6 Reasons why a Personal Study Guide Enhances People’s Spiritual Growth

Today’s blog post is practically a guest blog post by my friend and colleague, Richard Edfeldt. Richard is one of LifeWay’s Church Partners, a group of dedicated professionals who visit many churches each week. In the course of a Church Partner’s week, he will keep a pulse on trends, recommend curriculum, provide impromptu counseling on education and other church-related matters, and provide training when needed. Richard and his fellow Church Partners are terrific experts, and invaluable to the churches to whom they relate.

Richard Edfeldt, LifeWay Church Partner

Richard compiled a document that pulls together a number of reasons why church leaders and group leaders should consider the value of Personal Study Guides (PSGs). Perhaps you know these as “Sunday School Quarterlies” or some other term. It’s the small book full of 13 Bible studies that most churches provide for their members and guests. When I saw Richard’s document, I asked permission to post it here on the blog. Without further ado, here are some reasons why PSGs are a valuable tool to help people grow as disciples, straight from Richard and the helpful document he compiled:

The largest research project ever conducted on effective discipleship practices revealed that healthy churches teach people to connect to God’s Word, both on an individual basis as well as in community. But that connection doesn’t just happen.  It requires an intentional plan and provision of resources.  It also requires a consistency of purpose.  Finally, it requires time in God’s Word.

So how can you help your members learn to connect to God’s Word?

By training them to use a Personal Study Guide!

Why Personal Study Guides are important to a person’s discipleship development:

  1. THEY REMOVE BARRIERS. When you hand someone a Personal Study Guide, you remove his/her biggest obstacle in connecting with the Bible – confidence.  Essentially, you equip long term members to become active participants and you tell guests, “We want you back. You belong here.

  2. THEY ARE A DISCIPLESHIP TOOL. Learning to connect to God’s Word doesn’t happen overnight. It takes intentionality and commitment. The Personal Study Guide provides guidance and commentary to help an individual understand what they’re reading in a format that is easy to follow. It also helps them develop a daily time in the Word and with God.

  3. THEY INCREASE A PERSON’S EXPOSURE TO THE WORD. Exposure to God’s Word transforms a disciple’s life.  Giving someone a Personal Study Guide communicates that personal Bible reading and study is essential for spiritual growth and it provides them with a practical guide to approach their person Bible study time.

  4. THEY CAN ADD TO DEEPER DISCUSSION.  The Personal Study Guide exposes an individual to questions that promote understanding and application throughout the week. Giving an individual time to digest the Scripture on their own helps lead them to deeper discussion when the group meets weekly.

  5. THEY CREATE A STRONGER COMMUNITY CONNECTION. Through repeated exposure to the Word and to deeper group discussion, Personal Study Guide also helps deepen the investment an individual makes to their group and to their church. As a result, the people in your groups become some of your most engaged church members.

  6. THEY DEVELOP LEADERS.  Every group has people who are already well equipped to lead, but may not believe it yet.  These guides demystify the process of preparing and leading the group conversation, giving the group member the confidence they need to take the next step toward becoming a group leader.

The PSGs that LifeWay produces, for example, cost approximately $2.75 each for 13 Bible studies. The PSGs are printed on high-quality paper, and in 4-colors so that the brilliance of some photos really shines through. At this price, a church can provide an individual with a PSG for just $.03 per day! There is no greater investment that a church could make than to provide its members and guests with Personal Study Guides.

Tomorrow’s post is also going to come straight from Richard’s document – this time he will show us 11 ways to encourage people to use Personal Study Guides in their quest to be fully devoted followers of Christ.

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3 unhealthy things that keep groups from growing

“Healthy things grow.” That’s what one pastor I served with told the congregation regularly. His expectation was that the worship service and the church’s Bible teaching ministry would both grow each year – if they were healthy places.

I teach a Bible study group weekly like many of you. I’ve watched my group grow steadily over the past 4 years. I also know of other groups that haven’t grown. What’s the difference?

Here are a few reasons why some groups struggle to grow:

  1. Not enough potential new group members – this may be one of the biggest culprits. Each group needs 1 prospective group member for each active group member. My Bible study group averages 16 in attendance. To be healthy, I need a prospect file (which can be electronic or a physical one) that contains 16 potential group members at all times. Every time my group has a party, spends time doing ministry, gets together for lunch or a movie, the potential members should be – must be – invited. Many groups have forgotten about this important part of group life: one prospect for every active group member. The solution? Begin a prospect file! Each of your group members knows at least 3 to 5 people not in a Bible study. Start there.
  2. The group has been together longer than 18 months – that’s my group – we’re four years old now, and every group that is older than 18 months will naturally begin to turn inward. It takes significant, strong leadership from the group leader to keep the focus on the people “not yet here.” The solution? Start a new group so that guests can more easily connect to the members of your group. The alternative is to have a serious “come to Jesus” talk with your group members about the lack of additions to your group, reminding them that the group exists to reach those who are not connected to a group yet. Keep the focus on the unconnected and the spiritually searching.
  3. The people in the group have too wide an age range – 10 years is the maximum age swing you want to have in your group. I realize people like “whosoever cometh” groups. Multi-gen groups do have advantages, but they also have a disadvantage that is hard to overcome: people forget the group’s target audience. My group is designed to reach Baby Boomers. We’re a group especially for empty nest adults. That’s who we are. That’s who we’re supposed to go after. I don’t have to focus on reaching young adult couples, singles, or senior adults. Our focus is tightly fixed on empty nest adults. It’s easy for my people to spot other empty nest couples in the worship service when they visit – and it’s easy to invite them to our group because of what Dr. Ken Hemphill has labeled “the homogeneity principle.” Like attracts like. The solution? Talk with your group about starting other groups by grouping your people into age clusters that are more tightly arranged, with a maximum age range of 10 years or less. 

Tuesday Teaching Tip: Giant Post-It Notes Help Your Group in 4 Big Ways

I’m a fan of active learning in the classroom, and as I teach my LIFE Group each week, I have a “secret weapon” ready to use at a moment’s notice. It’s relatively inexpensive, available at any office supply store, flat, portable, lightweight, and it appeals to visual, relational, physical, reflective, verbal, and logical learners.

WALL-SIZE POST-IT NOTES!

If you lead a Bible study group, make a small financial investment in a pad of giant Post-It notes. There are many great benefits of using a wall-size Post-It pad in the place  you lead Bible study. These handy sheets are great in a classroom or a living room. There are several benefits of using them:

  1. Create community. Divide your group into smaller groups of 3-4 people and give each group apost it 2 sheet of Post-It paper. By asking them to record thoughts or respond to an assignment you give them using the wall-size Post-It, you help people build community as they talk, discuss, share, and complete the assignment.
  2. Generate discussion. Very close to #1 above are the conversations that will take place in smaller buzz-groups. People need a chance to talk, because many of us process our thoughts as we talk. Using a wall-size Post-It to generate discussion is smart teaching on your part.
  3. Create active learning. Using giant Post-It notes also helps appeal to several kinds of learners (visual, reflective, physical, relational, logical, and verbal). It’s hard to believe, but one Post-It can appeal to 6 different kinds of learners.
  4. Create an affordable “white board” where none exists. If you are in a home environment for Bible study, it’s great to create a disposable “white board” – and Post-Its help you do just that. The paper won’t bleed through, and a living room-based study group can have something that is visually interesting on which to record thoughts, outline a Bible passage, and more.

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Discover the power of stories in your group

Mondays on the blog are all about featuring a short excerpt from a book on group ministry, and today I’ve selected a book that I’ve never featured before.

Friend and colleague David Francis has written a series of books on group ministry, and his book The Discover Triad: Three Facets of a Dynamic Sunday School Class, has some excellent observations about the elements that help make a Sunday School class, small group, etc., more impactful for the group members. Here, in David’s own words, are his thoughts about the power of stories (one of the three facets of a dynamic group):

A Sunday School class can provide a safe place to share how Scripture is impacting our stories…”Learning occurs when we attach prior knowledge, wisdom, and experience to the information, knowledge, and material being presented at the current time. The process of connecting the two – prior experience and current information – brings about behavioral life change.” The purpose of Bible study is more than learning its content. The Bible is God’s “owner’s manual” for human life. He does not want just want us to know it; He wants us to live it. An effective way to begin a Bible study session is sharing a story that connects a life issue with the passage the group is about to encounter. A current news story works great if it fits. A third person story found on the Internet can be effective. Even a personal story told by the teacher  might be appropriate…Perhaps the best story is one told by a class member…”

As a group leader, learn to allow your people to talk and discuss their life experiences and how those intersect with the truth of Scripture that you are studying. Group leaders who are serious about allowing stories to be shared create a dynamic group experience. Those group leaders look for stories throughout the week and encourage group members to become vulnerable and share their own stories. Group members are also encouraged to share stories when they hear their group leader regularly sharing his or her stories and how those relate to the topic being studied.

Give this a try the next time you teach your group. Pre-enlist a group member to share a story, or be ready to share one yourself. Find a great current event that connects to the Bible study session, or use a story from the world of sports, politics, entertainment, etc., that tells a story that is relevant to your topic.

David also contributed to the development of a discussion-centered Bible study series, Bible Studies For Life, where this concept was incorporated into the DNA of the group Bible studies. It’s the one that my Bible study group uses weekly, and has for the past 4 1/2 years. It’s made a huge difference in my group, and now my group members love hearing and telling stories week-after-week.

Does Sunday School Still Work? 6 ways to make sure it does

“Does Sunday School still work?” That’s a question I was recently asked at a multi-day meeting of pastors who came together to talk about how to disciple their congregations. Sunday School groups, small groups, D-groups….there are lots of options today, and many churches are experimenting with hybrid combinations of groups. But the question still remains, “Does Sunday School still work?”

I believe that Sunday School can be the most vibrant ministry your church offers, but it may require you to make a few changes to it. If you are willing to make those necessary changes, then yes, Sunday School will still work! If you are not willing, then you should call in hospice care – one day you’re going to show up and find that it’s died.

Change or Die

I can’t imagine why these kids don’t enjoy Sunday School…

If you want to breathe life into your church’s Sunday School ministry (and into your group if you’re a Sunday School teacher), then here are some suggestions that will help make Sunday School your best, most effective ministry:

  1. Clarify goals – In order for Sunday School to be vibrant and on-target, its leaders must know what the goal is. If you’re a pastor or staff leader, how have you communicated what you want your group leaders to do? Do they know what’s expected of them? Sometimes Sunday Schools languish because of a lack of focus and clarity over its basic functions. Tell your group leaders exactly what you want them to accomplish as teacher/leaders. Keep it simple – four or five key things is all you need to define. Show your group leaders the target. Clarify your expectations.

    Now that’s better!
  2. Fund it – I can tell if a ministry is important to the church if it sets aside significant amounts of money for it in the annual budget. “Just follow the money trail” is a way to know if a church values something. How much money have you set aside for curriculum materials? For training? For new classroom equipment and other upgrades? Do you have an annual appreciation dinner for your group leaders? How do you say “thank you” in a tangible way to your leaders? It all takes money. Fund Sunday School in your budget!
  3. Talk about it – If you are the senior pastor, people will value what they believe you value. Talk about the importance of Sunday School from the pulpit. Work it into your sermons. Show the congregation new families who are joining the church because of your Sunday School ministry. Connect its ministry to baptisms, and how people are coming to know the Lord through Sunday School. Lift it up. Put it front and center.
  4. Attend it – If you’re a pastor or staff member, set the example by belonging to a Sunday School class yourself, and mention that from time to time as you preach or have the microphone! It’s hard to expect people to belong to Sunday School when you don’t. So join a group and set a good example.
  5. Organize it – Adult group leaders must be led to organize their groups to get group members involved in leading the class. Adult groups need multiple leaders to take on work and become outreach leaders, care group leaders, fellowship leaders, prayer leaders, and more. Moses tried to do it all (see Exodus 18) and learned a valuable lesson from his father-in-law who told him “What you’re doing is not good.” Jethro’s advice? Train others who could  help carry the workload – and let them do it! It works the same way today. If you’re a group leader, you’ll wear yourself out trying to do all the work of the class. You’re not supposed to! Ask others to take on leadership roles.
  6. Promote it – People need to know the next steps to take when they join your church, or when they visit it as guests. Are you clearly telling people that you want them to attend and join a Bible study group? Or are you counting on them figuring that out on their own? Tell them! Advertise your expectation in your worship bulletin. Say it during announcements. Have a greeter center that has people who are well-trained to know your Sunday School’s options so they can connect guests to groups. Don’t assume people know what to do next. They don’t. So tell them to attend a group and show them their options.

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Should you re-brand Sunday School?

Ghostbusters 2016

Spider-man. Star Trek. Alien. Ghostbusters. Baywatch. CHIPs. Each of these movie franchises has been re-branded in the last few years to reach new audiences. Did I mention The Fantastic Four? I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve tried to re-brand that movie franchise! If you think it may be time to put a fresh coat of paint on your church’s Sunday School by calling it something else, let’s make sure you’ve thought through the positives and negatives. It may be the right move for your church. And on the other hand, it may not. Let’s see if we can reason through some of the pros and cons of re-branding your church’s Sunday School.

Pros

Star Trek re-branded itself with a younger cast playing iconic characters
  1. Sunday School isn’t 100% about Sunday. Having the word “Sunday” in the title may lead people to believe that Sunday School is about that hour before or after worship when you gather in age-graded classes to study the Bible. That’s unfortunate, because many good Sunday School groups “do life together” outside of the Sunday morning group experience. They fellowship together, pray together, serve together, and minister to one another. These groups have come to believe that Sunday School isn’t just about Sunday. Good for them!
  2. “School” can be a negative term. Many people associate the word “school” with something difficult, or perhaps boring. It also conjures up images of teachers who lecture, or who are harsh in the way they deal with their students.
  3. In some denominations, Sunday School is just for the kids. Southern Baptists are not alone in their Sunday School philosophy, but they might be outnumbered. Many churches only offer Sunday School groups for kids and teenagers.

Cons

  1. Sunday School already has “brand identity.” When you say the words “Sunday School,” most people know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s the hour adjacent to the worship service on our calendars.
  2. People may not accept the new name for it.  LIFE Groups, Adult Bible Fellowship groups, Adult Groups, Small Groups, or whatever other name you can come up with may never be accepted by members of your congregation.
  3. Verbiage changes slowly. I know of churches that changed the name of Sunday School years ago, yet the majority of their members still call it “Sunday School.” Don’t underestimate people’s unwillingness to change.

If you and/or your church have changed the name of Sunday School and survived it, I’d love to hear from you. Post your comments and help your fellow brothers and sisters wrestle with the decision to be more culture-shaping and culture-impacting by changing the name of Sunday School. We’d like to hear words of caution, and we’d also like to hear stories of success!

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The Extreme Sunday School Challenge

Today’s blog post is an excerpt from a book by David Francis, Director of Sunday School for LifeWay Christian Extreme SS ChallengeResources. In 2012 he and co-author Bruce Raley created the book Extreme Sunday School Challenge to remind us all of the importance of starting new groups. I am delighted to introduce you to their book, and their words below about the importance of intentionally starting new groups:

Starting new groups also gives the church an opportunity to grow beyond its present scope of influence. Most groups become closed after they have existed for 18-24 months. Even new people who come into an established group may find it difficult to build relationships. A few probably will, but seldom more than the number of group members who leave for various reasons. So, even though a few new people may ‘stick,’ there will rarely be any net growth. New groups will move your organization beyond your present sphere of influence and into the next circle of influence in your community. 

A new group will bring an average of 10 new people attending Bible study within a year if properly begun.

The group itself may not grow by 10, but the Bible study organization will. The key is the group must begin properly. A class begins properly when:

  • A target audience is identified.
  • Leaders are enlisted and trained.
  • Emphasis is given to the birth of the group.

So if you want your Sunday School to grow by 50 people next year, start at least 5 new groups…

A few years ago my wife and I began a new LIFE Group at our church. Sure enough, we average about 17-20 people in our group today. I’ve lived the truth of this book’s message that new groups will attract 10 or more people on average.

If you’re a group leader, is it time to help your church grow by releasing some of your members so they can start a new group?

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