Sermon-Based Groups or Group-Based Sermons?

Learn about a new approach to matching the weekly sermon with your small groups.

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."

A Different Process for Sermon Preparation

To make sermon planning beneficial to small groups, a team needs to be involved in the sermon-preparation process. This team should be selected based on their involvement in the sermon and their knowledge of what is going on in small groups. For instance, the team might be made up of pastors, as well as small-group overseers and small-group coaches. Ideally, the whole team should be involved in the planning and preparation of sermons and giving feedback to the teaching minister about what is going on in their network of groups. This can be done in a variety of ways.

Our local church has been doing this for the past several years. We have a team development approach to sermons where the scheduled teacher sends out a rough draft or detailed outline of their sermon by email to the teaching team a week prior to the Sunday when the sermon will be delivered. The teaching team is made up of teaching ministers and key church leaders, most of whom also oversee networks of small groups.

This team then reviews and gives feedback to the teacher by email on how the teaching connects and emphasizes what is going on in their groups. This allows the teaching minister for the week to make adjustments and/or use illustrations that connect with an issue that some groups are facing. This connection can happen in the course of any sermon series. The specific small group emphasis happens in the course of what is already being taught, s you do not have to coordinate a seasonal campaign unless you see a specific need for it. Best of all, you can keep this process going indefinitely rather than ramping up and ramping down campaigns. Unlike sermon-based small groups, the longer you do it, the better it works, because the longer you do it, the more small group needs and themes you will be able to touch upon.

I acknowledge this type of process is not the norm in most church situations, and implementing the team development of sermons could be a radical shift for many. Fortunately, our team has tried and failed enough to learn some things about the process. Here are some specific things we have found that makes this process work for us:

  • The earlier the sermon rough draft can go out to the teaching team, the better. This obviously requires the preacher to prepare sermons in advance. A side benefit to early preparation is that we have found the feedback received helps reduce the amount of prep time for the preacher overall.
  • Limit the number of people who are reviewing on a given week. Asking about 3 to 4 sermon reviewers to give feedback on any given week is enough. More feedback starts to get overwhelming. Also, rotating who gives feedback to the sermon each week helps keep your teaching team from burning out.
  • Find a common feedback method with consistent practices. Establish a procedure for giving feedback, whether it is email, a conference call, or something else. Make it consistent so the teacher gets uniform information.
  • Train reviewers to give feedback honestly, and train preachers to receive feedback graciously. Having your work critiqued or giving/receiving suggestions can be difficult, depending on the personalities involved. Build relationships among the teaching team so that people trust one another. Always make sure to include positive comments about the sermon being reviewed as well as suggestions for changes.
  • Have the teaching/reviewing team meet together occasionally to plan for longer term theme lists. In addition to the weekly reviews, do longer-range planning as well. This will help the reviewers know what is coming up in the way of themes.

Having a sermon development team with small groups in mind will promote messages that connect with and encourage your small-group members and small-group leaders. Building your sermon preparation around your small groups will also help sustain unity and momentum even beyond a small-group campaign!

—Dan Lentz; copyright 2009 by the author and Christianity Today International.

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