Choosing the Best Group Curriculum

A question every leader contemplates when starting a new group or season is what content they plan to use for their study focus. Sometimes, this question is answered by church leadership if your church creates weekly study material based on the weekend messages or a church-wide groups-based campaign is about to kick-off. Ultimately, you want to have a philosophy and plan in place about how to handle group curriculum.

I’m going to cut to the chase with my biases on choosing curriculum: I look for material that comes from a trusted source, matches my church’s DNA (theology, core values, language, style), is clear with its purpose, manageable in size (5-8 weeks), is designed to build relationships and activate faith (through good, open-ended, application-oriented questions vs. fill-in-the-blanks and leading/predetermined-answer questions), has creative and engaging content delivery, and isn’t too thick academically or homework-wise.

I favor interaction over watching videos together, so I look for bite-size segments vs sermon length teaching. Asking people to watch videos or do homework in advance of group meetings doesn’t seem to work for most folks and has a way of scaring off some personalities. So instead of “required” homework, I prefer material that enriches each member’s personal devotional life and challenges them to serve together, e.g. Rick Warren’s 40 Days in the Word (40ditw.org).

Most group leaders are intimidated by the idea of having a pure Bible study and just using the Word of God, which is too bad. If you discover this too, think of ways you can help them build their confidence and competency in this area. There are plenty of “through-the-Bible” or “exegetical” Bible study tools that can help including biblex.com, gospelproject.com or resources from InterVarsity Press. Regardless, a church’s point leader for groups should prepare to answer questions related to choosing and using curriculum for maximum impact.

Familiarize yourself with what’s out there. There’s a lot of great materials available to stream Netflix-style through online resource houses like rightnowmedia.org. If leaders can’t find a digital ‘on demand’ solution, they will probably look to you for guidance so here is a list of twelve criteria designed to help you think through the best choices for group curriculum with your group leaders:

Criteria to Consider Question for Leader
Publisher / Author Does the study come from a reputable source?
Theology Does the group curriculum look to the Bible as its source of truth and concentrate on the essentials of our Christian faith?
Communication Does the language, emphasis and style of what’s being communicated reflect our church’s DNA?
Purpose Does the curriculum goal or purpose support your group’s focus this upcoming season?
Duration Do the number of sessions required to work through the group material make it a reasonable commitment for new or existing members?
Video If your group curriculum is video-driven, does the average length of each segment work easily within your allotted meeting time?
Engaging Is the delivery of the content dynamic or boring?
Scripture Does the content do a good job at referencing Scripture and getting group members to dig deeper into God’s Word?
Questions Are the questions designed to be thought-provoking, stimulate conversation, and promote life application?
Homework If there is homework, how much are participants being asked to do in advance of meetings? How do you think group members will respond to this idea?
Access & Cost How easy does the access and cost of the material make it for people to join in? (This varies depending on whether the content is for the leader or the members, if it can be downloaded, etc. Find cost effective options.)
Chemistry Does the content fit the personality of the group? In other words, based on what you know about your group members, do you think they will resonate with the “feel” of the curriculum and the style in which it’s communicated?

If you’re not the lead/senior pastor, I recommend having a conversation and learning their preferences. A simple step like this might even inspire greater alignment between the weekend programming and group life of your church!

I always like to remind group leaders that curriculum is meant to serve the group – not the other way around. Always be flexible and prepared to scrap the material if it feels like the energy of the group is waning. Essentially, the group curriculum you choose should support the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. It shouldn’t feel like a chore to get through it…it should be inspirational and challenging!

At the end of each season in a group’s life together, you want to see evidence of people loving Jesus more, loving others more, loving God’s Word more, and loving lost people more. Remind group leaders of this and how the Lord will use them, their group members, and many other factors, including the curriculum, in the process.

Guiding Group Logistics

It doesn’t take long for a list of questions to grow as people think about starting or joining a group. During the initial orientation of new group leaders, I work with them to create a “group profile” that provides potential members with a snapshot of the new group. It also helps the leaders-in-training process through questions that need to be answered so everyone understands the commitment involved.

Here’s a list of group meeting details to address up-front along with some things to think about as you guide them:

GROUP PROFILE FIELD THINGS TO CONSIDER
Group Leader Name I like to make the name and contact info of the leader easy to see and access for potential group members. This can be tailored to the preferences of the group leader and can include best time to contact.
Group Leader Contact Info
Type of Group It’s good to be clear on who the group is for, e.g. men, women, married, shared interest, families, young adults, etc.
Title of Group My church combines the Group Leader Name and Type of Group to create the Title of Group, e.g. Reid Smith Men’s Group
Start Date List both the day and date and maybe clarify that people are welcome any time after it launches.
Duration of Upcoming Season Most groups organize around a study or season that runs for a certain number of weeks. Some group leaders could have the intention of meeting for a year or more, but I recommend featuring the group duration in more of a “bite-size” way. You can’t force commitment, but you can grow it after people form relationships they want to continue building.
Start & End Time It’s important to set the expectation that groups will start AND end at specific times. That doesn’t mean members can’t come earlier or stay later. You just need to be clear so newcomers know whether it can work considering their commute, children, etc.
Frequency of Meeting Most groups meet weekly or every other week, which is advisable because groups that meet less frequently make it harder for relationships to grow. Plus, if people miss just one session of a group that meets monthly, they just missed a sixth of the whole year!
Basic Description of Group Encourage brevity here – no more than three sentences that conveys the make-up and purpose of the group. Only the most critical things should be communicated – set expectations.
Current Focus/Study Groups are organic and will change with each passing season. One area where this is evident is the curriculum it chooses to use or what its emphasis might be for a period of time. It’s also good to clarify here if materials are provided or need to be purchased in advance.
Meeting Location Oftentimes, it’s helpful to have somebody else besides the leader carry the responsibility of hosting the group. If you or the host home is uncomfortable displaying the full street address – at least feature the city so people can answer the proximity question.
Childcare This can be addressed simply by saying “unavailable” or “available – contact the leader for more details.” Depending on the prospective member’s stage of life, this can be a ‘make or break’ factor in their decision-making.
Current Group Members Ask this of new group leaders too because you never know if they already started to form a core group before “going public!” This would not be listed publicly, but it is good for you to know who is connected, which you can’t do without the help of your group leadership. This is ever-changing, but even if you get feedback once per semester/season – it’s enough to reveal helpful trends.

The logistics of your groups collectively reveals the philosophy backing your community disciple-making strategy. Logistics influence culture, so take the time to answer what you believe about the following questions:

  • Should I allow groups to meet onsite in the church building (permanently or only for a season) or should I set the expectation from the beginning that all groups meet offsite?
  • Will I direct groups to be always be “open” or can they be “closed” (or full)? If the latter, will this only be permitted for a limited time for specific reasons?
  • Do I want to “segment” group life into semesters so there are clear on and off-ramps for people into the community life of my church? If I choose a “semester system,” how will I formalize this with my group leaders and get their participatory buy-in?
  • What kind of parameters will I give to group leaders in terms of their meeting frequency, format, and focus?
  • What studies will I recommend to leaders? How will they select and use them? Will you purchase resources for your group leaders and have them return to you for reuse?

There’s a lot to consider within each ‘Group Profile Field’ and group leaders will need your guidance as they create a picture of what they anticipate their group will look like. Whether people are thinking about starting or joining a group, these details are important guideposts that will help people connect and grow together in Christ!

Challenging Paradigms

All of us come to the table with our own experience, biases, and presumptions about what works best with starting and multiplying healthy groups in a church. Over time, paradigms (or ways of thinking) about groups formulate in our minds, which in turn influence the culture of community being built. This is natural, but should be challenged so the culture of community in your church is being shaped strategically around informed convictions instead of unchallenged paradigms.

One of the best ways of challenging paradigms is by asking questions. As you search God’s Word and your heart, your paradigms might change or be further solidified. These inquiries are meant to be thought-provoking and are good to process with other trusted leaders whether or not you’ve launched groups in your church yet.

Are you ready to begin building a strategic culture of community in your church? Clear your mind and honestly grapple with these 10 questions:

  1. Do you think of groups as a “ministry” of your church or as the building blocks of every ministry area of your church?
  2. Is there a clear vision for groups? What language does leadership intentionally use to support this vision?
  3. Does your church put more emphasis on joining or starting groups? What are the pros and cons of the language leadership uses to support this emphasis?
  4. Do you consider it to be more advantageous to have a broad/open-ended or narrow/specific definition of what constitutes a “group” in your church? Explain why.
  5. What is the primary motivation of getting people in groups? (Retention, member care, increasing engagement in church activities / volunteerism, spiritual maturity, mission, etc.) Are other critical things being under-communicated as a result of this emphasis?
  6. On a scale of 1-10 (with ‘1’ being “if I have time and feel like it” to ‘10’ being “a vital spiritual habit I prioritize weekly”), how important do you think your average church member views their personal involvement in a group? Explain why.
  7. What are the qualifications for serving as a group leader? Would you consider yourself to have a high or low bar? Explain why.
  8. Do you have an ongoing rhythm of equipping leaders after they get started? Describe any gap you see between what it looks like now and what you think it should look like.
  9. What does success look like to your group leadership? How is it measured and celebrated?
  10. How is growth and multiplication built into the way groups are communicated and stewarded in your church?

It is actually a good thing if you’re walking away from this exercise with more questions than answers. Take your time to figure out how the Lord wants you to plant, prioritize, and prune your group life so Christ-centered community can grow healthy and strong.

If you’re not the Lead/Senior Pastor, then find a way to process these questions together, agree on responses, and document them. This will establish and maintain a strategic culture of community that will start and multiply healthy groups throughout your church moving forward.

Expect Transformation

Imagine yourself in a family room with some of your friends and Jesus showed up. Do you think you’d be the exact same person afterwards as you were before? Nope! Things would of course be different in your life. People are transformed when they experience the Presence of God.

A truth about groups that we don’t talk about nearly as much as we should is how Jesus is in our midst every time we gather with the intention of growing spiritually by following Him. The Lord promises to be in the midst of two or three who come together in His Name (Matthew 18:20). When Jesus inhabits an environment that believers occupy together in His Name, the space changes and so do we.

God conveys His grace to people in a special and powerful way because of their faithfulness to come together in His Name (Acts 4:31, 33). Therefore, when believers gather in Jesus’ Name, they are placing themselves at the mouth of the river of God’s life-changing grace. As a leader, you want to tell group members to expect transformation because of what happens when we gather in Jesus’ Name.

Where two or more come together in Jesus’ Name…

  • Believers are awakened to God’s leading and purpose
  • The gathering becomes a springhead for spiritual renewal
  • The light of God’s grace reaches into the unwanted dark areas sin wants to keep isolated
  • A way is cleared for intimacy with Christ
  • People see more of God and experience Him more personally
  • Oneness with Christ is experienced more fully through unity with one another (This unity expressed strengthens the evangelistic impact of your church)
  • God’s Presence is experienced more powerfully
  • People feel His acceptance and are more open to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives
  • All the vital purposes of the church can be fulfilled
  • Lives become more deeply rooted in the person of Jesus Christ
  • There is freedom and chains of temptation and addiction are broken (2 Corinthians 3:17)
  • God’s Word engages in fresh ways
  • Believers are empowered to reach out with the transforming love of Christ
  • Lives are changed forever

Communicating these effects of gathering in Jesus’ Name can actually build the faith of the participants and shift the atmosphere of a group. It never hurts to remind people that our God is Immanuel, “God with us.” Oftentimes, I’ll weave these truths into a prayer as I open the group’s time together.

As one who influences the environments of groups, don’t miss the incredible opportunity to tell people they should expect transformation every time they gather in Jesus’ Name! In other words, when we come together to do the things Jesus has commanded us to do in His Word, we are changed…every time. Biblical community grows stronger when we help those gathered with us to focus on the awesome reality of Jesus being in our midst.