I meet with a small group of men once a week early in the morning primarily to study the Bible. We read and dialogue about a portion of Scripture. Typically, we walk through one Bible book at a time, examining a section each week. Though I am the leader, I almost never prepare for this meeting. I am a firm believer in preparation; it’s just that this meeting is different. I arrive ready to open our Bibles, to read the text, and to go through the normal process of observation and interpretation before thinking through application. We read, re-read, ask questions of the text, dialogue, and seek understanding together. I love it. This simple approach trains men to read their Bibles better, gives them important truths to ponder and share outside of the meeting, and grows them in Christlikeness.
Let me illustrate what we do. We’ve recently begun studying First John. The first week, we began by reading the whole book, and then noted repeated words and phrases throughout the book. We tried to understand the historical setting, but only from what we saw within the text itself. In the next couple of weeks, we did talk about the historical background (I had to consult background works for this), but we mostly began working through the book one section at a time. We sometimes read a couple of chapters at the beginning of a meeting, or even the whole book, but then we slow down and consider a unit. I think we took two weeks to talk through First John 1:1-4, and then another two or three weeks working our way through 1:5-2:2. Sometimes we go faster through each section, but this has seemed just right for First John.
In these meetings, we don’t feel like we have to understand everything perfectly before we leave. We’re often content with the fellowship we enjoy by reading and seeking understanding. We eventually get to the realm of application, but it’s not the aim every week.
Now that I’ve explained the basic idea of our meetings, I want to reflect on how to lead these Bible studies (the kind of study like what I’ve just described, not, for example, going through a workbook or video series). The ideas below could apply to a variety of settings, but I’m talking about a study of Scripture without any helps or pre-written guides. The way we lead them is vital to their success. Here are thirteen tips:
1. Pray for understanding not only at the beginning of each meeting, but at various times throughout.
Most Bible studies begin with prayer. That makes sense. We need the Holy Spirit to give light to the text under consideration. But sometimes, while you are studying, stop and pray. This is especially relevant when the group can’t figure something out and is “stuck,” or even when two different views are being held possibly to the point of causing tension.
2. Require paper Bibles.
It’s convenient to utilize a digital Bible in numerous settings, such as reading (or listening) just before you fall asleep at night, or when looking up something during an impromptu discussion. But in a Bible study, we should prefer printed Bibles because, with them, we can more readily observe the passage and its larger context. Most importantly, paper Bibles don’t distract with dings or vibrations.
3. Beware of study Bibles.
If possible, don’t allow the participants to use a study Bible in this meeting. Even if they can keep themselves from sharing what the study notes say, they will be tempted to look. There is a place for using resources like this (especially maps), but this meeting should primarily be about believers rigorously examining the actual words of Scripture and seeing how much understanding the Holy Spirit gives through the group’s meditation. The Lord has promised to bless that method (see Psalm 1:1-3).
4. Share the reading.
If you are reading a whole book of the Bible, perhaps just go around the table having each person read a chapter. If the section is smaller, make sure the same individual doesn’t read every week. This is a small way to make sure each participant feels like a contributor.
5. Stop talking so much.
Specifically, beware of too often telling the group what you think the text means. This is especially difficult for pastors and teachers. We are used to excitedly expressing what we understand. The problem in this type of Bible study is that we take the joy of discovery away from the others. Consequently, they won’t “own” the text themselves, which is so vital to long-term memory and their excitement for sharing with others. Sure, you need to facilitate, but as much as possible, act like one of the participants. They should be able to meet and have a productive time even if you are not there.
6. Don’t let certain participants dominate the discussion, and draw out quieter participants.
Some people are more talkative than others. This is how God made them. It’s a problem, though, if the talkers command the Bible study to the extent that the quiet people don’t participate much. As the leader, you may sometimes have to say something like, “Let’s hear from those who haven’t had much to say.” Other times, you might just ask one of the less talkative individuals to share.
7. Encourage even the smallest insight.
There will always be various levels of interpretive abilities in a group. The enthusiasm of a younger Christian is often squelched when, after he excitedly shares an insight from the text, one of the “seasoned veterans” responds in a way that communicates something like, “I’ve known that since 1998.” Instead, something as simple as a sincere, “Yeah, that’s a good insight,” will encourage him and even foster unity among the group.
8. Allow for apparently incorrect or unusual comments about the text.
Promote an atmosphere where those in the group can say what they are thinking, even if it sounds ridiculous. It might be. However, sometimes the strange statement either turns out right, or it helps to nuance something that enhances understanding. If you’re not saying occasional dumb things in this type of Bible study, you’re doing it wrong.
9. Limit participants from bringing in outside biblical passages until way, way, way into the study process.
This is more about the actual interpretive process, but I’ve seen this happen so often, it deserves some reflection. Each book was written in a particular genre by a particular author to a particular audience. Good Bible study will evaluate each verse and passage within its historical and literary and textual context first. Why did this author write this to these people? How does it connect with what has just been said and with what follows? How does this passage fit into the whole book? These are the kinds of questions that must be answered before we can adequately consider cross-references. One exception is when an author quotes from another place in Scripture.
10. Permit silence.
Leaders who typically process ideas verbally have difficulty with this, but it’s really okay to have some moments of “dead air.” Let them think.
11. Read the text again.
There is wisdom in regularly saying something like, “Let’s read the chapter again and see if we get any clarity about this verse.” Or if you are at a decent stopping point but have five or ten minutes left, reading a large section or even the whole book of what you are studying is a worthwhile way to end your time together.
12. Be content with moving on from a passage even if you don’t have it figured out exactly.
Some passages are extremely difficult. Others will only be understood once you move on in the book and see how concepts develop. And we will always have more we could have talked about. Staying in the same place too long can become frustrating and even cause some believers to think that “it’s just too hard to figure out.” If we’re not careful, camping out too long in one place could even motivate some away from personal Bible reading.
13. Get very practical.
Whereas certain people are too quick to talk about “how this passage applies to me,” others are extremely analytical and seemingly happy with remaining in the “interpretation” phase. It’s not that they don’t want to follow Jesus, they just enjoy the dialogue and may not feel the urgency of application. But the Bible isn’t only meant for intellectual stimulation, but life transformation. Urge the group to humble themselves before the Lord whose voice is meant to be heeded.
Following these tips is no guarantee that you will have a superb Bible study every week. Sometimes participants are tired, or the interaction is lethargic. That’s to be expected. But persevere, and beware of resorting to old tactics that are more comfortable to you even though they don’t necessarily enhance understanding and maturity in Christ.