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August 19, 2009

"Sticky Church" Chapter Review

Looking at what happens in a sermon-based small group



Sticky%20Church.jpg

If you didn't see it in the newsletter this week, SmallGroups.com is participating in a blog tour for Larry Osborne's recent book Sticky Church. The book covers the sermon-based small-group system Larry set up at North Coast Church over the years.

I've agreed to review chapter 11 of the book here; it's called "Flies on the Wall: What happens when a sermon-based small group meets." If you want to check out the blog posts for the rest of the chapters in the book, click here.

I've always liked the idea of sermon-based groups from an organizational standpoint. It seems like a great way to get the whole church on the same page not only about the weekly sermon, but about the value of small groups, as well. On the other hand, I've also been curious about the experience of the individual group leaders in such a church. Does such a system make leading a group easier or harder? More rewarding or more boring? That's why I was excited to review this particular chapter.

My opinion has always been that I would be stifled as the leader of a sermon-based small group. I love the creativity of crafting a lesson that approaches a Bible passage or topic in a new way. I enjoy being spontaneous and using different activities and games to supplement the teaching time. Most of all, I get a real kick out of leading people in meaningful discussions. Could those things survive in a sermon-based group?

Maybe Yes
Larry said a couple of things that eased my fears on this issue. For one, North Coast gives its leaders the freedom to digress. Larry writes: "Since the process of sharing, study, and prayer is more important than any specific content we might provide, I don't care that much if a group deviates, as long as it's led of the Spirit or in response to the needs of the group." That sounds healthy, to me.

Larry also emphasizes that the study material needs to cover different texts and materials than those covered in the Sunday sermon. Otherwise, people get bored because they are hearing everything twice. Amen.

Maybe Not
But other aspects of North Coast's sermon-based group system would give me the heebie-jeebies as a group leader. Specifically, the curriculum is produced by the church and includes pre-written homework questions. Even worse, Larry encourages group leaders to have their members read their written answers out loud during the discussion time.

Yikes! I can't imagine being able to sit through that.

To be fair, Larry notes that the practice of spontaneous questions and answers usually favors the people in your group who are extroverts or enjoy "shooting from the hip" with their answers. And that's true.

But for my taste, the answer is not to make everything scripted. Training leaders in facilitation skills (how to properly direct a discussion) and offering times of silence for everyone to think of answers to different questions would be much better.

What do you think? Does the idea of being given pre-written homework and discussion ideas sound appealing to you? Would it make things easier? Or would it only drive you crazy? Let us know!

posted by Sam O'Neal on August 19, 2009 1:51 PM

Related Tags: Book review, Sermon-based

Comments

Our church has a once-a-year, 40 day period where we our Sermons, Life Groups and teen ministries are all on the same page. It has always been a compelling and uniting time for us, and has been one I would like to pursue on a larger scale.

When we have had these times, we have provided pre-written questions (no homework) so that the leaders CAN use them as needed. They are not required to, nor would we expect the questions we come up with to work well in every group. But, the pre-written questions do facilitate at least a basic framework of keeping everyone on the same page and having the whole church wrestling with some of the same questions.

Just my two cents!

That sounds reasonable, Tom. Do you have any idea of how many group leaders use the church questions, and how many do their own thing?

I think that the idea of pre-written questions that would require written responses would keep a large number of people away from our congregation's small groups. Even though you say "no homework," I think there would be a perceived added pressure on many, so they might choose not to attend rather than not be "prepared."

Yes, spontaneous questions might sometimes favor the more extroverted, but part of the leader's role is to make sure there is not a monopolization of the discussion by the more outgoing.

Now, if you were to have some questions that could be sent via e-mail to the group with an idea that this is where the discussion would be going at the group's meeting, that probably would be fine, but I really think asking for written responses would be intimidating for both the outgoing and more reticent members.

As someone who has frequently taught literature at the University of Memphis and who runs an English as a second language class for my home church, I think I should stick up for the idea of requesting written answers. It's not because it's the teacher-ly thing to do, nor because I think homework is fun, but rather because I've seen first hand that most people, even well-meaning people, simply don't know how to prepare for a group discussion like a Bible study. It's not exactly a skill that plumbers use daily, and few corporations ask for a collaborative analysis of a reading passage. In most people's lives, it's either presentations of your work, or you sit quietly while someone else speaks.

I think the intent with the written answers, therefore, is to give people a crutch. If they don't know what to say, they can read their answers. But, the truth is, if the leader does their job and if the group members are actively trying to participate, then the written answers won't even be referred to. People will already have thought about the topic and they will end up sharing things that occurred to them days after they wrote their answers, because the topic was still in their head.

I do have to agree with hsl that many people could be frightened by the idea of "homework." But, I think you can predict who will be frightened before you even put people in groups. It would seem that the level of terror one feels is directly equal to how casually they take the small group study experience. If they're serious, they'll ignore their fear in favor of increased discussion. So, it would seem the best solution isn't to abandon all homework because some people will be scared, but rather to design groups so new Christians and people who are only marginally involved will be attracted to groups that aren't that homework intense. After all, those kinds of people would benefit from topics that are themselves easier to handle and that require less preparation. On the other hand, more mature Christians would benefit more from topics that demand committed thought from anyone. Not even Paul could roll up into a group discussing predestination and expect to get anything out of it, unless he spend the whole week before contemplating the details. Those topics aren't a matter of intelligence and skill speaking off the cuff, they are a matter of contemplation and homework helps facilitate that for those willing to let you help them.

Those are interesting points, Trevor. Ones that I hadn't thought of, and yes -- I think I'm picking up what you are laying down. Having a chance to write down your thoughts can be very helpful in a discussion-based setting.

"But for my taste, the answer is not to make everything scripted. Training leaders in facilitation skills (how to properly direct a discussion) and offering times of silence for everyone to think of answers to different questions would be much better."

Oh, I so completely agree!

"Since the process of sharing, study, and prayer is more important than any specific content we might provide, I don't care that much if a group deviates, as long as it's led of the Spirit or in response to the needs of the group."

Who could argue with that.

It seems like you are going to be taking to much baggage to a meeting. It would bother you in the way of appreciating its purpose and accepting that there could be something new for you to learn.

"Since the process of sharing, study, and prayer is more important than any specific content we might provide, I don't care that much if a group deviates, as long as it's led of the Spirit or in response to the needs of the group."

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