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Choosing Curriculum for Your Small Group Ministry

I review a lot of small group curriculum here at MarkHowellLive.com.  You might wonder what makes one study better than another in my mind.  Here are the keys for me:

  1. Application oriented.  It needs to be written with application built in.  This plays a huge part in whether it gets added to my recommended list.  For a little more on application, take a look at this recent post by Rick Howerton: More to Application Than Going and Doing.
  2. Theologically Accurate:  I’ve included this simply because it should enter into your thinking when you’re developing an approved list.  Since I’m a fan of lowering the leader bar, it’s important to select curriculum that will keep your groups focused on topics that are consistent with the theological stance of your congregation.
  3. Facilitation, not teaching.  Healthy grouplife is not a smaller version of the weekend service.  It is about discussion.  It’s about conversation.  It’s about sharing.  That happens when everyone gets involved in the study.  It doesn’t happen when someone teaches and everyone else takes notes.  Note: This is the reason that I almost always note the length of the DVD teaching segment.  Many of the earliest DVD-driven studies featured teaching segments that were over 25 minutes long.  That’s too long for the average attention span.  The best DVD-driven studies are averaging 12 to 18 minutes (and only when there is a creative combination of teaching and storyline).
  4. Easy to use.  In order for a curriculum to make my list it needs to be the kind of thing that a caveman could do (to refer to the great series of GEICO commercials).  It needs to be plug-and-play and just-add-water.  Why?  In my mind, healthy groups have more than one facilitator.  If a study has to have a great facilitator to pull it off…it’s not easy to use.  In addition, easy to use means reasonable preparation on the part of the leader.  If a study requires more than 20 to 30 minutes…it’s not easy to use.
  5. Leader’s Guide Included.  The best studies include a well-written Leader’s Guide in the appendix of every participant guide.  Again, healthy groups have multiple facilitators and leader’s notes incorporated into the participant guide makes it easy.
  6. Affordable.  Keeping in mind that many groups meet weekly (or 36 to 48 times a year), purchasing a new study every 6 weeks can be expensive.  Developing a DVD library can help bring the cost down, but it still makes a big difference when the average cost for 10 members doing a 6 week study is $7 (Lifetogether) versus $10 (Francis Chan’s BASIC: Who Is God? or Erwin McManus’ Life’s Toughest Questions).
  7. Story-Driven Visual Media vs. Talking Head.  It’s important to point out that not all DVD-driven is the same.  Although the early entries in the category were talking head (think 40 Days of Purpose, Lifetogether’s Doing Life Together, etc.), an increasing number of studies are much more creatively presented (Liquid’s “The Ten” and Lifeway’s “CRAVE”) and often incorporate engaging storylines intertwined with teaching vignettes.
  8. Topical Bible Studies, Bible Book Studies and Lifestage Practical. Just a brief note on the various types of studies that are available.  There is real value in all three types of studies.  Since for me the most important criteria is application oriented, there seem to be more that are topical than expositional (through-a-book-of-the-Bible).  The key is whether it is based on scripture.  While many groups enjoy “going through a book of the Bible” and it can provide important insights, many of the studies that provide this experience tend to be teacher driven.  There are also a number of studies that are Lifestage Practical and biblically based but don’t overtly discuss or highlight scripture (i.e., Love Talk by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott or Putting Plan B into Action by Pete Wilson).

I hope you’ll find this overview helpful as you develop your own recommended list.  While not exhaustive, these are the main categories I use when I evaluate curriculum.

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Mark Howell serves as Pastor of Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, NV. He founded SmallGroupResources.net, offering consulting and coaching services to help churches across North America launch, build and sustain healthy small group ministries. He spent four years on the consulting staff at Lifetogether and often contributes to ministry periodicals such as the Pastor's Ministry Toolbox and ChurchCentral.com.