I have to be honest and say at the outset of this blog post that I am not a huge fan of sermon-based groups. I have sat in some of those groups and been completely underwhelmed at the shallow questions, lack of depth, and theological errors that were advanced during the Bible study. Was I surprised that churches are experimenting by offering sermon-based groups? No. Someone, perhaps the senior pastor, or another key staff member, convinced themselves that it’s a more economical way to go rather than providing curriculum from a Christian publisher. Perhaps they became convinced that the pastor’s message is the most important one the church hears each week, so the members should drill down even more into his message. I’m likely going to step on toes with this post, but hopefully I can step on your shoes without messing up the shine. Let’s reason together for a moment.
- Sermon-based groups require very little from group members. It seems to make sense on the surface, doesn’t it? Give people an easy way to study the Bible together. Require very little from them – don’t run them off with expectations they will prepare for the group’s study beforehand. My position is that a well-prepared group member who has studied ahead by using a PSG (personal study guide) is going to quickly add to the discussion in the group, bring new insights to the passage being studied, and in general raise the quality of the Bible study experience for everyone. Imagine if a group of 12 people all did this before the group meets! But in the case of sermon-based groups, people show up, and a facilitator asks a few questions based on the pastor’s last message. If you want me to buy in, ask me to lean in. I have no skin in the game if all you’re asking me to do is darken the door of the Bible study. You’ve set the bar very low. It takes no effort to step over it.
- Sermon-based groups often focus on the pastor’s message, not the Bible. Let’s be honest – many sermon-based groups make the pastor the hero, not Jesus. “Oh, I just loved that illustration pastor John used on Sunday!” says one person. Another follows that up with “Man, I just love the way the pastor said what he did.” You keep hearing the words “the pastor, the pastor, the pastor” instead of “the Bible says” or “The Holy Spirit is leading us to understand that…”. I’ve participated in sermon-based groups that never got over their infatuation with a pastor and/or his message. Sermon-based groups feed some pastor’s egos, but are a poor way to focus on the Bible. Jesus is the hero of Scripture, and if He isn’t the central focus of your Bible study, something’s wrong.
- Questions are not vetted and clarified before they are given to facilitators. One of the great fallacies of question development is that it’s easy to do. “Nothing to it,” some people believe. Just read a passage of Scripture, listen or read the pastor’s manuscript, and jot down a few questions, then send those out to group leaders. The trouble with this approach is that the development of questions is both an art and a science. It takes lots of practice, and it is always enhanced when done with a group (“With many advisors, plans succeed; for lack of counsel they fail” says the Bible…none of us is as smart as all of us). Just because I can write out a question doesn’t mean that it’s a great discussion question, or that it focuses my attention on Scripture like it should. Case in point: I visited a group around Christmas one year and the teacher, using a sermon-based study, asked us “Why did Joseph sin when he refused to marry Mary?” I looked at my wife, looked at the facilitator, and then raised my hand to challenge him. “Joseph,” I pointed out, “was a righteous man according to the text. He was completely within his legal rights to divorce Mary for being pregnant. But after being informed by God in a dream about the circumstances of her pregnancy, he agreed to obey God and take her to be his wife.” Where was his sin? Of course, there wasn’t a sin issue on Joseph’s part! He responded to the information he had, and adjusted his course once it was made known to him by God. The group’s facilitator thought for a moment, then said, “You’re right…I’ll email the staff and let them know they should change that question in future studies.” Yikes. How many times is something like this repeated each week in churches all over the country?
- Sermon-based groups make a bad statement about the church’s belief in discipleship. I bet you haven’t thought about this aspect of sermon-based groups, but if I ask my people to come to a group meeting and respond to a few questions, what am I really saying about my discipleship philosophy? I’m saying that (a) a few questions are sufficient for generating spiritual growth and transformation (b) personal study isn’t important in between group meetings (c) everyone in the group is satisfied with a learning approach that is primarily auditory (and this sensory preference is on the decline in the 2000s in favor of more tactile/kinesthetic learning).
- Sermon-based groups don’t develop new teachers. 2 Timothy 2:2 says that we are to entrust God’s Word to faithful people who’ve heard us preach and teach it. They are to go out and share what they’ve heard, teaching God’s Word to new, unreached people. The New Testament is full of examples of teachers of God’s Word, who knew it so well they could refute false doctrine and protect the sheep of God’s flock. Make no mistake, a present-day facilitator of discussion questions is not “teaching” in the biblical sense. They may be guiding discussion, but they are not “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” like we are commanded to do in the New Testament. If only more of our Bible study leaders were like the Bereans of Acts 17:11 who “examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true.”
Sermon-based groups, in my opinion, are short-changing people’s Bible study experiences. Sermon-based groups may save the church a few dollars when it comes to the purchasing of curriculum, and sermon-based groups may boost a pastor’s ego or give a staff person a reason for their existence (to prepare sermon-based questions for group leaders), but this doesn’t make up for the shortfall it creates in Bible study.
If you are part of a sermon-based group, take a good look at what’s really going on when it comes to the study of God’s Word. I trust you are experiencing great fellowship. Perhaps your group is one that prays and is supportive of you and other group members – that’s wonderful. Hopefully your group is one that serves together and moves beyond the walls of your group to engage the community. But give serious consideration to what you are doing when it comes time to open God’s Word and study. We live in a day and time when it is more important than ever to be able to “rightly divide the Word of Truth.”