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Small and Broadly-Grade Sunday School

Definitions, Benefits, and Challenges
One and Two Room Sunday School
Traditional or Rotation style Sunday School

Here at Rotation.org, we have a lot of members and visitors from churches with "small" Sunday Schools coming to Rotation.org, looking for lesson ideas, resources, solutions, and support. This "Small Sunday School" forum was created to share information and insights, as well as COLLECT into one spot many of the great posts about "small" Sunday Sunday that have been posted over the years.

Be sure to check the other resource topics in this forum and leave your ideas by replying to the topics.

How small is a "small" Sunday School

In a recent panel discussion at Rotation.org, we defined "small" as "under 10 kids attending on any given Sunday in grades 1 through 5."

Why "under 10?" Because under 10 grade-schoolers means you're probably running one or two broadly graded classes that naturally turn into one broadly-graded class on some Sundays and during low attendance times of the year.

"Small" is subjective.

  • You might be "small" if you have 20 grade-school kids on the rolls, but only 4 are attending regularly.
  • You might feel "small" if your 3rd through 5th-grade class only has 2 students coming, even though your K-2nd class has 8 in the class and your Pre-K is booming.
  • You might feel "small" if your space is crowded, or if you have so much space your small numbers feel lost in it.
  • Small can be wonderful. We are called to grow disciples, not count heads.

No matter how "small" your situation is, a lot of the insights and advice in this forum can help.

It's also important to ask WHY your Sunday School is "small."

  • Is it small, and going to stay small because your community is small? (That's a fact in many rural settings.)  There's no shame in that.
  • Is it small because your Sunday School doesn't attract the kids and families on your rolls? (Honesty is important.)
  • Is it small because your church is a small church and that's not going to change in your lifetime? (65% of congregations in the U.S. have under 200 members.)
  • Is it small because right now your growth is in the nursery and Pre-K ages?  Or a lot of your kids are now in the youth program? (Small programs feel these "imbalances" more acutely.)
  • Is it small because your leadership is tired and in the way?  (Even Elijah needed to be replaced.)
  • Is it small because the "rest of the church" can't get out of its own way?
  • Is it small because your church doesn't value children's ministry like it does youth or seniors ministry? (Small can sometimes be the result of a church's priorities.)
  • Is it small because you don't have a pastor, or lost a pastor, or wish you could lose your pastor?
  • Is it small because you lost people due to COVID or because of a rift in the membership?
  • Is it just "smaller" because societal church attendance trends have not been in the Church's favor for some time? Sunday morning isn't what it used to be.
  • Is it small because a certain leader or teacher is driving away potential regular attenders?
  • Or is it small because people are simply putting in a "small" effort?


Why "asking why" is important...

You're probably here because you want something to change or improve. So it's important to understand why things are the way they are—so that you know what you NEED to change and what you probably CAN NOT change right now. Like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes says, There's a time and a season for every purpose under heaven: a time for planting and plucking, breaking down and building, mourning and laughing, a time to do battle and a time to make peace.

What time is it where you're at?

Let's hear it for being small!

Panelists and members of our small Sunday School discussion shared a lot of great blessings and opportunities being "small" can give you.

Here's their list of "ten great things about being a small Sunday School."

  1. Small classes give teachers the unique opportunity to personally connect with their students. You can get to know them more, and play a greater role in their life.

  2. Small doesn't mean a small vision or a small amount of creativity, in fact, being small can often make it easier to make big changes. ("Small thinking" can undercut any size program.)

  3. It's easier to do cool things and spur-of-the-moment things in your lessons with 4 or 6 kids than it is with 15 or 20.

  4. Lessons can be tailored to who's coming, when they can come, and what they may have missed.

  5. No child goes unnoticed in a small church, and neither do their teachers! Interaction outside the classroom is more likely and you can give more undivided attention.

  6. Broadly graded classes can more naturally create and reflect a "family" atmosphere (which some students aren't getting at home), and teach students the valuable and biblical skill of "looking out for the least of these."

    SundaySchoolKids

  7. Broadly graded classes create leadership options for the older students (which is something they crave). In return, the younger kids get role models and the feeling that they have an older brother or sister looking out for them.

  8. Older children can relax and drop their guard around younger children, rather than feeling "scrutinized and compared" when they are only with kids their own age.

  9. Research indicates that members in small congregations have a higher level of commitment than those in larger, more "anonymous," congregations.

  10. Families in smaller churches tend to have a better understanding of the IMPACT of their attendance on the Sunday School and the importance of their volunteering to help.

We don't want to idolize the smaller program or church. They can have bad leadership and dead classrooms just as easily as any larger program. The difference, however, is that the smaller Sunday School will FEEL those problems more acutely than a larger program. Losing a key family and their three kids in a larger program can sap some vitality, but losing 3 of your 6 kids in a small program can be an issue of "mortality."

The trap for any size of Sunday School is to measure success by numbers. In fact, over the past 30 years, many of the kids raised in "big" Sunday Schools haven't come back to the Church as adults. So it's obviously not about "numbers," but instead, the more challenging goal of discipleship. And when it comes to discipling kids, "being small" can have some real advantages for those who understand that mentoring and relationships build disciples, not folding chairs.

Take a look at those ten "great things" above, and count how many you are succeeding at, and which ones you need to work toward. Decide how you are going to define "success" and align your practices with that goal.

Let's keep the conversation going about the small Sunday School.   Add your replies below!


See other topics in this forum that address problems and solutions and curriculum.

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Last edited by CreativeCarol
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Low Attendance Sundays

Every Sunday School has to deal with attendance fluctuations, but if you have fewer than 8 to 10 regularly attending kids, those fluctuations can be the difference between combining or splitting classes, or not having enough kids for a "normal" class at all. Low attendance sometimes also makes the teachers ditch their lessons and just "have fun."

One of the reasons fluctuations are particularly hard on small programs is that your 8 to 10 kids can be coming from just 5 or 6 families. That means that when one or two regular families are missing, so are their 3 or 4 kids—half of your program Unexpected or unplanned-for low attendance Sundays can also be disheartening for both teachers and students.

This makes it especially important for small Sunday Schools to stay in touch with their families. Get them in the habit of letting YOU know when they won't be there. (Text messaging is the best way to do this. It's immediate and personal.) That not only helps your planning, but it also helps them understand how important they are. It also helps to have the school schedule on your Sunday School planning calendar.

It's important to know your "low attendance Sundays" ahead of time so you know what to plan for.

When are YOUR low-attendance Sundays?

  • Labor Day Weekend
  • The two Sundays after Christmas
  • Three-day weekends due to school schedules or holidays
  • Most of the Sundays after Easter until summer
  • Memorial Day Weekend
  • Summer *
  • Local events that draw people away (When I was a seminary intern in Louisville our lowest attendance of the year was the Sunday after the Kentucky Derby!)
  • Weather events (I've been in churches when a sudden snowstorm made families stay home, or go skiing together.)
  • Mother's Day Sunday can be big in some churches and small in others. (In one of my small church experiences, most of the kids stayed home that Sunday for a family breakfast honoring mom.)
  • Your low Sunday here: _________________.


* Speaking of summer...
In one small church where we were attending, they told me "nobody will come for classes during the summer." So they didn't hold summer Sunday School. I didn't believe it and decided to challenge their assumptions by putting together a great summer Sunday School. We averaged ten elementary-age kids each week—which was almost our entire enrollment! (This is the famous "tents in the fellowship hall" and "beach" summer Sunday School I've written about elsewhere at Rotation.org. Those tents and the real sand got everyone excited about going, including the parents.)

Increased or High Attendance Sundays?

For a mostly small Sunday school having a week of large attendance is rarely a problem—except during Advent, and if you have limited space and seating. This is where the Rotation Model can really help in a small Sunday School. For expected "high" attendance, stay away from Workshops or activities that are "resource-sensitive." (As in, you won't have enough food or computers.) Avoid planning the Drama Workshop on an expected High Attendance Sunday. Games and Art Workshops tend to be easily expandable, as are Video Workshops.

Planning for Low Attendance and All Your Other Sundays

I'm an iPhone calendar guy, but for group planning purposes there's nothing like a big wall planning calendar. In my last small church, we had a giant planning calendar on the wall of our C.E. resource office where we held our planning meetings and kept some supplies. To make it, we taped to the wall the sheets torn from one of those large desktop size calendars—one large sheet per month.

Each month already had all the holidays on them. Then we filled in special church and school dates, stories, and teaching assignments.  Seeing these elements visually related, was super helpful. It also showed us where the gaps and conflicts were. We stuck post-its on it and also listed who was teaching what. Teachers took photos of it with their cellphones for reference.

  Put your expected low-attendance Sundays on the calendar so you can plan ahead.

What to do in a small Sunday School on low attendance Sundays

Most of your low-attendance Sundays will be predictable, and some will always come as a surprise. If you know they're coming AND you are using the Workshop Rotation Model...

-- FIRST, no reason to fret! Because you are teaching the same story for several weeks in a row, those who miss your story one week will get it again next week.

-- Second, schedule certain workshops on predicted low-attendance Sundays. Cooking projects are easier with fewer kids. So are Computer lessons and Art Workshops.

For the "unpredicted" surprise low attendance Sunday, when the Workshop lesson you've prepared just isn't going to work for 2 kids, see my suggestion below for using the What's in the Bible? video series to fill the breach for grades 1 to 6.

If you are using the traditional "new story every week" model, then low attendance can mean a bunch of your kids will MISS important Bible stories and good lesson plans, which is a bummer (and why you should be using the Rotation Model which teaches each story for several weeks).

Worse, your teacher may be tempted to DITCH the lesson when "too few"kids show up, and that means you've lost a precious opportunity. The traditional backup plan is to show a cute video or go outside and play. But with the existence of the "What's in the Bible?" video series as your backup plan, you don't have to punt or waste a Sunday.

There are 13 "What's in the Bible?" videos spanning from Genesis to Revelation. Each features two 25 minute episodes of educational AND entertaining Bible stories and "about the Bible" content for grades 1-5. They come on DVD or can be streamed. Rotation.org's Supporting Members can print the free GUIDES to these DVDs. Each guide has some follow-up questions and activities included. Have a few of these ready to plug into your "low" Sundays and don't forget the fun seating and hot popcorn!

What's in the Bible? DVD episodes of special note:  # 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12
Those DVDs will cover important parts of scripture that many traditional and Rotation Model programs will only touch on.  See the printable guides for many more details.

WhatsInBibleDVDRotation.orrg

I recommend you stay away from the "Veggie Tales" videos as a stop-gap measure. They are very church-lite. No reason to use them now that we have the What's in the Bible series.

What else works for YOU on "low attendance" Sundays? Share!

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How My Sunday School Teacher Changed My Life

We've been talking about how "small" Sunday Schools create more opportunities for student-teacher interaction both in and outside the classroom. We know from experience and the data that those relationships are as essential to discipleship as our lessons are.

While prepping for the Small Sunday School Panel Discussion. I ran across this wonderful short article at Church Leader magazine that reminded me of just how important those relationships can be in any size program.

Highlights from the article:

I don’t know where I’d be today without a man named Lenis Black. With the trajectory I was on, I hate to think about where I likely would have wound up. Who is Lenis Black, you ask? He was my very first Sunday school teacher when I began attending church in 1980.

  • He provided stability after my parents divorced.

  • He was a great teacher, had a great sense of humor, and talked about topics that we needed to hear.

  • He engaged my life. His son was one of my best friends. This was a good excuse for Lenis to periodically show up at school to simply see how I was doing.

  • He called me during a basketball game (we were both interested in). He had no agenda but was just investing in my life.

  • He modeled the life of a Christian man (which filled a void in my life).

  • He introduced me to church leadership.

  • He embodied generosity and sacrifice.


What are the memories of important teachers in YOUR life telling you?

What do your positive and negative memories of Sunday School teach you?

The teachers I vividly remember from my church upbringing were Scotty Wilds and Pearl and Irv Tingley. Couldn't tell you a thing they said to me, but I can still see their smiles and the way they made me feel welcome, even when I wasn't feeling great about the sedentary style of their teaching. Irv, in particular, taught me how to pray the Lord's Prayer in a personal way that I still use and teach my students. <>< Neil

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Benefits of Mixed Age Learning

VineSchoolKids

Many people today consider it a "compromise" to have to combine elementary age kids. They think that separating elementary age kids by grade is somehow better. Yet, schools, homeschoolers, preschools, and Sunday Schools have a long history of success combining kids of different ages for learning.

There is a debate about the value of "mixed grade" teaching in public schools that doesn't entirely apply to Sunday School. We aren't teaching reading and writing skills that necessarily build on each other. We don't have a standardized test we're aiming for. And in most cases, we're no longer teaching Sunday School as an academic course on the Bible.

What's particularly true for Sunday Schools is that we have always valued a family and cooperative atmosphere for learning God's Word, and indeed, those values are part of the lesson we are teaching. The average 2nd grader is pretty much in the same place as a 3rd or 4th grader, developmentally speaking, when it comes to understanding a story and applying its meaning to their life.

To say this another way: there are as many "faith" differences between elementary kids of the same age as there are between elementary kids of a similar age.  Separating 2nd through 4th graders into separate Sunday School classes was a matter of convenience. And, it may have been unhelpful even when it was convenient!   (I've often observed the phenomenon of how a fourth grade girl will act around other 4th graders, and how differently she'll act when helping a 1st or 2nd graders.)   Especially as we move into the 21st Century, we need our kids to thrive in Sunday School, and that will happen when they feel like they are part of a community and have opportunities to lead as well as share and learn.

To say it another way:  "Broadly Graded can be Godly Graded."

Here's my summary of an article on the benefits of "mixed age" classrooms that I found at Vine Academy, a private school in Burr Ridge Illinois. https://www.vineacademy.com/be...of-mixed-age-classes

  • Mixed-age classrooms free students to take pride in their abilities as individuals, giving them constant motivation to improve. In the old model, kids became labeled by where they fell within their grade, as either "below or above" achievers. (Neil notes: And they could see where they landed physically as well --setting up a pecking order. Mixed-grade classrooms give them more breathing space.)

  • Students naturally develop and grow at their own pace. This can be helpful for kids who are ready to relatedto kids "like them" or feel a bit more comfortable relating to the younger kids.

  • Mixed-grade classrooms naturally depend on the older kids to help lead and that also creates role models for the younger kids and foster a greater sense of family.

  • Promoting friendships with kids from other grades as well as with adults, enhances their self-esteem, widens their circle of friendships, and broadens their experience and relational skills. If the church is a family, our Sunday School should reflect that value.

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One of my favorite things about leading and teaching in a small Sunday School is that it's easier to get to know my students at a variety of different times, places, and activities around the church and community.

The same kids I had in my small Sunday School were also in worship waving at me, asking me to go in the bouncy house at the church picnic, bumping into my canoe at the family campout, playing kickball with me on fellowship night, playing flashlight tag at the lock-in, being able to take the time to munch on an Oreo with them after worship. If you have children of your own, your Sunday School kids may also be their friends, and eventually they'll be in youth group together.

I've had these experiences in larger churches too, but more of them in the smaller churches, in part because it's easier to miss kids in a crowd.

In one of my small churches, we actively encouraged a family atmosphere among our kids through family events and by organizing our group of kids to show up for each other's school plays and sporting events. The parents especially appreciated this show of support outside of the church and it made them more supportive of our Sunday School. Pulling this off was a lot easier with 7 kids than 17 or 70.

Last edited by Neil MacQueen

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