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Can Sunday School & Small Groups Coexist?

Historically, circles (small groups) and rows (Sunday School) have battled over discipleship in the church. Each has similar goals with different applications, yet the estranged relationship continues in conversation even today. Is this an arch-rivalry, or a necessary competition?

Contentious Arch-Rivals?

Historically, there’s been no love lost between circles and rows. Small group fanatics broke off and ran from the uptight, put-together row sitters on Sunday mornings. Fleeing the church building, they sought to loosen up and open up. Circle seekers wanted to learn, but they wanted friends, too. With rows, impersonal was the impression. One could project the image they desired of themselves. In circles, the trajectory for transparency was more opportune.

On the other hand, rows saw circles and became nervous. Small groups posed many risks. Risks that even Martin Luther admitted through the Reformation. So much so that he conceded to small groups meeting in homes because the possible dangers would ruin the credibility of their movement. Rows also looked at circles and saw examples of doctrinal integrity being compromised. Small groups had lowered the bar on biblical and doctrinal teaching that statements such as, “To me, this text means…” rather than what the text meant when the original author(s) wrote it.


From a contentious relationship between rows and circles, churches began to offer a hybrid model of Sunday school and small groups. Both resided under the same local church’s roof.

A more civil route was wise—overt peace with covert competition. The battle became a competition of convincing and persuading others to join circles or rows. A lack of confidence ensued, and the two ministries seeking to make disciples of Jesus Christ isolated from one another.

When there is competition between these two ministries, people feel pulled in multiple directions to join multiple types of groups and bite off more than they can chew. Therefore, they are less invested in both their small group and Sunday school classes, and their leaders become frustrated with the lack of commitment. When one member of the body competes with another, it can prevent others from maturing into the full stature of Christ, as seen in Ephesians 4:12-16, “from whom the whole body... when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

As I have worked with hybrid churches, circles, and rows ministries both present in their local church, I am amazed at how fast spiritual growth increases when both ministries are working together. When the competition is removed and the edifying speech of each ministry is introduced, the amount of growth numerically and spiritually encourages me overwhelmingly. Naturally, Sunday school and small groups should not compete; rather, they should be more. Nothing healthy comes from in-fighting amongst an organization, let alone God’s gathered people! Circles and rows don’t need to be contentious or competitive. They can complement and maybe even more…


“Can circles and rows function healthily under the same local church?” The short answer: yes. Both can be accepting of one another. Here’s the truth: Some people want Sunday School, and others want small groups.

My advice: Give the people what they want. Sunday school offers spiritually beneficial discipleship opportunities. Small group does as well. Are they the same? No. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily. It depends on what areas of discipleship the person desires to grow in. Discipleship isn’t solely educational or relational. There’s a blend of both required to feed the disciple’s spiritual appetite. Some see the Sunday school or small group ministry competition and seek to sacrifice one to create more unity. However, both add value. A simple question to ask and answer prior to dropping the axe on any group is this:

When it comes to determining whether a group is accomplishing the primary goal of making disciples, you must ask the question, “Do you see biblical practices produced within their circle or rows?”

Fellowship, Biblical study, prayer, and care for one another are all marks of biblical practices within a group. If they are doing some or all of these practices, there is value the group brings to making disciples. Allowing both types of groups (mid-sized and small groups) to exist within the local church while publicly encouraging and validating both creates a complementary relationship between the two ministries. Now, more people can be discipled in various formats that may help them commit sooner and longer. In addition, it may strengthen areas they hadn’t realized needed stretching and growth prior.How can circles and rows be complementary? By valuing both ministries through word, website, group listings, leader resourcing, and leader equipping. Don’t favor one ministry over the other. Include both in the communication channels. Let them all be considered equals and under-shepherds to steward the souls the Lord has entrusted to them in their circle or row.


In my experience, circles and rows are best friends. They have different strengths and weaknesses—both desire to fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples of every nation. However, one is better at growing a specific faculty of a Christian than another. Sunday School will allow for more biblical and theological depth in a lecture-styled lesson. Whereas, small groups permit people to live out the lessons they learn from a lecture. Discussion in circles allows immediate implementation of the truth they are learning. However, rows allow for the study to go deeper than what discussion in circles can offer. Rows strengthen the knowledge of Christians. Circles bolster the application of that knowledge. Both are right, good, and necessary. Neither can be done well without the other. Are circles and rows innately in contentious competition? No, they are naturally positioned as best friends and collaborative partners for growing gospel-living disciples.

Rows help circles. Circles help rows. Together, they create a useful discipleship pathway for people. Circles in a home can be intimidating. They are more transparent and, therefore, riskier relationally. This can be intimidating and counterproductive to a new person's spiritual formation. Rows require less transparency and are safer relationally. Gaining biblical and theological knowledge can ease a person’s nerves to feel like they belong in the study discussion of a small group. A more informed disciple creates a more comfortable disciple in an emotionally risky setting such as a home group. Relational disciples create a healthier application of a Sunday school lesson. Rows offer an immediate connecting point on a Sunday morning for someone to join a group and have childcare available. Small groups offer a next step beyond Sunday school class to measure what they’re learning in discussion and activate these teachings. For leadership development, a small group is easier to begin leading from a competency standpoint than a Sunday school class. Whereas, a Sunday school class allows more appropriate training for one to potentially preach in a worship service.

In the churches I’ve worked for as a staff member, with thorough consulting, circles and rows are besties at making discipleship stronger in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be.



Adam Erlichman

Senior Consultant and Author at Build Groups in Dallas, TX. Adam has served in Executive, Discipleship, Groups, Young Adult, and Youth ministries. 5-time best-selling author of Christian leadership and discipleship resources. See more about Adam's consulting services on the following topics:


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Great post! In my previous church, we had Sunday School and Small Groups. When we introduced small groups, the church was 20 years old. We carefully explained the importance of both groups. Sunday School was a great place to learn the deep truths of the Bible, and Small Groups were the perfect place to discuss how to apply these truths to our daily lives. A year later, we ran 95% of worship in Sunday School and 85% in Small Groups. Both were successful because of their unique purpose and strategy: to make and grow disciples. Thanks for this post!

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