Many churches are developing small-group curriculum or agendas based around the weekly teaching during the worship service. To accomplish this, the teaching pastor or other staff takes the sermon and develops questions, video, or other tools that can be used in small groups that week. This type of system can be very effective at bringing a sense of unity to the whole church, and can also help small groups develop consistent and healthy practices.
From my own experience, and from feedback from many churches who have used sermon-based small groups, the strategy is very effective—particularly early on—but can lose its effectiveness over time. The reasons for this vary, but one of the main considerations is that groups go through natural life cycles, and specific group needs tend to evolve. Therefore, group needs do not always line up with the central church teaching theme. As time goes on, groups feel the need to go their own way and not rely on the sermon-based group agendas. This is not a problem so much as a result of natural group life. There is no reason to expect each small group to align with the weekly sermon theme month after month, year after year.
There is one alternative that our local church has experimented with. Rather than asking small groups to align with the weekly sermon, we are trying to align the weekly sermon with small groups. To envision this, imagine small groups choosing their own focus based on the Spirit's leading and group life-cycle dynamics. At the same time, imagine the weekly sermon reinforcing, supporting, and helping guide what the groups are already doing.
You might ask: How does that work?
A Different Way of Thinking about Small Groups and Sermon Preparation
In a scenario where you have dozens, or hundreds, of small groups, it is impossible to keep tabs on what groups are doing, let alone to try to develop teaching that would connect with each group. However, there are ways to make the sermon connect with small groups without asking each group to follow a curriculum based on the sermon.
First, if your groups are more holistic in their approach to group life—meaning the group lives out all the purposes of your church in group life—then preaching to the values of your church automatically connects to what the groups should be doing. If a value is lagging in your church as a whole, then it is probably lagging in group life also. Develop sermons that reinforce your group strengths and that build up where you are weak.
Second, while every group has specific and unique situations, we have found that groups tend to encounter group life-stage issues in bunches. For instance, many of our groups struggle with outreach at the same time. Many of our groups will struggle with commitment at the same time. If you have a situation where your groups tend to follow a church calendar, then you are likely to have group needs arise at similar times from group to group.
If teaching ministers have a good handle on those group issues, then it can be extremely beneficial to group life to tailor sermon preparation accordingly. Plus, group members who hear the minister talk about something they have experienced in their group will feel like their group is closely tied to what is going on churchwide.
Will the sermon connect with all of your church's small groups every week? No. However, by using this process week after week, many of the issues groups are facing will be addressed "from the pulpit."