I love pastors.

I love affirming pastors. I love speaking positively for pastors. That’s why this article is a bit different for me.

Pastors, I want to talk frankly and, hopefully, with a spirit of love, about one of the biggest mistakes I see many of you make. Most pastors have little emphasis, or sometimes, even knowledge about the content that is taught in groups in their churches.

You Wouldn’t Do This in Preaching

I know you pastors would not think of coming to the pulpit unprepared. You know your text. You know your message. You have prayed about it. You have labored over it. You will not preach that sermon without much prayer and work.

It’s just too important. I completely agree. The centrality of preaching is paramount to the health of the church. I commend you for your prayers, your efforts, and your focus. You will not come to the pulpit unprepared.

But What Is Being Taught in Your Church’s Groups?

But many of you don’t give adequate attention to the content used in your church’s groups. Those groups may be home groups, community groups, small groups, Sunday school classes, or a myriad of other names.

I really understand your reticence. You don’t want to micromanage. You don’t want to be controlling. You want to empower people to lead and choose for themselves. But, in a LifeWay Research study, we found that 75 percent of group leaders and members desired direction for the material used in their groups.

Did you get that? Three of four small group leaders explicitly said they are seeking direction. They want your leadership in this vital area of discipleship.

Unintended Consequences

While pastors are largely very careful about who preaches and what is preached, they do not usually give the same diligence to the content of small groups. Discipleship can take place in many places, but it should be taking place in those small groups. And the unintended consequences of not having a wise plan for discipleship is that you will fail to make disciples, or you may even have heretical teaching in some groups.

Leaders must be intentional in providing a clear plan of discipleship for small groups, and that plan must include clear guidance about content. Such a posture does not mean that leaders are autocratic or non-collaborative. Leaders, pastors particularly, must be involved.

An Example of a Wise Discipleship Plan for Groups

While using LifeWay’s Bible studies as an example for content for groups may seem self-serving, I am very pleased with the work that has gone into this discipleship plan. I am well aware that there are many other choices available.

Basically, we have four broad lines of content for small groups and Sunday school classes. They are each distinguished by the starting point for the small group:

  • Starting Point: Theology. Gospel Project. The Gospel Project is a curriculum that studies the Bible from a theological perspective, particularly by looking at the grand narrative of Scripture.
  • Starting Point: Biblical Text. Explore the Bible. This curriculum studies the Bible by individual books of the Bible, going chapter by chapter through a particular book.
  • Starting Point: Life Issues. Bible Studies for Life. Another Bible study with a different starting point, Bible Studies for Life looks at key life issues (example: marriage, relationships, money, and others) from the perspective of biblical texts.
  • Starting Point: Church Context. Discipleship in Context. This particular curriculum is basically a customized study for the church. Leaders in the church let LifeWay know the biblical texts and focus of the study, and team members at LifeWay design a study just for the church. Many churches are using this approach to design studies around the pastor’s sermons.

We are gratified to see many churches using at least two of the curriculum lines in different settings. For example, one church uses Explore the Bible for its Sunday morning Bible study groups, and Bible Studies for Life for its home groups.

The Urgent Need

Again, LifeWay’s Bible studies are an example of intentionality of a wise discipleship plan to use in groups. You know what is being used for content. And you know why the particular Bible study plan is used. Pastors and other church leaders: please don’t ignore the urgent need to have a plan, purpose, and content for your church’s small groups.

The need is too great to let discipleship become haphazard and unintentional. You wouldn’t approach preaching without a clear idea of what you are preaching and why you are preaching. Please do no less for your small groups.

So, how does your church determine its content for small groups or Sunday school classes? Do you have a clear and specific plan for discipleship through your church’s groups? I would love to hear from you.


  1. Allen Calkins says

    For the reasons you mentioned we use Lifeway material even though some do not always want to. I am VERY reluctant to allow a group in Sunday School study something else or a Bible Study at church use other material. People are good to let me know what their plans are. And when asked I always point them in the direction of Lifeway because I know I can trust what Lifeway does being doctrinal…I have found that sometimes even going to materials done by a prominent SBC pastor can be problematic….and other stuff?! There is a lot of false and fluffy Bible Study material out there!

  2. Scott O'Rear says

    So true. I want to trust the people who have volunteered to teach, and I am afraid I might offend them and run them off if I say anything. Most of them were teaching before I became pastor. But small group bible study often impacts people more than my preaching…

    • says


      As a volunteer small group leader, I think it’s appropriate to expect small group leaders to recap each of their meetings in an email or other brief format. This doesn’t have to go straight to a pastor. Volunteer leaders could pair up and recap with each other for mutual support and encouragement.

      The main point is that volunteer leaders exercise the habit of reflection and assessment. We’re all expected to work as those who will give an account, so why not start practicing and course-correcting now so that we’re better prepared to give an account when God asks for one.

  3. Scott O'Rear says

    On another note- do you know a source of end of year evaluation forms/surveys for church leaders, teachers and pastors. I am looking for a way to get feedback to our leadership. Being the end of the calendar year and the time most churches reset their teachers and committees, I thought this would be the time town this

    This may not be the appropriate place to ask, but I know you read these and didn’t know how else to ask.

  4. says

    All small groups use the same texts at Valley View Baptist. And this is truly a God ordained moment because as I’m typing my wife just said: “This curriculum stinks, let’s go back to LifeWay.” Now a Christian should never have to say “Trust me I’m not lying” but trust me I’m not lying. So I guess I need to place an order!

  5. Heartspeak says

    It really goes much deeper than just the curriculum! Curriculum can be a good start however. Many groups just ‘discuss’ the sermon. It’s not the curriculum that makes the difference, apart from outright poor theology in some studies. It’s the leader/facilitator. I’ve seen good curriculum study groups go off the rails because the leader was poorly equipped to manage, guide and direct conversation. Curriculum is primarily a ‘starting point’ for a group, rarely the end all, be all of a group.

    But you’re right Thom! Few pastors really know what goes on in their small groups. Period. The assumption is made that ‘everything is okay’ if there isn’t some major catastrophe that requires a pastor’s attention. Many more groups seem to think they’re ‘okay’ or even great when you’d be astounded at what goes on and is said.

    My point is that even before curriculum, care and training of the leaders is much more critical and too seldom done. I get it that you’re a publisher, and having some guides and help for leaders is also important, but not a fix in and of itself.

    • Tom says

      Good comments all. I certainly agree with church leadership having knowledge and assurance that church-related small groups are on the right track, but mandating that all use such-and-such material seldom ensures that. When I would use other-than-LifeWay material, I would always get approval from the leadership.
      Bottom line, a well-equipped small group leader can take any sound-theology based material and make application, as the Spirit leads, to the current needs and dynamics of the small group.

  6. says

    I certainly agree that a curriculum is the way to go – whether prepared internally in the church or a packaged item. Another point to note here though is even if you’re using a curriculum, the informal discussions that result from the curriculum can be a potential problem. Earlier this year, I helped a pastor with an issue where inaccurate theology stemmed from a weekly bible study/meeting for leaders. This isn’t very common from my experience, but the possibility remains.

  7. says

    I’d like to invite pastors to sit in occasionally on all the various groups in your church. Give all the teachers a heads up that you are going to visit their classes in the coming months so no one feels singled out, and let each one know ahead of time you’ll be in his/her class that day. Don’t take the class over, just observe and affirm the truth being taught.

    You’ll discover all sorts of things: who really is “able to teach,” which classes are using the time well, whether groups are engaging with the curriculum as intended or just reading over it, etc. I imagine this would also be a great way for a new pastor to get to know a church. (I hope to test that theory soon. I’m currently a youth pastor, but I learned a lot by sitting in on a few different classes during a recent shift in our Sunday school divisions.)

    Warning: You can’t do this if you are still finalizing your sermon during the Sunday school hour.

  8. Allen Calkins says

    I visited all the SS classes when I first came about 6 months ago. I was surprised how nervous that made some teachers. I visited our oldest ladies class on one of my first Sundays and they had no idea who I was until I introduced myself at the END of SS! They said they were all wondering why a young man had chosen to be in their SS class! I thanked them for calling me young! We had a good laugh over it.

    So actually Paul, if you do not have that closing illustration visiting a SS class may be a way to get one…but it would certainly be dangerous waiting that long!

  9. Wes Henson says

    I know the focus and attention that has been placed on small groups. Some churches have substituted weekday home groups for Sunday morning Sunday School. I have always been leery of such activity for several reasons . One reason is that opportunity for conversation that is not edifying and uplifting is enhanced. while it may it may flow from my personal insecurity, I think that is a great risk to the unity and mission of the church.

    The LIFEWAY curriculum IMHO is quite diverse and adaptable for any congregation. we use Bible Studies for Life as our Small group/SS material and Explore the bible for our Sunday night messages.

    I especially like the 6 week units for BSFL .

    If a small group is meeting under the sponsorship of the church the church MUST be aware of what is being taught.. Further, the church leadership should LEAD in the material and direction of the small group studies.

  10. says

    I would use sermon based small groups if I could make a sweeping change. But at FBC it would be a hard sell.

    In off campus groups we use no curriculum and use the Bible alone with questions.

    In on campus groups we use mostly (90%) LifeWay material and some (10%) use other or just a Bible.

    We need to teach scripture. The teacher’s character is crucial. Ministry skill set second. If I trust the teacher to teach within BF and M 2000 and minister to and reproduce the group, I count that a win.

  11. says

    Dr. Rainer:
    As an Adult Sunday School teacher of the Explore the Bible series I am excited over the curriculum this quarter on the Gospel of John! We use ETB throughout our church along with Josh Hunt’s materials and Dr. Tolar’s notes from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The teachers can log into these materials online and apply it to their lessons. Our Sunday School Director discusses the lesson on Wednesday evenings for teachers.

  12. Glenn Erwin says

    I am a retired pastor (due to health) but I been in Church for over 65 years in many different bible study classes ranging from Sunday School classes, Training Union, Royal Ambassadors and even Home (Cell) Groups. Some of these were very good while others might be considered lacking by some peoples standards.
    It does seem to me that we have selected a model for educating our adult congregation that is very difficult to sustain. We expect Sunday school teachers to deliver a message that was prepared by someone else (Lifeway Curriculum) with a degree of professionalism as if they had written it themselves. We set them up as the “experts” and by your data 75% are struggling.
    Over the years I attempted two different approaches to improve our training methods.
    1. (Teach the Teacher Model) We excused all S.S teachers from Sunday night duties and required them to attend a training class for the next week’s lesson. We lost some teachers who would not attend but they were quickly replaced with people who were willing and had a greater degree of dedication. I started teaching the class but very quickly was replaced by someone who had a love and gift for the position.
    2. (Train the Leader – Small Group Activity Method) We adapted a methodology that was used by Organized Labor in the Oil and Petrochemical industry where workers trained other workers. The Sunday School Leaders (Teachers) were trained how to present the Life Way material in a manor whereby the class was divided into small groups and then learned from each other. The Bible and Life Way material were considered fact sheets and used by the groups to present the groups opinion on the topic of discussion.

  13. Margaret Ames says

    Thank you so much for the article. I am a Small Group leader and love to seek out materiels for our group and usually have books in mind two classes in advance. I’ve asked my pastor several times to look at the books I’ve chosen and tell me what he thinks of them. I believe he is too busy. When I ask a few weeks later what he thought, is the book OK, he says he scanned through it and it seems fine. I’ve discussed with him that I’d like more feedback or interaction from him in planning topics and materials and he says he trusts me to pick them out. We are a small church plant for the last one and a half years and I know he doesn’t have time to be involved in all areas. I’ve told him I get a little nervous because I come from SBC churches that usually have a Minister of Education on staff. This seems to be a big responsibility for a layperson. Thanks Again.

  14. says

    Dr. Rainer, Once again a great article. In response to Scott looking for a evaluation/survey to receive feedback from his leaders. The resources mentioned by Aragorn are a great start. Another model is Kirkpatrick’s four levels of training evaluation. As a educator and human resource development strategist I always ask before we begin designing a teaching series or program, what do you desire the learners and students to know and be at the end of the process. The end of the year is a great time to have this discussion. A great book for ideas is Analysis for Improving performance by Richard A. Swanson. It is written for the corporate training world, but had great helps and tools.

  15. says

    I *LOVE* when my pastor sits in on my SS class. His wife is a class member, and is there every week, but he comes about once a month or so and sits in on the lesson. I need that kind of accountability as one who teaches; I need to have ‘one in authority’ to be able to make sure I stay on the straight and narrow.

    We are currently using The Gospel Project for our SS curriculum, so it isn’t as important as it was in the past. For the six years before we got TGP, I wrote my own curriculum. I like doing that, and it ensured I was getting some great Bible study in. But it also meant that pastoral oversight was needed.

    Pastors, don’t assume that because your presence makes some of us nervous that you shouldn’t be there. Even when we are nervous as SS teachers, we need your oversight. After all, what does episkopos mean?

  16. says

    Thank you for addressing this topic. I agree that the pastor needs to keep abreast of what is being taught in small groups and who is leading them. Having said that, I do have difficulty with the pastor dictating what is to be taught and every detail of who, what, when, how and why. Micromanaging can be a problem as well as control issues. Having dealt with many who have been involved in toxic faith environments I am sensitive to the fact that some personality types are prone to abuse their leadership positions and cross the line by telling people who they can invite to their home and what they can and cannot talk about. Oversight is important but protocols must be put into place to protect members from too much oversight.

  17. Deborah C. says

    I was a women’s small group leader for many years at a megachurch. One of my concerns was that the small groups were not directly observed or monitored by pastors or elders. Small group members were pressured into becoming leaders, being told they need to “step up” and not just be consumers. These women were not equipped and did not want to become leaders but there was such a push to increase the membership at the church and get people into small groups as quickly as possible that they were “guilted” into becoming small group leaders. Then the leaders, myself included, were pressured into identifying the next leader so the group could split into two groups. I asked for pastoral oversight and to make sure I was on solid ground with whatever study we were using. But I never got it. I agree with this post that pastors and elders should be personally involved in the small group ministries to ensure the teaching is solid and that Christ is being honored. I don’t see that as micromanagement. I see that as being good shepherds.

  18. John Chester says

    While I agree that too many pastors don’t pay enough attention to what goes on in small groups, I fundamentally disagree that the solution is curriculum. Taking the time to develop qualified teachers & discipling them as teachers is. A pastor must know what is being taught and how it is being taught. Leaning on curriculum while at times is good, if it becomes the norm it stunts the development of leadership and teaching in the local church.

  19. Paul Mayhan says

    I manage the small group ministry at my church. It’s a major red flag to me when a group leader doesn’t want to use curriculum. We have some leaders who have some theological education, and I get it that they want to use their knowledge to do some writing. But invariably the quality of teaching goes down when they make the group about their own egos and their own agendas. The Lifeway curriculums, while sometimes in need of a little help, at least puts a group onto a schedule that keeps the study moving and forces the group leader to address a variety of discipleship issues.

  20. Pastor Rob says

    The topic is a great and much needed area of discussion. I experienced something similar to this problem, except mine was opposite. The preaching from the pulpit was mostly erroneous and filled with emotional unbiblical decisions. I taught against most of the bad doctrine in my Sunday school class. The pastor was in my class. While he disagreed with me on some areas, he was never belligerent towards me. I believe I actually changed his thinking on certain subjects. I offered to leave or at least step down many times, but he thought I needed to stay and continue to teach the adult class. I taught and preached there for about six years. I have recently became a bi-vocational pastor of a small church. I will never forget the lessons that I learned at this stop in my walk with CHRIST.

    • Dale Porter says

      Greetings, I read a good many of the responses to church leadership (especially pastors) knowing what happens or does not happen in small groups. Now at the moment my concentration is on Sunday School. Our church uses a “packaged curriculum” which is really really good. My dilemma at this moment is getting into the class rooms to hear the various teachers because most of the time there is no available staff to do the clerical work of SS. So I do it!! Also, I grew up in a small church where there was a SS TEACHERS meeting weekly which assist the teachers in knowing the material and hope that they are on the same page with the direction and theme of the weekly lessons. Thirdly, being aware of who can teach. If they are not trained how can they be helped to become a better instructor? These are the situations I would love to rectify and make the church SS department ministry one that God would be proud of !!! Dale

  21. Rick says

    Dr. Rainer, I agree with your statement that pastors should know what teachers are teaching. I have been blessed greatly by the Wordsearch electronic library I’ve accumulated over many years and want to give you some feedback about that division of Lifeway resources so you can know the state of your flocks. I am greatly disturbed by Wordsearch’s increased offerings of books by Church of Christ authors like the one offered today for free by Milligan. Restorationist material (Church of Christ) teaches baptismal regeneration which is “another gospel.” I am concerned that Lifeway may be shifting priorities toward increased customer base rather than truth. Baptists have always stood for salvation by grace, while Church of Christ teaching is works based, insisting that salvation is acquired through baptism. Business expansion is important, but isn’t faithfulness to the one true gospel more important?
    A pastor must know and evaluate the teaching of his Sunday school teachers, and the CEO of Lifeway would be wise to have a handle on the material that is being offered to our Sunday schools. I’m not splitting hairs since the gospel is not a hair, but is the highest priority of our teaching. I wasn’t sure if you were aware of this Church of Christ material that was seeping out through the Wordsearch marketing arm. I have wrote to them before with no help, so I thought you should know.

  22. Garry Medford says

    I really appreciate this article. I try very hard to make certain that the material used in our Sunday school is biblically based. I have been here for to years and we have changed curriculum three times (I was told also that they did the same thing with the last pastor-three times in two years). When I came we were using Explore the Bible, and I wanted to change to the Gospel Project because I thought it would add more depth to our teaching. The problem was that it was too deep for our SS teachers. Then we switched to Bible Studies for Life. This was fine until it was revamped this year, and now I am getting complaints that they are not getting anything out of the student books (I recently taught a SS class using just the student book to guide the through the class in an effort to show them that these was more there than meets the eye. However, they now want to switch to the International Standard Lesson because “it was taught by Baptists for 75 years, and was in the Biblical Recorder before the conservatives came to power.” As a conservative trying to turn a moderate church into more conservative through sound biblical teaching and preaching, this concerns me. Even looking at a sample of this curriculum leaves me with more questions than answers, and I am not sure if I can go along with yet another change in curriculum. What are your thoughts on this particular curriculum, and do I have a right to be concerned with the theological and doctrinal aspects taught by it? Thanks for your time!


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