Six Bad Habits in Leading Bible Study

This is a guest post by Andy Cimbala. Andy has a passion for college students to become committed disciples of Jesus Christ, and he loves seeing them lead great Bible studies! Andy & his wife Melissa are the lead campus staff for the DiscipleMakers ministry at Shippensburg University, and he blogs for The Relentless Fight. If you’d like to write a guest post for Knowable Word, please see the guidelines page.
Dennis Larson (2012), Creative Commons

Dennis Larson (2012), Creative Commons

If God can use a silly donkey to speak his word (2 Peter 2:16), he can use anybody. But the wise of heart will use sweetness of speech to increase persuasiveness (Prov 16:21).

Thus, even when truth is present, a bad Bible study can leave participants confused, wondering if they’ll ever understand what the Bible says. But as leaders we can prevent Bible studies from being dull by learning how to study well and how to lead well—and by avoiding at least six bad habits.

1. Winging It

The Spirit of God works as we lead Bible study, and he also works as we prepare for it. Before you lead, spend time in prayer and preparation to discern the main point of the text and to generate some helpful questions to guide the time.

2. Being Vague

When God speaks, he means to communicate something knowable and specific, and what he means is not a matter of one’s own interpretation. Your job as leader is to direct people to the text to discern what the author is saying. Clarity is a rare but precious commodity. Strive for it as you frame the time and ask good questions. Feel free to guide the group by taking tangential discussions offline.

3. Talking a Lot

The answers are in the text and not your brain. Direct the group back into the Bible, and ask questions to help them seek and find the truth there. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. By all means, draw the group out, and dominate the time with God’s voice, not yours.

4. Keeping it Academic

What good is it to understand the point of a passage but never have it change our lives? James says this is like looking in the bathroom mirror but having to pull down the car visor 15 minutes later because you forgot what you looked like (James 1:23-24). When you lead a Bible study, reserve time for application and push folks to grapple with the text’s connection to their lives. Don’t be satisfied with purely cognitive but apparently spiritual answers.

5. Sputtering to the Finish

Leaders are servants, and a great way to serve people is to communicate start and end times—and hold yourself to them. Also, a strong way to end the study might be to restate the main point, summarize a few applications, and close with prayer. You may want to sneak any announcements in before the closing prayer. What you don’t want is for people, who sacrificed time to attend, to wonder whether it was worth it.

6. Neglecting Prayer

Since the Holy Spirit wrote the Scripture, sensible leaders ask his help to understand it. While prayer might not fit your goals for the discussion time itself (particularly if the group’s purpose is outreach to unbelievers), prayer during your preparation expresses dependence on the Lord and gives him the honor he deserves.

May God strengthen you to be an excellent Bible study leader! May you lead with consideration, clarity, and confidence in the author and perfecter of faith. And if your study doesn’t go well, remember that our gracious God can still speak through anyone.

Matthias Media Home Group Leader’s Digest

I recently subscribed to the Home Group Leaders digest from Matthias Media. This digest is a free monthly email with practical tips and encouragement to those who lead small group Bible studies.

The September edition was quite helpful on a number of topics:

  • How to follow up with people whose attendance has been spotty.
  • How to develop closeness in the group outside of the Bible study meeting.
  • Why it’s important not to ask questions that leave people feeling like they have to read your mind.

You can check out the newsletter online, or—even better—subscribe! In the subscription options, just check “The Home Group Leader’s Monthly Digest.”

Announcement: Monday Posts

Your Mondays are about to become less full. Or less bothersome and weary. Or more empty and devoid of wisdom…

With the completion of my Proverbs series, I’ve found myself in something of an existential crisis. “All things are full of weariness…The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the internets filled with blog posts” (Eccl 1:8, translation according to a recent re-interpretation of the Hebrew text). In addition, my wife will soon groan in the pains of childbirth (Rom 8:22) as our new baby arrives in power and great glory sometime around Thanksgiving.

So I’ve decided to reduce my posting to twice per week for a time.

You might ask, “How long?” And you wouldn’t be the first (Psalm 13:1). And I’d be tempted to retort with something like, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste” (Is 6:11), but I won’t.

So for now we’ll just all have to content ourselves with Knowable Word posts on Wednesdays and Fridays, and we’ll be blessed if we do (Phil 4:11-12).

Ask Good Application Questions

This is a guest post by Ryan Higginbottom, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA. When he’s not solving differential equations or blogging at A Small Work, he loves spending time with his wife and two daughters. He also leads a small group Bible study for his church. If you’d like to write a guest post for Knowable Word, please see the guidelines page.

Welcome to the most uncomfortable part of your small group Bible study. Regardless of how energetic the discussion has been, getting personal will be hard work. Your group may float on the momentum of observation and interpretation like a shiny soap-bubble on a breezy spring day, yet that bubble can pop as soon as you transition to application. Safety and abstraction give no further covering. You’re asking people to reshape their thinking and their lives according to the Word of God, and such requests normally feel uncomfortable.

Serge Melki (2010), Creative Commons

Serge Melki (2010), Creative Commons

But don’t shy away from the discomfort! When you discuss the work of God to conform us to the image of Christ, any tension you feel is evidence of progress. When you lead your group through the awkwardness, your courage will be infectious.

Lead the Group in Application

First, apply the text to yourself. A leader who hasn’t already made personal application from the text is like a skinny chef, an unkempt barber, or a disheveled tailor. If the text hasn’t changed you, you’ll have little capital with which to invest in others’ change. In fact, the areas where God’s word has most powerfully affected you will likely be the ones that stand out the most to your group. So, as you plan your study, apply the Bible to your own life. Build such application into your preparation.

Second, ask a general question. In my small group, I usually transition to application with a generic, open-ended question: “How can we apply this text?” On this fishing trip, I wait five seconds before cutting bait. I’m looking for any pointed, clear work of the Spirit, because sometimes God will bring conviction and insight for change to the mind of a group member as we meet. I don’t want to bottle that up, but to allow room for spontaneous eruptions of confession and grace-dependent plans to change.

Third, ask specific questions. This work is hard but good. People don’t often respond to big, broad questions but need help to consider specific applications. To stimulate your preparation, consider the two directions and the three spheres of application. Additionally, consider applications for individuals as well as for the group and/or church/ministry as a whole. You won’t have time to touch on every area of application every week, but make sure that you balance the categories over the weeks and months so the group doesn’t list too much in one direction.

Case Study

Consider an example. Last week I suggested the following as the main point of Isaiah 25:1-12:

Praise God! He will swallow up death, and He gives us glimpses of that now.

Here are some potential application questions that flow from this main point:

  • How could you live as though God will swallow up death? What gets in the way? What glimpses do you now see that can remind you of God’s victory?
  • What opportunities do you have to speak about God’s victory over death? To your children? To your neighbors? To your coworkers? How do they view death? What glimpses of God’s victory might they now see?
  • If God will swallow up death, how will that affect our approach to risk-taking? What keeps you from taking risks? How can we help each other take God-glorifying risks?
  • How can we remind each other that God will swallow up death? To what “now” glimpses can we point?

Final Thoughts

Here are some final ideas to help you ask better application questions.

  1. Questions belong to you; conviction belongs to the Holy Spirit. By all means, study, think, and pray in your preparation. But remember you cannot convict sinners of their sin. The Holy Spirit holds this job. Your job is to ask questions that lead to applications of the text and to share how God has changed you through this study. You must labor in faith, knowing that you can plant or water but that God causes the growth. (1 Cor 3:5–9)
  2. Be specific and personal in your questions. As the members of your group get to know each other, you will start to know where others battle against sin. So, as the moment allows, you can ask specific application questions that tap into the group’s shared history. “Jane, a few weeks ago you mentioned that you often don’t know how to offer hope to your coworkers. Can you think of a way to bring the truth from tonight’s passage to anyone specifically?” Be sensitive to personalities and confidences, but leverage this great benefit of a small group: giving and receiving help in targeted, personal, specific ways.
  3. Ask honest questions. If you ask a question and it is clear to your group that you are expecting only one correct answer, you’re not encouraging discussion, and the group may feel manipulated. See how the group responds to suggestions, but leave room for the Holy Spirit to push the changes through.
  4. Connect your application to Jesus. Too often Christians leave Bible studies in a rush of grit and determination rather than a dependence on God’s grace. Though a burst of adrenaline may enable you to push a car for a few feet, that’s no way to cross the country. We need Jesus’ life and death for us all the time, both for forgiveness when we fail and for strength to obey. And as the group leader, this must sink deeply into your heart so you can guard your friends against the let’s-go-do-this-woo-hoo application fever.

What have you found helpful in regard to asking application questions in Bible studies?

6 Ways to Benefit from Reading Genealogies

Writing for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Matthew Holst has some very helpful tips for one of the most difficult Bible genres for modern readers.

The genealogies in Scripture are so important that it may rightly be said that we cannot fully see the glory of the metanarrative (i.e. the storyline) of the Bible without them.

His 6 tips are:

  1. Read them.
  2. Pay attention to every word.
  3. Pay attention to every missing word.
  4. Consider how they remind us of life and death.
  5. Consider how they present to us two seeds.
  6. Consider how they present to us a faithful, promise-fulfilling, covenant-keeping God.

We get out of genealogies from what time we are willing to put in. If we are prepared to spend the time, do the work and be guided by the Spirit, we will be presented with potted-histories of God’s kindness to man. So we must read the genealogies of Scripture and study them. They, like every other part of Scripture, are profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness, that you may be made perfect, equipped for every good work  (2 Timothy 3:16).

Check it out!

The End of Wisdom

Teti-Tots (2010), Creative Commons

Teti-Tots (2010), Creative Commons

This is my last post about Proverbs 1-9, and I end where Solomon ends—with a warning. Though folly looks a lot like wisdom, don’t let it deceive you. It will flatter you, trick you, and end you.

The woman Folly is loud;
she is seductive and knows nothing.
She sits at the door of her house;
she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,
calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way.
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
And to him who lacks sense she says,
“Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret in pleasant.”
But he does not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol. (Prov 9:13-18, ESV)

I’ve listed extensive comparisons and contrasts between the feasts of wisdom and folly. In this post, I simply want to warn you of 4 things that look like wisdom but are not. They have ensnared many in our day.


Some find their life and security in their abundance of possessions. Others react and find their life and security in their lack of possessions. Both are fools, though they often think themselves wise. Money is neither a god to be worshiped nor a demon to be exorcised. It is a tool useful for building God’s kingdom. It makes friends; it persuades kings. But God can give it or take it away as he pleases, and the wise will bow to him alone.


Some think sex will make them happy. Others react and treat it as something unfit to be discussed in Bible study. Both are fools, though they often think themselves wise. Sex is neither the chief end of man nor the fruit of the fall. The wise won’t ignore the temptation common to man, to abuse this gift. And the wise won’t wield the subject like a taser, merely for its shock value. But…what can I say? The wise husband loves his wife’s breasts (Prov 5:19). And the wise wife will find things about her husband that are equally intoxicating (Song 1:2).


“If you are wise, you are wise for yourself” (Prov 9:12). But that doesn’t mean you can be wise by yourself. Nor that you get to decide what is wise (Gen 3:6). Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, and it ends when instruction goes despised and unheeded. Those who have their act together may have an appearance of wisdom, but they deny wisdom’s true power to change and guide anyone (Prov 1:5).


Some fools believe their role or authority gives them value and power over people. Those who support such folly are fools themselves. A sanitized version of this folly exists in our churches when leaders are willing to tell their people what to do without being expected to show their people how to do it.

Now I’m not without guilt here. I drink these four poisons, and a thousand more, daily. The point of Proverbs is not to consign us to our folly but to expose the counterfeits so we might crave something more sumptuous.

Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)

Ask Good Interpretive Questions

This is a guest post by Ryan Higginbottom, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA. When he’s not solving differential equations or blogging at A Small Work, he loves spending time with his wife and two daughters. He also leads a small group Bible study for his church. If you’d like to write a guest post for Knowable Word, please see the guidelines page.

But who do you say that I am? (Luke 9:20, ESV)

This piercing question follows a simple observation question (“Who do the crowds say that I am?”). Jesus requires his disciples to consider the popular answers (John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets of old) along with the witness of his teaching and life. Jesus presses them to make sense of their observations.

Eric (2005), Creative Commons

Eric (2005), Creative Commons

Interpretation questions provide an indispensable turning point for small group discussions. Though we must observe well, we must not stop there. Wise leaders challenge people to make sense of observation through vibrant interpretation. Thus, having seen how to ask good observation questions in a small group setting, we are ready to take the next step.

One key idea will help you learn to ask good interpretation questions: Work backwards. Plant your flag on the main point of the passage, review the trail you hiked to get there, and develop questions that will guide your group back to the summit.

Working Backwards

Since the chief goal of interpretation is to identify the author’s main point in the passage, we want to lead our groups to that end. Ideally, we want to be able to state the central theme in a single sentence.

Then it is time to work backwards. Which observations were most significant? Which questions directed me to the main point? Which questions were good but tangential? How does the argument of the passage flow from beginning to end? Which highlights will best serve the group?

Case Study

My small group recently studied Isaiah 25:1-12. I stated the main point of the passage this way:

Praise God, for he will swallow up death, and he gives glimpses of that future reality now.

How did I structure my questions to guide the group toward this idea?

Beginning with the first stanza, Isaiah 25:1–5, I asked observation questions that pointed the group to previous themes in the book—such as the destruction of strong cities—and to repeated words or ideas, like strength (Isaiah 25:2, 3, 4) and the “ruthless” (Isaiah 25:3, 4, 5). I also asked what this stanza teaches about God.

These conversations set us up for the following interpretive questions that led the group to the main point:

  • Why will the strong and ruthless people glorify God? How would such people glorify God? This question prods the group to see God’s victory being so complete that his enemies can do nothing but honor him for his strength. God is such a stronghold for his people that his enemies are in awe.
  • Why does Isaiah 25:5 refer to “the song of the ruthless”? Probably, the ruthless would sing when victorious; if God silences this song, it means he is weakening their military power.
  • Why do the verb tenses keep changing (past, present, future)? This question explores the relationship between what God has done and what he will yet do. Thus, arriving at the chapter’s second stanza (Isaiah 25:6–12), we’ll see the connection between God’s having defeated human enemies and God’s coming defeat of the greatest enemy, death. The “forever” tone of Isaiah 25:2 foreshadows the eradication of death prophesied in Isaiah 25:7-8.

Final Thoughts

Here are some final tips for asking good interpretive questions.

  1. Prepare, but be flexible. By all means, prepare well. Study, pray, and trust God as you prepare notes to guide your leadership of the discussion. But be flexible as well. Multiple paths of observation can lead to the same main point. Remember that you are fallible and others may correct or adjust your interpretations if they can prove it from the text. You may have even missed the passage’s main point and landed on a sub-point! Don’t dismiss unexpected responses. Push your group’s collective noses back into the text, and if they see something you didn’t, be ready to learn and rejoice. This is part of the beauty of studying the Bible in a group.
  2. Ask honest questions. This point is related to the previous one. Make sure that your questions are offered in a spirit of honest inquiry. Do you want to know how your group interprets the passage, or are you just waiting for them to catch up and agree with you? Be curious. Seek the truth. Remember that the Holy Spirit gives understanding in different measures and at different times. When you ask a “What did he mean?” question, be ready to listen for sensible interpretations, not just for confirmation of your own conclusions.
  3. Take one step at a time. Figure out the meaning of one stanza or paragraph and then move on. You don’t have to survey the entire passage before discussing the component pieces. The themes from each paragraph usually swirl together in the same current to bring the main point to shore.
  4. Avoid asking, “What does this mean to you?” Since God’s truth lies in the text and not (naturally) in our hearts, we can extinguish this tricky little flame for good.

What about you? What have you learned about asking good interpretive questions in a small group?

A Revival We Can Get Behind

Last week, Tim Challies posted some reflections on a recent upsurge among evangelicals to help ordinary Christians become people of the Word. Within a matter of months, we saw the publication of my book, the publication of Kevin DeYoung’s new book, and the launch of John Piper’s “Look at the Book” conference and online video series.

Challies writes:

Nobody planned this unusual confluence of events, and I doubt that the teams that came up with these similar book and conference titles had anyone in common. I’m hoping this is an indication that God is on the move to exalt his Word even higher within the Church. That’s a revival I can get behind 100%.

Challies goes on to reproduce Tedd Tripp’s entire Foreword from my book.

If you’d like to see more, check it out!

Wisdom is Meant to be Shared

One evening last week, I arrived home from work to a cacophony of excited little voices. My four children were competing for volume to be the one to deliver the day’s delightful news: Benaiah (age 7) had taught Charlotte (age 4) how to swing. My heart soared for three reasons:

  1. Charlotte had learned a new skill.
  2. She had such a great older brother who took the time to teach her.
  3. They couldn’t wait to tell me and to have Charlotte show off her mad skillz.
Dimitris Papazimouris (2008), Creative Commons

Dimitris Papazimouris (2008), Creative Commons

Such is wisdom’s arc in our lives: We hear it. It changes and matures us in the fear of the Lord. It moves us to influence others toward spiritual maturity. Since wisdom beautifies its possessors (Prov 1:9), the wise must share this beauty with those they love.

And so the banquet is prepared; the feast is spread. In Proverbs 1-9, Solomon has constructed a framework for understanding wisdom so we can flourish as the people of God. Now we can’t help but seek others’ flourishing as well. And we must do so wisely.

Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
For by me your days will be multiplied,
and years will be added to your life.
If you are wise, you are wise for yourself;
if you scoff, you alone will bear it. (Prov 9:7-12, ESV)

Find Your Students

In Prov 9:7-9, observe the progression of verbs from statements of fact (“Whoever corrects…he who reproves…”) to imperatives (“Do not reprove…Give instruction…”). Verse 8 clarifies the connection: Because a scoffer will hate you, do not reprove him. However, your instruction will make a wise man wiser and grow his love for what you have to offer.

Some people should be instructed; others should not. The point is simple enough, but how often we resist its application!

In my young adulthood, I went through a “sold-out-for-Jesus” phase where I felt the need to defend God’s honor against anyone who spoke his name as a piece of profanity. Even since, I’ve struggled with confronting unbelievers for their sexual sin, correcting ungodly parents who refuse to discipline, and speaking my mind way too freely. While desiring to make a difference is praiseworthy, scolding those who don’t want correction is not.

If you want to be a teacher of wisdom, your first test is to find your students. Ask questions; work hard to understand. Once you see how they respond to correction in small things, you’ll discern if they’re ready to hear it in big things.

Take them to God

When you invest God’s wisdom in the right people, amazing things happen. They love you and will express appreciation. Their lives will change, and they’ll credit you as a prime mentor.

But beware these doomed, potentially damnable words:

  • “I’ve never had a friend like you before…”
  • “I’ve had bad experiences with Christians, but you’re so much different from all the rest…”
  • “I don’t think I’ll find this quality of teaching anywhere else…”

These statements are not inherently wrong, but they may signal an unhealthy dependence. Honoring our teachers is good and right, as long as we never put them in the place of God. Remember the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). Always remind your students of the beginning. Ferociously guard the beginning.

True insight is knowing the Holy One. Nothing more; nothing less.

Remember their Responsibility (and Yours)

When you stay firmly planted in the fear of the Lord, you’ll find a sober view of success. Your life (both temporal and eternal) comes not from how many followers you have, but from the Lord himself—mediated through his wisdom (Prov 9:11-12).

People can’t get “in” with God just because they follow your school of thought. If you could be perfectly wise and righteous, you could still deliver only yourself (Ezek 14:12-20). Not a single soul—be it your student, disciple, parishioner, devotee, son, or daughter—could ride your coattails to glory. “If you are wise, you are wise for yourself.”

Of course, only One could actually have saved himself. Praise God he chose not to. Our job—even our message—is but to believe in him and have eternal life.

Ask Good Observation Questions

You’ve finished preparing, and you’re ready to lead your Bible study discussion group. The next few Friday posts will focus on the skills we need to lead people well through OIA Bible study in a group context.

This first article is a guest post by Ryan Higginbottom, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA. When he’s not solving differential equations or blogging at A Small Work, he loves spending time with his wife and two daughters. He also leads a small group Bible study for his church. If you’d like to write a guest post for Knowable Word, please see the guidelines page.

When reading the Gospels, have you noticed how often Jesus asks questions? His disciples must have been incredibly frustrated. They wanted answers; he served up another round of questions. Why? Through intentional interrogation, he often showed them to be asking the wrong questions entirely.

Tim O'Brien (2006), Creative Commons

Tim O’Brien (2006), Creative Commons

Because Jesus bound up so much of his ministry with inquiries, Christian faith and discernment will lead us to develop the ability to ask good questions. Such questions (and willing answers, of course) are a key part of healthy marriages, vibrant classes, joyful homes, and thriving mentorships. But in particular, good questions are the engine that chugs effective small group Bible studies into the station.

The Function of Good Questions

Perhaps you’ve been in a Bible study with a skilled and wise leader, whose questions guide the group through the critical parts of a passage. You may not even remember these questions, however, since good questions are almost invisible. But without them the group would function like a legs-up turtle. These are not the clever, witty, eloquent questions of the orator or debater. They don’t draw attention to themselves.

Bad questions, on the other hand, are as subtle as a fire alarm. Instead of encouraging discussion, they shut it down. They interrupt the flow of dialogue and generate silence, while the leader squirms and the group members wonder what’s for dinner.

What is the difference between a good question and a bad one? What are some characteristics of good questions?

Observation Questions for Small Groups

The foundation of any Bible study lies with careful observation of the text. This is no less true for group study than it is for individual study. So how do we ask good observation questions?

Let’s take Acts 19:1–10 as a sample passage. Imagine you are preparing to lead a discussion on it, and you want to draw people out by drawing them into the text. Your questions will make all the difference.

Bad Observation Questions

  1. What baptism did the Ephesian disciples receive?
  2. What was the first thing Paul did when he arrived in Ephesus?
  3. When did Paul move to the hall of Tyrannus?

Good Observation Questions

  1. What experience of Christianity did the Ephesian disciples have before Paul arrived?
  2. How does Paul interact with the Ephesian disciples?
  3. How is the passage structured?

Though the bad questions require observations for answers, the dialogue goes no further. These queries focus on a single detail, and the group members serve only to fill in the blanks left by the leader, who diligently steers clear of the conversation highway. Let’s be honest: While this approach offers a safe and easy way to create an appearance of participation, it also safely avoids the powerful, spontaneous, and unpredictable work of the Spirit in the minds and hearts of others.

The good questions, however, encourage meaningful discussion and interaction, while still drawing out specific observations. They are more open-ended, enabling group members to pick up on the important features of a passage and leave the smaller details alone. These questions simultaneously engage the group and open the door to interpretation.

What about you? What are some examples of effective observation questions you’ve asked (or answered!) in a small-group setting?