An Overview of Small-Group Material
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An Overview of Small-Group Material

Learn the basics to avoid buyer's paralysis.

Do you remember the last time you tried to pick out a new type of snack at the grocery store? It's no easy task. First you have to figure out what kind of snack you're in the mood for—ice cream, cookies, chips, pastries, popsicles, candy, the whole range of Little Debbie's products, and more. Then you have to figure out what brand you'd like, what's on sale, how many calories are included per serving, and on and on. It's exhausting!

Sometimes there are too many choices. In fact, there's actually a state called "buyer's paralysis," which is when a consumer gets so overwhelmed by the number of available options that he or she gives up and doesn't buy anything at all (or maybe buys one of everything) instead of making a choice.

Of course, buyer's paralysis isn't limited to snack foods. It can happen with all kinds of potential choices—including when small-group leaders try to figure out which type of study to use in their groups.

The only defense against buyer's paralysis is to become educated on the options available, which allows you to make informed decisions. Therefore, let's spend time reviewing the basic types of small-group curricula—plus the different situations for which each type works best.

Bible Studies

The most basic type of small-group curriculum is the general Bible study, which can take a few different forms. For example, many groups will gather and study a specific book of the Bible in a very loose and spontaneous way. They'll show up, read some verses, share what they think, and move on.

If you're purchasing a general Bible study that's been published, however, chances are good it will be an inductive Bible study. These studies focus on a specific portion of Scripture and are usually constructed around three components:

  • Observation: What does the text say?
  • Interpretation: What does the text mean?
  • Application: How is the text relevant to my life, and how should I respond to it?

One of the strengths of inductive Bible studies is that they have a laser focus on the Bible. They rarely include a lot of fluff or filler, opting instead to connect the study participants directly with God's Word. Inductive studies are also easy to understand and have a clear direction for group members to follow, given the structure of observation, interpretation, and application.

A weakness of inductive Bible studies is that they can leave things too open when it comes to interpreting and applying the text. Because inductive studies have a laser focus on God's Word, they usually don't provide a lot of help in terms of commentary and context regarding Scripture passages. This can allow small-group participants to drift into the dangerous territory of mistaken (and sometimes heretical) interpretations.

Also, most inductive Bible studies include a little bit of reading combined with a lot of discussion. That's great for people with auditory or reading/writing learning styles. But inductive studies are often less than satisfying for visual and kinesthetic learners—which usually includes men and younger adults.

Topical Studies

While inductive Bible studies have a concentrated focus on specific Bible passages, topical studies concentrate on a broader range of experiences. These include general Christian living, marriage, work, parenting, social justice, and so on. Topical studies can also help group members practice specific skills (such as prayer and evangelism) or interact with various elements of popular culture (such as movies and literature).

The primary advantage of topical Bible studies is that they have a targeted appeal to small-group participants, usually in the form of meeting a felt need. Think of a group of young couples working through a marriage study together, for example.

The primary disadvantage of topical Bible studies is that they can sometimes become disconnected from the Bible as a source of authority and instead jump totally into experiences and opinions surrounding the given topic. If left unchecked, this can transform a small group into a Christianized version of pop-therapy sessions.

Sermon-Based Studies

In recent years, many churches have adopted a sermon-based approach to small groups. This is where home groups (and sometimes Sunday school classes) study the same material and/or Scripture texts that are addressed during the weekend worship services.

Many publishers (including are now producing "campaign" material to fit this church-wide model of ministry. The most famous example is The Purpose Driven Life, of course, but many new campaign kits hit the market each year. In addition, a number of sermon-based churches have chosen to write their own material in-house. This is typically done by a staff member or layperson directly connected to the small-group ministry.

The greatest advantage of sermon-based studies is that they provide a lecture/lab atmosphere for learning and application within a church. Participants get a broad overview of each week's material during the sermon (the lecture), but then they have the chance to ask specific questions and identify areas of application within their smaller groups (the lab). It's a great combination, especially for newer groups or ministries.

The primary disadvantage of sermon-based groups is that group leaders usually lose the ability to choose a curriculum option that fits the specific needs of their group. When everyone studies the same thing, there aren't any other options. For that reason, sermon-based groups are sometimes frustrating for established groups that want to go deeper or explore a specific topic.

Book Studies

Many small groups prefer to interact with a well-known book instead of using shorter curriculum guides. These are usually the "cream of the crop" from Christian prose, including titles such as The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman or Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. Some groups enjoy digging into controversial works—The Shack by William P. Young would be a good example. Many of these books are now accompanied by journals or workbooks designed for use in a small group.

There are several advantages to this approach. For one thing, books that have weathered the test of time usually contain genuinely life-changing material. They are great books, pure and simple, and they can have a deep impact on small-group participants. These kinds of studies are also a nice break from the "same old, same old" feel of many curriculum guides. They offer something new and a little more exciting.

The danger of taking this approach is that it can be hard to pair these books with an in-depth study of Scripture. The material in the book usually takes precedence over God's Word. That's okay for a six to eight week break every now and again, but it becomes less appealing if a group wants to study these kinds of books most of the time. At some point, things transition from a small group to a book club.

Another disadvantage of this approach is that it can be quite expensive, especially if you are asking group members to purchase both the original book and a group-based study guide.

Video Bible Studies

With video Bible studies, the primary focus of your group's attention is transferred away from a printed book or guide and toward a television or computer. (Most video Bible studies do come with a printed curriculum guide, as well, but they are much shorter than traditional study guides and mostly serve as a way of taking notes.) These studies typically feature a well-known author, pastor, or personality who speaks about the topic of the study.

The main advantage of video Bible studies is that they can be very effective in a visual culture like ours. Most people today have grown up watching screens, which means they usually feel comfortable receiving information through a visual medium in a small group.

The best video Bible studies also include diverse visual elements—including landscape shots, different points of focus and camerawork, visual aids (like charts and graphs), Scripture references on the screen, and more. These are great for visual learners, including men and younger adults.

The primary weakness of video Bible studies is that they often cause group leaders to lose focus. Sometimes we think that having a mega-pastor speaking to our group means we no longer have to do the work of a leader—we just need to push play and let the expert take control. This is not true. A pre-produced video can't guide a discussion or interact with the Holy Spirit. It can't conform the material to meet the needs of individual group members. Those elements remain the job of the small-group leader.

There are other types of small-group studies, of course, but these are the major options. And now that you're more familiar with what's out there, you've got a better chance of making the right choice for yourself and the members of your group.

This article is excerpted from downloadable resource Find the Right Study for Your Group.

—Sam O'Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small-Group Leaders

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