Group Curriculum: The good, the bad, and the ugly

[A staff pastor in a transitioning church of about 5,000 members sent this to me and I thought I'd share it with you here.]

Recently, I have been reviewing various small group Bible studies, discussion guides, and DVD curriculum for the groups in my church. And I am troubled. Here's why:

• Supposedly, people who are very educated write this material. However, I look at it and think: "I would never do this. It is so condescending that if I actually gave this resource to a leader I would be telling the person that he or she doesn't have a brain." I'm not talking about the need for experience in leading a small group or keeping the curriculum user-friendly so that one does not have to do a lot of preparation. I just feel that the message contained in most curriculum offered today talks down to people, using examples that are moralistic and making a point that is so obvious that they make me wonder why even study these points.

• The way they are written makes me think that the writers are not actually in touch with real people. They do communicate valid biblical points, but the way it is done seems like they are speaking to people entrenched in the life of the church so much and not to people who have to deal with the realities of life in this world.

• The material is written in a very complicated way (This one confuses me the most). A publisher sent me some material they developed, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. I opened up the lesson in one of the books they sent me and it took me ten minutes to figure out the flow of the meeting outlined in the participants guide. My immediate thought was: no one has time to figure this out.

• Then the real kicker was the 300 page book with the 250 page study guide that accompanied it. A couple of years ago, I was in a group that tried this. The requirements to study this material killed the fellowship that we had. The expectations of study that was required between the meetings, which none of us did, turned a meeting that had been joyful and fun into a dread. Again, do these authors have their heads buried in the sand? I just want to shout, "Get in the real world and write something that people will use and will be blessed by!"

What am I missing?
I am so frustrated by what seems to be pastors and curriculum writers who don't relate to real people. I know that they do, but it seems that they revert back to their seminary training and write as if they are being graded by their seminary professors.

Maybe the real problem is the publishing industry. No publisher wants to invest in a product that will really work. The fact is that the most effect leader's guide I have ever seen have all been under a page in length. I'll even go beyond that and say that two pages worth of material is more than enough. But I just reviewed some lessons that were four pages in length. Really? Is that much needed? If this is the case, a six-week study would be six pages long. It's impossible to charge $7.99 for a six page booklet. And who would actually purchase something just six pages long?

Maybe the issue is that we are so accustomed to Sunday School curriculum with all the information, explanations and commentary that we feel this is needed for small group discussions. But if the purpose is teaching, then that is the case. By contrast, I have always taught that the job of the leader is not teaching but facilitating. Are groups still caught in a teaching mode and don't see the need for life on life conversation?

What's up? Can't we keep our curriculum simple and user-friendly? I've always wondered what the early church did without publishing houses to produce Bible study material for their house churches? What does the church in India use? What about the church in Saudia Arabia? Do we really need all of this?

Randall's comments:

This pastor makes valid points. Yet as one who edited and published a six book series of small group guides, sometimes more than 2 pages are required to give the person using the material enough information to be successful without any support from others (which is the only safe assumption to make). However, I still think a single page guide with four or five questions leading the group to minister to one another is the best, and what pastors should provide for every group instead of buying curriculum year after year. What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment and rant yourself if you like!


Unknown said...

As a cell church planter for nine years I wrote 5 open-ended discussion questions from each sermon I preached. Next to the textual study, it was the hardest and most important work I did each week. These plus a few informational or background notes (never more than 5 sentences) became the discussion guides for our cell leaders and groups. I'm in a position of coaching other church planters in a missionary context now, and whenever I get a chance I coach them to follow this model. It is simple but not simplistic, and if the preacher is doing his/her job, it will always be relevant to the local culture. And it avoids all of the pitfalls noted in this pastor's frustrations.

Brad C said...

I have been involved with leading small groups for over 20 years and the author hits it on the head when he notes the tendency to make a Sunday School class out of a small group. As someone has said, we need three levels of group interaction, Hearts to God (Praise and Worship), Head to Head (Bible classes), and Heart to Heart (Small groups). A half dozen well-focused questions is all a group will have time to process and apply.

Unknown said...

I dislike the small group my pastor heads. He rehashs his sermom and gets disturbed if I ask questions related to Christian ethics of living in a democratic industrialized multi-cultural suburban society rather than an ancient agrargian autocratic of 3,000 years ago. I go but I get more inspiration of the Diety when I am at the Grand Canyon, or working as an RN (34 years experience), or being a husband to my wife. George

Randall Neighbour said...

George, I have written and re-written a reply to your comment three times now but I would like others to articulate a response.