Grouping Adults for Learning

colleagues-437024 640Questions that elicit answers:

* Should adults be grouped by age or by interest?
* Should a church provide adult Sunday School or home groups?
* Should single adults and married adults be grouped together or separately?
* Should adult groups be kept small or allowed to grow?
* When should new adult groups be started?
* How can adult groups meet the needs of established Christians, new believers, as well as seekers?

Ask these questions in just about any church and watch for lively discussion. Everyone has an opinion and feels perfectly justified in expounding a viewpoint since anyone can claim to be an expert on what's good for adults on the basis of actually being an adult.

Before answering these questions, let's think about a few guidelines for grouping adults in an educational ministry. In light of the objectives set for your adult ministry, what issues need to be considered in devising a plan for grouping adults?

Every adult ministry must provide the following:

* A place for every adult--a place where all adults will feel they belong without creating tight-knit cliques
* Opportunities for personal spiritual growth (learning) and service to others
* A means of incorporating new people (including seekers and new believers) into the life of the congregation
* A balance of commonality (which attracts people to one another) and variety (which challenges people to avoid stagnating) among the participants in each group.

Now let's try to answer the questions posed at the start of this section on adults.

The first four questions each pose differing options which, at first glance, seem to be mutually exclusive:

* Should adults be grouped by age or by interest?
* Should a church provide adult Sunday School or home groups?
* Should single adults and married adults grouped together or separately?
* Should adult groups be kept small or be allowed to grow?

A second glance should lead us to recognize that each of those questions should really lead us to a both/and instead of either/or approach to adult ministry.

Adults need both age level and interest groups.

Often, the two are the same, for throughout the stages of adult life, many of our deepest interests are commonly shared by people of a similar age. (Sometimes the age of the adults' family is an equally strong indicator of common interests. Parents of preschoolers share a strong bond as do parents of teenagers and adult children of aged parents.) Even if two adults share little or nothing in common as far as careers, family, Bible knowledge, or intellect, being of a similar age is a starting point to finding or to building shared experiences and interests. Thus, some method of grouping adults by age, far from being an arbitrary, unthinking assemblage, is one of the better ways of bringing together people with similar interest and experiences, especially for groups that intend to continue for an extended period of time.

Most other methods of grouping by interest tend to meet short-term needs of adults. A group of people drawn by an interest in a particular topic rarely feet drawn to continue meeting together once that topic has been explored.

Adult groups tend to grow more rapidly and consistently when they are homogeneous in some easily recognized ways. People feet more comfortable inviting friends to a group where they feel those friends will "fit in." And visitors tend to feel less threatened in a group made up of people they immediately identify as "my kind of people."

Classes for adults

Adults need opportunities for both Sunday School and home study group experiences.

Adult Sunday School classes have long contributed a variety of significant and fairly unique benefits.

Adult classes provide an intermediate-sized group for fellowship and mutual support since they are larger than home groups and are smaller than the total congregation. While no one can establish deep relationships with everyone in an adult class, those relationships can be built with some of those people. Most people find it easier to connect with other people in a class-sized group than in the larger congregation.

Adult classes can provide an easy "drop-in" opportunity for people whose schedules do not allow commitment to a regular schedule of meetings, or who do not feel ready to make such a commitment.

Adult classes tend to offer regular interaction with a cross-section of people, enabling participants to grow and serve.

Because adult classes meet in conjunction with the worship service, usually the week's largest gathering of the congregation, adult classes provide a natural bridge between attendance at worship and involvement in teaming and fellowship.


Small groups (usually no larger than 12) of adults meeting in homes fill a variety of important needs in the life of individuals and the church as a whole.

The informality of a home setting eases people's efforts to build and strengthen personal relationships.

Home groups can be effective outreach vehicles since people who are reluctant to attend a church service may be open to participating in a small home group, especially with friends they already know.

Participants in small groups tend to be less inhibited about asking questions that they might not raise in a larger class.

Being in a home instead of the church building is often helpful in linking faith to daily living.

Many churches find that establishing small home groups within the framework of adult Sunday School classes achieves the benefits of both without some of their weaknesses.

Adult classes tend to be more focused on ministering to those already attending church than in reaching out to the unchurched. Establishing small home groups is an effective way to encourage class members to reach out to neighborhood friends.

Small groups tend to become isolated from the rest of the congregation. People who are brought into a small group are often uncomfortable with the large church service, especially if it is focused at serving Christians. Small groups within an adult class find that the class's activities and meetings are an effective bridge between the small group and the larger church family.

In addition to meeting in homes, the small groups can meet together for parts of the Sunday School class session. Also, adults benefit when a class divides randomly into small groups for specific learning activities.

Adults in different walks of life

Adults benefit from time spent with those whose marital status is similar, and also with those whose status is different.

Most single adults resent attempts to "banish" them from the company of married adults, but they also experience times when being with other singles is more comfortable.

Some married adults feel awkward or threatened by some singles, especially those they perceive as possible rivals.

All churches have people who are married everywhere else in life, but are single at church because their spouses do not attend.

Churches that provide groups for singles find they meet a great need. They welcome singles who do not desire to join any other group or class. Adult groups that seek to involve both married and single people need to cultivate an awareness of the differing needs of those they want to reach.

Adult groups need a plan for accommodating growth without losing their personal touch.

Leaders of both Sunday School classes and home groups need to look ahead carefully to ensure that the group continues to succeed.

Groups tend to have their greatest growth in the first 18 months of existence. Long-established groups rarely grow much.

Once a group reaches an attendance plateau, it is more likely to maintain that level or decline than it is to begin a new period of growth.

New leadership or a new nucleus of people committed to growth can produce growth in an established group.

In order to sustain attendance growth among adults, it is usually more effective to start one or more new groups while enthusiasm is high than to allow existing groups to grow until they plateau.

A new adult group needs a committed nucleus willing to expend time and energy to make the group attractive and purposeful.

When starting a new group, it is important that those in the original group are left with capable leaders who are motivated to continue growing.


Wes Haystead, author of The 21st Century Sunday School, is also co-author, with his wife Sheryl, of How to Have a Great Sunday School, available from Gospel Publishing House.