How about a Bible study group?

From Bible Reading - a beginner's guide by Michael Green

Bible study groups are needed

If the Bible is right in regarding Christians as limbs in the body of Christ, it is obvious that we need each other, and this applies as much in the matter of Bible reading as it does in any other aspect of life. If 'each member belongs to all the others' (Romans 12:5), then we need to find a way of expressing and deepening that interdependence. The Bible study group can be an excellent way. There is real value in sitting with a group of friends and studying a bit of the Bible together, all of you sharing your insights and building one another up. More than that, you share something of your lives and aspirations, disappointments and joys. Room must be made for this human sharing of life and experience if the group is to gel as a close fellowship of Christians and not just a reading group.

You may not feel you could offer leadership in such a group yourself but that need not stop you initiating it. Members of the group could take it in turn to lead for an evening so that everyone has a go. After all, it is not as if you are being asked to preach a sermon. You are merely chairing the discussion for an evening among a group of friends.

I recall a conversation I once had with George Gallup, the inventor of the famous Gallup polls. He told me what he did when he got the idea of a group like this. He called up twelve men he knew and invited them. Ten of them said 'Yes', and that began the small group involvement which has, over many years, been a great enrichment to his life and the lives of his friends. It could be the same for you.

Sadly, many churches do not have anything of the kind. Perhaps the minister is suspicious of goings-on among a bunch of amateur Bible readers in a private home when he or she is not present. Some ministers feel that they should be the ones giving Bible teaching, in a sermon or a midweek meeting. For whatever reason, the minister may discourage small group Bible study. This is a real shame because it is one of the great ways for people to grow in understanding their faith. And remember, you don't have to ask permission from a minister or anyone else to have such a group in your own home. So why not see if there are people in your neck of the woods who would like to enrich their spiritual diet in this way?

The impact of such a group

There is a massive ignorance of the Bible these days. It is the bestseller that nobody reads, and yet, as we have seen, it has tremendous impact on the character of those who make it the foundation of their lives. Over the years, I have heard many testimonies to its power. Mr Dzapasi was a witch doctor in Zimbabwe before he landed up in prison. Thanks to the Bible and the personal care of the Prison Fellowship, he became a fully trained pastor. 'It was one day after the Prison Fellowship members had visited me in my cell and shared the word of God with me that I was saved,' he said. Before long he started a Bible study group with some of the other prisoners. 'I was even happy to serve my sentence, and actually felt it was not long enough, considering what I had done to God. Prison offi cers could not believe the change in me, and were astonished when I started preaching the gospel to fellow inmates and even to them!'

In the same country, a man called Munyoro was awaiting the death sentence but found peace with God and the comfort of the scriptures. He testified, 'The pain and terror of the death sentence was made lighter when I accepted the Messiah as the centre of my life. I began to read the Bible, prayed, and sang to the glory of God.'

A Chinese student, Yan Rong Hui, tells how 'God's word was our food during the Cultural Revolution'. Her father was arrested for being in a Christian meeting. All the Bibles in the area were confiscated - but one escaped notice. This was used by many people, her own family included. 'Some of the psalms were copied out for me to read and every day I read some verses. But I asked the Lord to give me a Bible - and he enabled me to procure one from a friend of my mother's. The Bible passages were very useful to our family as we gathered to read them. We had much trouble during the Cultural Revolution, but the word of God gave our family strength to face these troubles and to overcome them.'

Enough said. The Bible has enormous life-changing power. We need to read it on our own but we can also gain immeasurably from reading it with others and learning from them.

Leading a group

Bad leadership ruins many a group! Inadequate leaders are often late in starting, have not prepared beforehand and talk too much themselves. They cannot restrain the overtalkative or encourage the timid. They ask questions to which the answers are obvious, and then provide the answers themselves. They allow the meeting to drift on far too long, they manage to cover only part of the passage, and nothing is summarized, applied or prayed about.

Good leaders are unostentatious, asking questions only when discussion dries up, and then very shrewdly and humbly. They keep to the passage and so avoid waffle. They gently insist on the application of scripture to daily life and discourage glibness by pressing for further explanation. They defuse argument, keep the atmosphere sweet and encourage the shy. Good leaders are essentially encouragers, who direct operations from the rear. They make all the difference to whether the members go away feeling they have had a wasted evening or a fulfilling time of learning and fellowship.

Obviously, leaders need to ensure that there is agreement beforehand about what method of Bible study is to be used and what passage is to be studied. It might be a study course going through a book of the Bible. It might be an examination of what the Bible has to say on an important topic. It might be looking at selected passages. The important thing is that the leaders themselves are well prepared. There are three vital ingredients in preparation. First, they will need to have prayed about the passage and the people who will be coming to the meeting. Second, they will need to have soaked themselves in the passage. That will probably have included some work with a commentary: the New International Version Study Bible is an invaluable ally. Third, they will need to have given some thought to how they will handle discussion on the day. They will want to put people at ease, cultivate a worshipful attitude and ensure that all get a chance to participate. They will seek to avoid the dullness of a dry academic discussion and to encourage the group to apply what they read to their personal lives and maybe to their activities as a group as well.

In point of fact, many of the best groups find that their study together leads to common action for the good of others. They might, for example, read the first few verses of James chapter 5, about the dangers of wealth and the selfishness it can breed - and decide as a result to offer to redecorate the house of an elderly widow nearby. They might be reading a passage in the prophet Micah or Amos about social justice, and this could lead them to make representations about a local issue before the town council. It is not the responsibility of the leader to come up with ideas like this - they may spring from any member of the group - but the leader will want to ensure that the scripture is applied, and will be open to practical suggestions as to how that can be achieved.

The art of asking questions

Part of the leader's preparation will be to think up suitable questions to help people grapple with the passage or topic under consideration. Good questions stimulate discussion and help people to discover important truths that are being overlooked. But questioning is not as simple as it sounds. Here are a few suggestions. Avoid questions that are obscure, or to which the answer is obvious. Your aim is to open up discussion. It is a good idea to use 'What?' 'How?' or 'Why?' questions. They will probably have more than one answer, and this enables plenty of participation. Don't provide the answer yourself!

Do not be content with scratching the surface. A supplementary question can help, such as 'What do others think?' or 'What might that mean for us?'

You may find it useful to set one or two questions in advance. This will, of course, involve you in preparing further ahead. Suppose you were studying Matthew 6: two good questions, which could prove very fruitful in discussion, would be 'What false attitudes does Jesus condemn here?' and 'What attitude does he advocate?'

If you were looking at the Lord's Prayer, a good question to set beforehand might be 'Analyse the Lord's Prayer and suggest how you can use it as a framework for your own prayers.' Or, if you were looking at the mission of the Twelve in Matthew 9:36 - 10:20, you could ask, 'What principles in this passage are appropriate (a) only to the apostles, (b) to mission outreaches today, and (c) to the lives of all Christians?'

Be shrewd, humble and focused in your questions. Keep before the group the two essential questions that we mentioned earlier: 'What did this mean to the original people involved?' and 'If that was the case, how does it apply to us?' In that way you will avoid pious thoughts that have no relation to the real meaning of the passage on the one hand, and academic observations that have no relation to life on the other.

The Bible study itself

It is good to start with a meal if possible, in order to allow people to leave behind the pressures of the day, relate to one another and prepare for what is to come. If a meal is impossible, coffee is the next best thing. If you are leading for the evening, it might be good to move next into some worshipful songs, especially if you have an instrumentalist. In any case, have some silence before God so that you can all get into the attitude of attentively coming to meet him. You are after much the same thing in the group study as you were in the one-to-one sessions described in the last chapter. You will give a very short introduction, not parading all the understanding you have gained in your preparation but keeping it under wraps in case it is needed in the discussion period.

It is important to make it crystal clear how you want the group to proceed. If, for example, you have set them a question or two beforehand, it might be good to say, 'We shall not read the passage tonight, but contribute one by one our reflections on the first question.' Or you might say, 'Let's each try, as we look at this passage tonight, to find something for the head, something for the heart and something for the feet.' That's as much as to say that understanding, devotion and practical action should go hand in hand.

If you have decided to do a topical study, such as bringing up children or the use of money, the leader's preparation will be multiplied. But they will not parade it: that would inhibit discussion. Instead, they will use it to choose particular verses in different parts of the Bible that bear on the subject, and then give each member a slip of paper with a scripture reference on it. The group members will then look up their verses and read them out, and the ensuing discussion will be lively and cohesive because the verses will have been chosen to give a good overview of the Bible's teaching on the matter.

In the discussion, let people contribute freely, but you will need to be vigilant. There is always the over-talkative member who, in effect, silences many of the others. Watch out for them! It is easy enough to smile graciously and say, 'Good, John, but could we hear from someone else first, who hasn't had a chance to chip in yet?', perhaps adding, 'Jenny, how does it strike you?'

There are sure to be some silent members. It is wise to let them take their time, just sitting and taking it all in. But maybe after a couple of sessions you could draw them out with a judicious question directed to them personally: 'Andy, what did you like most about this passage?'

In a Bible study group composed of long-standing Christians, there is a danger of glibness, of the parrot-like repetition of Christian technical words like 'eucharist' and 'salvation'. Try to pierce the religious crust! If, for example, one group was commenting on the wickedness of humankind in general, based on Ephesians 2:1, you might gently say, 'That's quite true, Richard, but it also applies to every one of us, doesn't it? I wonder if you would be good enough to change it into the first person and read it to us again?' After a moment's incomprehension, he would slowly read, 'As for me, I was dead in my transgressions and sins, in which I used to live when I followed the ways of the world.' At that point, glibness tends to evaporate!

Some will be sure to come up with irrelevant comments. You want gently to get their noses back into the text so that they are not imposing their own ideas on to it but struggling to uncover what is actually there. Questions such as, 'Yes, Sarah, but what verse do you see that in?' is generally effective.

And then were will be the mistaken comment. Rescue anything you can from it but suggest, 'Does it, I wonder, rather mean…? What do others think?'

You are likely to have had an excellent evening. End with prayer, perhaps in the group as a whole, encouraging everyone to utter short prayers or praises. Maybe, if the group is large, split people up into threes to pray, and end with a final song or the Lord's Prayer. Sometimes personal needs will have arisen in the discussion and these call for prayer. Sometimes silence is the most fitting response to God's word.

Bible study in small groups can be one of the most effective building blocks of a growing, informed and participatory congregation. It is an opportunity too good to miss.

Find out more about Bible Reading - a beginner's guideTaken from Bible Reading - a beginner's guide by Michael Green

Getting to grips with the Bible
What is the Bible?
How about a Bible study group?
What's prayer all about?
Wake up to the Bible