What’s the best starting point for your church?
By Eric Geiger
Your groups matter. A lot. Research shows that groups remain one of the most effective tools for learning the habits of faith. According to Lifeway’s Transformational Discipleship study, people in Bible study groups pray and confess their sins more regularly, share the gospel more confidently, give more generously, and serve more sacrificially than those not in a small group. We see a deep connection between groups and discipleship, as God uses community that is rooted in Him to mature His people.
But we shouldn’t just settle for groups. We should long for groups built on a solid foundation. What your groups study is critical to the health of those groups.
When Jesus prayed for believers to be unified in His famous high priestly prayer, He also prayed that His disciples would be sanctified: “Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17). God wants the people in our churches to be both unified and sanctified. Thus, the community we develop in our groups and classes must be community that is rooted in truth, in His Word. A group should help people encounter and dwell in the Word. Groups built apart from the truth are groups with too shallow a community, groups void of the transforming power of God’s Word. The Word of God gives your groups the solid foundation they need.
The apostle Paul said, “We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Paul wanted to see maturity and development occur in the people he led, and according to this passage, this included proclaiming Christ and teaching with wisdom. The antithesis of “teaching with wisdom” is a haphazard plan or no plan at all for developing people in our groups and classes.
As we design ongoing Bible studies from Lifeway, we long for the studies to provide church and group leaders a wise plan to lead people toward greater maturity in Christ. We are concerned about the long-term consequences for people if there is not a plan, if folks “just wing it.” Church leaders are wise to give their groups a discipleship plan that over time exposes people to the whole counsel of God’s Word.
Different Starting Points
Because we know every church and every group is unique, we understand that groups and classes can approach a Bible study through different “starting points.” Based on all our conversations with church leaders, we have concluded there are four general starting points: life, text, theology, and your church.
Life: Some groups and ministries prefer to start with life issues or a life development framework. They start with “the learner” and want studies formed around how people grow.
Text: Other groups and ministries prefer to start with the text. They want to walk people through books of the Bible.
Theology: Others prefer a theological starting point, where groups look at the themes of Scripture and see how they all fit together and point to Christ.
Your church: Other groups enjoy aligning the group content with the pastor’s sermons and using the pulpit as the primary driver for group content.
A pastor may say, “One approach sounds like practical theology, one sounds like biblical theology, one sounds like systematic theology, and the last one sounds like I’m developing the plan alongside my preaching.” Each approach is valid as long as the people consistently study the Word of God.
These starting points don’t mean a group with one starting point never emphasizes aspects of the other starting points. Hopefully, a church or group with the life starting point still emphasizes both the context of the passage and the theological themes. These are simply a description of the overall trajectory of the group or church—what philosophy in approaching the Word of God is most helpful in their context at a given time.
When thinking through starting points for your groups, consider these two important thoughts:
1. All of these approaches can be wise as long as they get people in the Word, bring them to Jesus, and challenge people to live out their faith.
2. A group will be frustrated if what it is studying doesn’t match the group’s preferred approach. For example, if people want to see what the Bible says about “real-life issues,” they may feel other approaches aren’t practical enough. Or if a group wants to dive systematically into books of the Bible, the group may struggle with other approaches “being all over the place.” Picking the best starting point for your people is the first step toward a fruitful group experience.
Lifeway Curriculum & Your Starting Point
Because we exist to serve churches and groups, we offer different lines of curriculum for these distinct starting points. Each line of curriculum is rooted in Scripture and focused on Christ, but each line approaches the study differently.
Life: With Bible Studies for Life, we start with how people grow. For kids, we use the framework Levels of Biblical Learning as a guide for what kids should learn and when. For students and adults, we use the framework behind Transformational Discipleship as a guide so we know we’re helping leaders develop their people with wisdom. For the studies, we begin with real-life issues that people face every day, and we bring the Scripture to bear on those issues.
Text: With Explore the Bible, we start with a plan to walk people through all the books of the Bible, to expose them to all the genres of Scripture. We seek to study the text in its context and challenge people to obey it in their own context. Kids, students, and adults study each genre of Scripture every three years.
Theology: With The Gospel Project, we start with a systematic plan to show people how all Scripture points to Jesus. Beginning this fall, we’ll present the Bible’s basic doctrines and themes as they appear chronologically in the Bible. The studies are going to walk people chronologically through the story of the Bible over three years.
Your church: To help churches prepare their own study path, we’ve developed a new tool—SmallGroup.com. It helps leaders develop customized studies in a consistent format based on the themes, topics, or texts of their choosing.
We believe in groups. Twentieth-century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right when he wrote, “Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.”
We believe healthy groups are formed on the truth. And we believe groups benefit and are served well when a wise plan for discipling people with the truth of God’s Word undergirds the group. And because groups have different starting points, we offer different lines of curriculum, all designed to help churches take kids, students, and adults into the truth of God’s Word.
ERIC GEIGER (@EricGeiger) is vice president of the Resources Division of Lifeway. He is also a teaching pastor and a frequent speaker and consultant on church mission and strategy.