Writing Effective Group Curriculum

Writing Effective Group Curriculum

By Allen White

Photo Courtesy of Luke Tevebaugh.

Whether you are writing curriculum for a video-based study or a weekly sermon discussion guide, effective curriculum requires some dedicated steps and some finesse that comes from experience. Based on studies I’ve written for both churches I’ve served on staff as well as other churches and ministries, I want to share some of the things I’ve picked up over the years.

Every Lesson has Four Parts.

Bible studies consist of these four things: Ice Breaker, Observation Questions, Interpretation Questions, and Application Questions. Or, to put it another way: How are You? What does the Text Say? What does It Mean? What are You Going to Do About It? While some studies may appear to have more parts and pieces, it all boils down to these four.

The purpose of an Ice Breaker is to get the conversation started. You want to ask a simple question that anyone can answer to get the conversation going. You don’t want an ice breaker just for the sake of an ice breaker. You want a question that will lead into the discussion to follow. A great resource for ice breakers is Cheryl Shireman’s What’s Your Story?

Observation Questions are questions anyone can answer from the Scripture passage. (I am old school and believe that a Bible study should involve the Bible.) Questions can come from quotes or actions in the text. Even a question like “What jumps out at you from this passage?”can be a great start. These are the Who, What, and Where questions. The answers are the facts from the text. Try not to oversimplify these questions or else the group will avoid them. These questions are to help the group members dip their toe into the water.

Interpretation Questions ask the How and Why questions. How do you feel about Jesus’ words? Why did the person in the passage react this way? The caution here is to ask questions that can be answered without knowledge of other passages of Scripture. If your questions assume the same vast Bible knowledge that you have, then you’re going to leave some people behind. If a cross-reference will shed light on the meaning of the passage, then add the cross-reference to the question. Don’t assume the groups know as much as you.

Application Questions are the meat of any Bible study. In our mission to “teach them to obey” as Jesus commanded us (Matthew 28:20), practically applying what the group members are learning to their own lives is the most important part of the study. How does this passage challenge their attitudes? What action should they take? Encourage group members to take on an assignment or set a goal for them to live out the following week. Then, in the next lesson, after the ice breaker, check in on their progress.

Create a template with these four parts. You can name them whatever you want to name them. If you write from a template, you never start with a blank piece of paper. For a sample template, contact me at allen@allenwhite.org.

Writing for the Entire Congregation is Tricky.

Every congregation is made up of a broad spectrum of believers. You have everyone from new believers to seasoned saints. You have people who perceive themselves as not having much to offer spiritually and people who pride themselves on their spiritual maturity. (But, how mature are they really?) You have members who have a strong command of Scripture, and you have people who are just discovering their Bibles have both Old and New Testaments. How do you write curriculum that will connect with every member in your church?

Unfortunately, most curriculum is written toward the least common denominator. You don’t want to go over anyone’s head, so you write easier questions for newer, less knowledgeable believers. The problem is you leave out those who are well beyond the new believer stage. I have found that creating a section of the curriculum simply titled “For Deeper Study” meets the needs for those who regard themselves as “deep.” This could include questions based on cross-references to the text or questions assuming greater Bible knowledge.

Deep is a slippery word. I don’t believe you need to parse Greek verbs to meet this need. You want to avoid writing lessons to what I call Bible connoisseurs who are searching for some nuance of the text they have never learned before. Read more here.  To me deep speaks to deep application. How does the word penetrate my Christian façade and speak to my true self? What if Jesus was serious about what he commanded us to do? How should my life change starting today?

You don’t want to leave anyone behind whether they have vast knowledge of Scripture or no knowledge. Creating different levels of questions in the curriculum will help you to bridge this gap. Explain to your group leaders that say the first 10 or so questions are for newer believers, but then the Going Deeper section is for more mature believers, then let them decide which questions are the most appropriate for their groups.

Integrating the Video in Your Curriculum Writing.

If you are creating video-based curriculum, then you need to provide links connecting the teaching on the video with the study guide. I’ve found that transcribing the videos with a service like Rev.com is very helpful in writing curriculum. Take exact quotes from the video teaching and put them into the study guide followed by a question. “In the video, our pastor said __________________. How does that statement impact what you think about _____________?” If you don’t refer to the video in the study guide, then sometimes the video can seem unrelated to the group study.

I prefer to write the study guide after the video shoot. This way the video doesn’t change. It’s done. Then, using your template from #1, write your questions using the same passage(s) of Scripture, the teacher used and add some quotes from the video. If something wasn’t thoroughly covered in the video, then you can add material in a lesson introduction which should be read in the group meeting.

Video-based curriculum is a great way to start discussion on a topic. The group leader does not need to be a Bible expert, because the pastor on the video is the expert. Video curriculum also makes the link between the pastor and small groups stronger. The pastor’s effort is meaningful to the group. For more on video curriculum, click here.

Training Your Group Leaders with the Curriculum.

Whatever you want your group leaders to do in a meeting should be stated in the curriculum. I prefer to put these instructions in every book rather than creating a leader guide and a student guide. I want group members to see how easy it is to lead a group and maybe they’ll lead a group on their own eventually.

Leader instructions that are taught in a meeting or hidden in the introduction to the study guide will never make it into a group meeting. If you want the group to pray together at the end of the discussion, then add a question or statement about prayer at the end of the application section. If you want group members to take responsibilities in the group like bringing refreshments, hosting the group in their home, or leading the discussion, then add these instructions into the application section during the first two weeks of the study. If you want group members to invite more people to the group, then put that in the study. If you want group members to avoid spending time on prayer requests like “Please pray for my Aunt Gertrude’s big toe,” then add those instructions into the study. You get the picture.

Leaders will be reminded if the instructions are in each lesson. If the leader skips something, then a group member will be quick to bring it up. And, in the process, group members will discover that they could lead a group themselves.

Concluding Thoughts.

There is an art and a science to curriculum writing. Curriculum requires a basic structure to get the group to where you want it to go. Remember the four parts? Curriculum writing also requires the finesse to write for an entire congregation without leaving anyone out. Integrating quotes from video teaching will make your curriculum more cohesive. Training leaders and their whole group is another great way to cast vision for future groups and get the Word of God deeper into your members’ lives.

Oh, and if all of this seems too much for you, then recruit a volunteer team of writers to help you. Don’t make any promises on what you will or won’t use, but ask them to help. Other paid services like Lifeway’s smallgroup.com can also help you create your own curriculum.

There is nothing wrong with purchasing your curriculum. But, writing your own curriculum gives you the chance to encode each lesson with your church’s DNA and address specific things to your congregation.

Maybe Your Church Doesn’t Need Small Groups

Maybe Your Church Doesn’t Need Small Groups

By Allen White group

For people who know me and know what I do for a living, the title of this post probably seems pretty ridiculous. After all, I am Mr. Small-Groups-On-the Brain. In this last season, I have help a couple of dozen churches recruit leaders and launch thousands of groups across the country. Did something go wrong?

No, but let’s think about the purpose of groups for a minute. Why are we so obsessed about group life? I am a big fan of groups because it creates a place for people to care for each other, apply God’s Word, serve together, and reach others. The emphasis is on the “small” part. A group fulfills the second part of the early church’s paradigm: they met in temple courts and house to house (Acts 5:42). There was a large public space and a smaller personal space. Groups work. But, maybe not for everyone.

Most churches already have something in place for these functions of care, application, service and outreach. Not all of these functions are in the same place, however. Adult Sunday School might focus on teaching and then care, but maybe not on service and outreach. A task group might focus heavily on serving, but not incorporate the other three functions. A softball team might have a care and outreach function, but not a Bible application or serving component. The question is do we swing the wrecking ball at the ministries that partially fulfill the list, or do we challenge them to become more well rounded? Before you give an answer, answer this question: If It Ain’t Broke, Break It?

This is really a question of form and function. Churches who embrace the form of small groups will sometimes go overboard and call everything a small group. If your church has 200 adult members with 30 in Sunday school, 40 on service teams, and zero groups, suddenly you can have 70 out of your 200 in groups. That’s 35 percent, which is much higher than the national average. But, just because Sunday school classes are now “small groups,” and service teams are now “task groups” doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything “groupish” happening at all.

Of course, you can also go the other way. You can throw a bunch of ill prepared people into a living room in a sink or swim fashion and suddenly have a high percentage of the much coveted “off-campus small groups,” yet what are they doing? Is care happening? Are they applying God’s Word and serving?

I’m not saying avoid small groups. I’m definitely not. But, what will small groups accomplish in your context? Why do you want small groups? And, “just because growing and effective churches have them” should not be your answer.

What is your answer? I’d love to hear it!

How Do You Deal with Irrational People?

How Do You Deal with Irrational People?

By Allen White

Irrational behavior has no good argument. Yes, Jesus challenged the religious leaders of His day, but He loved them just as much as He loved His disciples. Jesus came to save the lost. The high priest and the others were lost. They just didn’t know it. People who result to anger, cursing or violence aren’t interested in working through a problem. They only want their way. They make
it clear that the only way to get along with them is to co-dependently acquiesce to their wishes. As long as you’re willing to stay on the bottom, things will work out just fine for the bully. That’s a hard place to live.How do you deal with an irrational person? Jesus provides some answers for us.

Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.” 

When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded. 

“If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. John 18:19-24

1. Stay Calm. When someone yells at you, it’s hard not to yell back. But, then again, you’re not in Kindergarten any more. If the other person decides to jump off of the cliff emotionally, jumping off with them won’t solve anything. (Remember what your mother used to say.)The Bible tells us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). This is a proverb, not a promise. Jesus gave no harsh words. He stayed calm.

2. Speak the Truth. When people are upset, it’s easy to start back pedalling and even saying whatever it takes to get them out of your face. The problem is that you lose your integrity in the process. The Bible says, “…a double-minded man [is] unstable in all he does” (James 1:8, NIV 1984).The great thing about always telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you said. If you always tell the truth, you’re consistent. But, it’s necessary to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Truth-telling is not an excuse for rudeness.

3. Avoid Personal Attacks. Jesus taught to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), then He got slapped. He didn’t over-react. He didn’t retaliate. He didn’t call down 10,000 angels (Matthew 26:53).Jesus knew that His accusers weren’t the enemy. He was fulfilling God’s mission. It wasn’t pleasant. That’s for sure. But, it was necessary for our salvation.When someone challenges you, points out a fault, or falsely accuses you, it’s a natural defense to point out the accuser’s faults. It’s childish, but it’s natural. But, it doesn’t get you anywhere.If what they are saying is true, even if it’s hard to accept, then we need to take it under consideration. If it’s false, then we really don’t need to worry about it.My kids often get hurt feelings when one calls the other a “baby.” I’ll ask them, “Well, are you a baby?” “No,” they reply. “Then don’t worry about what they say.” Now, nobody likes to be called a “baby,” not even me, especially when I am acting like one.

When you’re falsely accused, you need to remind yourself of the truth. You need to be who you are whether others like it or not. When you get into defending yourself to false accusations, you’re just wasting your time. There’s no winning there. “For the LORD will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (Psalm 135:14).What irrational behavior are you dealing with these days? Who is getting under your skin? Pray for them. Ask God to help you calmly speak the truth when you encounter them. Then let God do His work. If you need help getting started, pray this: Psalm 109.Today’s post comes from the devotional blog: galatians419.blogspot.com
When Bible Study Becomes Idolatry

When Bible Study Becomes Idolatry

By Allen White

Over the years, I’ve encountered a few folks who are thrilled with Bible study, but less than thrilled by fellow believers. These folks have a great handle on the Word, but fall short in the deeds department. They don’t want to be bothered by going back to “elementary” teachings. They are Scriptural carnivores looking for the meat.

A while back, a church member complained he was bored with the basic, “seeker” nature of the questions in a study guide. “After all,” he told me as Hebrews 5:13-14 says, “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (NIV). I told him that’s not what the verse was talking about.

The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were contemplating abandoning Christianity and returning to Judaism. The “elementary teachings” and “milk” refers to the Old Covenant. The “solid food” refers to the New Covenant and life in Christ.

He told me he enjoyed this discussion. It was deep. Oh brother…

Most of us Bible scholars understand that an idol is anything we turn to instead of God. The confusion comes when the idol is studying God’s Word rather than turning to God. That seems a bit like splitting a hair. Maybe the correct issue is our pride regarding our Bible knowledge. We must remember that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). So, how do you know when Bible study has become idolatry for you?

1.       You’re more interested in the study guide than your fellow group members.

A small group is community built around a Bible study. If you’re going to err in one direction or the other, then choose community over Bible study. But, if you always neglect Bible study, then that’s a problem too.

But, if you care more about the lesson and less about group life, you just might be missing the point. Sure, you can memorize Ephesians 4:32, but are you practicing it? If you leave your group meeting irritated because someone shared so much about their life crisis and the group couldn’t complete the Bible study, you just might be elevating Bible study a little too high.

2.       You can’t tolerate “easy” questions.

Most Bible studies are designed with a opening question that anyone can answer. Then, there are discovery questions which are answered directly from the Scripture passages. Later in the study are interpretation questions and application questions. If you find yourself irritated by icebreakers and bored with discovery questions, then you may be focused on the wrong things. If what you have to say about God’s Word is more important than what God’s Word actually says, you have made an idol out of the study.

I am amazed at the number of “mature” believers who will pitch a fit over questions they already know the answers to. They have no patience for helping new believers understand the Scripture. Their focus is on their own intellectual curiosity. The study needs to cater to their interests. My question is this: How mature are these folks really?

3.       You feel prayer requests and sharing life wastes precious Bible study time.

If you love Bible study, but you can’t stand people, you are missing the point. Our knowledge of Scripture should deepen our love for God and our love for each other. If you’d rather parse Greek verbs than persist in prayer for your fellow group members, then take a hermeneutics class and parse away…on your own…by yourself.

Please understand, in no way am I encouraging any group to toss out their Bible study. But, if studying the Bible doesn’t increase our compassion for others, something’s broken. After all, knowledge without grace leads us to legalism.

4.       You can recite passages you never intend to obey.

Francis Chan asks this question, “If I asked my children to clean their rooms, and they only memorized my words, would that be enough?” We all must admit that it’s far easier to know the Word than to do the Word. Yet, the Bible tells us that faith without works is dead.

In the church, we have gone far too long substituting knowledge for faith. Often our excuse for not acting is that we don’t know enough. “I can’t witness to my neighbor. I don’t know enough of the answers.” Yet, we know Jesus. Isn’t He the answer? Our apologetic arguments aren’t going to win anyone to God’s Kingdom. Salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), right?

If we stopped our Bible study until we lived out the commands we already know, do you think we’d ever pick up our Bibles again? Now, we all need the encouragement of Scripture. But, as Howard Hendricks said, “Most Christians are already educated beyond their level of obedience.”

5.       Bible study has become an escape from your real life.

I love God’s Word. I might even love God’s Word more than I love other people. After all, I’m going to do what God’s Word says rather than what others tell me to do. But, there’s a line we can cross when it comes to loving God’s Word – Can we love God’s Word more than we actually love God? We can learn His commands, yet not obey them. We can recite obscure nuances of Scripture from memory, yet do we go to those lengths to help other people?

Yes, we should turn to God’s Word for comfort. But, more importantly, we should turn to God. We should delight in helping others discover the truth of God’s Word. We should be challenged by the deeper meaning of Scripture – not secretive, hidden meanings – but truths applied and lived out in our daily lives. The Word of God is active, not passive. Our worship belongs to God, not to His Word.

What If I’m Not a Good Example to My Group?

What If I’m Not a Good Example to My Group?

By Allen White

When it comes to measuring up, most small group leaders fall short. That’s the simple truth. You’re not the only leader who fought with your spouse right before the doorbell rang and your first group member arrived. You’re not the only group leader who’s lost your temper, then felt the need to paste on a smile. What do you do when you feel like you don’t measure up to God’s standard? Should you stop leading? If that’s the case, we’d all stop leading.

In the Bible, David asks, “LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart” Psalm 15:1-2

While we should all strive to become more like Christ, if perfection is the qualification, then that sounds like a pretty empty tent to me. I hope Jesus enjoys His solo camping trip.

Every person on the face of the earth has fallen short (Romans 3:23). No exceptions. There are no perfect people. Now, this isn’t an excuse for bad behavior. It’s just the simple truth that even at our best, we just don’t measure up. Fortunately, there is also good news.

If the requirements are to be blameless, righteous and truthful, we all fail to meet those requirements. But, Jesus is blameless (Hebrews 4:15), righteous (Romans 5:17), and the Truth (John 14:6). Some would say the solution is to act more like Jesus. WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) Only problem is, we can’t live up to that either.

Jesus always did the right thing. Jesus always had the right thing to say. He always had the right response to the Pharisees’ tricky questions. No one tied Jesus up in knots intellectually. No one got His goat emotionally. Nothing broke His connection with God spiritually. Imitating Jesus is not the answer. We’re just not that good.

What if we stopped trying to live for Christ and allowed Jesus to live His Life through us? Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Jesus doesn’t desire for us to try to become like Him with our own efforts. Jesus just wants us to get out of His way, so He can do His work.

Our job is not to work hard on being blameless and righteous. Our job is to remain connected to the Vine. Sometimes we’re so busy with the appearance of the fruit, we forget the connection to the Root. Decorating ourselves with artificial fruit might fool some of the people, but we’re really only fooling ourselves.

Disconnection from Christ doesn’t produce fruit. It produces death and uselessness (John 15:6).

How do we remain connected with Christ? First, we keep ourselves in constant conversation with Jesus. Not out loud in public places like some kind of a freak. But, to ourselves. Rather than mulling things over and over in our heads – replaying old tapes that keep us defeated – we need to talk to Jesus about it. “I don’t feel too good about this meeting coming up. What should I do? How should I handle this? Please guide me and help me.” And, guess what? He does.

When we read the Bible, it’s not for the purpose of discovering more things that we’re required to live up to but can’t. The Bible reveals God’s vision for our lives. When we read things that might seem impossible to do, we take those to Jesus: “Jesus, if you want me to be kind and compassionate like you said in Ephesians 4:32, you’re going to have to do that in me, because I’m not going to get there on my own.” As we surrender ourselves and give our natural responses to situations over to Jesus, He will guide our words, our actions and our steps.

Here’s the best part – the blamelessness, righteousness and truthfulness required to dwell with God is exactly what Jesus gives us. We aren’t blameless. We don’t become righteous on our own. We walk in the Truth by allowing the Truth, Jesus Christ, to live in us.

What part of your life doesn’t look like Jesus? Before you start beating yourself up, ask Him to create Christlikeness in you. You just might be surprised at how Jesus can change you for good.

Doing ministry without the power of Christ is like trying to fly without an airplane. You and I lack the ability. Doing God’s work in God’s way with God’s power will reap God’s result. You are not alone.

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