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 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.
By Allen White
Pastor Wayne Cordeiro leads New Hope Oahu, which is certainly the largest church in Hawaii as well as one of the largest churches in America. Wayne came to us with two objectives in mind. He wanted to create a small group curriculum based on his recently released book, The Seven Rules of Success, and he wanted to connect his congregation into groups for the series and beyond.
New Hope Oahu already had a strong production crew, so they didn’t need the work done for them, but they knew that while the expertly produced weekend services, video-based group curriculum was a new genre for them. NHO partnered with us to coach their production team, to provide on-site direction for their video shoot, and to coach their small group team in launching new groups and sustaining those groups past the seven week series. Our team rolled up our sleeves to help them masterfully produce the curriculum for the book.
We provided guidance through the pre-production process from what equipment to have on hand to determining what elements to shoot and which on-camera personnel to use to help with turning a tradebook into a teaching script for the teleprompter. While this was new for the NHO team, this was not new to our team. Prior to this project, we worked with a variety of pastors to create small group curriculum based on a tradebook including Rick Warren’s The Daniel Plan, Chris Hodges’ Fresh Air, Wilfredo (Choco) de Jesus’ Amazing Faith and In the Gap titles, and Pastor Kerri Weems’ Rhythms of Grace. By repurposing great content, these pastors developed additional tools to help their congregations and many others to apply the principles to their lives in a group.
Before you get jealous, the video shoot took place in Oregon, not Hawaii. As you can see from this beautiful outdoor setting, Wayne and his team shot on a horse farm in both indoor and outdoor settings. The Lifetogether team provided on-site coaching to lead their team through every step of the process, every element on the DVD, and every promotional video to recruit leaders and launch their church-wide initiative.
The end result was both a beautiful small group tool and seeing 6,000 people connected into groups at New Hope Oahu in their first video teaching series. There is work ahead to continue support their small group team with the structures and training necessary to sustain groups for 6,000 people, but this isn’t new to us either. Best of all, New Hope Oahu now has the ability to continue producing curriculum for their groups with or better yet, without our help well into the future.
By Allen White
Fall is a prime season to launch groups in churches across the country. In my consulting work, I am working with churches from Florida to Washington and Southern California to New York City. Among churches of various sizes and denominations, we are seeing some tremendous results. But, not every church hits a home run with their group launch. Here are some reasons why.
- You picked the wrong topic.
Small groups are a great vehicle for people to grow spiritually. But, in order for people to grow in a group, they need to actually be in a group. If a church’s goal is to connect their congregation into groups, then a felt needs topic is very attractive. If you give people something they want to study, they will jump right in. If you offer something they “should” study, it may not go so well.
Let me go on the record: Healthy, balanced small groups cannot live by felt needs topics alone. But, kicking off groups usually doesn’t go well with series on evangelism, stewardship, fasting, or other self-sacrificial studies. You need to establish your goal. If you want to increase the number of groups, then go felt needs. If you want to grow your people deeper, then offer these topics to your established groups.
- You set the bar too high.
The more requirements for group leadership, the fewer leaders you will recruit. If you required all of your new leaders to be church members, complete a lengthy leadership training process, or graduate with their Master of Divinity, you certainly limited the number of groups you could launch this Fall.
Your level of acceptable risk will greatly determine the reward. If you invite people to do a study with their friends, then you are only limited to people with friends. If you increase the requirements, you lessen the impact.
If you choose to lower the bar next time, then lessen the risk by forming “unpublished” groups. If the groups don’t appear on your church’s website, group listing, or bulletin, you are not implying any kind of official endorsement of the groups. If friends invite friends, you will form good, lasting groups, and if someone gets in a bad group, well, it was their friend’s group after all.
- You focused on recruiting group members.
As a pastor, if the invitation is for potential group members, you may or may not actually start groups. You will certainly give yourself a lot of busy work trying to find enough leaders to accommodate the prospects or trying to place people in the right group. But, you’ve missed the mark and the point.
If you have a bunch of prospective group members, you might have a group. If you have a leader, you WILL have a group. In fact, the best way to get into a group is to start a group — you’re automatically in! When the focus is on recruiting leaders, you will greatly increase your number of groups. If your focus is on members, you will probably just end up with a mess.
- You put too much distance between the invitation and the response.
When you or your senior pastor made the invitation for people to start a group, how and when did they respond?
If they were sent to the church website to register, they didn’t go.
If they were sent to the church lobby, they walked right by.
If they were invited to a meeting in the near future, they forgot.
If they had a sign up card in their hand during the service, bingo, they’re in!
If they were sent an email to remind them to sign up at church on Sunday, they forgot again.
If they were sent an email with a registration link, then they signed up.
The less distance between the invitation and the response, the greater the result.
- You gave too many steps from “Yes” to starting the group.
If the pathway from the response to the group starting took too many steps, then you lost leaders at every phase.
If you recruited months in advance of your group launch, there were too many days before they started. Cold feet and good intentions didn’t get them there.
If you required a training class, a membership class, a pastoral interview, a group orientation, a group connection, and a final debrief meeting, you lost, lost, lost, lost and lost new group leaders.
If you kept the steps to a minimum, based on your own acceptable level of risk, you kept far more than any of the above scenarios.
- Your recruitment period was too short.
A few years ago, I was working with two churches of similar size who were launching groups on the same week. One church recruited 20 new leaders. The other recruited 60. The first church recruited leaders for one week. The second church recruited for three weeks in a row. Triple the recruiting equaled triple the result. You do the math.
- Your senior pastor was not on board.
If your senior pastor was hesitant about your next series in any way, it hurt you. Half-hearted appeals and hit or miss invitations lead to lackluster results.
If your senior pastor didn’t make the invitation for leaders, that was a huge miss. The senior pastor will get three times the result of any other staff member. I’ve served as an associate pastor for 20 of my 24 years of ministry. As soon as I learned this, I never made the invitation again.
How do you get your senior pastor on board with the series you recommend? You don’t. If you want your group launch to succeed, you have to get on board with where your senior pastor wants to go. If you respect your senior pastor’s direction, you will see respectable results. If you try to pressure your senior pastor into a series that is not his idea, you are on your own (literally).
Last Sunday, I worshipped with a church who had never had small groups. Their senior pastor decided it was time. He cast vision for groups. He kept the response close to the invitation. He focused on recruiting leaders. He did it all right. Then, on Sunday afternoon, 360 new group leaders showed up for training (and they have two more weeks to recruit!)
Learn the lessons from your failed attempt. There is no shame in failure, but there is shame in not learning.
Free Fall Group Launch Debrief – Based on YOUR Questions and Issues
with Allen White
1. Take a brief survey to share where your launch fell short.
2. Login to the webinar on:
Tuesday, October 17 at 3pm ET/ 2pm CT/ 1pm MT/ Noon PT
Wednesday, October 19 at 11am ET/ 10am CT/ 9am MT/ 8am PT
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One Participant from Each Webinar will receive a free copy of Exponential Groups by Allen White. You must be on the webinar to win.
By Allen White
This last year, I had the privilege of coaching Dr. Tony Evans and his team at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. When we started the partnership, they had a solid small groups system producing strong incremental growth, but a few adjustments netted a huge dividend.
1. Dr. Evans Produced Curriculum for His Sermon Series
Partnering with The Urban Alternative, Lifetogether helped to produce the first video-based curriculum based on his Destiny book, which was actually shot in Dr. Evans’ home. I am firmly convinced that other than Jesus Christ, the reason anyone joins any church is because of the senior pastor, especially if they are not connected to others in the church through a group, Bible study or class. (Don’t tell the worship pastor. This news will break his heart.)
People are there because they like the senior pastor’s personality and style. They glean from his wisdom and laugh at his jokes. When the senior pastor offers a curriculum featuring his teaching, it’s difficult for the pastor, but it’s a no brainer for his people. They want in!
2. Dr. Evans Invited His Members to Start Groups
On Sunday, September 1, 2013 (Labor Day weekend), Dr. Evans preached a message called The Connection Commandment.
“Even though it depresses me to know you forget my sermons week by week, I do have issues with that, the good news I have for you today is if you just remember two Jesus says everything else hangs on them. You are to love [God] with everything that you got and you are to transfer that to others and when you do you got the whole Bible starting to live inside you because He said the whole scripture depends on just these two,” said Dr. Evans.
He went on to invite people to open their homes and gather groups to grow together. On Labor Day Sunday, 260 people at OCBF said “yes” and turned in a card committing to launch a group. By the time the Destiny series started three weeks later, 500 people offered to start groups.
3. Dr. Evans’ Team Rearranged the Requirements
Intially, small group leaders at OCBF went through extensive training prior leading a small group. In fact, their leadership process is a year long. But, for this series, they reframed what they were asking for. This wasn’t a call to “leadership” per se. This was a call to obedience, because everyone is called to go and make disciples.
After people said they would start a group, the staff made sure everyone was a member at OCBF, which was a requirement. Now, I’ll be honest, I was nervous about this requirement until I discovered the church had 7,000 members. That’s a number I can work with. The staff invited the people starting groups to a one hour orientation to cover the basics, then let them get started with the series. Following the series the church offered additional training to these new leaders. The end result is including all of their small group leaders, new and established, in the same small group system.
What did Dr. Evans and his team do that you haven’t tried yet? What’s holding you back? Leave your comments below.