As Christians, small group Bible studies are one of the most powerful tools we have as we strive to obey Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. As a pastor, two of my favorite things about small group Bible studies are that 1) they can be lead by anyone and 2) they can happen anywhere. You do not need to have a seminary education or professional ministry experience to gather with some friends, open the Bible, and listen to what God says; nor do you need access to a church building as you can start one wherever you are: your home, your job, your school, your neighborhood - wherever. Because small group Bible studies are so powerful and flexible, it is important that we take advantage of these benefits for the glory of God and the good of the Church. Below are 4 tips that I hope will help you make the most of the Bible study you are currently leading, or inspire you to start one amongst your sphere of influence.
1. Let the Bible talk more than you.
Though we may call it a “Bible study,” in many cases our small group Bible study would more accurately be called “teacher study.” As Bible study leaders we often feel the weight of the responsibility of making sure the members of our group leave with a rich understanding of God’s Word. Unfortunately, we often allow this healthy desire to lead us to an unhealthy teaching style. We may do this by giving the answers ourselves instead of allowing the members to discover the answers in the Bible, which teaches members to rely on us to discover truth instead of relying on God’s Word. Or we may do this by providing our answers to the questions raised after the group members have already given theirs, which teaches group members that the answers they find in the Bible are insufficient without our additional insight.
The best Bible teachers are not those who can share the most information or provide the best answers, but those who can ask the best questions in order that group members find the answers in the Bible instead of in their leader.
2. Let the Spirit guide instead of you.
As leaders who have adequately prepared before the study, we often come to the group having already arrived at our own conclusions related the passage. This is wonderful for us as individuals but can be dangerous for the other members of our group when we attempt to guide them towards the same insights. When we do this we interfere with the Holy Spirit, who may choose to use the same text to lead other members toward different thoughts, applications and convictions. We also unintentionally communicate to the group that they have not arrived at the right answer until they arrive at our answer. Whether you intend to or not, when you are trying to guide the group toward your answer you make members nervous to share their insights, as they know it may not match up with the “right” answer you are looking for.
It is of utmost importance that you resist the urge to lead group members toward your answers, and instead trust the Holy Spirit to lead them into truth, even if it’s not the thought you would have chosen to emphasize.
3. Give feedback without embarrassing.
In the course of a Bible study group members say all sorts of things. Some of these things will be supremely insightful, some will be blatantly obvious, and others will be simply wrong. With the insightful and the obvious, leaders tend to make the error of not saying anything. With the wrong, leaders tend to make the error of correcting the group member in a humiliating way. Both strategies are insufficient.
No matter what is said, group leaders must provide feedback. A facilitator should never sit silently after someone shares their perspective, no matter what it might be. You also cannot simply say “okay” or “does anyone else have any thoughts?” When you do any of these things you are failing to facilitate, and you leave everyone else wondering if something wrong or useless was said. Instead, you should respond to every thought in one of three ways. First, you can summarize what was said in your own words. This is often very useful because group members may spend several confusing paragraphs explaining something that you can easily summarize in one sentence and thereby clarify for everyone present. Second, you can offer encouragement with a simple phrase such as, “thank you for sharing that,” “good thoughts,” or “that’s a great observation.” Third, if a group member says something that is entirely off base, you can respond with guiding questions rather than humiliating correction. “That’s interesting, can you share with us how you came to that conclusion?.” “I can see why you might say that, but do verses 5-6 seem to be saying something different?” or “I haven’t thought of it that way before, can you think of other bible passages that might support that or contradict that?”
4. Request participation, don’t demand it.
While ideally you want every member of your group to actively participate, their verbal participation is not the most important thing. The most important thing is that they interact with God’s Word. Some will be comfortable doing this out loud, but others will be less so — either due to their personality, their lack of Bible knowledge, their fear of being corrected or their unfamiliarity with the group members. When you force someone like this to share when they are not ready, or read aloud when they are not comfortable, you run the risk of making the experience of studying the Bible an unpleasant one for them. This, of course, is the exact opposite of your goal. Rather than calling on them in public, it is wise to approach those who do not verbally participate one-on-one. In that context you can ask them whether or not they’d be comfortable with you calling on them to read or answer questions in future studies. If not, you can ask them why, which may lead to a discipleship opportunity. It will also empower you to lead them much more lovingly and skillfully.
God’s Spirit uses the combination of God’s Word and God’s People to both teach us and transform us in profound ways. Perhaps the above 4 tips will be helpful as you play your role in that process.
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Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook.