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
Video-based small group curriculum has been with us for a while now. Early innovators like Rick Warren and the team at Saddleback Church brought the local pastor into the living room. This proved to be an easy way to start groups and an easy way for group leaders to prepare for meetings.
With all of the professionally produced video curriculum out there, why would a church want to create their own? While well-known pastors have produced some excellent studies, your pastor’s face on the screen presents some strong advantages for your congregation.
Help People Take Their Weekend Experience into the Week.
The hustle and bustle of life tends to edge out the Sunday morning sermon after a day or so. While some sermons are remembered better than others, most are long forgotten by mid-week. By providing small groups with studies based on the weekend message, the points made on Sunday can take deeper root.
By creating space in the small group to review the weekend message via a short video (no more than 10 minutes), the group has a chance to review the points, ask questions, discuss issues, and make a specific application to their lives. Giving groups the opportunity to think about the message and what it means to them causes the group members to retain more. In groups they can involve more of themselves in the teaching. Rather than simply listening and maybe taking notes, group members can wrestle with hard questions and get the encouragement and accountability they need to live out the message.
Producing Your Own Curriculum Engages the Senior Pastor.
A senior pastor without a teaching gift is not a senior pastor for long. This is the most public and most personal role of any senior pastor. Speaking is hard work. Even the most gifted teachers spend hours gathering material, studying, collecting illustrations, and polishing their messages. Once Sunday is finished, for most pastors, the countdown clock to next week’s sermon begins. The one they worked so hard on for this week is now a thing of the past. But, it doesn’t have to be.
What if the pastor could sit down in a living room with his church members and teach them the part he couldn’t get to on Sunday morning? What if in that circle the pastor could share his heart about what the Bible passage means and what it would mean if people started obeying it? A video-based curriculum can breathe new life into a message destined for the archives. Not only will the congregation learn more, but the message will go farther through the group.
The Senior Pastor’s Involvement Elevates the Role of Groups.
For most churchgoers, the initial draw to a church is the pastor’s teaching and the music. As hard as the other church staff work in their roles, this is the simple truth. The senior pastor plays a highly significant role in the spiritual lives of his congregation.
By connecting the small group study to the weekend message, you can leverage the influence of the senior pastor in leading his people to connect in small groups. Once the pastor has created a video curriculum, his next question will be “How do we use this? How do we recruit more leaders? How do we get people into groups?” Don’t you want your senior pastor asking those questions?
What’s important to the senior pastor will be what’s important to the congregation. Bulletins, video announcements, website – none of these come close to having the #1 influencer in the church direct the congregation. When the pastor asks for people to host groups, people will host groups. When the pastor invites members to join groups, members will join groups. When E.F. Hutton talks…
I learned this lesson over a decade ago. I had spent seven years recruiting and training leaders to find only 30 percent of our congregation in groups. But, the first time our senior pastor stood up and asked for host homes, we doubled our groups in one day. I never looked back. He did all of the recruiting and leading from that point forward. I have not recruited a group leader myself since 2004, even though I have served in another church since then.
Take the Weekend Message Beyond the Church Walls.
When church members invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives and others to join them for a church-produced Bible study, the senior pastor is introduced to many more people than actually attend the church on Sunday. In homes, workplaces, Starbucks and even commuter trains, the pastor’s teaching goes out to many new people.
Often new people will meet the pastor via video before they meet him in person. But, the transition from the living room to the church auditorium now is not quite as daunting. New folks feel they’ve already met the pastor through the weekly group studies. And, don’t tell the group hosts and leaders, but they’re actually doing evangelism. Shhh.
A Simple Teaching Tool Multiplies Small Group Potential.
A video curriculum is easy to use. In fact, someone who has never led before simply needs to follow the instructions. The teaching on the video provides the wisdom and expertise. The questions in the book provide the pathway for a great discussion. Pushing play and reading questions is not so hard.
Think about this: every person in your church has friends. The people who are less involved in the church will actually have far more friends outside of the church. What if your church members each gathered a group of 8-10 people for a video-based study featuring your senior pastor? Could a church of 100 members reach 1,000 people? What about a church of 1,000 going after 10,000? What about a church of 13,000 reaching over 100,000? Is it possible? The Bible says all things are possible with God.
By Allen White
Photo by Sylvain Robin
How do you know if your small groups pastor should stay or go? How do you measure success in small groups? Today, I want to give you some milestones for small groups. You might just find a new scorecard for success in your small groups.
1. You have less than 30% in groups.
It’s fairly easy to connect 30% of a church’s adults into groups (unless you have more than 70% in Sunday School). This is the low hanging fruit. Any strategy can help most churches connect at least 30% into groups. Whether you are handpicking leaders, developing apprentices and birthing groups, or launching church-wide campaigns, 30% is a pretty low threshold for connection.
In fact, most churches I’ve coached have become stuck at with 30% in groups. Few have less than 30% if they are giving small groups any effort. Determine whether your groups pastor believes your church is a cruise ship or a battle ship. Is everyone kicking back and relaxing about groups, or is it all hands on deck?
2. Your Groups Pastor spends time connecting people into groups.
Connecting individuals to groups is nearly a complete waste of time. Either the leader never contacts the prospective member, the prospect doesn’t show up, or the prospect leaves the group as soon as the study ends. Why? There is simply not enough affinity if the group only has a neighborhood or night of the week in common. This does not create lasting connection in groups.
Besides, everyone is already in a group. It’s the first sentence of my book. They have neighbors, co-workers, family members, and all kinds of people they do life with. To support unrecognized, yet existing groups is a far more effective way to grow groups. While there will be exceptions, in the wise words of Brett Eastman, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” Don’t develop a whole group system to accommodate for possible exceptions.
3. You don’t have a coaching structure.
Developing a coaching structure is where your church will get the most bang for its buck. If you applied the same energy to coaching that you currently exert for recruiting leaders and connecting people into groups, you will have a far more effective small group system. Leadership support and development is the key to healthy small groups.
If you don’t have a coaching structure, then you are limited to just the handful of groups a small groups pastor can manage on his or her own. While many churches, even prominent churches, have abandoned coaching, the truth is an email distribution list or another training meeting is not an effective investment into your small group leaders. Coaching is built on a relationship. Without that relationship, groups will disappear over time.
4. Your Groups Pastor isn’t begging you to create self-produced curriculum.
The best way to connect people into groups is to start new groups. The best way to start new groups is through a church-wide launch using the Senior Pastor’s teaching in the video curriculum. Whether you hire a full production crew and invest tens of thousands of dollars or shoot the video with an iPhone, your people want more of your teaching, Pastor. After all, if they aren’t connected to each other, the reason they attend your church, other than Jesus, is you. They like you. They like your teaching. They laugh at your jokes. If you give them exclusive content through small groups, you are giving more of what they already like. When you encourage them to gather their friends to do the study, that 30% connected in groups will become a small dot in the rearview mirror of your ministry.
Whether you preach in a series or preach standalone messages, there are ways to craft new sermons and even past sermons into a video-based curriculum. Some production companies even offer curriculum that’s already prepared for you — you just need to add your teaching! If your groups pastor isn’t begging for this, then you’ve missed the boat.
A Closing Thought…
There might be another reason your small groups pastor isn’t reaching his or her optimal performance — it might be you. Are you open to talking about groups from the pulpit? Have you made small groups a priority in your church? Are you willing to create curriculum? Do you see small groups as one of many ministries in the church or do you see groups are the chief way to connect, disciple, equip, train, and empower your members for ministry?
Small groups could grow your church like nothing else. What’s blocking your growth?
By Allen White
I’ve seen small group launches go really well. And, I’ve had churches come to me after the launch or a series of launches and ask for help. Not so secretly, I really wish I had the opportunity to talk to them first. Any church only has so many opportunities to successfully launch groups and connect the majority of their members. Failure to launch in these circumstances is fatal for future launch attempts.
As I’ve worked with churches, large and small, across North America, I have discovered seven things that help churches successfully launch groups. By having these things in place, you have a better chance of recruiting the leaders and coaches you need, forming groups that will last, and make your senior pastor a raving fan of groups.
Insight #1: Choose the Right Topic.
The right or wrong topic will make or break your launch. Think about who you are trying to connect: church members or folks in the community. If you chose a mature topic like tithing or fasting, more than likely you’ll have a tough road getting your members to participate let alone anyone from outside of your church. Think about topics that would be a felt need for your people and your community.
I’ve coached churches who have done a two step strategy with this. The first campaign was used to connect and cast vision to the church body. The second campaign was designed for the church to reach the community. For instance, Capital Area Christian Church in the Harrisburg, PA area launched a New Year’s series in 2015 called Manifesto. This series laid out the vision and mission of the church to their people. Then, after Easter 2015, the launched a second series called Monsters Under the Bed, which addresses the topic of fear — now that’s a significant felt need. In the second series, they connect more in their congregation, but also quite a few in their community.
Insight #2: Lower the Bar on Leadership.
That doesn’t mean throwing people who are completely unprepared with no coach into the deep end. When I say, “lower the bar” I mean temporarily setting aside your requirements for short term series groups. These groups aren’t advertised. You don’t send people to these groups. You invite people who are open to doing a study with their friends give small groups a try. Maybe for the first time.
If they have a good experience leading a group, then invite them to do more. Eventually, you will offer them a leadership track to make them official leaders. If things didn’t go so well for them, then thank them for giving it a try and encourage them to try another ministry.
As Neil Cole says, “We need to lower the bar on what it means to be a leader and raise the bar on what it means to be a disciple.” Not everyone has a leadership gift, but we are all called to “go and make disciples.” No one is exempt from the Great Commission. By giving your people an easy to use tool like a video-based curriculum, you can help your people live in obedience to God by equipping them for what God commands them to do. When did this become an option?
Insight #3: Focus on Recruiting Group Leaders.
If your pastor is willing to give “airtime” in the weekend service to talk about groups, recruit leaders. If your pastor gives you airtime for multiple weekends, recruit leaders. If you are recruiting leaders, people will figure out the church is launching groups or doing a church-wide campaign. Don’t waste this precious airtime promoting groups. And, certainly don’t waste this precious airtime promoting classes and Bible studies that are on their way out. Recruit leaders.
Insight #4: Keep the Invitation and the Response Close Together.
People only think about church when they are in church. When the pastor invites folks to lead a group, then provide a way IN THE SERVICE for them to respond. Don’t send them to the lobby. Don’t send them to the website. Don’t send them out the door without collecting their response.
Whether you use a response card which is placed in the offering, an online survey taken on a smartphone, or texting a message to a designated number, you want to get a “Yes” from every willing person before they head out the door. If you send an email invitation from the Senior Pastor during the week, provide a link for them to sign up online.
Insight #5: Shorten the Distance Between Their “Yes” and Starting the Group.
Since we’ve already waved the requirements, the new leaders are already one step closer to starting their group. Whether the Senior Pastor encourages them in the service to begin inviting people to their groups or they are instructed on how to form their groups in a briefing immediately after the service, don’t allow any time to pass from when they say “Yes” to when the new leaders put things in motion.
The longer you wait, the sooner they will get cold feet. Don’t schedule a briefing or orientation a month from the invitation because it’s efficient. I would rather host three briefs per weekend for three weeks in a row with a handful of people at each than wait a month and lose half of the prospective leaders in the process. You’ve made it easy for people to start groups, now get them started!
Insight #6: Recruit During the Month Prior to Your Launch.
While you can promote well in advance of the series, don’t take signups for months. I learned this from a PTA president. Promote early and often, but only take signups right before the event. Otherwise, you can recruit and recruit only to discover most people will sign up in the last three weeks before the start of the launch.
One month out gather your existing group leaders to give them the first look at the series. I call this a Sneak Peek. This will honor your leaders by giving them an exclusive opportunity to check out the new study. This will also take pressure off of your new leader briefings by briefing your established leaders ahead of time. This is also a great opportunity to recruit your established leaders to coach new leaders.
Then, recruit new leaders for the three weeks leading up to the launch. Not everyone attends every weekend, so you want to ask for more than one weekend. Also, some people will need time to warm up to the idea. The first week they might say “No” to leading a group, but by the third week, their “No” might turn to a “Yes.”
Insight #7: Your Senior Pastor Must be Your Church’s Small Group Champion.
Going back 20 years, I used to personally recruit every small group leader in my church. While I had stellar group leaders, my church also got stuck at 30 percent of our people in groups. Then, I asked my Senior Pastor to invite people to lead groups. We doubled our groups in a day. I have not personally recruited another small group leader since 2004. And, I served in a whole other church since then!
To gain your Senior Pastor’s interest in groups, put your pastor on the curriculum. If you do, your pastor will be more interested in groups because he will want people to use his curriculum. Also, your people will be far more interested in joining a group, because they already like your pastor’s teaching.
I know I gave you these seven insights in rapid fire succession. If you hit these seven points, you will have a great small group launch. If you want to hear more, then register for my next webinar at allenwhite.org/webinars.