TAMPA–Small Groups Reimagine, a shift from how we “do church” in post-pandemic church culture, was the focus of the September 2023 Sunday School Conference in Florida Baptists’ Central region.
Florida Baptist pastors and church ministry leaders from the region gathered at Exciting Central Tampa Baptist Church in a historic effort to rethink discipleship training. Since 2020, the effects of COVID-19 have upended the lives of people worldwide and altered church rhythms, including small groups in the church.
Because small groups, including Sunday school, are fundamental to faith formation in all age groups, the conference focused on how to make “disciple-making disciples” among today’s believers.
Keynote speaker Lennox Zamore, pastor of Exciting Central Tampa Baptist Church, said, “The recent pandemic has had a detrimental impact on our social construct, leaving people with an earnest hunger for community. Small Groups Reimagine moves away from the teacher-student dynamic to a group-facilitated shared learning construct.” Pastor Zamore encouraged attendees to focus more on growing people and to celebrate all newcomers.
Presenters and facilitators at the conference shared the new paradigm for all small groups in the church: senior adults, children, youth/next gen, Haitian ministry and Hispanic ministry.
Senior adults’ small groups reimagined
Pastor Reno Zunz, minister of senior adults at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, described reimagining as rebranding. He defined rebranding as “giving this small group a purpose for ministry; ministering outside into the community.” Café on the Go is a ministry at Idlewild Baptist where senior adults serve 20 transformational schools in Pasco County. The younger members of this group serve coffee to schoolteachers and school administration. Older volunteers serve as greeters, complementing the church mission with their wisdom and knowledge of God’s word.
Children’s small groups reimagined
Julia Latimore and Keisha Latimore-Lovett, directors of discipleship at New Philadelphia Worship Center in St. Petersburg, led attendees to rethink children’s small groups. Latimore urged children’s leaders to reimagine children’s ministry as “not do things the way you have always done them, allowing you to reach more people for Christ.” Creativity enhances children’s learning and helps them feel welcome in the group. During the conference, Latimore-Lovett encouraged those gathered to infuse creative ways to use “I-can statements.” For example, if leaders teach children that God loves them, then children can say, “I can experience His love in my life.” Latimore-Lovett explained that understanding how to use the levels of biblical learning suggested in curriculum will help children grasp the message of salvation as they move from one age group to the next.
Youth and next gen small groups reimagined
“They are voting with their absence,” said Jeffrey Singletary, Florida Baptist’s Central region catalyst. His vision for reimagining this group is summarized in two questions: “How will we reach the next generation of believers?” and “Where will we find them?” These questions guide the new disciple-making paradigm, he said. When Christians set out to reach this group, “The church can no longer do business as usual. We have to reach them differently, love them authentically and understand them completely,” said Singletary. He noted that these individuals are in high school and on college campuses, playing basketball, soccer, baseball and sports in general. Singletary warned attendees, “If we don’t reach them, the church is in peril.”
Haitian ministry small groups reimagined
Charles Jones, senior pastor of New Covenant Bible Fellowship in Orlando, said rethinking discipleship training helps “redirect lame groups and refine already great groups. Active involvement in Sunday school is a pathway for spiritual growth and a great tool for building biblical knowledge.” Jones taught that through Sunday school, small group members receive the knowledge of God’s word, which is foundational for discipleship, and the gospel is the message.
Hispanic ministry small groups reimagined
David Perez, senior pastor of Casa de Bendición, in St. Cloud, said that reimagining discipleship of Hispanic believers means restructuring the group through a model “that helps new members understand faith formation, the gospel message and church structure. It also calls for members to develop and maintain healthy Bible-reading habits and fellowship with one another.” The restructuring of Hispanic small groups, said Perez, is due to “the diverse population joining our Baptist churches.” Helping these group members reach maturity in Christ is the ultimate goal of all churches. Also, he said that leaders must “help them understand the Baptist convention’s structure regarding state, national and worldwide missional focus.”
The conference included a session on child protection training, which focused on the problem of abuse in churches, examined topics such as screening and training ministry leaders who work with children in the church and next steps, with information on resources available to churches.