I am a big fan of sermon-based small groups. I am a pastor in a small rural church (I never thought I would be here) in an isolated community in south central Colorado. It's a wonderful community and people don't get too hung up about stuff. Along with their community-minded missional heart we feel quite at home here.
When we first came here there were two active small groups. One was a women's Bible study and the other a men's prayer breakfast. There was a clear desire from people that they wanted to grow as disciples and develop their missional desires even further. In the Fall of 2009 we started four small groups as a key avenue for this endeavor.
But what kind of small groups would they be was the question we had to answer. Having been a small group geek for more than twenty years I knew that there were a lot of models out there that might fit, there was a ton of curriculum we could use -- some of it really focused on discipleship and mission. I even had a bunch of it on my shelves for easy access. But I knew we needed to start with something simple and easy to work with -- a no-brainer for under-trained and somewhat tentative leaders.
That's when we decided to go with sermon-based small groups, and our church loves them. I had recently read Larry Osborne's book Sticky Church and really felt he was on to something. Larry's church, North Coast Church in northern San Diego county, uses sermon-based small groups pretty extensively which seems to really help connect people in a deeper way with the church and it's mission. Larry's approach is more a philosophy than a model of small groups although he assumes healthy components of small groups should exist. The philosophy is that by getting people talking more deeply about the week's sermon the church will be on the same page and the message finds a deeper resonance in people. What pastor wouldn't want that?
What I particularly like about sermon-based small groups is that I find that my study becomes richer as I prepare for a sermon. I find that I can organize my message for greater impact knowing that some of the parts I wouldn't have time to include will be discussed in the groups. I often come up with group discussion questions as I'm preparing my message. Some pastors might think that this just creates more work for them, but I don't find it so since I know what I want people to be discussing in their groups. I really think it helps me streamline the sermon for maximum impact.
People tend to take more notes during the sermon because they know they'll be discussing it later in their group. Even a new attender to your church can slip right in and be able to discuss if they've been at the Sunday service. The message is more accessible. And even if someone misses a Sunday, we put our sermons online so people can access them anytime. A key question asked every week is something along the lines of, "What one thing jumped out at you from the message this week about….?" It gets people talking every time.
Discipleship focus is built right in. Hopefully as a pastor , you're hoping that the sermon you bring will contribute to your congregation's growth as disciples; either it will challenge people to consider what new steps they need to take or that they will be encouraged to keep moving forward in their relationship with Christ. Knowing this gives me freedom to really direct the application questions for the small groups. The feedback I get from the leaders is that people are really opening up in our groups and supporting each other in prayer especially in regard to accountability in spiritual growth.
Add to the group a service component and the groups really come alive especially when your messages challenge them to live out their faith and then give them tangible avenues in which to do it.
Our church really likes doing small groups this way. Some groups do use a short-term curriculum (often DVD based) from time to time, but always return to the sermon-based groups.
Of course, if you do head this route you'll want to make sure your pastor is on board since he/she may have to adjust a little. And of course, you have to evaluate what is best for your church.
'til next time,