My evidence is anecdotal, but my experience is that many, if not most, Sunday school classes or small groups turn inwardly at some point. Even those that start with the strongest outward focus sometimes lose this battle. Here are some reasons this shift happens:
- Their churches are already inwardly focused. It’s not just the Sunday school class or small group that looks inwardly – it’s the whole church. In those settings, classes, and groups almost inevitably turn inwardly focused.
- Many class and group members have never been discipled to be Great Commission-focused. In fact, they’ve frequently not been discipled at all. That failure often means that they still focus more on self than on others.
- Internal fellowship becomes more important than the mission. That’s not to deny the significance of fellowship; it’s simply to say that it’s tough to maintain an outward focus as the group gels and loves being together.
- The church chooses teachers and facilitators who aren’t themselves outwardly focused. And, it’s not that they don’t see the need to be; it’s just that they don’t naturally lean in that direction. Eventually, the spirit and passion of the leader influence the group in the wrong direction.
- The group develops such “life-on-life” accountability that they don’t want anyone else in the group. On one hand, this level of spiritual intimacy is a good thing. On the other hand, though, it can close the door to outreach. Perhaps groups need to work more at learning to do both outreach and accountability, with the latter likely taking place in an even smaller group at a different time.
- They run out of room. When the group meeting space reaches capacity, it’s often the case that the group loses its outward focus and stops growing. That almost naturally happens when there’s no more room to put people.
- The teacher or facilitator gets comfortable with his or her “own” group. I don’t know any Sunday school teacher or small group leader who starts out thinking this way, but it sometimes occurs when the group reaches a point of consistency and depth. Leaders work hard to hang on to the group members they have, and they think less about reaching others.
- They’re not thinking about multiplication. Reproducing themselves by sending out group members to plant new Sunday school classes or small groups isn’t even in their view. Who wants to grow something and then give up the growth you’ve worked so hard to achieve?
What other reasons come to mind for you?