Small groups can greatly benefit from quality curriculum, but it can easily be the most expensive part of your budget. This is especially true for church-wide campaigns and video studies. But there are several ways you can stretch your dollar and still get great curriculum.
Find Inexpensive Curriculum Sources
The price of small-group studies varies based on supply and demand. If you're looking for the latest and greatest study for this year, you will pay a premium. But, if you're willing to consider the popular study from two years ago, you might find a deal. Discounted curriculum is more a reflection on people's short attention span and their quest for the new and next than on the quality of the curriculum.
Additionally, online stores such as Christian Book Distributors almost always have clearance sales for a variety of resources. Plan ahead for your next study and you can buy it when it's on sale.
You should also consider used book sites. Many times the materials are brand-new or barely used. You can check ebay, Amazon, and even Half Price Books. Or consider other churches that may have the study you're looking for. Many churches overbuy curriculum for a campaign or simply don't need the study after they're finished. Google the title of the curriculum you want and see if any churches come up that are going through it. Reach out to them and let them know you're interested in helping them offload their overage. You can probably get a deal, and they will thank you.
It's not necessary to have physical study guides anymore. We're used to reading on Kindles, iPads, and even our smartphones. Buying an ebook version of the study you're looking for can be significantly cheaper than a paper version.
SmallGroups.com offers the best of both worlds. Buy one of 1,000 Bible studies, and view it and your smartphone or e-reader, e-mail it to group members, or print off the study guide for group members. When you buy a study, you get permission to make 1,000 copies within your local church.
Establish a Curriculum Library
I've never really liked having an "approved study list." Instead, we provide a library of group studies that we love and other groups in the church have used. We had a certain amount budgeted every year to add to our library. Then group leaders simply check out the study materials they want to use and ask group members to buy the accompanying study guide.
Sometimes churches hesitate to make group members buy their own study guides. But in a society where we can spend $5 on a cup of coffee, $10 for a study guide is a relatively small ask. It shouldn't be difficult to ask group members to invest in their spiritual growth in this way. If people are truly unable to afford a study guide, then empower the leader to cover the cost by either providing a gift card or asking the group to pool a few dollars to cover the cost. Churches who give away all of their curriculum end up with a hefty line item in their annual budget and encourage a culture of entitlement.
Use the Bible
The source of all great curriculum is God's Word itself. While other voices can provide outstanding input and insights, the goal of all curriculum is to help group members hear from God and learn to obey his Word. There is great value is training leaders to help their group members read straight from the Bible rather than using curriculum. Leaders will need to learn to read and interpret well, plus craft helpful questions that allow group members to wrestle with the text. With the right training, leaders simply need their Bible to lead a great discussion.
Make Your Own
Producing your own curriculum can be an affordable and effective alternative, especially if you'd like to use videos. Over the years, I've worked with dozens of churches who have created their own curriculum. Some partnered with the team at Lifetogether Ministries for full production services, while others sought out coaching to create curriculum themselves. One year, we even coached a church of 50 people who produced their own curriculum with a group of volunteers.
While self-produced curriculum is definitely more work than purchasing curriculum off the shelf, a curriculum featuring your pastor's teaching can be incredibly successful in your congregation. This can be done in a variety of ways with a team of teaching pastors or just the senior pastor in all of the sessions. Many churches have some video capability. Start with the equipment you have—you'll be amazed at how far you get. We live in an age where an Oscar winning documentary was shot entirely with an iPhone. With the HD capability of many devices or low cost DSLR cameras, most churches have access to something which can create great curriculum.
A word of advice: ditch the DVDs. Many people don't even have DVD players any more. We now consume video with Hulu, Netflix, On Demand video, Apple TV, Roku, Fire Stick, and other devices. To make your videos compatible over a wide variety of options, simply upload your videos to Vimeo or YouTube. If you're looking for a service to host your videos for streaming, I'd recommend MediaFusion.
It's also not as difficult as you might think to create the study guide. For some quick tips on writing great questions, read "Writing Questions That Spark Discussion" and "Tips for Facilitating a Group Discussion." For in-depth help, I recommend How to Ask Great Questions by Karen Lee-Thorpe, LessonMaker from NavPress, or even the Serendipity Bible. These resources will help get you started by giving you great examples.
In the small group world we have a phrase, "Don't do life alone." Don't produce curriculum alone either. Think about who you need to help produce a curriculum: a project manager, videographers, video editors, writers, editors, photographers, and graphic designers. These roles are not normally on a list of ministry positions at most churches. But think about the possibility you are opening up for new people to serve in ways that align with their gifts and abilities. The church of 50 people I mentioned earlier only had one paid staff member: their senior pastor. On a Sunday morning, he asked who had the abilities needed for creating curriculum, and hands flew up. The church created a great curriculum on faith and managed to connect 100 people into groups. Now, they're a church of 70 people, and have created more studies since.
With all these options for inexpensive studies, your groups should never have trouble finding a quality study that fits your budget.
—Allen White is a pastor, teacher, writer, and speaker.