Sermon-Based Small Groups

I’ve been thinking about how we can get more people involved in smaller communities without loading down already busy families. I also sense there are only so many truth units that a person can absorb each week… Sunday School, the pastoral message, Wednesday night meeting, any devotional book someone may be reading, and perhaps a Christian living book from your local Lifeway store.

All that spiritual activity is likely pretty optimistic on MY part, but the reality is, a Sunday class and the Sunday sermon may be all that people are taking in each week (or twice a month, or once a month). So, what do you think about designing groups that meet during the week, NOT for additional truth units, but to focus on application and clarification of something already heard last Sunday… like the pastor’s message? I thought of a few questions on the topic:

1. How can sermon-based groups be used for God’s glory, for the good of the local church, and for the good of the community?

Anything that brings glory to God is used by God to glorify Himself, and any time He is glorified the local church is better for it. Anytime the local church is known as being focused on bringing glory to God, the community is enhanced.

I like that! These groups can help our church to be “a city on a hill,” (Matthew 5:14) and a light shining brightly for Christ on the street or cul-de-sac where believers live. They can function as a mission of our church which they represent, in the community where God has placed them for his own glory.

2. How can sermon-based groups “remember” their leaders (Hebrews 13:7) rather than forget what their leaders spoke?

One of the most positive aspects of sermon-based groups or Bible studies is that group members are reminded of the main points of the sermon. Imagine how God will be glorified in the lives of the participants! These groups would study the passage more fully and strive for clarification, questions and application. After reviewing the main points of the sermon, group members should then process what they heard in the sermon then make commitments to live out what was preached.

3. How can I lift up the name of Jesus above all names and respect my pastor?

Humankind will instinctively worship that which they can seen and touch, so there is potential for the pastor to become the focus of attention rather than Jesus. In order to overcome this, small group leaders should be trained to elevate the words found in the Bible above the teaching, clichés and phrases spoken by the pastor in the sermon. Then, consistently during the Bible study time, leaders should point people to Jesus and his word rather than focusing on the teaching pastor and his words.

4. How can people move beyond the after-service surface-level comments like  “Great sermon” to significant conversations?

A very short answer ought to do it… GREAT discussion questions that are placed in the right order. When this happens a transformational conversation will be experienced. Our need is to develop capable of creating these kinds of experiences. This is where most sermon-based groups fall very, very short.

5. What are some upsides of sermon-based small group studies?

  • The pastor is happy with the small group pastor knowing he or she is working in tandem to establish the principles and practices that were unearthed during the sermon.
  • Small group members are reminded of the main points of the sermon which helps establish the truths that were taught.
  • Sermon based Bible studies make more time to discuss application. Since the principles and practices that would normally be unveiled as group members discussed the passage are already established, (since the pastor took care of this when preaching) the group can climb immediately into discussing how these principles and practices are to be lived out.

While God’s Word is sufficient, we must caution that group discussion and attempting to determine what God is saying is vital as group members learn how to interpret Scripture without an official “teacher.” Many people may never learn to think on their own or use their Bibles or interpret Scripture apart from someone telling them what it means.

The Downside of Sermon-Based Groups:

I am a proponent of any small group experience that lifts the name of Jesus above all other names, creates a safe place for everyone involved, and produces an environment where unbelievers feel as though they are equals on a spiritual journey so they attend consistently.

I recently spent some time reading about the sermon-based small group experience, and not everything is positive. These are some concerns I discovered.

1. Elevating the pastors words while inadvertently diminishing God’s Word: When utilizing biblically based, well-done discussion guides, the conversation must be strategically turned toward what the Bible is saying. When discussing the weekend sermon, the conversation can be built around what the pastor said. The primary voice in the Bible study wouldn’t be God and his Word, but the pastor and his words. Instead of hearing phrases like, “The Bible says,” or “Jesus told us,” or “God’s Word instructs us,” small group members hear phrases like, “The pastor told us,”or “If the pastor was here he’d probably say,” or “I’ll check with the pastor and see what he meant.” The pastor’s voice may inadvertently become known as the ultimate truth source rather than the Bible being the only source of all truth.

2. Senior pastor worship: Sermon based small group experiences can easily lead to high levels of senior pastor worship. My research on this topic has indicated that the senior pastor’s name is brought up (and he is held in awe) at least six times during each group gathering. Jesus’ name and his personality are discussed much less than the pastor’s personality and the senior pastor’s name. In some pastor-driven high-power church, Jesus is subconsciously established as the senior pastor’s sidekick, the secondary personality in church life. Before long, many believers speak more of their pastor and his great sermons than their Savior and his redeeming power.

3. Those farthest from Christ won’t attend a small group – Those who are far, far from Christ are not going to attend church services which means they’ll never feel comfortable in a sermon based small group experience. The truth is, people who are far from Christ are NOT going to come to a group to discuss a sermon they haven’t heard. To expect a “not yet” follower of Christ (who didn’t hear the weekend sermon and never will because they are not going to attend a weekend worship service) to come weekly to a sermon based small group experience is like asking someone to come to a book club for a weekly meeting to discuss a book they refuse to read. They aren’t going to attend.

One way to combat this last observation is to invite unchurched friends for the fellowship and discussion on a certain topic (the sermon topic, for instance). Even though someone did not hear the message, in the conversation, the group can highlight the main points of the message as the evening progresses, and then the Bible is STILL the primary source of guidance and the one who missed church is not disadvantaged.

Why is God Silent?

This is the first study in my Decisions: Seeking God’s Guidance class, Wednesdays at King’s Grant Baptist Church.

The purpose today is to show that our sinfulness has blocked communication with God and to see that he will direct us as we obey.

When have you ever fasted? Why or why not?

What benefit did you experience?

An enemy of Joan of Arc once mocked her by jeering, “She says she hears God’s voice; why don’t I hear his voice?” It is reported that Joan replied, “Don’t you wish you did?”

1. If you could ask God one question and be assured of an answer, what would it be?

2. Why have you begun a Bible study on making decisions? Begin by praying that God will lead you in the decision you are facing.

In the year 537 B.C., Cyrus, King of Persia, allowed a small number of his Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem for the purpose of rebuilding the temple. The foundation for the new temple was quickly laid, but then the political situation became uncertain, circumstances interrupted, and economic troubles became so severe that the operation was discontinued. Isaiah 58 is a message for these confused and off-track people.

1. What frustrations do the people feel with God?

The return to Jerusalem had not proven to be the grand, all-transforming experience the people had expected. Fresh troubles continued to make life just as hard or harder than it had been in captivity. The people were asking for God’s help but felt that he was ignoring them.

2. When have you felt a similar frustration with him?

3. What have the people done to try to gain God’s guidance? In what ways did God’s people seem to do the right things (Isaiah 58:1-3a)?

The phrases “they seek me out,” “ask me for just decisions” and “we humbled ourselves” (Isaiah 58:2-3) indicate that the people have come to God with many forms of worship in addition to fasting. They have also prayed, cried out, put on sackcloth and wept. How did they spoil it (Isaiah 58:3b-5)?

4. In what similar ways do people attempt to discover God’s will today?

5. Why does God declare the people rebellious (or acting so pious) (Isaiah 58:1)?

All of the fasting and praying was only an external form. The people said words and went through motions that would make it look as if they were repentant and humble before God. In reality, the people were absorbed in seeking their own selfish pleasures, even while they appeared to be worshiping God.

6. If the people’s fasting was sincere, how would it have been different?

In fasting that pleases God, actions directed toward God are combined with actions directed toward people. This is expressed in several ways, such as providing food, shelter and clothing. However, of all the conceivable acts of caring, setting people free from bondage seems to be the most important in this passage. The people were to remember that they themselves had recently been living in exile. They had often been told, “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” God wanted them to have the compassion for others that had been shown to them.

7. What is the connection between receiving God’s guidance and a concern for justice?

Isaiah 59:2 states, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” It may be helpful to think of a light switch. Ignoring God’s concern for justice is like turning off the switch and breaking our contact with God. Heeding God’s concern is like turning on the switch and restoring contact.

8. What promises does God make in Isaiah 58:8-14?

For the people of the Old Testament, salvation was not thought of as a state of bliss, but as living in constant dialogue with God. It is this intimacy with God that is being promised here. Notice that some of the promises are for individuals (as in Isaiah 58:8-10), while other promises are for the nation (Isaiah 58:11-12).

9. What are the requirements for receiving these promises?

God wants signs of right character in those whose prayers he answers, for such character is the only guarantee that what he gives is rightly accepted and rightly used.

10. Why might God be withholding his light from us as a nation? How about from you as an individual?

11. What have you learned from this passage that will help you to discover God’s will and direction in your life?

Take time to confess your lack of sincerity and to ask for God’s light to break forth.

Now or Later: This is a fairly lengthy passage. You will want to study it on your own between sessions or take an extra session to discuss it.

The letter to the Ephesians explains why many people have become ignorant of and separated from God. Read Ephesians 4:17-5:21.

  1. What are the results of doing things our own way?
  2. What behaviors are to characterize our new life as Christians?
  3. Which of the commands in these verses are the most difficult for you to keep?
  4. How will keeping these commands help you to hear the voice of God?

Doing what you please is unacceptable

  1. The wrong way to fast (1-5) Boasting and you think it makes God happy?
  2. The right way to fast (6-14)
    1. The facts (6-10) Sharing with others
    2. The fruits (11-12) Guided by God

Reasons to Study the Bible

Previously I wrote about why we should study the Bible. Here I believe there are several reasons for studying the the Bible.

The Bible is a Personal Word from God: Without some biblical teaching, no one could become a child of God. James writes, “In his goodness [God] chose to make us His own children by giving us his true word” (James 1:18). Think back to the day that you first received the simple message of God’s love and forgiveness. Which passages did God use to reveal himself to you?

Now consider how God has used his Word to influence your life since then. Psalm 19:7-8 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The decrees of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The commandments of the Lord are right, bringing joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are clear, giving insight to life.” I believe the Bible is the most important book ever written and it is so important for us to read, study, memorize, and meditate on its truths.

The Bible Gives us a Moral Foundation for Life: When we cease to believe that the Bible is God’s Word, we can find ourselves adrift on a stormy sea, tossed back and forth by every wind of teaching. In a letter to Timothy, Paul wrote, “The whole Bible was given to us by inspiration from God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives; it straightens us out and helps us do what is right. It is God’s way of making us well prepared at every point, fully equipped to do good to everyone” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

A life of victory, power, joy, and fruitfulness will be experienced by any believer who studies the Bible and accepts it as God’s true and holy Word to man. It tells us how to enjoy an intimate relationship with our heavenly Father and how to receive wisdom, love, and grace from him.

The Bible is God’s Personal Love Letter to His Children: In my early years, I had difficulty reading the Bible. In fact, I found it boring (probably like most people). Then I experienced the love and forgiveness of its Author, the Lord Jesus Christ. My attitude changed. I began to realize that the Bible is God’s personal love letter to me. I eventually became excited about what God had to say to me.

How about you? Do you find the Bible the most interesting book in your library? The best way to catch the excitement about reading God’s Word is to experience the love of its Author.

The Bible Reveals God’s Character: In my early years as a believer, I began to study the Bible and found it was a true record of who God is and what he is like. His attributes (or characteristics) filled me with wonder, reverence, and awe. Through the stories of how he led Old and New Testament believers, I saw proof of his love, wisdom, power, sovereignty, and holiness. We continue to grow in our love for him as I am still discovering more about who God is.

I encourage you to make it your priority to get to know God, and to love him with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37-38). Discover what he thinks and how he acts. Knowing God will change your life. When we read his Word and learn how much God loves and cares for us, we can trust him with everything (our families, our possessions, and even with our own lives).

The Bible Gives the Clearest Explanation of Creation: The Bible has the perfect explanation for the beginnings of all creation (an intelligent, powerful God who created everything with order and purpose – Genesis 1:1). Only a Being with supernatural power and unlimited ability could have fashioned something as intricate as a DNA molecule and as huge as the Milky Way Galaxy. In fact, astronomers now believe that there are 100 billion galaxies. The Bible assures us that our great God and Savior created it all.

The Bible Gives an explanation for Human Suffering and Evil Behavior: Why is there so much human suffering? Why is there war and poverty? Many people blame God for these evils, but man (because he is self-centered and seeks his own way) creates wars and inhumanities. Sickness, death, earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods are part of God’s judgment for mankind’s sin.

Romans 5:12 explains, “When Adam sinned, sin entered the entire human race. His sin spread death throughout all the world, so everything began to grow old and die, for all sinned.” What better explanation have you heard for the mess our world is in? Biblical truth about man’s evil nature is the only logical answer for cruelty, selfishness, pride, violence, disease, war, and death. Only God (who understands the depravity of the human heart) has the answers to our sinfulness.

The Bible Tells the Story of Our Savior and Salvation: As humans we cannot live good enough lives on our own to achieve God’s holy standards in the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule. That comes through our faith in Jesus Christ and his Spirit living in us. The Bible is our source for understanding this truth.

One of the most convincing arguments for the authority and accuracy of Scripture is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the life of Jesus. From Genesis to Malachi, we find more than three hundred references to the Messiah. They are all fulfilled in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Studying the Bible Causes Christian Growth: The Word of God is our fuel for growth in the Christian faith. When we feed on its richness, we grow strong and healthy in our spiritual lives. I love what Psalm 1:1-6 tells us!

Unless the Bible becomes the basis of our faith, we will be swayed by our experiences, which can be dangerous. There is nothing wrong with experiences, emotions, and dreams, if they are validated by Scripture. But beware of depending only on experiences to build your faith. The Word of God is our one sure foundation. Obeying God’s Word gives us assurance that what we are doing is right in God’s eyes.

Obedience to God’s Word Bring Joy and Victory: A believer cannot walk in the fullness and power of the Holy Spirit and display the love of Christ unless he is spending time in God’s Word. If he faithfully studies the Bible daily, he will avoid the emotional and spiritual problems that many believers experience and consider inevitable.

The Christian who saturates his mind with God’s Word will want to please the Lord in every way. God’s Word will show him how to deal with temptation so he does not reap the consequences of doing evil. When we read and obey God’s Word, we learn how to live above our circumstances. We find the answers to the deep questions of life. As a result, we will live a life of incredible joy and victory!

The Bible Helps Us to Become a More Effective Witness for Christ: People today are hearing the gospel, receiving Christ as their Savior, and committing themselves to helping fulfill the Great Commission. Spending time daily with God in his Word gives us the power and excitement to spread his message of love and forgiveness. Studying the Bible helps us see how God loves the unlovable and seeks the lonely and hurting. Applying God’s commands helps us maintain a godly life that demonstrates the Lord’s presence in our lives to others.

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Why Study the Bible?

Life can be hard and confusing. Our culture seeks to draw us farther and father away from traditional values in favor of more modern, up-to-date lifestyles and behaviors. We have bowed to the altar of tolerance and have many times compromised out Christian beliefs. Those traditional values many times can be traced back to biblical truth!

Christians have a reference point for their journey through life, the Bible. When we stake our lives on its teachings and principles, God gives us guidance on how to live. When we love, trust, and obey God and his Word, we will enjoy the abundant life He has promised every believer (John 10:10).

What is there about the Bible that has given it such power to influence and enrich the lives of many millions of believers throughout the centuries around the world?

  • Psalm 119:91 tells us, “Your laws remain true today, for everything serves your plans.”
  • Psalm 119:138 says, “Your decrees are perfect; they are entirely worthy of our trust.”
  • Hebrews 4:12 emphasizes how the Bible works in our lives, “The word of God is full of living power. It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires. It exposes us for what we really are.”

By studying and applying God’s Word, we will see our world and ourselves through God’s eyes.

  • We will be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).
  • We will get to know the author, the living God.

I’m going to write much more about why it is so vital for us to read and study God’s Word on a consistent basis. There are principles that work in the lives of believers and faithful readers and studiers of the Bible can discover practical ways to live and apply the teachings we read in the Bible.

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College Ministry Bible Study

I’ve been reading up on ministry to college students (College Ministry from Scratch: Equipping Kids for Life after Youth Group, by Chuck Bomar) and want to share a little about what I have learned:

The best lessons are ones where the students read the passage every day that week, and then come to class prepared to discuss what they saw or what God illuminated for them.

We need leaders who facilitate a class more than teaching a class because people are already familiar with the passage when they come to the small group, there isn’t as much of a need for the leader to be a teacher. Whoever is leading ought to know the passage and make sure the true meaning of any particular passage is known to everyone. I’d even recommend that the leader have a commentary on hand in case a question comes up during the discussion that the group cannot address on its own. But most of the time, the leader won’t have to say much at all.

The leader can lead by facilitating—making sure the passage is known and applied simply through the discussion. This can be accomplished by asking basic questions such as:

  1. What are two things that really stood out to you in this passage?
  2. What do you think this teaches us about God?
  3. Did you see a repetition in theme or words that gave you a better understanding of what this is about?
  4. Were you convicted to do something because of this passage?
  5. As you read over the passage this week, was anything confusing to you?
  6. How does this section fit into what the author’s been saying up to this point?
  7. How did this passage change or affirm your perspective on life?

The potential list of questions is limitless, but the key is that the leader facilitates rather than teaches. Without the people even realizing it, the small group can become a lab for learning to study Scripture. People naturally learn and inevitably end up helping others learn, too. People begin to see the value of Scripture. Once this happens, we no longer need to talk about having quiet times.

People will automatically invest their time and resources into what they find valuable. So, very little influence in this area is needed.