They’re easy to recognize. They sit through the sermon with a glazed look, their minds obviously dialed in on something else. They never open a Bible. They don’t even bring one. If a story is really good or funny, they’ll check in for a moment or two—but then check out again long before the spiritual application. I’ve also noticed that they look at their watches a lot—even during the first few minutes.
They’re a preacher’s nightmare. Sometimes they seem unreachable. Often they are.
But our sermon-based small groups have proven to be a powerful tool for reeling them in. That’s because the moment they sign up (even if it’s just to appease a spouse or hang out with some friends), we’ve got them on the hook. Immediately their connection with the worship service and sermon changes, and when that changes, so does everything about their church experience.
Let’s take Marginal Mark as an example. He comes to church primarily for his wife and kids. During a typical sermon, he daydreams about his job, some major decisions he’s facing, or his fantasy football team. He’s a moral guy, just not too “religious.” He’d rather leave the extra stuff for those who are really into it.
Now let’s imagine that his wife gets him to sign up for a sermon-based small group. Suddenly, despite his previous lack of interest, he’s listening at a deeper level. He’ll almost certainly start taking some notes. Then he’ll look at them again, however briefly, before the meeting. At the meeting, with some friends in a safe and nonjudgmental environment, he’ll discuss the Scriptures and what it means to follow Jesus.
The hook has been set.
He’s now interacting with the Word of God at a level far beyond anything he’s ever done before. And in most cases it won’t be long until the Scriptures start to do their stuff—convicting him, instructing him, and training him in a righteousness he didn’t even know he was looking for.
This is often the first time a guy like Marginal Mark gets close enough to the Bible to even know what it says, much less to realize how alive and practical it can be. And for a guy like him, that’s often the biggest hurdle to clear before making a full commitment to follow Jesus instead of just going to church.
It’s a story I’ve seen played out time after time. A spouse or friend joins a group to keep the peace or just to check it out. But once they start interacting with Scripture and it begins to sink in, they move from marginal to enthusiastic—ofttimes even becoming a host or leader of their own group.
It’s an exciting process to watch. What makes it all the better is that it’s all so organic. It doesn’t take a lot of monitoring, pushing, or cajoling. In fact, that would probably short-circuit the process. It just takes stepping back and letting the powerful mixture of God’s Spirit, his people, and the Scriptures do its work.
As natural as this process is in a sermon-based group, it’s not so easy to pull off in a more traditional small group structure.
To begin with, without a natural connection to what goes on in the weekend service, it’s harder to get Marginal Mark to even try a group. It’s a relatively short step from listening to a sermon to joining a small group that discusses the sermon he’s already heard. But it’s a much bigger step into a traditional small group Bible study. That’s because if people don’t perceive a natural connection to the worship service, they tend to feel like they’re signing up for the equivalent of a spiritual honors course—hardly the type of thing most window-shoppers or marginally interested Christians are looking for.
And even if Marginal Mark does join a group and begins to grow, the isolated nature of the study material gives him no reason or motivation to connect with the larger body of Christ, the worship service, or the weekend message. Odds are, he’ll still sit through it as bored and disinterested as ever.
Osborne, L. W. (2008). Sticky church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
My core ministry is writing Bible Study lessons. If I can serve you in this way, I’d love to help. Cost is negotiable. Think in terms of what you pay your Pastor for half a day. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 575.650.4564