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?

How Long it Takes to Read the Bible

Literary agent Steve Laube recently posted an infographic showing how long it takes to read about 60 classic and popular works of literature. The entire Bible takes less than 45 hours to read, less than either the Harry Potter series or the Game of Thrones series.

With just 30 minutes per day of solid Bible reading, you could still complete another read-through before the end of the year!

Check it out!

What Board Games Taught Me about Bible Study

Because my wife and I just returned from our 10th wedding anniversary extravaganza, I don’t have as much time to write as I’d like. I’m just getting caught up after a 3-day celebratory getaway. But a few reflections are in order.

First, the facts. We enjoy board games, and we decided to celebrate our 10th anniversary by playing at least 10 different games (we ended up having time for 12). We took a few pleasant strolls through the woods, we squeezed in some low maintenance meals, and we had a few hours for reading. But we spent most of the time head-to-head, man vs. woman, each exercising their God-given instincts to bring order and dominion to the cosmos. The age-long battle of the sexes was at stake, and neither of us dropped our guard for even a minute.

CavernaSecond, the results. Though I found some small consolation in my closing 3-game win streak, Erin won the series 7-5. Ain’t no flies on her! May the world never accuse me of taking advantage of this extraordinarily precocious woman. I, in fact, could barely keep up.

Third, my conclusions. I must improve my observation skills—paying attention to what will get me points and not just what feels like a good move. My presumption too often hinders my interpretation—I spend too many turns trying to block my wife’s presumed strategy and not enough turns developing my own. And courageous application is sweet—games lose their luster when I spend more time thinking than acting. My chronic analysis paralysis sucks out the fun if I’m not careful.

Observe, interpret, apply: This is the essence of communication. Even board games can offer opportunities to stretch these muscles.

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For those interested in such things, here’s what we played (complete with Amazon affiliate links to help support this blog at no extra cost). If you’re in the market for buckets of fun, every one of these games is fantastic.

 

To Prompt or Not to Prompt

This summer I met a professional (minor league) baseball player. I asked him if he still uses a tee for batting practice, and his response confirmed my suspicions: “Every day.”

A good Bible study guide is like a baseball tee. While it is not part of the actual game, it performs a critical function in training all players, be they youngsters, pros, or anyone in between.

Similarly, while Bible study guides should not be the heart and soul of our Scripture study, they are invaluable for refining, training, and conditioning our study skills. This goes not only for printed guides—workbooks, commentaries, etc.—but also for oral guides like discussion questions and prompting from a leader. In this final post on preparing to lead effective Bible studies, I’d like to reflect on something I often wrestle with: Should I give people specific questions to help them prepare for the next meeting?

Ken Bingham (2009), Creative Commons

Ken Bingham (2009), Creative Commons

What I Mean by Prompting

Last week, my small group was planning to study Romans 1:1-17. We had just discussed a book overview at the previous meeting. A few days before the meeting, I emailed participants with a few questions to help their preparation:

  1. According to this passage, what is the gospel?
  2. Why is Paul so excited about it?

That’s it. I didn’t put a huge effort into crafting a careful study guide. I just wanted to give a few open-ended questions to stimulate their thinking in the right direction. Is it helpful to do this?

Reasons to Prompt

There are many good reasons to prompt people in their preparation:

  • People who have never studied the Bible before won’t know what to do without some help. They’ll sit and stare at the passage (if they have the fortitude to do even that) before giving up hopelessly.
  • Some who have studied can still get in ruts. Familiarity may cause them to presume on the text’s meaning. A skilled leader can prompt them in the right direction.
  • People eventually learn how to ask good questions after they’ve had good models to imitate.
  • Such prompting sets the meeting up for success:
    • It enables the group to begin the discussion farther down the road toward the main point.
    • It may limit the number of rabbit trails.
    • It provides structure for the group discussion.
  • Prompting shapes expectations and communicates key ideas.
  • It helps people to begin meditating on these key ideas before they get to the meeting. Such advance notice often makes interpretation and application discussions more fruitful.

What are some other good reasons for prompting?

Reasons Not to Prompt

I don’t have a long list for this category; just one chief danger. Prompting can short-circuit people’s ability to interact with the text directly.

When I ask (good) questions, people will (usually) answer. But how can they learn how to ask their own questions if I never give them the chance? The first step of interpretation is to ask questions of our observations, and Bible study participants should have opportunity to practice this skill as much as the rest. Though I may succeed at communicating the truth of the text, will I succeed at showing people how to find that truth in my absence?

Conclusion

To prompt or not to prompt? Like most areas where we need wisdom, the answer is: It depends.

It depends on who the people are. It depends on how much experience they have with Bible study. It depends on what my goals are as I lead them. It depends on what the people are ready for. It depends on what they want. It depends on whether they’ll feel stretched or broken.

I believe neither that we must always prompt nor that we must never prompt. But I believe we must at least think about it if we want to lead effectively.

Can We Really Trust the Bible?

This new book from Barry Cooper looks interesting. Here’s an excerpt of his Can I Really Trust the Bible? from the Good Book blog:

Writing was the natural way to preserve God’s words for present and future generations.

For example, the Ten Commandments are described as having been “inscribed by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18), and when the stone tablets were smashed by Moses—in a fit of anger at Israel’s idolatry—God immediately took steps to replace them. Writing was the way God carefully protected his words so that they would not be lost, changed, distorted or forgotten. As he says to Moses at one point: “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered…” (Exodus 17:14).

Again, in the Bible’s final book, we read:

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” – Revelation 21:5

So there’s no reason to be suspicious of the Bible’s divine authority simply because it’s a book. Words don’t become less authoritative because they’re written rather than spoken.

In fact, when you think about it, the reverse is true. The most important statements human beings make—whether they be legally-binding contracts or lyrical expressions of love—are most often written down, at least when we intend them to be powerful and lasting. When God specifically instructs that his words be written down, things get serious.

Check it out!

How to Read Proverbs 10-31 in Light of Proverbs 1-9

In Proverbs 9, wisdom has built her house and invites you to her feast. Last week, I argued that the house is Proverbs 1-9 and the feast is Proverbs 10-31. In this post, I’ll show you how to read Proverbs in this way.

What to Remember from Proverbs 1-9

Debbi Long (2008), Creative Commons

Debbi Long (2008), Creative Commons

I can’t exhaust in a short list what Solomon took 9 chapters to explain. But I find a few organizing hooks helpful:

  • There are three kinds of people: wise, fool, simple.
  • The first step toward wisdom is a willingness to change, evident by listening to what God says.
  • Listening to God’s wisdom involves both passive reception and active pursuit.
  • The two primary obstacles to wisdom are easy money and easy sex; both cause us to focus on ourselves instead of the Lord.
  • God’s wisdom changes everything about us, including hopes, disappointments, relationships, and influence.
  • The Savior, the Sluggard, and the Sower of Discord deserve careful attention and avoidance.

For further explanation of any of these points, see the Proverbs table of contents page.

The Main Idea when Moving into Proverbs 10-31

The key point is this: Godly wisdom always takes place in the context of a relationship with God. Of course we see echoes of God’s wisdom when ungodly people follow his principles. But such wisdom is at best incomplete, and at worst counterfeit.

How to Read Proverbs 10-31

It will be easier for me to show you than to tell you, so let’s look at the first few verses.

Proverbs 10:1

I covered this one last week.

Proverbs 10:2

A wrong or incomplete way to read it: Conduct your business with honesty and integrity.

A better way to read it: Though easy money (unjust gain) promises security and community (Prov 1:13-14), it can’t keep those promises. God’s favor is available to those who seek his wisdom; this favor gives life beyond the grave (Prov 8:34-35).

Proverbs 10:3

A wrong reading: If I serve God, he’ll make my life prosper.

A better reading: Those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness will be satisfied (Prov 2:9). But life on earth often doesn’t go as we expect (Prov 3:11-12).

Proverbs 10:4

An incomplete reading: Work hard.

A better reading: This verse is pretty close to Proverbs 6:10-11. We must remember, however, that the chief “diligence” of Proverbs is to get wisdom at all costs (Prov 4:5, 7).

Proverbs 10:5

An incomplete reading: Make your parents proud by working hard in the right seasons.

A better reading: We honor our parents when we honor the Lord (Prov 2:1-6), though sometimes parents forget this fact. The Lord’s wisdom gives us a long view that enables us to be self-motivated and seasonally productive (Prov 6:7-8)

———————–

Now I’ll choose a few more verses with a random number generator just to show this way of reading isn’t limited to chapter 10…

Proverbs 22:7

An incomplete reading: With wealth comes power. Debt is always a bad idea.

A better reading: Easy money attracts by making possible power over others. It makes sense that those who focus on themselves more than on the Lord would be drawn to both money and power. But there is one Savior for both rich and poor (Prov 6:1-5, 8:32-36).

Proverbs 24:13-14

An incomplete reading: Wisdom in general is good for us. Learning and education make our lives better.

A better reading: Wisdom comes from the Lord (Prov 2:6). Knowing him is good for us and will make our lives better.

Proverbs 20:16

An incomplete reading: We should counsel people to make good financial decisions, and we should hold them accountable for poor ones.

A better reading: If someone tries to be the kind of savior that only the Lord can be, we should be careful not to increase his credit limit. Your trust in the Lord may sometimes decrease your trust in those who promise too much.

———————–

In most cases, the “incomplete” reading is not necessarily wrong, just…incomplete. Be careful not to use Proverbs as though God himself is irrelevant. Always remember the context of chapters 1-9.

Does Your Bible Teaching Hijack Your Bible Learning?

Personal study time is costly, especially when there’s a flock to shepherd.

The Scenario

Afghanistan Matters (2009), Creative Commons

Afghanistan Matters (2009), Creative Commons

You might be a teacher, with lessons to prepare. You might be a mentor, with students who need direction. You might be a parent, with children who need constant nurture. You might simply be a friend, with confused or inquisitive companions who have questions about Christianity.

Whatever the case, your personal Bible study time perpetually drifts toward “teaching prep(aration)” time.

You can’t read a passage without envisioning how you would teach it. Your mind focuses on what might help your students. Your parental concern drives your application. Your study consists of finding answers to your friend’s latest questions.

What’s Good

Part of your struggle is really healthy. You should seek the good of others. Application of Scripture can go in two directions: personal growth and influential leadership. Many people focus on the former and exclude the latter. You have the opposite tendency.

God may have given you – and your teaching ability – as a gift to your church (Eph 4:11-14). Talk to your elders to see if they confirm the gift and have opportunities for you to exercise it more in the church.

Whatever you do, keep growing as a teacher, mentor, parent, and friend. Just because you’re good and gifted at something doesn’t mean you can’t get better at it. Hone that skill. Shape that passion. Refine it to the glory of God.

And don’t ever feel guilty by your inclination to help others. It does not make your Bible study any less personal or acceptable to God.

What’s Not So Good

However, part of your struggle might be pretty unhealthy. You may need to revisit your definition of how to teach or lead others.

Sometimes leaders feel the need to schedule separate time just for personal growth. They think, “I’m going to have time to study the Bible so I can learn from it – not just so I can teach it.”

But the failure here is not actually a failure to learn from the Bible. It’s a failure to understand how to teach the Bible.

You can’t teach the Bible effectively without first learning from it. And your teaching ought to embody your learning. The teaching and the learning are not and cannot be exclusive to each other (as though you can do one without the other).

Look at some of Paul’s ministry methods:

  • He committed himself to sharing not only the gospel of God, but his own life, with his people (1 Thess 2:8).
  • His own example was his most influential persuasion (1 Cor 10:31-11:1).
  • His teaching affected him personally long before he expected it to affect others (Gal 1:11-2:10).
  • He taught only what he had learned. His own life – not just his ideas – provided the model to shape his students (Phil 4:9).
  • He didn’t hesitate to use both his strengths and weaknesses as illustrations of God’s grace (2 Cor 11:16-12:10).
  • He wouldn’t ask someone to do something unless he had been there and done it first. And he didn’t mind drawing attention to it if it would motivate the student (2 Tim 2:1-2, 4:1-8).

What do these things mean for our teaching?

First, don’t feel guilty if your “teaching prep” time invades your “personal study” time. Your teaching prep should include personal study and application, so why not combine the tasks?

Second, when you teach other people (whether formally or informally), share how the principles have affected your life. People need more than ideas; they need role models. When God wanted to teach us, he became one of us and lived out his teaching among us. We ought to follow his example.

Unless people see how you’ve learned what you teach, your teaching won’t have any bite. Your principles will sound like platitudes. Your education will feel empty. Your recommendations will ring hollow. Your learnedness will lose its luster.

I’ve seen it happen over and over. I’m counseling someone on an issue, and it doesn’t “click” for them until I share how I’ve struggled with the same issue. My children respond best when they understand that I need to grow in Christ as much as they do. My small group’s application discussion hits 5th gear after I’ve shared my own failures and my hope in the grace of Christ.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s the most difficult part of my “teaching prep,” as it requires me to hope in Christ and not my performance.

But I’ve got to share my life with those I lead. My effectiveness depends upon it.

DeYoung’s 5 Tips for Leading Small Groups

Kevin DeYoung posted a great article last week on leading small groups. His tips are:

  1. Communicate early and often, and then follow through.
  2. Think through your questions ahead of time.
  3. Be mindful of group dynamics.
  4. Know how to handle conflict.
  5. Plan for prayer.

I wrote some similar things in my posts “How to Lead a Great Bible Study” and “5 Practices for Preparing Effective Bible Studies,” so I highly recommend the full article. Check it out!