5 Things to Consider When Framing a Bible Study

Rachel James (2006), Creative Commons

Rachel James (2006), Creative Commons

To lead our groups toward what God has said, we can reframe our Bible studies for different audiences, even when we cover the same text. But how do we go about framing the study for a particular audience? How do we construct a discussion plan for a specific group of people?

1. Don’t get ahead of yourself

The study’s framing is 4th on the list of 5 practices for preparing effective Bible studies. Don’t worry about getting the framing right until after you’ve taken care to 1) depend on the Lord, 2) understand the passage’s main point, and 3) apply the main point to your own life. Work on framing too soon, and you may lose clarity or credibility in your leadership.

2. Consider the group’s size

I’ll prepare a Bible study differently for a small group vs. a large group. With a larger audience, questions must be more direct to keep the discussion moving. If either the question is too open or the answer is too obvious, you’re most likely to suppress interaction. But for smaller groups, open questions like “What stood out to you in the passage?” may work just fine.

Thus in a larger group, I want the passage’s main point to take center stage. I’ll open with it and return to it often. In a smaller group, I prefer to help the group discover the main point through the discussion.

3. Be aware of your relationship with the group

For people he has never met, Paul—though warm—is somewhat formal (Rom 1:8-15) yet bold (Rom 15:15, 24). With close partners and key laborers, he gushes (1 Thess 2:17-20, 3:8, 2 Tim 2:1-8).

The truth itself will never change, but the way you pitch it may change depending on your relationship with your group. In studying 2 Timothy 3:10-17 with my church, I framed it as “What We Believe About the Bible”—personal, inclusive, familiar. I’d hesitate to use language like “what we believe” with a group of people I’ve never met; it might sound presumptuous. A better pitch for them would be “What the Bible Says About the Bible” or “What You Can Expect of the Bible.”

4. Know the group’s values and shared experiences

You’ll build more credibility as a teacher if you know your people. What do they want to get out of life? What brings them together? Why are they coming to your Bible study? What events have recently affected their community? What do they value? How do they talk? What do they do when they spend time together?

When you know your group well, you’ll craft a more personal and relevant Bible study, which produces  higher impact and memorability.

For example, with college students, I try to be hip, but in an awkward sort of way (making it clear that I know I’m not really hip). I do this not to get them to like me but to communicate how much I like them. It’s my jam to understand these students better. For realz.

With families at church, I spend more time sharing about my family and our interactions with other families.

When I’m a guest teacher in a new place, I use that church’s pew Bible, and I listen to informal conversation to find something to incorporate into the study. It’s not hard to uncover a local news event or a church happening or an individual’s hope for the future. Working such things into the discussion (or into the framing of the study) makes the topic more palatable and helps it to stick.

5. Try different things

The key is not to master a set of techniques but to learn to love your people. Paul models such flexible servant leadership as he preaches to different groups of people:

Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt… (Acts 13:17)

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious… (Acts 17:22)

We don’t teach to feel better about ourselves, nor to earn brownie points for being truth-bearers. We do it to serve God’s people and win outsiders into the Kingdom. We lead by laying down our lives and seeking to enter theirs (Mark 10:42-45).

What the Little League World Series Taught Me About Bible Study

This past weekend, I again took my family to Williamsport to watch a few Little League tournament games. In honor of our trip, I republish this post from last year.

Little League Baseball claims to be the largest youth sports organization in the world. This year, almost 2.5 million children participated on 200,000 teams in every US state and more than 80 other countries. Little league is a pretty big league.

Map of Little League Regions

Map of Little League Regions

Earlier this week I took a few days off from work, and my family attended some tournament games of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA (less than a 90-minute drive from our home). We also can’t wait to watch the championship game this weekend on TV. We invited our whole teeball team over for the big game.

My favorite part of the Little League World Series is its international flavor. Williamsport is a small town, but it morphs into an extravagant melting pot for these 10 days each year. You can’t chuck a happy meal into a garbage can without hitting a foreigner of some stripe.

For example, we saw one game pitting the Czech Republic against Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Before the game, they played national anthems from both countries. Children and parents read the “Little League Pledge” and the “Parents Pledge” in both Czech and English. Czech coaches even required a translator to argue an umpire’s call.

Chinese Little Leaguers

Chinese Little Leaguers

Upon exiting the stadium, we bumped into the team from China. We exchanged greetings with a young couple from Chinese Taipei. We drove right past a squad of seriously focused Panamanian coaches. I loved it.

Regardless of what words came from their mouths, every person there spoke the same language: baseball.

Most of the spectators sported jerseys for one team or another. Crowds applauded impressive plays executed by either team on the field. Pitchers would shake hands with batters after accidentally hitting them with wild pitches. Non-verbal communication reigned through strikes and balls and fouls and outs and hits and runs. Such things were universally understood.

What did the experience teach me about Bible study? That the OIA method (observe, interpret, apply) works. It matters.

An Australian adolescent with bat in hand doesn’t have to think too hard about communicating with a Puerto Rican pitcher. He observes the ball coming his way, he interprets whether it will go over the plate, and he applies the interchange by swinging for the fence. A Californian shortstop can observe the ump’s clenched fist and understand that he threw the ball to first base in time. The crowd can apply the ump’s gesture by applauding wildly.

OIA is communication. Every person on the planet does it all the time.

As I sat there with my kids, instructing them on the game’s nuances, I gained more confidence in our Bible study method. OIA is the best method you can use; it will work for anyone of any age in any culture. Master it, and you won’t be disappointed.

Teach Bible Study to a 12-Year-Old

This is a guest post by Ben Hagerup, who serves as Director of Campus Ministry for DiscipleMakers. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their 7th child this winter.

Pre-teen boys rarely hug their fathers in front of their friends, but mine did—after our first Bible study. “Thank you, Daddy! That was fun, and I learned a lot.” Imagine my delight as we launched this bi-monthly training group for our church’s middle schoolers. The usual response at the end of each hour-long meeting was, “What, we’re already done?!”

Mid-way through the year, I asked my sons what they liked about the Bible study. One said (and the other agreed), “Daddy, before you showed us how to study the Bible, I would just read a chapter and then stop. I didn’t know what else to do. But now I know what to do! Now I know how to understand it.”

Robert S. Digby (2009), Creative Commons

Robert S. Digby (2009), Creative Commons

Would you like your 12-year-olds to understand the Bible? How can you set them up for success?

1. Cast vision for Bible study

Before explaining how to study the Bible, tell your 12-year-old why to study the Bible. Because Bible study is hard work, your child must be convinced the reward will be worth the effort.

The chief purpose for Bible study is not to appease God or parents, but to know Jesus. The Scriptures are about him (Luke 24:44-47), and knowing him is eternal life (John 17:3). Don’t underestimate your kids. They can get this.

2. Teach them the basic skills

The basics of the OIA method can be taught in 5 minutes. In our first Bible study, I explained the model simply.

  • Observation is asking “What does it say?”
  • Interpretation is asking “What does it mean?”
  • Application is asking “How should I change?”

I showed my students how Jesus demonstrated these principles in his usage of the Bible. I illustrated the principles with everyday experiences like stopping at a traffic signal. When you see a red light (observation), you know it means stop (interpretation), and you apply the brake pedal (application). They got it pretty quickly, and we organized each Bible study around these categories.

3. Practice the skills with them

Learning to study the Bible is like learning to swim or ride a bike. There is no substitute for regular practice. It doesn’t need to happen often, but it does need to be consistent.

Our study group for middle schoolers met twice per month for one hour. With only these 2 hours each month, I was able to both demonstrate and rehearse how to:

  • Observe the text
  • Ask good interpretive questions
  • Get the author’s main point
  • Draw good connections to Jesus, and
  • Apply the passage to the head, heart, and hands.

The last time I tried to teach my older children how to study the Bible, it didn’t sink in because I never took the time to practice it with them. This time around, we made more progress when we had a forum with other children to practice and reinforce the skills.

4. Expect them to practice the skills on their own

“Feed a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”  Our goal must not be for these adolescents to admire our study skills or our love for the Bible. Nor should we lower our expectations to keep the disinterested on board. No, we want our children to be motivated and equipped to study the Bible themselves. Therefore, practicing the skills with them is not enough. They need to practice on their own and check in with you for feedback.

In my study I gave homework, asking each student to study the Bible passage for at least 1 hour each week (thus 2 hours before each meeting). I gave them a worksheet to aid their study, and the completed worksheet served as the child’s “ticket” for admission to each meeting. At one point, I asked a boy to stop coming because he wasn’t doing his homework or participating in the discussion. If we want to increase our kids’ motivation, we must give them something worth investing in!

5. Add to their toolkit over time

Mastery of a complex skill requires not only practice but also ongoing instruction.

At each meeting, I taught my middle schoolers either one more thing to look for or one more question to add to their worksheet. Early on, we focused on repeated words and basic facts (the who/what/where/when/how/why of the passage). Next, I taught them how to ask interpretive questions and answer them from the text. Later, I looped back to observation and gave them 3 more literary devices to look for (continuation, comparison, contrast). At each meeting, we would practice the skills we had learned thus far, and then I would share one more skill. So we’d add another tool to their kit each time we met, making them more adept journeymen in their Bible study.

I can’t describe the priceless joy I gained from seeing these pre-teens learn to love God’s word and dig in on their own. May you know this joy, too, as you lead your children to know Christ through the Scripture.

Read Mark Learn

In April I attended Together for the Gospel and got a pile of free books. Since the free books numbered more than I could ever read, I gave many of them away.

Read Mark LearnTwo volumes on the stack almost got passed on to a more available master, but were snatched from the fire at the 11th hour. These were the two Read Mark Learn volumes—one on John, the other on Romans—published by Christian Focus in partnership with St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.

I almost passed over these treasures like an angel of death on the fourteenth day of the first month. My initial perusal revealed them to be a series of Bible studies, and, well, I need more Bible studies like Solomon needs more wives:

I find something more bitter than death: the woman [substitute "Bible study guide" for "woman" and you'll catch my usual disillusionment] whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. (Eccl 7:26-28, ESV)

I read one short study from the volume on John’s Gospel just for kicks. And boy, am I glad I did.

I read another and another. After 5 of them, I couldn’t stop raving over them to my wife (you should have seen the spittle in my beard!). After only 2 or 3 more, I was ready to purchase a volume on every other book of the Bible. But I searched online and could find only John and Romans. I spoke with a representative from Westminster bookstore, and he could find only John and Romans. I went on the Christian Focus website, and still I could find only John and Romans.

The bad news is that they have volumes on only John and Romans. The good news, however, is that I finally found this page on St. Helen’s’s website, which has a long list of studies on many other (though not all) books of the Bible—all available for free. More bad news, though: John and Romans cost money. Sorry.

What is so good about these Bible studies?

  • They are short: only 10 pages or fewer per unit of text.
  • They consider context. The book’s historical context, the unit’s literary context, and the entire Bible’s gospel context.
  • They concisely trace out (and focus on) the author’s flow of thought.
  • They identify a main point for each section.
  • They connect every passage to Christ.
  • They get specific in application.

I’m not sure I can think of anything else I would ask for in a Bible study.

The only problem I can see with these studies is the threat of addiction. Just be careful not to read them until after you study the text for yourself. But if ever I was tempted to ignore my own standards for such things, now would be the time.

Check it out!

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Disclaimer: If you click the Amazon links in this post and buy stuff, you’ll support this blog at no extra cost to yourself. This may enable me to buy more copies of Read Mark Learn to give out to my friends.

Trusting Jesus’ Credentials

We’ve seen wisdom’s credentials in Proverbs 8:22-31. Despite the historical controversy over whether Proverbs 8 is about Jesus, the New Testament clearly states that Jesus shares wisdom’s credentials.

  1. Seeking Jesus is seeking the Lord (John 14:9).
  2. Life without Jesus isn’t truly life (1 John 5:11-13).
  3. The way of Jesus is tried and true. Knowing Jesus makes the most sense of how the world works (Acts 17:22-31).
  4. Jesus gives you eyes to see who alone can make you happy (Mark 8:22-9:1).
Dale Calder (2009), Creative Commons

Dale Calder (2009), Creative Commons

But do you believe it? What does your life communicate about whose credentials you’re willing to trust?

Seeking the Lord

In a day when spirituality is cool, we must be careful to remember that not every spirit is from God (1 John 4:1-6). If a spirit doesn’t confess that Jesus is the Christ, that spirit is not from God but is the spirit of the antichrist. Notice that false spirits do not always attack Jesus’ Messiahship; they prove to be in error even if they simply ignore Jesus or treat him as irrelevant.

So when the CEO of Starbucks returns to his post to return the company to its core values, this rescue from “spiritual” crisis is not done in true wisdom, regardless of what Oprah would have us think.

Do you want to know God? You must know Jesus. Do you want to speak of God? If you don’t speak of Jesus, you may actually have the wrong god.

Living Life

What can’t you live without? What thing, if you had it, would finally help you to stop worrying? What would cut your stress or give you rest and energy? What turns a bad day into a good day? What motivates you to do what you do?

The answers to these questions show what your life is. And though the answer should be Jesus, it usually is not.

Knowing Jesus is eternal life. Eternal = never ending. Everything else will come to an end some day. When it does, will you have any life left? Now is your chance to practice for that Day.

Making Sense

We’re always trying to make sense of things. We want to make sense of our suffering. We want to make sense of our work. We want to make sense of our relationships.

The teenage girl looks for sense when she asks, “Are we dating?” The middle-aged professional looks for sense when he wonders what he’s doing with his life. The common citizen looks for sense when he considers whether the nation’s highest leaders have even read the Constitution.

The ways of Jesus make the most sense. Of course, we’re wise when we obey them because they give him glory. But we’re also wise when we obey them because they’re the best ways. “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3, ESV). The one who loves both God and neighbor is no idiot.

Seeing Happiness

Please don’t misunderstand this one. The Bible does not promise that God will always make us happy, nor that God’s chief end is to serve our happiness. No, sometimes God must make us markedly unhappy in order to show us true happiness. Or more specifically, he must show us that the things that make us happy cannot always make us happy. This produces unhappiness.

But as he strips such things away time and again, he clears the way to the one thing that will never run out, shut down, move on, or empty up: Himself.

Thus, for example, while we grieve the loss of those who have died in Christ (1 Thess 4:13), our grief gains hope only when we remember that in the end “we will always be,” not with our loved ones, but “with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17).

May the Lord Jesus Christ ever grant us more of this wisdom.

Same Truth, Different Audience

Yesterday I worked on a Bible study I’m supposed to lead on Monday. The preparation took longer than I expected, even though I’ve led this Bible study before. In fact, I’ve already led this study 3 times in the last 3 months, and I plan to convert this study into a sermon for my church in a few more weeks. This is my 4th time in the same text with the same main points.

It’s taking a while, though, because my context and audience changes each time. I must reconsider the passage for each one.

My text is 2 Timothy 3:10-17. The text’s main point is that we must learn from Scripture and continue in the things we’ve learned from Scripture (observe the only imperative in the paragraph – 2 Tim 3:14). The sub-points have likewise remained constant; Scripture matters because:

  1. It makes us wise for salvation (2 Tim 3:15).
  2. It makes us competent and equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).
  3. It enables us to recognize and resist deception (2 Tim 3:10-13).

What complicates my preparation is that different audiences need different applications of these same truths. For that reason, I want to frame each Bible study differently to get the most mileage with participants.

Vern Hart (2007), Creative Commons

Vern Hart (2007), Creative Commons

Here’s how I’ve pitched it each time. This “pitch” dictates how I advertise, introduce, and conduct the study. It’s given me a different title for each discussion. The pitch also drives which questions I ask and how we arrive at our application.

  • At a homeschooling convention, I pitched the study as “Teach your children how and why to study the Bible.”
  • In an article for broad consumption, I pitched it as “My love-hate relationship with Bible study tools (and why we must learn to study the Bible itself).”
  • For the orientation of our ministry’s summer interns, I pitched it as “Why our organization focuses on studying the Bible.”
  • [On Monday] To help train our ministry’s new staff in fundraising, I’ll pitch it as “How the Scriptures direct our fundraising.”
  • In a few weeks at my church, I’ll pitch it as “What our church believes about the Bible.”

In all 5 cases, I’m using the same text, the same main point, and the same outline of sub-points. But the flavor of the study changes dramatically with the audience.

The 4th practice for preparing effective Bible studies is to decide how to lead your group toward what God has said. This step must come after relying on the Lord, figuring out what God has said, and allowing the message to change you. Practicing those first 3 steps doesn’t yet mean you’re ready to lead your Bible study. You must consider your group and how they’ll best hear the truth.

I didn’t invent this idea of “framing” or “pitching” a text differently to different people. Notice how two apostles can take the same text in very different directions for different audiences.

And [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Gen 15:6, ESV)

  • In Romans 4:1-12, Paul expects Roman believers not to boast in religious experiences like circumcision.
  • In Galatians 3:1-14, Paul calls Asian Gentiles to grow in Christ—and not merely come to Christ—through faith.
  • In James 2:20-26, James commands Hellenistic Jews not to grow complacent in proving their faith through good deeds.

The main point of Genesis 15 remains intact—God promises protection and great reward to those who take him at his word; none of these New Testament passages violate the original intent. But they re-frame the point to reach new audiences.

So should we.

Proverbs 8 and Jesus

Last week, I drew these four “credentials” for wisdom from Proverbs 8:22-31:

  1. Seeking wisdom is seeking the Lord.
  2. Life without wisdom isn’t truly life.
  3. The way of wisdom is tried and true. God’s wisdom makes the most sense of how the world works.
  4. Wisdom gives you eyes to see who alone can make you happy.

In this chapter, Solomon praises God’s wisdom to motivate us to pursue it. Since wisdom can deliver what it promises, we’d be foolish not to chase it.

Before I move into more specific application from these points, I’d like to reflect on the connection between this wisdom and the Lord Jesus. This case presents a helpful example of how to see Jesus in any passage.

A Little History

Proverbs 8 provides a mine field for Christ-centered interpretation because it’s been so often misused. Because of the potential for misuse, many interpreters try to distance Jesus from this passage altogether.

“Baptistery.Arians06″ by Georges Jansoone

Here’s the problem: In the third century, a heretic named Arius came to prominence with his teaching that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did not always exist. According to Arius, Jesus was subordinate to God the Father because God had created him. Arius and his followers put much stock in verses like “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28) and in biblical phrases like “the only begotten Son” (John 3:16) or “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). If he was begotten—the thinking goes—there must have been a time before he was begotten.

Arianism saw clear parallels between Jesus and Proverbs 8, since “all things were made through him” (John 1:3) and “when he established the heavens I was there” (Prov 8:27). If God created everything by his Word, and the Word is Jesus, and Jesus made everything—then Solomon’s declarations about wisdom’s creative work in Proverbs 8 must be about Jesus.

And so Prov 8:22 became a key verse for the Arian cause: “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work.” Some early Bible manuscripts use a word for possessed that could be translated as created, and the Arians had a field day with it. Proverbs 8 is about Jesus→Proverbs 8 says wisdom was created→Jesus must have been created. The links in the chain appear to hold tight.

Ramifications for Today

Far from being an obscure 3rd century problem, Arianism remains alive and well. Some of its most populous adherents include many Unitarians and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Leland Ryken also cites a tract from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that make this very argument from Proverbs 8.

Thus Christian interpreters, careful to guard against the dangers of Arianism, sometimes hesitate to acknowledge any connection between Proverbs 8 and Jesus. Proverbs 8 speaks of wisdom→The New Testament speaks of Jesus→Reading Jesus back into Proverbs 8 does violence to the text. By separating the person of Jesus from the personification of wisdom, they avoid the potential Arian problem.

How to See Jesus

However, there is a problem with making too sharp of a distinction between Proverbs and Jesus: We can’t deny that Jesus believed all the Old Testament was about him (Luke 24:44-46). Paul considered Jesus our wisdom from God (1 Cor 1:30). And, well, Jesus was present at the creation as a master workman, just like wisdom (John 1:1-3).

In addition, if you review the four conclusions with which I began this post, connections to Jesus should pop out.

  1. Seeking Jesus is seeking the Lord (John 14:9).
  2. Life without Jesus isn’t truly life (1 John 5:11-13).
  3. The way of Jesus is tried and true. Knowing Jesus makes the most sense of how the world works (Acts 17:22-31).
  4. Jesus gives you eyes to see who alone can make you happy (Mark 8:22-9:1).

We could support all four of these statements from the New Testament. That doesn’t mean, however, that we must say Jesus was created (Prov 8:22 – even if “created” is the best translation).

My point is this: Proverbs 8 doesn’t have to be an exact, direct prediction about Jesus in order for it to be about Jesus. If you want to see Jesus in the Old Testament, first discover the author’s main point (in this case, wisdom’s four credentials). Then connect the main point to Jesus. It’s okay if not all the details match up exactly.

Leading with Influence Live Show

Join me this Tuesday, August 5, (11 PDT / 2 EDT) for a live show on Innovate 4 Jesus as I join Chris Hogan, Joshua Reich, and host Justin Blaney to discuss leading with influence.

Do you have questions about leadership and influence? Tweet your questions with #I4JLIVE or comment on the blog post here: www.i4j.org/lead. We’ll be taking questions from right now until Tuesday’s show!

To jog your thinking, you may want to check out the article I wrote for The Gospel Coalition about 1 Thessalonians and how Paul led with influence.