Is my Sunday school class too big?
Every once in a while I get a chance to visit congregations with large Sunday School or Sunday morning Bible classes (though these are far and few between since covid).
I’ve seen some classes have between 50 and 100 persons in regular attendance.
While that may seem like a sign of success to some, others see those large classes as something to be wary of.
Large Sunday School classes were, for a previous generation, both a goal and a measure of success.
But even with the more contemporary emphasis on small groups (with 20 people in a group considered already too large) there remain pockets where bigger is better despite everything we know about how large teacher-focused classes are pedagogically ineffective.
Conversations with staff in these churches often start out with a note of pride in the large class.
They rightly express gratification in the interest and participation of a large group in studying the Bible.
And, they give credit to the personality and skill of the teacher who can maintain that level of loyalty.
But it doesn’t take long for these staff persons to express frustration and angst about the difficulties with large classes that tend toward a focus on the personality of the teacher and in “being their own church.” Some become, as they say, the tail that wags the dog. These classes can become so large and influential as to generate their own gravitational pull on resources, influence, and loyalty.
Inevitably the conversation with the staff turns to the question about if and when they should reign in these large classes.
Most staff, and sometimes pastors, express a desire to form smaller classes from the larger, or to start a new class with a small contingent from the large group.
But these efforts tend to be resisted, and attempts to actually do something along those lines often meets with outright sabotage.
Timing is often a question of discernment for taking action.
When should the pastor and staff reign in a large Sunday School class (virtual or in-person)?
Here are some signs to consider:
- When the teacher has a more devoted following than Oprah
- When the class’ budget is as large as the congregation’s
- When the smell of incense and the musky odor of sacrificial animals wafts out of the classroom
- When the class secretary request a separate computer membership administration program just for the class
- When they send you, the pastor, a surprise invitation to do the opening prayer for the groundbreaking ceremony of their new educational annex.
- When your pastoral associate turns in her resignation to become the chaplain and event coordinator for the class for a higher salary and better benefits.
Kidding aside, I’ve never found large classes in a congregation attractive.
And I’ve never been able to ascertain their effectiveness for learning, regardless of how energetic, passionate, or skilled the teacher may be.
The effectiveness of instruction in the classroom setting begins to degrade at about 30 students.
More importantly, the large classroom instructional model as an educational approach remains suspect in the congregational setting.
I remain puzzled as to why we perpetuate it, much less why we continue to encourage its manifestation in huge classes.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).