“What curriculum should my small group use?” More and more vital churches are answering that question by using sermon-based material.
Larry Osborne, pastor at North Coast Church in San Diego, has helped popularize this approach, which makes the weekend sermon the basis for the small group discussion the following week. Not simply a review of the sermon, this type of curriculum works from the biblical text used in the weekend message, and leverages some of the sermon’s main points.
We have been using this approach at our church for a number of years, and here are some of the benefits we find:
1. It helps produce a culture of “doing the Word”.
Every preacher knows that it is easy for hearers to agree, even strongly, with a sermon and then do nothing about it. I may nod my head when the preacher reminds me that God calls us to love one another. But when a group of trusted friends asks me about how I am going to do that this week, that truth works its way into my life on an entirely different level. And when people know that they will be talking about how to apply the sermon at their group that week, they not only listen differently, they develop a habit of taking the Bible’s action points seriously.
2. It contributes to unity
No matter what group they are a part of, people can discuss with one another what they are learning since they are working from the same material.
3. It creates a format for questions.
It is impractical to stop in the middle of a sermon to answer members’ questions. In a small group they can ask their questions and hear answers from others.
4. It sharpens the preaching.
Knowing that others will be discussing and applying the message motivates me to do my very best at giving them something worth talking about. And because the discussion guide needs to be prepared in advance, last minute sermon preparation is not an option, which usually results in higher quality preaching.
The benefits of sermon-based groups are not immediately apparent to everyone. Some might wonder:
* What about those who weren’t at the service? Won’t they feel left out? If written well, even people who were not present at the service can participate meaningfully in the group. That is because the starting point is the text, not the sermon.
* People want variety, isn’t this too restrictive? While variety is attractive, the spiritual growth benefits outweigh the down side. If members hear a sermon calling for action, then go to a small group which studies an entirely different biblical text which is also calling for action, that member may end up doing nothing at all. As Andy Stanley advocates: “Teach less for more impact.”
Of course, one may always make sermon-based groups just one offering among many, as well.
– It takes time to prepare material each week, isn’t it impractical to create new questions every week? Yes, preachers are already very busy. However, isn’t it is worth prioritizing that which will significantly increase the discipleship level of the church? Already primed by my sermon study and prayer, it used to take me about 30-40 minutes to write weekly group questions. (Now another staff person does this). It takes just a moment more to email those questions to the group leaders.
– Members don’t want simply to rehash the sermon. True. Well-written questions will avoid this.
Tips for writing sermon-based curriculum
Here are some suggestions for creating your own effective sermon-based material.
1. Start with the biblical text.
Ask the group members to read the text and answer a few questions which address its main point. It is best that these questions can be answered directly from the text, and do not require prior knowledge. One of the biggest concerns group visitors have is appearing foolish for not knowing enough about the Bible. Therefore, write your questions with that first-time guest in mind.
2. Limit questions which prompt cerebral conversation and focus on life-application instead. Do not settle for an exchange of opinions, seek to provoke personal sharing. I’d much rather hear “I always wanted to…”, rather than “The problem with society today is…” Some examples include:
a. “Of the three action points our pastor shared, which is easiest for you to do? Which is hardest?”
b. Key action-oriented questions. Pick out one or two on the main action points of the sermon and craft a question which will challenge people to apply them.
“Share about a time you did this…”
“What will you do this week about this?”
“What obstacle will you have to face in order to do this?”
3. Ask follow-up questions from the previous week. Include questions like, “How did it go last week with your [actions step]”. This opens the door for members to share exciting reports of faith in action.
A meeting gets more inspiring when we hear stories about members taking risks for Christ and seeing Him work in their lives. It also creates an expectation that they will indeed follow through on their decisions
4. Create more questions than needed and tell the group leader to use them as a menu from which to choose. This allows the leader to tailor the questions to what is happening that night, and to respond to the prompting of the Spirit.
Creating sermon-based curriculum is more demanding than buying a book, but it brings unique benefits that make it worth the work.
Steve Cordle is founding and senior pastor of Crossroads U. M. Church, a multi-site, small-group based church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.