Small groups continue to multiply, but are they helping the church pass on the faith?

Last fall, a certain scale tipped at Trinity Baptist Church, Mount Pleasant, Texas. For the first time in its 11-year life, this Southern Baptist church of about 350 worshipers counted more adults involved in small groups than it did in Sunday school.

Sunday school is strong at Trinity Baptist, with 60 percent of worship attendee participating in any given week. But attendance in other kinds of small groups, whether meeting on-premises or in homes, has steadily inched even higher.

This change neither surprises nor disappoints Reggie McNeal, until recently Trinity’s senior pastor. Of Trinity Baptist’s 27 non-Sunday-school small groups, McNeal himself typically led only one or two. “But every key leader in the church has been with me at one time or another in some kind of small-group discipleship,” he says.

According to a recent three-year, Lilly Endowment-funded Gallup study, more adult churchgoers today are involved in Bible studies and self-help groups than in Sunday school. This broadening of options, an expression of our “megachoice” era, represents both a significant historical movement and an important dimension in the culture of North America itself.

It is not the first time America has seen such significant change. Many Christians are surprised to learn that the American Sunday-school movement, started in the 1790s, has gone through several dramatic changes in the many decades since. The purpose changed from literacy education to evangelization, then changed again to focus on Christian instruction. Classes moved from rented halls to church buildings, and the participants expanded from the poor to all social classes.

Small groups are again ...

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