Writing Effective Group Curriculum
By Allen White
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
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.