I am a proponent of any small-group experience that lifts the name of Jesus above all other names, creates a safe place for everyone involved, and produces an environment where unbelievers feel they are equals on a spiritual journey.
Considering the Pros
A dear friend, and someone I respect greatly, asked me the following questions about sermon-based groups. His questions really challenged me. Here are his questions and my answers.
1. How can sermon-based groups be used for God's glory, for the good of the local church, and for the good of the community?
Anything that brings glory to God is used by God to glorify himself. Any time he is glorified, the local church is better for it. And any time the local church is known as being focused on bringing glory to God, the community is enhanced. Regardless whether a group is sermon-based, if it's "a city on a hill" (Matthew 5:14), a light shining brightly for Christ on the street or cul-de-sac where it functions as a mission of the church it represents, it glorifies God.
Doing sermon-based studies, curriculum-based studies, or Bible-based studies is not the factor that determines whether or not a group gathering brings glory to God. It's the missional activity of the group and group members that brings glory to God. That then affects the group, the church, and the community.
2. How can sermon-based groups "remember" their leader's words rather than forget what their leaders spoke (Hebrews 13:7)?
One of the most positive aspects of sermon-based Bible studies is that group members are reminded of the main points of the sermon. If this is the goal of your groups, then sermon-based groups are the right approach for your church. To optimize the sermon-based approach, allow time for group members to process what they heard in the sermon and prompt them to make commitments to live out what was preached.
3. How can I lift up the name of Jesus above all names and respect my pastor?
This has to be approached when training your small-group leaders. Humans will instinctively worship that which they can see and touch. Thus, the pastor becomes the focus of attention rather than Jesus. In order to overcome this, small-group leaders should be trained to elevate the words found in the Bible above the clichés and phrases spoken by the pastor in the sermon. Then consistently during the Bible study time, leaders should point people to Jesus and his Word rather than focusing on the teaching pastor and his or her words.
4. How can people move beyond surface-level chat after services like "great sermon" to significant conversations?
The answer is simple: great discussion questions placed in the right order. When this happens, you can experience a transformational conversation. Every church doing sermon-based studies must ask if they have leaders capable of creating these kinds of experiences. This is where most fall short.
5. What are some upsides of sermon-based small groups?
- The pastor is happy with the small-group pastor knowing he or she is working in tandem to establish the principles and practices that were unearthed during the sermon.
- Small-group members are reminded of the main points of the sermon which helps establish the truths that were taught.
- Sermon-based studies make more time to discuss application. Because the principles and practices that would normally be unveiled as group members discussed the passage are already established (the pastor took care of this when preaching), the group can climb immediately into discussing how these principles and practices are to be lived out.
Considering the Cons
While my friend's questions challenged me and got me thinking about the possible pros, I hesitate to lead sermon-based groups. As I've meditated sermon-based small groups and how they do or do not accomplish the goals of healthy community, these concerns have come to mind:
1. Elevating the pastor's words while inadvertently diminishing God's Word. When utilizing biblically based, well-done curriculum the conversation is strategically turned toward what the Bible is saying. When discussing the weekend sermon, the discussion is built around what the pastor said. The primary voice in the Bible study isn't God and his Word, it's the pastor and his or her words. Instead of hearing phrases like, "The Bible says," or "Jesus told us," or "God's Word demands," small-group members hear phrases like, "Pastor told us," "If the pastor were here he'd probably say," or "I'll check with the pastor and see what she meant." The pastor's voice may inadvertently become known as the ultimate source of truth rather than the Bible.
2. Senior pastor worship. Sermon-based small group experiences can easily lead to high levels of senior pastor worship. My experience has shown that the senior pastor's name is brought up and held in awe at least six times during each group gathering. Jesus' name and his character are discussed much less than the pastor's personality and name. Jesus is subconsciously established as the senior pastor's sidekick, the secondary personality in church life. Before long, many believers speak more of their pastor and the great sermons than their Savior and his redeeming power.
3. Those farthest from Christ won't attend. Those who are far from Christ are not going to attend church services which means they'll never feel comfortable in a sermon-based small group. Let's face it: People who are far from Christ are not going to come to a group to discuss a sermon they haven't heard. To expect a not-yet follower of Christ to come weekly to a sermon-based small group is like asking someone to come to a weekly book club to discuss a book they refuse to read. They aren't going to attend.
4. Group members don't learn to dig into Scripture on their own. When groups discuss and determine what God is saying to them through Scripture, group members learn the vital skill of interpreting Scripture for themselves. Unfortunately, many sermon-based studies skip this step because the pastor has already interpreted the passage. Without this focus, though, many may never learn to think on their own or use their Bibles or interpret Scripture independent of others telling them what it means.
—Rick Howerton is the Global Groups Environmentalist for NavPress Publishers and a regular blogger. This article is adapted from his blog; used with permission from the author.