An Experiment that Worked!

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By Drew Brown

What began as an experiment has been a good year of group ministry. What am I talking about? Sermon-Based Small Groups. It began with a Sticky Church Conference (see Larry Osborne’s book, Sticky Church) on how to close the back door on churches. At the heart of this strategy are sermon-based small groups. Our attention was peaked by the huge involvement in group life that North Coast Church in San Diego (www.northcoastchurch.com) has experienced – over 80% of their average weekend attendance is a part of a group – and the groups meet weekly for 10-12 weeks!



After kicking around this idea, we started with four pilot groups that met late spring into the early summer. The leaders were provided with an ice breaker and 5-6 discussion questions based on the week-end message. The feedback at the end of those six weeks was positive. All had good experiences and seemed to confirm what we hoped would happen.

One value of sermon-based small groups is that there is little or no preparation for attendees, apart from having heard the sermon on the weekend. Everyone has an opinion of the message they heard, regardless of their spiritual maturity. The key to the groups, of course, is relationships – not the message itself.

A phone conversation with Chris Mavity, the director of North Coast’s Training Network, was most helpful before jumping into this model. His big message was to create the kind of environment where long-term, significant relationships develop. This means the number of times groups meet is huge – frequency is an important component, thus the weekly meetings. North Coast has even changed some of their group lingo – it’s no longer homework but study notes; not growth groups just SBSG’s. Emphasis must be on relationships.



Mavity also stressed that when developing group leaders – express confidence in them – position group leaders as insiders. They want to feel like they are in the “inside loop.” When it comes to training group leaders, his advice was to “chill out.” In orientation make them aware of the landmines, but don’t swamp them with all sorts of small group theory. Rather, teach it as they have experiences that make them ask. Make sure leaders have a person they can contact, and someone who will follow-up early on to see how things are going. If you have done your work up front by choosing people of character who are gifted as facilitators, shepherds, or leaders, you’ve done the most important work.

In January, we had seven sermon-based small groups start, with a few of our existing groups going sermon-based. Each week, the teaching pastors provide the groups with 5-6 questions and additional passages of Scripture that allow the group to dig into the topic a bit more than a 30 minute message lends itself to. These questions are sent out to the group leaders and posted on our website on Friday afternoon prior to the message preached over the weekend. People who know that they will talk over the message later that day or week seem to take more notes and be more attentive during the message time of the service. It is a win-win for the speaker as well as the audience.

Easy on and off ramps for people joining groups was part of the SBSG experiment.

For the first three months we advertised the groups and allowed people to enter or leave after four weeks. By the third month the groups seemed to have found themselves and remained constant. We asked our leaders to facilitate a group through the month of May, taking the summer off. This gives time to re-evaluate, train, and tweak in preparation to launch new groups in the fall.

Our initial experiment has had great success, and we look forward to seeing what more God may want to do through this model. After years of struggling to revive small group ministries at our church, Sermon-Based Small groups have provided a spark of new life! Rather than starting something totally new, this ministry builds on the strength of our weekend ministry to bring people deeper into the Word and relationships.

Posted in: Small Groups; Resource > Article

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I have found that sermon-based small groups are a great way to start new groups. We have been using sermon-based groups for almost a year now and people really appreciate them.

One thing I have discovered is that people find the application part of the discussion to be difficult. Basically the application part of the discussion takes the message of the sermon based on scripture and asks, "so how's that going for you?" It requires a level of commitment to be held accountable and vulnerable. Good leaders can model that and encourage it.

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