This post answers the eighth question asked in Questions about Making Disciples Through Sunday School:
Is there an ideal class size which is more likely to make and grow disciples? If yes, how many?
The twenty questions in that post focus on how Sunday School can help the church carry out Jesus’ command in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV).
Over the years, I have discussed class size several times. More of those posts have related to the impact of class size on growing numerically. But what about growing disciples? What impact does class size have on helping them take steps toward spiritual progress? Does a small class have more impact than a large one? Or is there some ideal medium size?
Several issues are worthy of discussion. The first of those is whether the class is healthy. A class of any size with internal conflict will make little spiritual progress. This may or may not be related to related to relational sin. For instance, the conflict may be over the order of events of the end times or whether the class should start another class. Or it could be jealousy, mean words, bitterness, or strife.
A second issue is class organization for disciple-making. If the teacher is assuming all responsibility for the work and leadership of the class (no matter the size), the class will be weaker and less productive. The ideal class will enlist, train, and release all members into service, whether two members or forty. Members will tend to grow more when they are serving and helping carry out the work of the class.
A third issue is the teacher’s ability to adjust the teaching plan in order to involve as many people as possible in the lesson. On average, lessons with lecture and question and answer only manage to involve about four to six people in the lesson no matter how large or small the class is. This usually produces less spiritual progress as the class gets larger. However, this issue can be addressed as the class grows through intentionally addressing learning styles and by dividing the group into smaller groups and giving them assignments for at least part of the lesson.
A fourth issue is accountability. As the class grows larger, it becomes more difficult for the teacher to hold every member accountable for making spiritual progress. The teacher does not have enough time to spend with every member. But this can be addressed through enlisting care group leaders, encouragers, or others who will invest in a portion of the class, checking on them when they are absent and encouraging steps forward as disciples.
A fifth issue relates to the leadership ability of the teacher. I have heard Allan Taylor of Woodstock First Baptist Church talk about one, two, and five talent teachers (Matthew 25:14ff). A one-talent teacher can only seem to manage a small class well. He/she may inherit a medium class and shrink it over time to a small class. A five-talent teacher, knows how to work with a lot of people, teaches, well, and can grow any size class. This likely has to do with the teacher’s gifts, experiences, abilities, and personality. Some of it has to do with faithfulness in using that which was entrusted to the teacher.
A sixth issue related to class size and discipling people is whether the teacher and class are working toward the launch of an apprentice and a new class. That very issue gives purpose and direction to the class ministry and to leadership development and multiplication. It shows a concern for issues of the Kingdom rather than comfort and self. This issue drives inviting.
Beyond these issues, I have only anecdotal evidence that about class size as it impacts the discipleship growth of class members. On average, it appears that small to medium sized classes tend to produce more new leaders, care for members, and use a greater variety of teaching methods. As they get larger, leadership tends to break down. Individuals are not missed when absent. Organizing for disciplemaking and care becomes work. Leaders change more frequently requiring constant attention to maintain. Span of care tends to lose integrity.
The ideal class size was likely demonstrated by Jesus with His twelve disciples. But remember, he spent three years of intensive daily training with them which was intended to propel them out into the world as disciplemakers. Because of other responsibilities of family, work, etc. we seldom take the time to invest in our classes that Jesus did.
Evaluate your own class or Sunday School. Which of these issues is in need of attention in order to grow the disciples that God wants to use to “make disciples of all nations?” Where do you need to start? What is the first step? Who can help you? Give God your best effort. Don’t allow Christians to drink milk for years. Prepare them to eat meat. Use class size wisely. Be revolutionary!