How to Lead a Bible Study Discussion Group
So, you’ve been asked by a session member to lead one of the Bible study groups in your congregation and you are starting to sweat, because you have never done this before. What’s more, you have been to a few uninspiring Bible studies and you definitely DON’T want your group to end up like that. Well, read on. Hopefully, this article will give you some guidance and some confidence. Let’s look at a few principles and suggestions.
I chose the wording of the title for this article quite deliberately. It is very important that you first understand what a Bible study group is supposed to be and what it is supposed to achieve. It is not a sermon or a lecture. These have their place, of course, but the place for them is not the local church Bible study group. In sermons and in lectures, the speaker does the preparation, knows what he wants to convey and sets about doing that in a public setting, usually without any questions or contributions from the hearers.1 But in a Bible study discussion group, people do not come and expect to listen in silence to the leader give a 30 or 40 minute presentation of his or her views. People come, preferably having done some preparation beforehand, and they have questions that they want to ask, and contributions or thoughts that they want to share with others. In a small group setting this works well. Your goal as a leader is to facilitate discussion and interaction between the members of your group and help them dig into the Scriptures for themselves rather than simply give people the benefit of all your knowledge. This may present you with a challenge. You have probably been asked to lead a group because you know quite a bit about the Bible. You may find it a real temptation to “do all the talking”. Resist it. Remember that the Bible study group is not a lecture.
You might be thinking by now that if all you have to do is facilitate discussion, you can just “wing it” and do little or no preparation for leading the Bible study. Nothing could be further from the truth. For the study to run well, you must do your preparation thoroughly. If you are using published Bible study material, and I recommend that you do this,2 work through the material in advance and come to some decisions about the main ideas of the study that need to be brought out in the discussion. You should also ask yourself: What perspective did the author of this material have on the subject or Bible passage being studied? Do we agree with this, or is there a viewpoint or an emphasis that needs modification or correction? If the latter is the case, you will need to draw attention to this at some point during the Bible study. Once you have an idea of the important points in the study, you will then be able to bring the discussion back to these as the group works through the material. Side issues can be useful and worth pursuing. They come up because people are interested in them and they are keen on rushing headlong down the rabbit trail. All sorts of valuable biblical insights can be found in rabbit holes but as a study leader, you need to know that they are not what this particular Bible study is about. At an appropriate time, you can draw the group’s attention back to the important points.3
This is a vital part of preparation for a Bible study, but I want to give it a separate heading. Pray before the study for those who will be attending. Pray that the study would be informative and encouraging for those who attend. Pray for individuals within the group, especially those who are attending for the first time, or those who might be struggling with the material. Consider also a time of corporate prayer at the end of the study. Small group Bible studies are excellent opportunities for fellowship in prayer. They also help build close relationships and friendships in a congregation.
Since the goal is to encourage participation and interaction by members of the group, think of a few good questions that you can ask about the material. If you are discussing people’s response to a particular question, for example, you might ask: Did anyone have anything different here, or did someone come up with something that we haven’t yet considered? Does anyone know where this is taught elsewhere in the Bible?
Let’s have a look at this other passage and see what extra light is thrown on this point... Or: This can be a challenge to put into practice in the Christian life. How do you think we can do this? Or: Do you think there is any application here to our congregational life? What might that be? Or simply: Does anyone have any questions about this? Is this straightforward? Clear as mud? What do you think?
Silence is not necessarily bad. Sometimes people need a bit more time to think the matter through. If a silence persists, try to resist the temptation to jump in and answer the question yourself. Try rephrasing the question, or asking another question that relates to the issue that you want to bring out so that the point is made in another way.
Asking different people to read out the Bible passage being discussed or another passage that relates to the question is a good way of including people who might otherwise say little or nothing: “Let’s have a look at these verses too. John, can you read those for us? Thanks.”
On the matter of participation, in all groups you will find that some people have no trouble speaking, and seem to enjoy giving their own perspective on whatever is being discussed (whether they have done any preparation or not!). Others will be much more reluctant to say anything. As a study leader you need to watch out for this. As you glance around from time to time, look for people who are itching to say something but can’t get a word in edgewise. They might half-heartedly be raising a hand, or fidgeting in their seats. Don’t be afraid to stop a person who is doing a lot of talking and say: “That’s great! Thanks very much for that. Does anyone else have something to contribute? Julie, what about you? You looked like you were wanting to say something.” If a person is regularly and repeatedly doing most of the talking in the study, talk to him privately. Thank him for his contributions, but say that we need to encourage others to open up as well. Ask him to think about how we might best do that.
One other thing in relation to the dynamic of a study group: It is likely that in your group there will be Christians at different levels of maturity and Bible knowledge. For some the material might be “easy” and they’ve covered all this before countless times. For others, the material might be new and challenging. Encourage a willingness to listen to others and to be patient. If the discussion gets bogged down or tangled up in a difficult question that no-one has answers to, or if there is a pretty major difference of opinion over something, don’t think that you have to get the matter sorted out then and there. Instead, you can call attention to the unanswered questions, and say that you would like to look into that more fully before the next study. You can study this more fully yourself, or save some time and ask the minister how he would respond to this. You can even suggest to the group that you invite the minister along next time and ask him to give a biblical view on the issue under discussion.
Watch the Time
Once a topic has been covered, and especially as the study is drawing to a close, summarise the main points once more and thank the group for their contributions. Try to stick to the allotted time. Some people might be happy to stay for an extra hour or three, but if this happens, another might not come back next time because the study goes on too long for him or her. Make sure that the meeting starts on time and finishes on or around the time allotted. There is no problem finishing off the rest of the material next time. Just call attention to this: “Well, we’d better stop for tonight so it doesn’t get too late. We’ll come back to the other questions next time.” Bear in mind, though, that most Bible study guides have been constructed with the idea of one lesson or chapter per study. If you are only a third of the way through by the end of the evening, it is possible that you have been discovering an abundance of treasures in the rabbit holes. That’s okay, but don’t lose sight of (and don’t let the group lose sight of) the overall structure of where you are going. It can be discouraging for some people if the group takes too long to progress through the study material.
That’s probably given you enough to go on. Leading a Bible study group well can be very enjoyable and edifying, for you as well as for the others in the group. I hope this article has stimulated you to carry on or to begin this task with confidence and enthusiasm.