You’ve tasted and seen the effects of a wise leader’s words, and you want to be that kind of leader. You want to speak words that deliver, delight, gladden, and heal. You’d like to be able to defuse, persuade, inspire, and influence. You can picture leading such Bible studies, but you don’t know how to move in that direction. You see the potential, but you don’t know how to realize it.
You’re not alone, and you don’t have to feel stuck. Proverbs describes not only the product but also which best practices will help you get there. The following 3 tips don’t include everything that could be said about how to become a wise leader. But if you give yourself to these 3 disciplines, you’ll quickly find, by God’s grace, you have something to offer. “The lips of the righteous feed many” (Prov 10:21).
1. Listen more than you speak.
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (Prov 18:13)
When leading Bible studies, your goals should be, first, to hear others, and second, to give an answer. Reverse the order, and you’re on the way toward shameful folly.
What does this mean? What does it look like to hear before giving an answer?
- You care more about winning people than about being right.
- You want to know what other people think more than you want them to know what you think (even when you’re the leader).
- You learn how to ask good observation, interpretation, and application questions that stimulate discussion and don’t shut it down.
- You create a group culture where crazy, even false, ideas can be freely spoken. Please note: This doesn’t mean you create a culture where crazy, even false, ideas are accepted. Loving people doesn’t mean compromising the truth. And loving the truth doesn’t require you to feel threatened by questions or objections.
- You ask open-ended questions.
- You avoid questions that have only one answer. Such questions are not really questions but mind-reading exercises.
- You pay attention to what people say.
- You reflect what you hear people say, rephrasing their comments in your own words. This reflection demonstrates that you understood the substance and didn’t merely catch the words.
- You don’t answer every question yourself but toss questions back out to the group.
2. Draw others out.
The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out. (Prov 20:5)
Listening is good. It’s an important first step. But if that’s all you do, you’ve got a support group or love fest on your hands instead of a Bible study. People are like wells, and your goal is to drop the bucket and scoop out their purposes. You want to help them understand themselves better than they did before. Once they do, change becomes possible.
Let me illustrate. One person leads a Bible study on Romans 3:9-20 and teaches the material well. He observes the text well and gets people looking up all the Old Testament quotes. He shows how these passages about Israel’s enemies are used by Paul to describe Israel herself. Even Jewish mouths are thus stopped, and the whole world is held accountable to God. The leader communicates a clear doctrine of human depravity, and he challenges people to trust in Christ and not themselves. They listen eagerly, happy to learn and grow.
Another person leads a study on the same passage, but does so through thoughtful questions, careful listening, and stimulating follow-up questions. He covers the same content as the other leader, and he gets people talking about the topic of depravity on their own. One person mentions an obnoxious family member, and the leader asks her how that relationship has colored her view of the world. Another person challenges the doctrine of depravity, and the leader—who doesn’t jump on the objector with immediate correction—asks more questions to understand why it’s so hard to swallow. Another participant confesses feelings of guilt whenever the topic of sin arises, and the leader sensitively coaxes further context-appropriate detail from him.
When you actually understand why people think what they think, you’re in the best position to convince them to think something else. When you understand why people respond the way they do, you’ll be able to connect the dots for them so they can repent and choose different responses in the future. If you don’t scoop out the purposes in their hearts, you’ll end up with a group that agrees with what you’ve taught, but doesn’t understand how to make specific changes to their lives. The result? Very little change in their lives.
3. Sweeten your speech.
The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness. (Prov 16:21)
If you listen and draw others out, the time will come for you to speak. And you don’t have to say much, because your words will weigh far more from all your listening and investigation. But it’s a good time to remember the age-old adage that has inspired many a fledgling leader: “You’ve done well so far, but don’t screw it up.”
When the time comes for you to speak, it’s not a good time to criticize people who aren’t in the room. “I can’t believe how wrong all those Arminians [Calvinists, Baptists, Presbyterians, whatever] are…”
It’s also never a good time to scold a participant, belittle one in error, or ignite a quarrel.
Instead, you have an opportunity to woo, persuade, and build trust. You get there by sweetening your speech. Give them reason to trust you and lower their defenses. During a Bible study:
- “Other translations say…” is better than “You should get a more literal translation.”
- “I can see what you’re saying, but have you considered…?” is better than “I disagree.”
- “That’s a good question for another time. For now, what does the passage say?” is better than “Please don’t go off-topic.”
This is not mealy-mouthed refusal to engage in public discourse. This is not political spin. This is sweet, persuasive, winsome ministry.