Let me start out by being totally clear. A Bible study in and of itself is not a life transforming activity. The church is filled with spiritually immature members who are the products of many years of “Bible studies,” Sunday school classes, and discussion groups. Most Bible studies are data dumps of information that fills the head with information but doesn’t lead to any sort of behavioral change … except on Thursday nights from 7 ’til 8:15.

A transformational small group is one where nobody leaves unscathed or untouched. Lives are transformed a little at a time, with occasional and sudden breakthrough moments. And those who aren’t transformed end up feeling pretty uncomfortable and typically drop away.

Life Transforming Curriculum

The reality is that there is no such thing as a “life transforming” curriculum. In the right circumstances, a matchbook cover can be life transforming, but discipleship curriculum – or any curriculum for that matter – is designed to educate. Of course, really great curriculum has an application section. The problem is that few, very few, ever get around to applying it. 

However, there is ONE sure-fire life transforming curriculum that works the majority of the time. That curriculum is you. You are the curriculum that would-be disciples most need and will best respond to. In early Americana, this curriculum was called apprenticeship, a term we find almost infinitely better than Christianese’s discipleship. (As I’ve said at the Radical Disciple Making Conferences, in today’s parlance a Christian is someone who’s a believer – regardless of how they behave – and a disciple is a believer who’s also a church member.)

If you’re the curriculum, then you’re the mentor to your apprentices. That means you don’t just teach them The Way, but you model it. You pour your whole life into them. You help them mold their lives around Jesus’ teachings, his values (which are your values, right?), his vision, and his mission. Jesus is the master; you’re the journeyman; and your charges are the apprentices.

With all that said, though, there are a couple of small group “curriculums” that can aid in the life-transforming, discipleship process. On their own, they won’t do much. But in the hands of a journeyman in a small group, these can be used to help raise up practicing, faithful followers of Jesus.

Discipleship Development Small Group Model

A Discipleship Development small group is based on an accountability model, not unlike John Wesley’s Classes (bands-societies – see http://bit.ly/1T9Pcha). Ask a question, receive an answer, move forward, watch the Spirit change lives.

The Discipleship Development model is really pretty simple. It rests on the notion that we are each responsible for our own spiritual development. No one “owes” us a spiritual leg up and the institutional (or even the organic) church can do little more than provide tools for spiritual development. It’s our personal responsibility to grow in the faith. However, a savvy mentor can move her/his apprentice by asking the right questions. It’s really a matter of good coaching meets effective accountability.

It works this way. At the beginning of your small group time, the group “reforms” each week. There’s general conversation; there’s catching up; sometimes there’s even some care and concern going on. But after a bit, the conversation will begin to spiral into sports scores or sitcom plots. That’s your cue to “take over” and steer the group with the key ice-maker question:

So Bob, what did you read in scripture this week that intrigued you?

If Bob happens to be the pastor, a Sunday school teacher, or Bible study leader, you’ll need to append the question with “What did you read in scripture – that was outside of your preparation time – that intrigued you.”

The first time you ask the question, Bob will probably check to see if his loafers are untied while he mumbles something about having a really busy week. Your response should be to sympathize and then turn to Dorie and ask, “Dorie, what did you read this week that intrigued you?” Wait for an answer and move on. Ask every single person in the group, face-to-face, one-at-a-time, this key discipleship question. Maybe someone will have read and will have something to share, but in general, in most churches, you’ll either be disappointed or perhaps not surprised by the responses.

There seem to be two universal comments that come up during the initial groups:

(1) “I tried reading my Bible but when I got to Genesis 11 I got so confused with all the names and stuff that I just quit.” Use an opportunity like that to encourage the group to begin reading in Mark – it’s short, it’s fast paced, and it’s a Gospel. Since Jesus is the model for the faith, it seems appropriate to spend most of our time with him.

(2) “I started reading the Bible my grandmother gave me, but I couldn’t understand it.” This is the time to speak about translations and make a recommendation for the very best translation of all: Whichever one the participant will actually pick up and read. The Spirit seems to consistently show up in koine Greek, in KJV English, in the Good News for Modern Man of the 60s, in the NIV, in The Message, and in The Story. The only germane question is whether or not they’ll actually pick up and read.

By the third or fourth week, everyone will be reading at least something in scripture semi-regularly (which will probably be more than they’ve read in the previous twelve months). And most of them will be reading the book of Mark. As they read, the Bible study time will be enriched because they’ll be paying attention to their reading and noting what catches their attention (what intrigues, confuses, excites, troubles, or moves them). And those attention getters will elicit great questions that you can use to move into a deeper study.

But the ultimate goal isn’t to delve deeply into the text, but to encourage ongoing personal engagement with the Word. That’s what will facilitate life transformation.

There are four other Discipleship Development Questions that can, and should, be added one at a time over the months. But the key is to continue to ask the Bible reading question. Keep the group in scripture and you’ll see life transformation and church culture change.

Sermon Discussion Small Group Model

One of the pieces we’ve uncovered in our studies of successful and effective life-transforming small groups is that they all have a close sense of community, and the Sermon Discussion small group model fills this bill.

This Sermon Discussion model works from the premise that community is best built with familiarity and common experiences. Since the presumption is that the majority of the group will either have attended the previous week’s worship service or will have listened/watched to a recorded sermon, there is an expectation that the shared experience can be foundational for community building. Then, based on the content of the sermon discussion questions, the apprenticing practices can take it from there.

We found there is a dearth of information on how to write a good sermon discussion guide, so I put together some basics on what I use.

The End Is In The Beginning

Those words were etched into my psyche when I became a church planter. My coach drilled into us that where we end up largely depends on where we start. The key, then, is to do your planning and to design the discussion based on where you want to end up. That takes more thought, but you’ll end up with better discussion points and hopefully better behavior change.

So, begin with “What do want to I happen?” For all practical purposes, this should be an extension from your sermon’s What’s Next? (Note, if your sermon’s outcomes included the words think about; reflect on; consider; ponder; etc.; then we invite you to take a look at writing a life-transforming sermon.) The outcome of an effective sermon, and the corresponding life-transforming small group, is behavior change. If there’s no “do” in the outcomes, there’s no transformation in the life.

Pastor Karen preached her Mother’s Day sermon and had an outcome that each adult would “adopt” one of the church’s children or youth as a personal prayer project and life encourager. With the cooperation of the Children’s Director, she developed “safe” practices so her outcome could be as widely implemented as possible.

In developing the Sermon Discussion Guide, the desired “outcome” was to ensure each participant not only adopted a child, but that they had the necessary tools and encouragement (accountability) to actively support the child in their faith walk. With that in mind, they wrote the final discussion question first:

Who have you adopted and what will you do this week to encourage your apprentice in the faith?

Then, working backwards, they developed a series of discussion questions that included a deeper study of the sermon’s scripture passage (in this case, 2 Timothy 1:3–7) and worked through what it meant to be a mentor and an encourager (coach).

In the end, they developed seven discussion questions that started with a light conversational question (“Who are some of the earliest heroes of your faith journey?”) and moved steadily toward the Do This question.

One thing to keep in mind. We live in a culture where “regular” attendance to Sunday worship may not be all that regular. To that end, when you write sermon discussion guide be sure to develop it so even someone who didn’t attend and didn’t get a chance to hear the sermon can still fully engage the process.

The Mission Week

One last addition to life transforming small group practices. We’ve noticed that in most of the effective transformative small groups, the group has adopted a local mission or a servant evangelism project. Once a month, the group opts to not meet in the home and chooses instead to come together to do mission together. We’ve seen this practice as core to many of the groups and most of the “great stories” and experiences they have center around this monthly commitment.

We’ve concluded that a small group that doesn’t bear the fruit of life-transformation is not just fruitless, it’s a terrible waste of the church’s resources. Remember, the end really is in the beginning. So plan now to develop life-changing small groups. You many not be able to change your existing groups, but you can certainly start a new one. And when lives transform, multiplication will follow closely behind (but that’s the topic for another post).

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