The writer of the Book of Hebrews gave us a lasting, but very practical, exhortation in Hebrews 10:24-25. He told us that we should not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but continue on. Keep gathering. Keep meeting. That’s because the gathering of God’s people is an incredible environment in which people can be known, encouraged, and held accountable for living out God’s will in the world.
The vast majority of churches, at different points this week, will not only gather in a large setting but in a smaller one. These smaller meetings have different names: Sunday School, small group, community group, missional community—the list could go on and on. Though the names might vary, one question must be answered by each and every one of them:
What are we going to study during our time together?
The two predominant philosophies are that groups will have a centralized approach to group content or a distributed approach to group content. In the centralized approach, everyone studies the same content, which is determined by one decision maker, usually a member of the church staff. In the distributed approach, each group leader is free to choose his own subject matter for his own group. Each approach comes with its own positives and negatives.
For example, one key benefit to the centralized approach is that you can have a strategic focus in all the groups that aligns with the sermon in the larger worship gathering. You can develop synergy and energy around a single idea and theme for a given week. On the other hand, one disadvantage of centralized planning is that groups can turn into a rehash of what happened on a Sunday.
One advantage to the distributed approach is that each group leader is going to be more familiar with the needs in his own group, so he is free to directly address those specific needs unique to him through his curriculum. But a disadvantage of this approach is that you run the risk of a group departing theologically or doctrinally from the church as a whole.
So which is the right approach? That’s for each church to weigh out and decide, but in deciding, three main issues need to be considered:
- Take a step back and ask the question about your church: Who are we? What do we do well? What do we emphasize at our church? It’s likely that one of these two approaches will start to emerge based on the answers to those questions. If, for example, you have several gifted teachers who have taught Bible study for a long season in your congregation, it might be that you would lean toward the distributed approach. But if your congregation is in a transient community with people constantly in and out, you might lean more toward the centralized approach.
- Leadership Development. What resources do you have in place to develop your people as leaders? This is an important question to ask especially when considering the distributed approach because of the massive weight of responsibility you will be entrusting to those leaders. They are going to be the ones responsible for presenting the truth of God, and in so doing, you need to be sure there is a plan in place for them to feel confident in that role.
- Even if you decide the distributed approach is best for your church, you will still want a high degree of visibility on what the group leaders are choosing for their content. If, for example, there are latent doctrinal or theological errors in a leader’s mind, they will likely show up in the kind of material they choose. Or perhaps that leader might not know that a particular resource isn’t from a trusted source, but innocently chose it to study because of the subject matter. In either case, a high degree of visibility will help you guard the hearts and minds of God’s people.
Going down either of these roads is a big decision; it’s a culture-shaping kind of decision. The good news is that smallgroup.com can help you in either case. If you have a centralized approach to content, smallgroup.com can help you create Bible studies specific and customized to your church and then distribute those studies to your leaders. If you choose a distributed approach, smallgroup.com will allow you to add an unlimited number of users as part of your account. Each of your group leaders can create their own studies for their own groups, and you will be able to have a constant eye on the content they are choosing.
Think carefully about what is best for you, and then make sure you resource your leaders appropriately. That way you can know that you aren’t just meeting together; you’re meeting together to spur one another along, just as the writer of Hebrews told us to.
Michael Kelley lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife, Jana, and three children: Joshua (10), Andi (7), and Christian (5). He serves as Director of Groups Ministry for Lifeway Christian Resources. As a communicator, Michael speaks across the country at churches, conferences, and retreats and is the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God;Transformational Discipleship; and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. Find him on Twitter: @_MichaelKelley.