“So, what are we going to study next?” It’s one of those questions that often makes small-group leaders break out in a cold sweat. Why? Because there are so many options available when it comes to Bible studies and curriculum. And having all of those options means group leaders have to make a lot of important decisions—and listen to a lot of different opinions—before the final choice is made.
In recent years, many churches have opted to navigate around the “What should we study?” question by implementing sermon-based small groups. In these programs, the study material for individual groups is automatically aligned with the pastor’s weekly sermon. Meaning, if the pastor preaches from Romans 1 on the weekend, each group will also explore Romans 1 during their discussions throughout the week.
Is a sermon-based approach right for your church? For your group? Are there ways to reduce some of the stress of selecting individual Bible studies? Are there other factors churches and groups should consider when making decisions about curriculum? These are the questions we’ll seek to answer below.
Churches and groups can uncover a number of benefits by using a sermon-based approach for their small-group ministry. For example:
- As mentioned earlier, a sermon-based approach means less hassle when it comes to choosing what each individual group will study. The study topics and texts are chosen by the pastor, which means individual group leaders are off the hook.
- More importantly, a sermon-based approach can go a long way to increasing unity between groups and congregation members within a church because the majority of members in the church are exploring the same material on the weekend and in their group gatherings. This common focus provides a strong foundation for unity and common ground within the congregation.
- Another benefit of sermon-based small groups from a curriculum standpoint is that pastors and church leaders have a greater element of control in terms of what their congregation is exposed to practically and theologically. Because the church staff chooses the direction for both sermons and group discussions, there is less chance of church members being exposed to theological viewpoints that are confusing, undeveloped, or even potentially harmful.
- Finally, choosing a sermon-based curriculum model can be a financially helpful option for individual church members—and sometimes for churches (more on that below). While some churches do purchase Bible studies for their members, it’s much more common for the financial burden of curriculum to fall on the shoulders of group leaders and group members. That’s typically not the case with sermon-based material.
From a curriculum standpoint, there are certainly a number of benefits to choosing a sermon-based approach for Bible studies. There are also a number of potentially negative consequences, however, that need to be added to the equation. For example:
- A sermon-based approach to group curriculum requires a lot of planning and detail work on behalf of the pastor. Because sermons are the foundation of the Bible study material, pastors need to plan out their sermon series many weeks in advance. They also have to keep the needs of groups in mind when producing these schedules, which can result in less flexibility to be spontaneous or respond to real-world events.
- Next, sermon-based curriculum will require a lot of additional work from church staff and key volunteers. Simply put, the burden of producing Bible studies and other promotional material falls squarely on churches that use a sermon-based approach. Someone needs to adapt the sermon into a Bible study format. Someone also needs to arrange and print the material—not to mention producing any promotional materials to help get the word out. Instead of traditional publishers, these responsibilities will fall on church staff and volunteers.
- Here’s something that may sound harsh, but I’ve found it to be true on a number of occasions: some sermon-based curriculum is just plain bad. That doesn’t have to be an indictment of a church, a volunteer, or even the whole sermon-based system. The reality is that creating good, quality Bible studies is hard work. And when we need to rely on volunteers or staff members working in their spare time, you’re not likely to get the same quality of material as you would from an established publishing house.
- Finally, it’s also been my experience that groups and group leaders can begin to resent the lack of control present in a sermon-based system. Sometimes a group wants to study something specific for a specific reason. Other times groups simply grow tired of taking the same approach to Bible study week after week. In either case, frustration can build up when churches don’t allow flexibility in what their groups can explore.
A La Carte Curriculum
Despite the popularity of sermon-based curriculum in recent years, the most common option for group Bible study is still having group leaders—or in some cases church staff—select curriculum for their group on an a la carte system. Meaning, the group studies something different every 6 or 12 weeks, and the group often chooses a variety of different types of material.
There are many benefits to this approach, including the following:
- Allowing groups to choose their own curriculum means that groups have a greater sense of control and ownership of what they study. This can be especially meaningful for the members of a group, because it allows everyone in the group to have a say regarding what the group will study next.
- In a similar vein, allowing groups to choose their own curriculum means they have a greater chance of experiencing variety in what they study. Group leaders typically know when something is getting stale. When given the freedom to study what they want, groups can do an expositional study of James, a topical study on relationships, and book study featuring an exciting new author—all in the same year.
- Finally, groups that manage their own Bible studies will often choose professionally produced curriculum from an established publishing house. Most of the time—not all of the time, of course—this means groups will encounter material that is high quality in terms of both production and theology. These studies often feature well-known authors who are experts on their topics. They also typically include a number of additional options for teaching and promotion, including video.
There are many other positives of allowing groups to choose their own curriculum. But there are many potentially negative consequences, as well, including these:
- As mentioned earlier, groups that choose their own studies have to actually spend time and energy choosing what they want to study. Sometimes this process can be exhausting, especially for the group leader. This is especially true when different people in the group have different ideas about what to study.
- Asking groups to handle the burden for their own curriculum can also become financially troublesome for the individuals within those groups. The Bible studies available for purchase through Christian book stores or online marketplaces can sometimes be expensive—especially if those studies include video elements. When you consider that many groups go through between 6–10 studies within a year, that’s a lot to purchase!
- Finally, there may be circumstances in which groups or group leaders make a poor choice regarding the curriculum they study. Even among professionally produced curriculum, there are some studies out there that are theologically questionable or practically confusing—or both. Allowing groups to choose their own study material without any oversight from the church may result in the group studying something that is harmful rather than helpful.
How to Choose?
There’s good and bad news when it comes to deciding which curriculum approach is right for your church. First the bad news: there are no easy answers. There is no scorecard you can use to say, “If we are in this situation, we should automatically use this curriculum.” Each church is different.
But here’s the good news: you can use the following questions to help think through the choice between sermon-based curriculum and an a la carte option for groups:
- Have we received complaints about our current system for choosing or assigning Bible studies?
- Have we received any compliments connected with our current system of selecting Bible studies?
- Does our church have the resources necessary to implement a sermon-based approach?
- Do we desire to have a greater level of control over what content our groups and groups members encounter in their gatherings?
- Would our congregation benefit from a season of increased unity and focus?
- Have our group leaders expressed a desire for more control over what they study in their groups?
—Sam O'Neal is the author of Field Guide for Small Group Leaders and an editorial advisor for SmallGroups.com.