And for something a little light-hearted, check out this satirical report on the “Home Bible Study Leader Asks If Anyone Else Has Any Blatant Heresy They’d Like To Share.”
HT: Caleb Olshefsky
You know what’s fun? Ruining good things. Like squirting mustard on ice cream. Or playing The Four Seasons on kazoos.
A good Bible study group can be a blessing to the people who attend—so let’s put a stop to that. Since many benefits of a small group come through the interaction between group members, we’ll focus our disruptive energy there.
Having a fruitful, Bible-centered discussion is hard—many details must fall into place, and several people need to catch the same vision. But ruining a discussion is easy. It takes only one person! Just a few of the techniques below will do the trick.
Like any conversation, Bible study discussions can be spoiled with a simple disregard for manners.
So here’s the first suggestion: Drive the conversation off topic. It doesn’t matter where you steer—just yank the wheel. If you’re a novice, turn the discussion to yourself: your history, fears, afflictions, regrets, or heroes. With some practice, you’ll be ready for the next level: introducing issues that appear to be on-topic. For example, when studying one of Paul’s prayers, question how prayer works instead of discussing the substance of his prayer.
Achieve expert status by using controversial topics. Season your remarks with hot-button issues for maximum distraction. Be careful not to visit the same well too often lest you become the end-times guy and your leader nip your efforts in the bud.
If you’re serious about ruining a conversation, put yourself above the group. Here are two ways to assert your importance.
First, monopolize the discussion. When the leader asks a question, jump right in. Ramble through your responses, and leave little time for others. (Pro tip: Avoid eye contact with your leader. Good leaders can warn monopolizers with a look.)
Second, spurn the discussion. Broadcast your disdain lest anyone think you’re just quiet. Hold your head in your hands. Sigh. Yawn. Communicate that the questions are either ridiculous or beneath you. Create a distraction without going so far that you’re asked to leave.
Lively, significant discussions need an engaged, honest group. A wise leader will start the game of catch, but he shouldn’t need the ball often.
To maim the discussion, keep the dialogue shallow. Don’t listen to others or follow up after any responses. Push the conversation in academic or intellectual directions. Insulate yourself and others from applying the Bible or discovering where application is needed.
It’s time for your trump card. Instead of just being impolite, the most insidious way to demolish a small group discussion is to misuse the Bible.
Ignore your Bible. Give your “gut response” to questions. Talk about “what the passage means to me.” Don’t ask anyone to justify their answer from the Bible, and learn to deflect if this question comes to you.
Give Sunday school answers. Most answers in a first-grade Sunday School class are either “God,” “sin,” “love,” “trust in Jesus,” “be nice to my sister,” or “obey my parents.” Grab some of these or their grown-up equivalents (“read the Bible,” “focus on the Lord”), and let the clichés commence. Offer Christian-sounding responses without the trouble of engaging the text.
Invoke your Bible’s study notes. Don’t use the notes as an aid—assert them as a final authority. This is most effective when the notes contradict a recent response.
Chase cross references. When your leader asks an interpretive question, blurt out some verses from your Bible’s cross references. Don’t look at the context; you only need the same English word in both places.
Don’t study the Bible. As a summary, this suggestion is your most powerful tool. Make sure that you don’t observe, interpret, or apply the Bible with any care or concern. Also, stay away from certain blogs that promote these behaviors.
When you lead a Bible study, you quickly discover that people are different. And when your meeting consists primarily of discussion, people’s differences can make things messy. It’s not hard to find good advice for moderating the messiness (such as how to confront conversation hijackers or redirect discussion detours), so I won’t repeat such advice here. Instead I’d like to reflect on the effects of wise words.
The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence. (Prov 10:11)
The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense. (Prov 10:21)
The righteous wisdom from God is a great blessing for the people of God, because those with such wisdom on their lips “feed many.” Thus, I’d rather attend one Bible study led by a master sage whose godliness disinfects any mess, than a hundred Bible studies led by an inquisitive guru who has memorized all the proper techniques. The wisdom of God demands that we not only do wise things (Prov 1:2-3) but also become wise people (Prov 1:4-6). Thankfully, the Lord has made the evidence of such wisdom easily observable so we can search it out and increase our risk of contamination.
With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered. (Prov 11:9)
Wise leaders speak knowledge that delivers. Repentance and faith take root. Conflict resolves. Lives change.
To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is! (Prov 15:23. See also Prov 16:24, 24:24-26, 25:25)
When wise leaders speak, people rejoice. Seasonal words can’t be programmed; they merely flow from a heart conditioned to consider others’ needs more than its own.
Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad. (Prov 12:25)
The difference between this point and the previous one is the difference between a process and its result. If you want those you lead to find delight, you’ll need to learn how to go about encouraging them through their dark moments. This “good word” that gladdens has very little to do with getting the sentiments exactly right. It has everything to do with listening, asking questions, and letting yourself feel what they feel. Often, the good news comes when they find they don’t have to suffer and groan alone (Rom 8:22-27).
Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. (Prov 16:24.)
Wise leaders speak hope that not only rescues from sin but also directs toward righteousness. Such heart surgery is the Christian’s highest health. Sometimes we misdefine “healing” as “freedom to stew and to speak every angry thought you’ve had toward the person who offended you.” But true spiritual healing stands in stark contrast to such violent sword thrusts (Prov 12:18).
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Prov 15:1)
When a wise leader gets involved, tempers dissipate and misunderstood people learn to seek understanding. A wise teacher won’t refute an opposing viewpoint unless the opponent would agree his position has been represented fairly. Generalizations are not overused, and particularizations are not asinine.
The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness. (Prov 16:21. See also Prov 16:23.)
Wise leaders have a reputation for distinguishing truth from error. People in need of help seek them out and ask for their opinions. Such leaders can pinpoint main ideas, use accurate labels, predict actions’ consequences, and enumerate clear recommendations. And hungry souls find such speech extraordinarily sweet.
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. (Prov 15:2. See also Prov 15:7.)
When good leaders adorn the truth with beauty, people discover a thirst they didn’t know they had. The knowledge of God becomes more desirable, and folly looks not only foolish but also repellent.
Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right. (Prov 16:13)
Sometimes we worry about what people think of us, and we should repent. But other times we don’t think about it enough, and we should. People can love you for the wrong reasons, and they can also love you for the right reasons. The problem is not with the love but with the reasons. Do they think of you as someone who speaks what is right? Do people follow your leadership because they have to, or because they want to?
By all means, please learn good techniques for leading Bible study discussions. But more importantly, please gain lips of wisdom.
Question: What are your next steps for developing a heart and mouth of wisdom?
Last Friday, I listed 5 practices for preparing effective Bible studies.
This week, I offer a sample fruit of this model. Here are the notes I created to help me lead a recent Bible study. You may want to open these notes in another window to follow along as I walk through them.
I led this study for my church small group that met in my home. Our group met weekly, though we held a Bible study at only 2 or 3 of those meetings each month. We began studying the book of Exodus in August, and this study on Exodus 12:29-13:16 was our next-to-last study before breaking for the summer. (We live in a university town, so our lives are ones of utter enslavement to the academic calendar.) We ended with a climactic study on the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 13:17-14:31).
Our group consisted of a few undergraduate students, a few young singles, a few young families, and a few divorcées. We have a good mix of genders, generations, and life situations represented.
My expectations for the study were that participants would read the passage before the meeting and spend some time thinking about the following questions:
They were also supposed to sign up to bring something for dinner, but you probably don’t need to know that.
The Bible study part of the meeting lasted 1 hour. We didn’t read the text, but dove right into the discussion.
The first 2 minutes of the study are the most important (see Practice #5 in last week’s post), so I set the tone with this question:
What is the most important thing you would like to be remembered for in the future?
Though this was my first question, it was the very last thing I prepared. Everything else on this page of notes came first, as I studied the passage and grappled with the structure, main point, and list of questions to stimulate discussion.
Once I knew where I wanted to go, I was ready to construct the beginning. I wanted a strong question that would get us thinking about applying the main point of the passage, but without giving the whole thing away too soon.
After 2 or 3 minutes of sharing about what we want to be remembered for, we were ready to hit the text.
I keep this item at the top of my notes, because it’s the most important thing for us to get to. The discussion was pretty fluid as people would observe many details in the text and ask interpretive questions. But, though the discussion was fluid, I made sure to steer it in the right direction.
By putting the main point at the top, I’m more likely to make sure we get to it. Ideally, most of what comes up in the discussion will move us toward this point. And the study climaxes when we arrive here.
But sometimes, the group discovers a slightly different main point on its own. In those cases, I won’t require them to conclude what I wrote in my notes. I’ll be open and responsive to the text. I must hold my conclusions loosely if the evidence suggests a better alternative.
This section of the notes lays out the building blocks for the main point.
First, I list key themes in the passage (“This very day is special…”). Second, I outline the passage by discovering the main point of each paragraph. Third, I make sure to consider how the passage connects to the mission of Jesus Christ.
In the meeting, I don’t walk through these items. They’re in my notes to serve as reminders. When the discussion gets close to something in this section, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to lead the people there.
In this section of the notes I list the questions that I will use to stimulate discussion. In this case, I had emailed these questions to the group before the meeting, so I was able to work through them in order. Each question led to a treasure trove of observation and interpretation of the text. I won’t let people get away with an answer without mentioning a verse number or a specific observation that supports what they say.
This section of the notes lists a range of possible application questions I could ask the group. I rarely have time to ask all of them, but I want to be prepared to lead the group in many different directions.
We want to make both inward and outward application. We should consider head, heart, and hands. And we can consider both individual and corporate application. I try to hit every one of these areas over time, since we’re rarely able to hit every area in every study.
So you can see I don’t use these notes as a script, but as a prompter. I plan the launching question and the first observation question, and then I hope for the best and do what I can to keep us moving toward the main point and application. And I pray, of course. Always pray!
———————-This model for preparing and leading a Bible study is heavily influenced by Colin Marshall’s terrific book, Growth Groups.
Bible studies—as I use the term—are groups of people actively engaged in mutual examination of the text of Scripture. Bible studies differ from sermons, classroom lectures, and informal instruction in that they primarily consist of group discussion. Bible studies can be terrifying, because you never know what people will say. There’s always inherent potential for losing control of the discussion. And for this reason, many people fear them.
But though it’s unscripted, the discussion doesn’t have to be uncontrollable. Though open-ended, it doesn’t have to be directionless. Though interrogative, it can still be powerfully declarative.
Bible studies have something going for them that few sermons or personal quiet times can achieve: Interaction. This is the chief advantage of Bible studies.
Because of interaction, we can identify what part of the teaching is hitting the mark. We can adjust on the spot to make better use of what’s connecting with people’s hearts. We can jettison whatever is unhelpful in the moment.
Because of interaction, we can measure how people are responding to the text. We get a good idea of what to follow up on in personal conversations.
Because of interaction, we can see the fruits of faith or unbelief. We can often gauge where people are in their walks with the Lord as we see them directly interacting with his word.
Because of interaction, we can directly address difficult topics. Some issues are considered impolite for pleasant conversation, but they may find safe harbor in an engaging Bible discussion. For example:
Because of interaction, we get VIP access to the greatest show on earth: the softening of human hearts. Sometimes we’ll see people change their minds or their convictions over the course of a single discussion. At other times, it will take place over weeks or months. Sometimes we’ll simply see the change in attitude or character, and the changed person won’t even be aware of the difference yet.
Because of interaction, we can multiply our ministries. Through discussions, we can teach people how to study the Bible for themselves. We can train assistant leaders who will eventually lead their own Bible studies. We can coach people in particular skills like small talk, asking questions, listening attentively, or sharing vulnerably.
Because of interaction, people often feel respected and appreciated. This encourages higher levels of commitment and risk.
Because of interaction, we can better understand and help others to feel understood. God, who knows all things, chose to interact with Adam and not merely declare truth to him: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). Jesus, who knew what was in the heart of a man, chose to interact and draw out others’ thoughts: “Are you asking yourselves what I meant?” (John 16:19).
As we consider further how to lead effective Bible studies, let’s not lose sight of our chief advantage.
Question: What other benefits derive from the interactive nature of Bible discussions? I appreciate your interaction on this topic!
A few nights ago, our church small group met in our home, and we had one of the most engaging and encouraging Bible studies in the history of the group. Since I didn’t lead the discussion, I was able to reflect on what made the discussion so effective.
I now offer you the fruit of my musings.
The leader came to the study with a clear grasp of the text’s main point. He knew exactly where he wanted the group to end up.
There’s a place for lecture, and there’s a place for interactive instruction. The key to fostering constructive interaction is to ask good questions. When have you experienced such leadership before? What kinds of questions encourage you to engage in the discussion? And you know what sort of questions shut down the discussion, don’t you?
The leader led. He didn’t let the group meander through the conversation. He didn’t just wing it. He set a course, and he began moving along it.
Though the leader set a direction, he did not drag the group with him. He didn’t leash the discussion or get insecure when it swerved unexpectedly. He kept us moving toward the main point, but he didn’t control the group’s pathway toward that main point. I’m sure we ended up exactly where he wanted us, but we felt all along like we had gotten there ourselves.
Here’s the silver bullet. The text provides self-corrective measures to a group prone to tangents. A leader who keeps the people in the text doesn’t have to fear unpredictable discussion. As soon as the discussion gets off-topic, the leader can ask, “So how do you see that in the text?” and get things back online.
The leader took us to the text’s main point, and then he camped out there. He didn’t pursue every possible theological or interpretive quandary. He got us to the main point, and he had us restate the point numerous times. Then he took us to Christ and on into application.
The leader had more than one application in mind. He had prepared a series of questions about our thinking, character, and behaviors. He had considered applications for both individuals and the group. He had considered how the text should impact our engagement with the world around us. In the end, he didn’t ask every question he had prepared, but he had a broad range of ideas in place so he could respond to whichever topics connected best with the group.
The leader didn’t let us get away with clichés or vague principles. He asked good follow-up questions that made us get more specific.
These are not the only eight things leaders can do; they just stood out to me after this week’s study. And my intention is not to ignore the impact of character or knowledge on one’s leadership.
But if we had more leaders who practiced these skills to the glory of God, people would be far more interested in going to Bible studies.