Just over one year ago, the world as we knew it changed. Most of us hadn’t paid much attention to the early reports of a dangerous virus – it seemed like it was a world away, and it was. Then we heard reports of its spread in Europe, on cruise ships, and finally here in America, and we realized just how vulnerable we all were. Social distancing began, as did the wearing of masks. Schools closed, restaurants struggled to stay viable, and companies sent millions of people home to work. Churches responded quickly by choosing to broadcast their services online instead. Financial giving also moved online in many churches, and Bible study group leaders learned to use online meeting tools to continue studying the Bible together. We all wondered when life would return to normal. We even began asking if life would ever return to normal.
Lifeway Research engaged 430 pastors in a recent online survey to discover how COVID-19 has affected the church, and what pastors were saying about how they expect their Bible study groups to rebound from COVID-19. Forty-three percent of pastors surveyed said they expect their Bible study groups to begin meeting again during the summer months. Another 20% expect adult groups to be meeting by the Fall of 2021. In addition to this encouraging statistic, pastors also reported that 62% of their adult small groups/Sunday School classes are currently meeting. The rebound of groups is beginning, and pastors are anticipating a steady rise in group attendance based on the survey results.
Today we are at an important crossroads in the pandemic. Some of our church’s Bible study groups have not met since early 2020. Other groups have already regathered but have gone virtual again as cases spiked after the start of the new year. As pastors watch the active cases of COVID-19 decline, and as they see people receiving the vaccine, they are increasingly convinced that adult groups will be meeting together again very soon. There are several things that we can do now to prepare our church’s Bible study groups to rebound and restart.
1. Declare an official “Back to Church” or “Back to Sunday School” day. I recently met with a group of 20 Christian educators who said they are planning to set official restart dates for their groups, even though some of the groups are already meeting. They feel it is important to galvanize the church and encourage families and individuals to regather. One of the education leaders said his church was going to promote a “guilt free” day when everyone is encouraged to come back and restart their involvement in a Bible study group, no matter how long it’s been since they last met with a group. Large numbers of people have gotten out of the habit of meeting together for corporate worship and Bible study. Declaring an official “back to Sunday School” day is a helpful component in a church’s plan to restart groups.
2. Reach the formerly reached. Groups and group leaders have worked hard to reach people prior to the pandemic, and they may have to work even harder to reclaim these people. In a recent survey, 63% of Christians declared they do not need a group to help them grow as believers! That is an alarming belief given that Scripture clearly states we are not to forsake our gathering together. It may not be fair, but we will need to spend time re-reaching people again. Rather than ignoring the group of people who may not be quick to return when groups are restarted, we should redouble our efforts to engage with them and persuade them to meet with us once again.
3. Start new groups. Churches should always strive to start new groups. COVID-19 has introduced another good reason to start groups: people who have grown out of the habit of attending their group may be hesitant to rejoin the group because of fear or embarrassment. There will be a large percentage of adults in our churches who would return to a group, a new group – not the group to which they used to belong. New groups give the chronic absentee a chance to hit “restart” and make a fresh new beginning.
4. Recruit and train group leaders. Arthur Flake, the “father of Southern Baptist Sunday School,” made these two important elements part of his 5-step formula for building a strong Sunday school ministry. As churches restart Sunday school, they will need new teachers for new groups, plus they will need to replace group leaders who have decided to step down or return to the classroom later. We may need to retrain teachers who have not been in a classroom setting for over a year. Now is the time to approach people about becoming group leaders. Waiting until the last minute will be disastrous. Now is also the right time to develop a plan for training current and new group leaders. Churches that train teachers regularly grow at a faster rate than those who train infrequently. Setting a schedule and a plan for training leaders will be something good to come from the COVID-19 pandemic.
5. Communicate the importance of groups. The church needs to hear from the pastor that he believes in the ministry of Sunday school. A series of sermons about the importance of being in groups, and the importance of teaching people of all ages the Word of God will communicate his passion for discipling people beyond the worship service. What is important to a pastor often becomes important to his congregation, and a well-timed series about groups, Bible study, discipleship, and spiritual transformation can reignite a congregation’s love for group study.
There is much work to do as groups rebound. Pastors will need the help of their congregation’s group leaders as both partner together to prepare the church to welcome the people back.
To help prepare the church to restart groups and rebound from COVID-19, Lifeway Christian Resources has scheduled a series of webinars to point church leaders in the right direction for regathering, restarting, and rebounding groups. Some of the upcoming webinars include: Breathing Life into Sunday School, Building a Disciple-making Ministry, The Timeless Principles of Arthur Flake for Sunday School and Small Groups, Teaching with Style, and Restarting Groups.
You can learn more about these webinars at lifeway.com/restartgroups. You can register for selected webinars or for all of them.
Review the Explore the Bible Reengagement Guide for a checklist of actions that can help you get moving forward.