If I had my way, every small group would make the basis of their study the weekend message. Obviously there are plenty of other things you can use as the basis for your small-group study time, but here are three reasons I'm such a big believer in sermon-based small groups:
1. They're holistic. In a traditional church you go to a Sunday School class and hear a Bible lesson. Then you go to the worship service and hear another. When you come back Sunday night or midweek you hear additional Bible lessons. All these separate Bible teachings can have the negative side-effect of training us to file away God's Word without fully applying it. We've been educated beyond our obedience!
One of the things I love about using the weekly message as the basis for our small-group study is that it forces us to go back and re-examine how we were challenged by God's Word over the weekend. The emphases are integration and application. God's Word is meant to be obeyed, not just listened to or read. When we have time to further reflect on the Sunday morning message in our small groups, it's more holistic and better for our spiritual health.
2. They emphasize application.James 1:22 says, "Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." In our weekend worship services we listen to the Word, but it's in our small groups where we focus on helping each other apply the Word.
I have found that I can be really moved by my pastor's message on Sunday but then go to lunch and forget all about it! God's Word is meant to be obeyed, not just listened to. Even though I prepare questions every week for our small groups that relate back to the weekend message, I really ask the same basic question over and over: How are we going to help each other fully obey this? This is a good practice.
3. They're reproducible. The hardest groups to multiply are ones that require a skilled teacher. When the basis of the Bible study is the weekend message, the study is much simpler to lead. All the leader has to do is get everyone to turn to the Bible passages covered in the weekend's message and ask a few questions, maybe even questions the pastor brought up during the sermon. The leader also could put the questions on different pieces of paper and give one to each person as people arrive. Then individuals can ask the questions they were given. A third option is to have each person ask his or her own question based on the sermon or Bible passage. The key is to stress questions that help your group apply the lesson taught over the weekend.
Sometimes people object to sermon-based small groups because people may miss the message if they're gone or serving in another area of the church. But really, that doesn't matter. The point is not to go back and recover the sermon or to critique the message. You are simply re-reading the main passages and answering application-based questions about some of the main points brought out of those passages. Yes, if you heard the message, you're at a better starting point. But even people who didn't hear the sermon can respond to the biblical truths in the verses.
I don't think this is the only right way to do small groups. But I deeply appreciate the built-in advantages to sermon-based small groups.
—Jay Firebaugh is the Director of Small Groups at New Life Church in Gahanna, OH. You can check out practical tools for pastors and small-group leaders on his All About Small Groups Facebook page.