Bible study |
Leading a Bible study group
The aim of this paper is to give resource information on the setting up and running of a small-group Bible study. Personal Bible study is a fairly simple matter. Daily readings using Scripture Union notes or the Lectionary, or detailed study using a Bible Commentary, tend to be the preferred methods. With a group it is a little more complex. These notes seek to address the complexities of group Bible study, but at the same time, provide insights into personal Bible study.
The purpose of Bible study|
1. To seek God's leading and respond to it
It is not an easy job living the Christian life. Jesus, of course, never said it would be easy. Part of the frustration is knowing how Jesus wants us to live for him. We are continually searching out "God's will for us today", but how do we work out what his will is? Personal revelations (called "leadings of the Spirit") and experience (called "open and closed doors") are highly subjective. God's revealed method may be more complex, but it is his way.
The method is as follows: The church assembles and seeks the will of God through the ministries of the word, ie. the apostles (now the record of the New Testament), prophets and teachers, Eph.4:11-16. In the presence of Christ the church seeks the revealed will of God. It seeks to agree with heaven. Thus knowing God's will, we may pray with the sure knowledge that our prayer will be answered and act with the sure knowledge that our action is right, Matt.18:18-20. What God commands can be done, what he promises will happen, if only we have faith, Math.14:22-33.
So, the primary purpose of Bible study is to search out God's will so that the members of Christ's body, the church, might live it out in their daily lives.
2. To come to grips with the Bible's content
The general accumulation of information is of itself an important task for future reference. It is essential to know God's will so that when faced with new situations we will be able to apply his truths. In this way we will grow through the circumstances of life, rather than be blindly driven by them.
3. To develop a method of Biblical interpretation
Bible study should be directed in such a way as to develop the technical skills necessary to rightly interpret the Word of God. A well designed Bible study will enable us to learn and apply the rules of Biblical interpretation.
4. To develop fellowship
Fellowship is a particular consequence that flows out of group Bible study. In fact, fellowship is a natural outcome from a group's study of God's Word. The members are bound to grow together in unity and oneness because they become one in the truth, a truth that sets us free.
Organization of a Bible study group
1. Starting up a group
There are two vital ingredients for a group to get off the ground.
First, a core group of two or three Christians are required. They need to be committed to searching out and living out God's will together.
Next, a capable leader is required. Obviously they must be a Christian with "gifts" suitable to lead a Bible study group. They should be of reasonable intellect, ie. know the info, or where and how to find it. They should be able to communicate, listen, learn, and be diplomatic.
Then, get out and advertise the group. Be willing to encourage church members to join, but don't bend arms or play the "holier than thou" game. Pick a neutral environment for the group to meet, eg. a loungeroom atmosphere. This helps people relax. Please don't sit the group around a table in a cold church hall.
2. Developing the group
Use study methods suitable for the group, methods that will stimulate natural discussion. The choice of a suitable method will depend upon the age of members and their social and Christian development. Don't get hooked on gimmicks or some new "solve all your problems" technique. First, analyze, then adapt, then apply. With regard to the content studied, relevance is vital. Cold unrelated facts are hard to digest. People need to wrestle with God's Word within their own life situation.
The size of the group can be a problem. We believers often get hung-up on undersized groups, yet large numbers doesn't imply success. Is it not where two or three gather together? The real difficulty arises when the group breaks the 12 barrier. It then becomes difficult for all to participate. Division is the only answer.
In a church or Christian organization where a number of Bible study groups have developed by division, it is vital to link all the groups together so as to maintain the unity of the wider body of believers. This can be achieved through a leaders' meeting where an overall syllabus can be planned for the study groups, and this locked in to the church preaching and teaching programme. Problems, discoveries, etc., can then become the possession of the whole body.
In Church Growth technology, small group Bible studies have had quite a positive impact. Some growth churches use such groups to grow their church by centralizing the small group programme. So, small group ministry can be a very powerful one.
First, determine the aim of the exercise, then get to work and master the subject. Know the passage or book back to front, its arguments and structure, etc., then read up on the commentaries and chase up on specialized information ( eg. "New Bible Dictionary", IVP). In simple terms, the leader must expand their knowledge. Most ministers will lend their books and of course, there are many Christian Bookshops to resource.
When the subject matter is mastered, then develop an appropriate method of presentation. See "Useful Methods of group Bible study" below.
If all this work is going to mean anything, the leader has to live out in their life what they have learnt, otherwise their words will be empty.
2. Selection of study material
Here are some possibilities:
i] Key Passages;
ii] Themes traced through the Old and New Testament;
iii] Set a particular book of the Bible for study;
iv] Topical studies;
v] Character studies;
vi] A current popular Christian book;
vii] A correspondence course;
viii] Prepared study group material and aids.
3. Sources for Bible study material
The Christian Bookshops hold a large range of group study aids and material. Senior Sunday School material can be helpful, eg. Scripture Union. Theological Correspondence courses are an excellent way to come to grips with Biblical truth. There is also a wide range of audio visuals, videos and tapes, available from numerous sources. Then of course, there is the web with a massive range of material already available over the internet. As this technology advances with data casting etc. it will become the main source of Bible study material.
4. Useful equipment
There is now an extensive range of audio visual equipment available for use in Bible study groups. The video player is certainly the most used tool today with interactive data casting the way of the future.
i] Printing. Most Churches have some type of printing equipment, usually a photo copier.
ii] Sound. An audible cassette player. Note, sitting in a group listening to a tape is hard work.
iii] Visuals. Every church should have or be able to borrow equipment for use in study groups and services. The overhead projector still has a role to play, but falls short of a well presented power-point presentation. Computer driven data casting is the way of the future.
5. Leadership hints
Know the level of intelligence and Christian maturity of group members, and direct the study accordingly.
Never assume anything, explain everything.
Never underestimate the groups capacity to understand and act. Give the group the full 'nitty gritty", they will revel in the challenge.
Don't be afraid of silences or hot exchanges.
Don't get stuck on one issue for too long.
Don't answer your own questions.
Know when to shut up.
Involve everyone in the discussion.
Keep to the subject.
Know when to wind up.
Never embarrass a group member.
6. Problems that arise
Every Bible study has its ups and downs. The following are some of the problem areas:
i] The group clams up. With a new group there may be a pervading air of uneasiness. The members simply don't feel that they can trust each other as yet. This type of problem can be overcome if the core members are frank with each other and are open to the views of others. Also, it is wise for the group to get involved in extra activities - either work or play. A domineering leader or member can also cause this type of problem.
ii] Discussion that dries up or gets sidetracked. The leader should have at hand some prepared 'Leading questions' that direct the group to search out the subject under discussion.
iii] A shy member. Try to instill confidence by occasionally asking simple questions. Encourage them to buy an easy translation, eg. Good News Bible.
iv] An over-talkative person. They just have to be told nicely to be quite and let others have a go.
v] 'Red herrings". Glide over them and get back on track, but watch out, someone may be raising a real problem that's causing them concern. If this is the case the group should deal with it.
vi] Someone who always disagrees. Ask pointed questions like "What is the point you are trying to make?" "How does that apply?". If all fails, the standard quote is "Let's discuss it later."
v] Questions that cannot be answered. Best to plead ignorance, affirm the question and tell the member you will chase up the answer.
vi] A dying group. The members have become apathetic and simply roll along out of loyalty. It is important to work out what has gone wrong.
Has the group become introverted?
Is the group unwilling to accept new ideas?
Is the leader a fool?
Are the members seeking social outlet rather than spiritual growth?
Has the group failed to apply what it has learnt?
If the group can't be revitalized, it should be closed down.
Deductive methods of Bible study
There are many different methods of Bible study available. The following are some useful possibilities, but remember that suitable selection and adaptation is a necessary prerequisite for success. The starting point with a deductive approach is the Bible itself. Biblical passages are studied, and after discussion and interpretation, are related to our present experience and then specifically applied.
1. Systematic Bible study
This is clearly the most popular approach and may vary from an intensive intellectual exercise to a simple learning, sharing and applying session. It is a wise move for the leader to produce a set of notes on the book to be studied, containing background, aim, structure, and outlined.
The best way for the group to proceed is for the leader to introduce the session by summarizing the chapters previously covered (content and argument), and then outline the passage to be studied (its place in the structure of the book). It may also be wise to give some preliminary comments on theological concepts raised in the passage. The passage is then read and each verse discussed (words, concepts etc.) and related to the context. When the truths of the passage have been discovered by proper interpretative methods, they can then be applied to the situation of the group members themselves.
Naturally, with more mature groups the leader may play a less domineering role, the group may even lead itself.
2. "Iona" method
A Bible passage is selected. The group then reads it quietly for about 10 minutes from the same version (print it out if this is not possible). Each member then comments on any significant points or problems that they have seen. This is followed by general discussion on the points raised and finally the passage is summed up by the leader.
Although the leader must be well prepared, they should not impose their views upon the group, but rather guide the group's investigation into the points and problems raised by individual members. None-the-less, the leader's guidance has to be positive, since the whole point of the exercise is to arrive at the truth of the passage. This is a suitable method for mature groups.
3. Manuscript discovery
The text of a Biblical Book is printed in full down the side of the page leaving about a third for notes. The individual members read and reread the book, attempting to discover its structure. This is then recorded next to the text (in pencil). Members finally compare and discuss their efforts.
It is helpful to have someone well acquainted with the book to feed in information at suitable intervals and to gather together the findings of the group. The method is applicable to very mature groups studying in an intensive session, say a weekend camp.
4. Text comparison
As many different versions as possible are bought along to the Bible study and compared for a selected passage. Significant differences and similarities in the translations are listed and then discussed by the group. Note that some members may use a modern paraphrase which will give the writers understanding of a difficult verse, rather than leaving the meaning up in the air, as is the standard approach for a literal translation (although it should be noted that the more modern translations are increasingly moving toward a "dynamic equivalent" approach). The printed words must always be considered and not just accepted.
5. Key questions
A list of basic questions are agreed upon by the group and are used at each meeting to break open the selected passage. Print the questions out on a card, or in questionnaire form on an A4 sheet, spaced for written comments.
A possible set of questions are as follows:-
What are the various scenes in the passage? Describe the situation.
What is the background?
What are the difficult words and phrases?
What are the most striking ideas?
What is the central meaning of the passage?
How does the meaning of the passage apply to us today?
What follow up action should be taken?
6. Questionnaire method
A list of pointed questions are prepared on the selected passage and handed to group members. Verse references and ruled spaces for answers, are helpful extras. Discussion may follow the completed questionnaire, or after each question is attempted. Note, there is quite a bit of prepared material around along these lines. This is a useful approach for young people. Many commercial Bible Study notes follow this method.
7. The symbol method
Printed sheets are prepared, divided into three sections, with each section defined by a symbol: a question mark, an arrow and a candle. At each meeting, sheets are handed out. After reading the chosen passage, the members spend around 10 minutes thinking and making notes.
In the first section, the question mark, anything that is not understood is listed.
In the second, the arrow, anything that challenges the conscience is listed down.
In the third, the candle, any new insights, discoveries or things now clear for the first time, are written down.
Members then discuss their findings and answer questions, etc. The leader should see to it that the meaning of the passage is properly discovered, and summarized accordingly.
An alternate set of symbols can be used, bell, book and candle.
In the first section, the bell, any new insights that may have come from the passage, or were prompted by it, are listed
In the second, the book, discoveries that have a bearing upon the group and church are noted
In the third, the candle, truths that personally affect the life of the individual member are listed.
8. Reading around
The group reads the passage together, or reads it verse by verse around the group. After a time of silence, each member selects the verse that most affected them. The leader draws out each individual in an attempt to discover why the verse was so important to them.
10. The 6 P method
Each member comes equipped with a note book in which they record the findings of each passage studied. The procedure is to spend about ten minutes on each of the following:
Pick a passage;
Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit;
Picture the scene or situation;
Ponder the meaning of the passage. Spend part of the time in silence and then discuss it;
Points. Identify the significant points in the passage;
Priorities. How do these points touch on our life, and what should we do about it?
Problem centered methods
We tend today to employ our reasoning faculties primarily for problem solving. It is an approach necessary in our complex society. Therefore, it is a worthwhile method in our study groups, especially where some motivation is required.
The starting point is the analysis of a problem. It may be personal, national, political, theological, denominational, etc. Once the problem is identified and analyzed, scripture is assembled and its relevance evaluated, conclusions drawn, related to the problem, and finally, applied to the life situation.
It is obvious that with this type of method there has to be a careful input of Biblical information, otherwise biased conclusions will follow. The leader is bound to do quite a bit of homework. When we start with the problem and then move to God's Word, there is always the danger of proof-texting, or inventing a Word from God. A deductive approach is always safer than an inductive one, because then we submit to what God wants to say to us rather than to what we want to know. None-the-less, there is value in this methodology as long as it isn't used as the main Bible study format for the group.
Great variety is possible in introducing a problem, videos, role plays, newspapers and magazine cuttings, personal experiences, etc. all aid the impact.
Summarizing the problem centred approach:
Introduce the problem;
Analyze the problem;
Feed in Biblical information and discuss;
Formulate Biblical principals;
Apply to the group.
1. Case history
This method follows the basic pattern above.
i] A group member reveals a worrying problem (it doesn't have to be personal).
ii] The group questions the member.
iii] There is general discussion.
iv] Relevant scriptural passages are then discussed.
v] Conclusions are then drawn from the Biblical advice.
This method is useful in helping develop a group. Consideration of the issue raised and further Biblical research is useful homework for group members. They can report their findings when the group next meets.
2. Real problems
This is a similar approach to the basic pattern above.
i] Problems are accepted from the group for discussion.
ii] One is chosen by mutual consent.
iii] The problem is discussed.
iv] Two small groups are deputized to get more information and report to the group when it next meets:
a) Further information on the problem itself.
b) Relevant scripture.
v] On the following week the group reconvenes and hears the two reports. vi] The material is reasoned out.
vii] Conclusions are verified from the scriptures.
viii] Mutual action is agreed to.
ix] The meeting concludes with prayer.
3. See, judge and act
The meeting commences by analyzing a topic and studying a relevant passage from scripture. The group then considers three questions under the headings: See, judge and act.
See. What do we see in this passage which is relevant to the topic under discussion?
Judge. How do we judge the topic in the light of the insights gained from the passage?
Act. How ought we to act in relation to the scriptural view on this topic?
The following are suitable for occasional use to add variety to group Bible studies.
1. Mock productions
i] Choose the production media:- Visual (video), voice (eg. radio play), print (eg. a magazine) .....
ii] Choose a Biblical incident.
iii] Divide the group up:- Research, script, production, technicians etc.
iv] Review and discuss progress at each meeting.
v] If possible, produce your effort.
2. Dramatic readings
Practice reading a chosen passage using all group members, and then record it.
3. Role plays
Select a passage and divide into pairs. With the use of different versions, paraphrase it into modern language and then compare the results.
5. I don't believe it
A printed passage is handed out and members:
a) Cross out what is not believed;
b) Underline what is.
The leader leads discussion on areas of agreement and disagreement, and deals with interesting 'cross outs'.
6. In the news
A passage from the Bible is expounded and then members are handed a recent newspaper article, or articles. They then search out what news items are enlightened by the passage.
7. A re-write
A parable or incident is rewritten by the group into a modern equivalent, eg. "The Good Samaritan".
Bible study is an extremely important activity. Individual reading, along with the hearing of sermons, is of first importance, but it is also a great help when we join with other believers to study the Word. It is in the study of God's Word that we meet the "still small voice". A blessing indeed.
Index of studies. Resource file.
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons