Having been involved in small groups — leading, participating, teaching on, and simply trying to figure out how to make them work! — for over twenty-seven years of ministry, I find them to be one of the most rewarding as well as frustrating endeavors. In this series of blogs, I’d like to tackle our most recent “experiment” with small groups: sermon based small groups (we’re still looking for a more creative term — suggestions are welcome!).
Let me begin with the Why? With all the choices of small group options, why choose this type of group? Our experiment began three years ago after hearing Larry Osborne tout the value of sermon based small groups at a conference. North Coast Church has been doing these groups for over twenty years. Two selling points stood out to us: 1) it allows people at a variety of spiritual stages to dig deeper than a thirty-minute message, and 2) it takes little preparation for either the facilitator or the group member. Let me explore these.
Most preachers/teachers know that much of the material that they glean during their preparation time will end up on the cutting room floor. There is only so much that can be included in a lesson or message. Those word studies, illustrations, text nuances, theological topics that may not make the “cut” make for great group discussion. People who know that they will be discussing the message later in the week also have a higher tendency to take notes. The audience is much more attentive, a delight for the one teaching!
It takes no special preparation on the part of the group except that they have heard the message live or via podcast. No matter where people are on their spiritual journey, they have an opinion of the message. Boy, do they ever! The group provides a good environment to deal with questions and even disagreements to what was taught. Everyone learns and grows through the encounter.
Up to this point my emphasis has been on the message, which probably makes sense since they are called “sermon-based.” But the sermon is simply the launching point. Understand that the key to the groups is relationships — not the message itself. This is at the heart of all small group ministry. So even though the questions are the same for each group, we allow people to find and settle into a group that they feel most comfortable. We want them to grow in their walk with God and with fellow believers.
We allow people new to sermon-based small groups to come and go by providing what we call easy “on ramps and off ramps.” A person or couple can join a group at the beginning of a new four-week series. If they find it’s not a fit, we tell them to take the off ramp and find a new group. Everyone knows this — leaders and participants — and there are no hard feelings on either part. Our experience has been that it takes folks, on the average, three months to settle into a compatible group.
We’ll talk next week about preparing the questions, providing some samples, as well as what training and skills are necessary for the leaders.