Purchasing curriculum should be your first step, not your last.
Here’s a scenario that may be familiar to those of you reading this. You took a quick poll in your small group to see what everyone wanted to study, and then you went over to a local Christian bookstore and found a study guide you think will work well. You purchased 10 of them, and then spent the next week handing out copies to your group members and convincing them to reimburse you.
You’re all finished, right? Everyone will bring their study guides to the group meeting next week; you have the leader’s guide, so you’re all set. Case closed.
Not so fast. One of the more common misconceptions that knocks small-group leaders off-kilter is the idea that using pre-produced curriculum means there is little or no planning that needs to take place ahead of each group meeting. On the contrary, it is the task of any group leader to customize curriculum material to the needs and opportunities of his or her group—regardless of where that material came from.
Specifically, group leaders need to customize a study guide’s main points, discussion questions and learning activities.
Customizing Main Points
Whether you purchased a Bible study or were assigned one by the leaders of your church, the authors of that material will not be directly connected with your group. They wrote the study with a broad population in mind, and it makes no sense to assume they correctly anticipated what your group members need to hear.
That means it is your job to serve as a bridge between what the authors intend the material to cover and what your group members need to receive. The authors are the experts on the topic of the Bible study, whether it is relationships or theology or stewardship. You are the expert when it comes to your group.
Most pre-produced Bible studies cover anywhere from two to five main points in a given week. For example, a SmallGroups.com study called Leading to Easter: Searching the Soul contains the following Teaching Points for the sixth week of material:
- The first irony of the Crucifixion is that the one who is mocked as king is truly King.
- The second irony of the Crucifixion is that the one who is utterly powerless is transcendently powerful.
- The third irony of the Crucifixion is that the one who didn’t save himself saves others.
- The fourth irony of the Crucifixion is that the one who cries out in despair trusts in God.
Each of these Teaching Points contains a variety of discussion questions, learning activities, leader’s notes and so on. As the group leader, you need to decide if one or two of those points is a better fit for the members of your group than the others. And if so, it is entirely appropriate for you to focus on those points during the study, even if that means excluding the others.
In other words, if your pastor recently preached a sermon on trusting God, and you know several of your group members were moved by it, then you can give yourself permission to start your study by focusing on the fourth Teaching Point. And if your discussion of Jesus’ trust in the Father takes the whole evening, that is more than OK.
Customizing Discussion Questions
Another misconception that often affects small-group leaders is the misplaced desire to “finish” each study session—to make sure all of the pre-written questions in the material get discussed. As we make our way through the discussion, the full compliment of printed questions weighs on the back of our minds, and we often try to pace things out so we can get to everything. Of course, we rarely do finish all the questions in the printed material. There just isn’t enough time!
And that’s actually the point. When authors write small-group Bible studies, they try to address many of the different variations and nuances a text or topic brings up. And they often write up an overabundance of discussion questions, because they don’t know which ones will “catch” for a specific group and ignite meaningful discussion.
That being the case, one of the first things you should do when you prepare for a study is go through the discussion questions and cross out the ones you don’t think have much application to your group. Just cross them out. This will help you focus on the questions that are most pertinent to your people. (And if you get through all of those questions, you can always go back and use the ones you crossed out.)
A typical study can have between 10 and 30 discussion questions for each week’s worth of material. Depending on the amount of time your group allots to discussion, you might be able to reasonably get through five or 10—sometimes a group can spend a whole evening discussing just one or two questions! And if the Holy Spirit is present in the midst of that discussion, that’s a great use of both time and material.
Customizing Learning Activities
By “learning activities,” I mean icebreakers and other experiences within a group meeting that go beyond discussion and lecture. These can include games, worship experiences, service opportunities, crafts, role-playing—or something as simple as eating a meal together.
These activities are important for small-group gatherings because they help group members get involved on more than just an intellectual level. They help people engage emotionally, socially, spiritually and even physically. And because all group members have a different mix of learning styles and preferences, using a variety of experiences within a group helps everyone connect.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of printed Bible studies and curriculum do not include a variety of activities and experiences. Many curriculum guides contain background information on the text or topic under discussion, some kind of teaching material, discussion questions and a section for application—all content that is predominantly slanted toward intellectual involvement.
That being the case, you may need to supplement your Bible studies with some extra activities. It’s always a good idea to include some kind of icebreaker at the beginning of the study, and it’s usually helpful to break up extended times of discussion with other experiences as well—such as worship or prayer.
I have found using icebreakers and activities that connect with the main Teaching Points of the study guide is a great way to add some punch to your group’s discussion. For example, if your teaching material covers Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, try to start things off with an icebreaker that connects to the topics of mercy, hypocrisy or being a good neighbor.
And of course, if the study you have chosen includes some activities you don’t think are a great match for your group, swap them out with new ones. (I also recommend you use the SmallGroups.com Meeting Builder as a way to find quality experiences for your group.)