A new year often brings new motivation to get your life in order. The problem with most New Year’s resolutions, however, is that people try to change too much all at once. They want to lose weight, pay off debt, read their Bible through in a year, whiten their teeth, get more exercise, get more sleep, and wake up earlier. Before long their resolutions go by the wayside and reality sets in. The gravitational pull of their default way of living is just too strong. We do the same thing in the church.
As a child, my family went to church a lot. Every Sunday included a Sunday school class, morning worship, and a Sunday evening service. We also went to Bible study every Wednesday night and a lot of other meetings and activities in between. This was the pathway to Heaven, wasn’t it? But from a spiritual growth perspective, all of these meetings and services didn’t help people grow spiritually.
Every week we received a Sunday school lesson, then a sermon that had nothing to do with the Sunday school lesson. Then a Sunday evening sermon on a completely different topic plus a midweek Bible study that added a fourth thing to think about. In all likelihood, however, the lessons from Sunday had been forgotten by Wednesday.
If success was measured in the amount of time spent at church, we were successful. If spiritual growth occurred in terms of lessons learned, then we were well on our way to becoming spiritual giants. Yet, the reality is no one can make four significant changes in a week and certainly not over 200 changes in year. We’d probably see more progress working on one thing over 30 days.
Today, in many churches, Sunday school, the evening service, and the midweek Bible study have disappeared. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For most people, it was too much to absorb anyway, let alone actually apply to their lives. Too much information interferes with change. But, information is only one aspect of making a change. This is why I see the genius of sermon-based studies.
They Take Their Weekend into Their Week.
Most preachers are painfully aware that sermons are usually forgotten within the first 48 hours. People are busy and distracted. The information they gain on the weekend is quickly diluted by all of the other information they receive. How can people work on something when they can’t even remember what the something was?
By creating sermon-based studies, small group members can revisit the topic from the weekend and be reminded of what they heard. It’s amazing how quickly the teaching will come back. Some churches will include a 5-8 minute video to get the discussion started. These videos can easily be produced on a smartphone and uploaded to Youtube. While the message is still fresh in the pastor’s mind, record either a supplement or a summary of the sermon to help the group get started.
They Get to Discuss and Apply the Sermon.
Sermons are created for listeners, not participants. This makes sermons passive. While some people are auditory learners, people with other learning styles won’t retain as much unless they’re given an opportunity to discuss and apply the teaching.
By offering 5-6 discussion questions based on the sermon, group members can work out what the sermon means to them and how to apply the teaching to their lives. Remember, our mission from Jesus is “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, NIV), not just teaching commandments. Sermons should inspire people to change, but the real work of change happens with a smaller group of people.
They Can Set Goals and Seek Accountability.
Once the group understands what they need to change, they should be challenged to set goals for themselves. The goals can be as simple as “Based on this lesson, I will take the following step in the next week.” Then write down the goal. By setting objectives for the next week, the group members can turn intent into action.
While some may be self-disciplined enough to carry out their goal by themselves, this is not the case of everyone in every situation. In order to fulfill a goal, most people need someone to encourage them and check in on their progress. This does not need to be heavy-handed. In fact, the only accountability that really works is the accountability people want.
Ask group members to partner up and check with each other between meetings. Knowing that someone is going to ask will often motivate people to move forward. If someone hasn’t met their goal, then they should be encouraged to try again. Accountability can also be built into the sermon discussion guide by simply asking about the group members’ progress at the beginning of the next meeting.
Disciple-making that Involves the Senior Pastor Brings Success.
Both the senior pastor and the church members will be more interested in small groups when the studies are connected with the pastor’s sermons. Pastors are more interested in groups because they are delving deeper into the teaching. Any pastor would be encouraged to have a discussion of the sermon that extended beyond Sunday lunch. Pastors will become more interested in groups when the groups are involved in what interests them. They might even refer to groups in their sermons by saying, “Hash this point out in your group time this week.” That will certainly raise the profile for groups.
Anything the senior pastor is involved in will get the attention of the congregation. If the group study is based on the pastor’s sermon, then members will be very interested in hearing more from their pastor and being part of something their pastor is leading. It’s a win/win.
Sermon-based Studies are Not Always for Everyone.
While I believe there is a certain genius in connecting the sermon to the small group study, you also have to take into account the fact that group members are at very different places in their lives and spiritual maturity. Simply put — not everyone needs the same things. Have enough flexibility to allow for exceptions when groups need to study something other than the sermon.
Church-wide campaigns offer another opportunity to connect sermons and studies. The purpose of campaigns, however, is to recruit new group leaders more than anything else. While there are spiritual growth benefits to campaigns, the biggest gain is in new leaders and new groups.
Consider writing a sermon discussion guide for your groups and see the impact it gives. If you don’t have time to write one personally, then form a team to help you. For more information on creating sermon-based studies, enroll in the Writing Effective Curriculum Workshop. A live version of this workshop starts on Thursday, January 16, 2020 and runs for four Thursdays.