:

  • Include a song or video in your lesson.

  • Include an activity that requires moving around.

  • Lead in memorizing a verse during class.

  • Let members restate main points in their own words.

  • Bring in an object lesson.

  • Do simple role play of a scenario related to the lesson.

The most important thing is that you try. This ties back to #10 above--make sure your room is equipped for whatever you want to try. If your room won't work, ask permission to change rooms permanently or just take a "field trip" to a more suitable location for the morning.

1: Have One Main Point to Your Lesson

This goes part and parcel with #6 above. If you are going to have a simple, memorable, measurable application, do the same with your lesson in total. Every verse in the Bible is a microcosm of truth so vast and interconnected that you can teach almost anything from any verse. So--focus on one main point. Let your learners come away from a lesson with one main thing they've learned, rather than 100 things they've jumbled together. Give them options for further study and growth, but in your lesson focus on one thing.

By the way--this will help you craft a better, more streamlined lesson plan. Does your potential topic help you communicate your main point? Then keep it. Does it not? Then save it for another day.

All of those things together will help you lead the most effective class you can.

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