Sermon-Based Small Groups (Part 1)

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This fall, we launched our first sermon-based small group study and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Behind the movement of multi-site churches, sermon-based small group studies are one of the fastest growing trends in the American church. Clearly this approach is working in many churches across the country. The question is why?

In this first part of a two-part blog, I want to share four ways sermon-based small groups is impacting our church.

1. It Engages God’s Word.

Although there are a lot of good books, resources and studies available for small groups, ultimately God’s Word is what helps us grow in our faith and become more like Christ. We want to gather around God’s Word and dig deeper into knowing what the Bible says. We don’t want to base our life on man’s wisdom or the experience of others. We want to know what God has to say. There’s no replacement for the Bible. This is where we see that God’s promises are real. His wisdom is beyond this world. His Word has the power to transform lives. 

2. It Impacts Church Involvement.

While many churches have sermon-based small group studies, I haven’t found a church that approaches this type of study quite the same way we do. Most sermon-based studies are a spinoff from the sermon. Here, questions are supplied by the preaching pastor or small group pastor to aid group members in discussion; however, this type of format tends to elevate the messenger. Instead of digging into God’s Word, groups spend more time rehashing the sermon, which can easily turn into celebrating the pastor or critiquing the pastor; neither of which are healthy or impactful. 

Instead of a top-down approach where the study is driven by the sermon or a small group leader who has a list of predetermined questions, we are flipping the focus to encourage everyone to be in God’s Word prior to listening to the sermon and before coming to small group.

People come to church anticipating the sermon differently.

Prior to Sunday, people are spending time in the text themselves and aren’t hearing the text for the first time. The sermon now has the ability to reinforce the meaning of the text and move the church from observation to interpretation. This is critical as the sermon brings clarity to the passage and answers questions people have.

People are more engaged with the sermon.

As small group members listen to the sermon, they are less likely to tune out because they know they will be discussing these same verses with their small group. The feedback we have received from individuals in small group is that they instinctively want to listen and grasp what the text means. Someone in my small group said they haven’t taken notes for years but now that we are doing a sermon-based study, they are deliberately taking notes and paying more attention on Sundays.

More people listen to the sermon when they miss church.

Everyone misses church at one point or another. But how often do those people go back and listen to the sermon they missed? Since we started sermon-based small groups, sermon downloads have nearly doubled from this summer when small groups were not meeting and have doubled from a year ago when we were not doing a sermon-based small group study.

3. It Emphasizes Application.

For most of us, it’s easy to read a passage or hear a sermon and forget it by the next day. But the wonderful part about sermon-based small groups is it keeps the passage in front of us. While we value the priority and importance of corporate worship, there is something different that happens as we move from hearing a passage to discussing a passage. Sermon-based small groups encourage participation from rows to circles where people have the opportunity to ask questions, discuss what they are learning and share how this passage applies to their life. This subtle shift enables active learning and increases participation.

Application takes time.

Rather than hearing a sermon and moving on, sermon-based small groups build in the necessary time for life-change to occur as the Holy Spirit encourages, convicts and applies the God’s Word to our lives. Over the course of one week, sermon-based small groups are designed to engage the same passage or concept three times as we move from observation to interpretation and finally to application.

Application takes thought.

Sitting in the same passage for a week and engaging the same passage in three different ways not only increases familiarity, it forces people to think deeply about God’s Word. As the passage comes alive on Sunday morning, the goal of small groups isn’t to rehash the main points of the sermon, but to think carefully about Scripture and integrate God’s Word into our life.

God’s Word is meant to be obeyed, not just listed or read, studied or discussed. When we take time to reflect on what God’s Word says and ask, What does this look like in my life? this can be a starting point for life-change to occur as we become doers of the word, not hearers only (James 1:22). This is why sermon-based small groups are more than a Bible study.

4. It is Accessible for Everyone.

Regardless of stage of life, spiritual maturity or personal circumstances, sermon-based small groups provide the opportunity for everyone to interact with the same message.

As a shared experience, the sermon brings cohesion and direction to small groups as it builds upon important themes from week to week. The sermon also sets the tone for what will be discussed as it lays the foundation for what the passage means. This is a critical component of small groups as it prevents people from saying This is what the passage means to me…” –which can be wrongly interpreted or contradictory within the group.

As a sermon dives into complex theological truths or unpacks the culture context of earlier centuries, small group members have the opportunity to receive more insight and background than what would be possible if they were studying the passage on their own. Here, small groups benefit from the historical, grammatical, theological interpretation of Scripture, which helps them know what the passage actually means. As background information is shared through the sermon, it becomes accessible to everyone in the group.

Though the insights of a new believer and a mature believer might vary with extremes, both can equally participate and engage in the group discussion.

For those with limited experience in Scripture, they are less likely to feel intimidated or excluded. As new believers come to small group with a fresh perspective, their questions and takeaways are refreshing to mature believers who might already be familiar with the passage. Likewise, mature believers provide deeper insights and make other connections that enable new believers to grasp how this passage relates to the whole counsel of Scripture.