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Thom Rainer: Over the years I have been surprised to find out how many church leaders have a laissez faire attitude about what is being taught in small groups.

The first time I encountered this issue was in a church consultation nearly twenty years ago. I asked the pastor to tell me what was being taught in the church’s small groups. He seemed to be nonplused in his response: “I have no idea.”  I was taken aback.

I tried a different approach. “Tell me,” I said, “how the church decides what will be taught in the small groups.” Again, I was unprepared for his response: “The church leaders have no input into what small groups teach,” he said. “We let every class decide on its own. We don’t want to be like dictators telling them what they have to do. They decide according to what’s best in their own eyes.”

So, I continued, “I guess you let anybody teach or preach anything from the pulpit on Sunday mornings?”

“Of course not,” he said with some indignation. “We are very strict about the Sunday morning preaching. If I’m not teaching, then we have someone who is closely aligned to where we are going and what we believe.”

He did not get my attempt to connect the approach of the small groups with that of the Sunday morning teaching and preaching. How can you be so concerned about one and so nonchalant about the other?

Over the years I have been surprised to find out how many church leaders have a laissez faire attitude about what is being taught in small groups and Sunday school classes. Allow me to share five dangers of this “anything goes” approach.

  1. Because preaching is held to a higher standard, the perception becomes that the small group teaching is just not that important. The reality is that most small groups or Sunday school classes spend more time in their groups than the time they take to listen to a sermon.
  2. The vision of the church could be distracted or derailed. When the preaching and small group teaching are not aligned, the small groups can become alternative little churches with their own vision and priorities. Unfortunately, I have seen this reality a number of times.
  3. It opens the door for heretical teaching. I know of one church that gave no thought to the content of the teaching in the small groups. They would soon discover that one group was studying a book that denied the deity of Christ.
  4. It takes away from the unity of the church. The preaching is headed in one direction. The small group teaching is headed in another direction, or multiple directions. There is no unity in what the church is learning or how the members are growing spiritually.
  5. It does not allow for strategic teaching. Indeed, the contrary may be true. The teaching in the small groups can negate the strategic intent of the preaching plan of the pastor.

Leaders in churches need not be autocratic in their desire to get small group teaching aligned with the ministry of the church. It can and should be a mutually agreed upon goal to move people toward greater maturity in Christ with clear and known material.

Indeed many churches are now moving to a uniform curriculum across all ages in all small groups and Sunday school classes. I see this development as a healthy trend. The leaders are making a statement that what is taught in every group is vitally important for the spiritual health of the members and for the church as a whole.

How does your church decide what is taught in its small groups or Sunday school classes? How would you evaluate its effectiveness?  

Thom Rainer Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources ( Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.

More from Thom Rainer or visit Thom at

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  • Barry T

    We have a mixture of both systems. We have a couple of major focus’ per year and we have a broad thrust in the church. a. daily devotional via daily email. b. Small group focus study. c. preaching., all with the one focus. The we have a small group study questions for the fortnightly meetings sent from the leadership. Finally we give freedom to choose some topic of their own choosing. The leaders are requested to share the choice with the small group pastor and this is where we vet the material

  • ServantHeart2012

    Our church doesn’t have “Sunday School” at all. The focus is on “community groups” (aka “small groups”) outside of worship times. We have dedicated “directors” whose responsibility it is to guide and support leaders of individual groups. They are available to answer questions and provide guidance as well as recommend curriculum for their groups. The church also maintains an online “group leader resource” page within the website that is chock-full of “approved” curricula. This very intentional approach to groups has been highly successful at keeping the groups focus aligned with the mission and vision of the church. Allowing small groups to “do their own thing” may sound cool, but in the long run decreases the unity of the body of Christ. Just my opinion.

  • Christine Taylor

    Approved curriculum for all small groups? *shudder* So much for the individual guidance of the Holy Spirit. As a small group teacher who prays over topics and never uses anyone else’s curriculum, I would never agree to such a thing. Having said that, I absolutely agree that the pastor should have a good idea of what small groups are teaching. This is probably easier to do in a small church like mine. Of our 3 Bible studies, the pastor teaches 2 and I teach our women’s Bible study. Since the pastor’s wife is in my study her husband gets a blow-by-blow of my topics, which is fine with me!