I recently had an email exchange with Alan Hirsch, who is one of the titans of the missional movement. I emailed Alan because I had heard he did not like the term "missional Sunday School" and, since I use that term a lot, I wanted to know what his opposition to it was. I have never met the guy and I know he is famous, so I had rather reserved hopes of an answer. Well, he responded back in just a couple of hours and I've got to say, the speed of his response and the great attitude I read into his email won me over.
It ends up that Alan does not have a problem with missional Sunday School. In fact he thinks that missional Sunday Schools or small groups are great. His concern was that the term "missional" is being thrown in front of everything and he is afraid the poor usage is watering down its meaning. I remember a few years back as I was poring over submissions for our annual church budget planning. Every request had the word "evangelism" in front of it. I guess everyone thought that if they used the word "evangelism", they were more likely to get funded. So I get Alan's point, and it prompted me to think through what I mean when I use the term "missional Sunday School".
But first, let's define a term. For the rest of this post, I am going to use the term "small communities" as an umbrella for both the Sunday School and small group movements. I know these movements are cousins, and I do not really want to get into polarizing either group. So bear with me.
First, let's discuss what a missional small community is not. Missional small communities (MSC's) are not centered on a room or house on a Sunday morning or a Tuesday night. We must not make this mistake. Our worship leaders must now deal with the worship service being called "church". In this case, it defines the church as a building and infers that worship only happens in the building at 11:00 on Sundays. I strongly support God's people gathering together for worship, but Sunday mornings in a cathedral with a worship program as a guide and a band or choir is not the only way to worship. And "church" is not a building. We must not let the setting define the purpose! Too often, when a person hears the words "Sunday School", a room with 4 off-white walls in the education wing, a lectern, and a picture of Jesus in browntones hanging by the door is what comes to mind. That is a room, not a Sunday School!
Furthermore, a MSC is not built around welcoming guests who arrive for the group at the prescribed hour. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating shunning guests who want to participate in the group. But when "welcoming" is the group's major avenue into impacting lostness, then it is not a missional group. We call that attractional evangelism, attracting people to come to the church facilities or homes. Hirsch's own research indicates that only about 12 percent of the population responds to this kind of evangelistic strategy. To be honest, "welcoming" is generally not evangelism at all, since we know that most people who "visit" a Sunday School class on Sunday mornings are already Christians and are probably searching for a new church home. The Great Commission says "go and make" and many of our small communities interpret this to mean "come and wait" for a guest to show up!
Finally, the term missional small communities does not mean that the class does missions. Missions and missional are related, but they are not the same thing. In my book Missional Pivot Points, I define missional as, "The mindset and action of living as a missionary in your neighborhood." Many Christians perceive missions to be the work of a professional missionary who lives in a difficult environment that is hostile to Christianity. My friend Ed Stetzer says that many churches "outsource" their missions. That is, they pay a professional to do it. Giving money to Lottie Moon does not necessarily make a class missional. Neither does sending a shoebox to a third world country. Group members living out their faith and sharing Christ with friends and neighbors in a way that respects their culture is missional.
Tomorrow I will post part deux of this post about Missional Sunday School.