LifeWay leader applies transformational church
    July 5 2011 by Melissa Lilley, BSC Communications

    Many churches across the nation are declining or plateaued, and it’s not hard to find research indicating as such. Yet, this does not negate the fact that the church is still God’s chosen instrument to tell the world about the hope and salvation found in the gospel.

    In light of this truth, LifeWay Christian Resources published a book last year based on research about transformational churches; churches truly focused on, as authors Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer write, “the gospel’s ability to change people.”

    The research points to seven elements that help define a transformational church: missionary mindset, prayerful dependence, relational intentionality, vibrant leadership, worship, community and mission.

    David Francis, director of Sunday School & Discipleship at LifeWay, recently met with leaders from across the state to talk about how to apply these transformational church elements to the Sunday School ministry. The weekend conference was held at Apex Baptist Church in Apex.  

    Seeking open groups
    Sunday School was always intended to work with an open group concept.

    In other words, “an open group expects new people every week,” Francis said. “If you can get this one idea permeated through a few Sunday School classes, it will mean everything.”

    An open group makes sure that newcomers feel included from the moment they arrive.

    The Sunday School lesson for that week should stand on its own, so that whether or not a person has been to the class or will ever come again, they can still learn from the lesson. An open Sunday School class also contacts every member every week, thus practicing relational intentionality.

    Sunday School classes with the most impact are the ones that create an environment where the classroom is a safe place to invite others. The truth no one likes to admit is that some classes do not want new people; they are content with the group they have and the focus is more inward than outward.

    “We are secretly hoping no one comes,” Francis said.

    A transformational Sunday School does everything with the expectation that guests will come. Even seemingly little details make a difference to newcomers, such as the door near guest parking that needs to be fixed and the small classroom preschool space.

    Transformational classes, and churches, are those with church members living close to the church and getting involved in the community.

    “It’s hard to reach the community when you don’t live in the community,” Francis said.  

    Need a balance
    Francis reminded participants that Sunday morning Sunday School classes are different from discipleship groups or small groups.

    He said small groups are typically thought of as groups meeting during the week, off the church campus. Although that may be the case, the defining characteristic of a small group is that it primarily seeks biblical community.

    David Francis

    Discipleship groups, however, primarily aim for biblical content to be the focus of the group; equipping is the main purpose of the group.

    Small groups and discipleship groups are best able to fulfill these intended purposes when they function as closed groups, meaning once the group begins for a certain time period (quarter, semester, etc.) newcomers must wait for the new time period before joining.

    Francis said it’s up to Sunday School to “strike a balance” between small groups and discipleship groups. Sunday School is not intended to be everything a small group or discipleship group is intended to be — each has its own unique purpose and is most effective when leaders understand what they are trying to accomplish through the group.

    Missionary mindset
    All groups function at one of three levels: a class, a community or a commission. Sunday School classes functioning at the class or community level are more focused on class members and meeting the needs of those members.

    Classes at the commission level are the ones really centered on the missionary mindset. Their focus is the Great Commission. While they care about the needs of others, they also focus on lost people and seek opportunities to share the gospel.

    Their evangelism strategy is not just being nice to people or being attractional; they are intentional in sharing the gospel.

    Francis further explained that at the class level members talk about what they learned, and at the community level members talk about what others did for them. Yet, at the commission level, the mindset is: “What did we do for others?”  

    The Three S’s
    A transformational Sunday School is one that includes scripture, stories and is led by a shepherd.

    “The Sunday School’s one textbook is the Bible,” Francis said. “Curriculum is the plan for teaching the Bible.”

    Francis encouraged Sunday School teachers and leaders to remember that everyone they meet has a unique story. As leaders, the task is to draw out those stories and then help people connect with one another’s stories.

    A gift for teaching is certainly important in a transformational Sunday School class; but as Francis pointed out, gifted shepherds may be more important. “A shepherd will tell you who they are teaching and not what they are teaching,” he said.

    “Shepherds pray for people. Prayer is the ultimate secret weapon. As you pray for people you really get to know people.”

    Baptist State Convention of North Carolina consultants are available to meet with N.C. Baptist church pastors about the transformational church process. Contact (800) 395-5102, ext. 5649.

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