Friday, 12 December 2014

How to Lead a Bible Study

Bible time – with Joni Eareckson Tada, Richard Bewes, and Paul Blackham
(Photo: Christian Television Association)

WELL, THIS IS CERTAINLY ONE WAY WE’VE ENJOYED DOING IT – getting together round a book of the Bible, and then sharing our discoveries through the small screen, or on radio with numerous home study groups, both in the UK and far beyond. In fact – depending on which country your group is in - you may even hear us one day chatting with each other in Spanish, German or Arabic, such is the wonder of modern technology!

No, it hasn’t got to be this way – though readers should know that our video and DVD programmes (OPEN HOME, OPEN BIBLE and BOOK BY BOOK) do provide for local participants to follow up on our 15-minute studies - with their own opportunity for engaging together with Bible truth (for details, see under this website’s ‘Resources’ page).

The power resides not in the medium, nor in any personalities involved, but in the Scriptures themselves. You cannot get a group of people together around a passage of the Bible, and not experience the touch of God upon them, in and through his Word.  More – it is a cumulative exercise. Over the weeks and months that a home or student group meets for Bible study, the participants are steadily building up a Bible way of looking at and interpreting LifeThis is how we ultimately change the thinking of a nation, from the grass roots upwards, in village after village, campus after campus, business after business. 

The Bible will do it. How, then, to engage with it on a small group level? Certainly videos or DVDs will do their part – but they should never do the work for us; there comes a moment when, with introduction over, sitting perhaps on a threadbare strip of carpet with Bibles open and maybe a can of Coke, participation begins. Perhaps you are the leader?


Let’s get the dynamics right. First: It is a group, not a congregation! Nobody should be preaching or teaching from the front. The basic duty of the leader is to kick-start the proceedings with a prayer and brief introduction, encourage discussion and be ready to sum up at the close. 

The ideal number for a group is around 8-12 people. Effectiveness reduces once the group grows beyond that number. If yet more want to join in Bible study, the answer is, Start another group. 

Secondly: It is an organism, not an assortment of individuals. It is best if the group can stay together for a recognisable period of time, and so enable its members to grow in trust and confidence with each other. The point ought to be reached when, if a member goes to hospital for an operation, others will want to visit the bedside, with support and grapes! In this way the group becomes a unit of spiritual LIFE.

Thirdly: It is a sharing, not a lecture. Again and again, leaders get this wrong – imagining that they must display their great learning during the Bible study.  Not so; theirs is to be a difficult, but achievable skill – that of keeping the ball rolling, and encouraging participants to discover the truths for themselves. The more members come up with their own answers to the truth of a Bible passage, the more successful is the leader. 


First answer – With care and thought.  Arrangements must fit in with the dynamics of the occasion. Some student and church groups start off in a large auditorium with a plenary ‘introductory’ session, led from the front for a sizeable number of people, perhaps with the extra help of video or DVD.  

Then comes the moment to break it down for the follow-up study in smaller groups, with chairs turned and formed around tables – so making ‘table groups’ of six or eight, each with its own appointed  leader.  

Or is the occasion a home group study? The seating arrangements need attention; not straight rows (for that would imply a lecture is about to begin). Nor even a semi-circle, with the leader’s chair at the front – for that gives the impression that all conversation should be directed towards and from a guru-style leader. Relaxed fellowship is best facilitated by a not-too-tight circle of chairs, of which the leader’s is but one.  Any other tips about the room arrangements?

Second answer – With warmth and informality. Just look around the room. Is it claustrophobic? Does anything need to be tidied out of the way?  Who is coming? Do you know them? Do they know each other yet?  Are some coming who think that Moses was one of the twelve disciples, that Hebrews is in the Old Testament; that an epistle is the wife of an apostle? 

Is there something to be said for some unobtrusive music to be put on as visitors arrive – just to ease any awkward silences or stilted conversation in the opening minutes?  Depending on the culture, some groups can begin with tea or coffee; others end with it….which leads on to a third answer – With refreshment and hospitality. There is really no need to go over the top, but thought could be given by the members as to whether an actual meal would be a welcome part of the proceedings – with individuals taking turns to bring food.

That seems to be, at least in part, the secret behind the growth of the early Christian church; they ate together (Acts 2:46). The great object is to feel at home with each other in a microcosm of the family of Christ.  But there is no rule about this. Cultural customs vary across the world!


At the agreed time, simply get people seated; get the Bibles out, and open with prayer. It is always possible to ask a group member to open with prayer – but avoid giving the impression to nervous newcomers that one day they may be ‘pounced on’ to do the same. It can be helpful to say, “I’ve already asked Bill if he’ll pray for us to understand the passage.”

Then the passage can be read. The recommendation is NOT to read the passage around the group, each member taking a verse; it’s too artificial, and, for some, very nerve-racking. Better for one person to read the whole passage, or, alternatively, to split the reading into its natural divisions, and for two or three volunteers to take one section each.

And then? 

“Great,” says the leader. “Why don’t we spend a minute or two looking at the passage, and see if we can work out its main theme? What’s the big point coming across to us? There may also be some sub-themes contained in these paragraphs. Take a moment, everybody, and let’s work it out.”

Silence falls. The exercise at this point is very simple. What did the original Bible writer intend to get across? We are not gazing, for example, at one of Paul’s letters, with the intention of making it mean what we wish.  Suppose I write a letter to a friend and say, “I’ll meet you tomorrow at the courts at 3 pm”. My friend, on reading the letter, could of course think, “I wonder if he means the law courts” - but if he knew anything about me he would know that I could only mean the tennis courts.

Clergyman tennis enthusiast George Tissiere of North Carolina meets Wimbledon’s
former CEO Chris Gorringe at the famous Centre Court

When I write a letter, I have one meaning in mind, and one only! I would feel highly insulted if readers chose to interpret what I had written in two, three or more ways. Yet this is what some people do to the writers of the Bible, when they think they can make it mean anything they like.

No, what we are looking for in the passage is – as John Stott emphasises - the natural meaning, the original  meaning and the general  meaning (that is, the meaning as it ties in with the rest of the Bible’s teaching). 

After a minute or so, the group leader can break the silence. “As we learnt last time, these words were written by the apostle Paul, while he was in prison, probably around the year 50 AD. Now, what is he on about? What’s the main thing he’s trying to say to his readers? Have a go, someone!”

Someone pipes up, and looks to you as leader for confirmation that they got it right.

Tip: Don’t look back at them; no eye contact! Rather, look away - around the rest of the group - and ask, “Mmmm; anyone else? Let’s see what others have found.” Reason: You are not to allow the group to cast you in the role of the dominating know-all. All you are doing is to encourage the others to dig our the Bible truths for themselves. And the best way of doing it is by way of non-threatening questioning.

Someone else comes up with a contribution. You know that they are way off course – but at least they have made the attempt! Rather than assert, “No, I’m afraid you’ve got that completely wrong,” it will help them to work harder just to float a gentle challenge: “In saying that, what verse were you looking at?”  Little by little the group gets the message, We are here to discover what the writer was getting at, and in so doing, to discover what GOD is getting at.

The study is going well, when members are engaging not simply with you, as leader, but across the room with each other. The great skill required of the leader is to interject stimulating questions. Most printed study programmes will suggest certain questions that are appropriate to the Bible passage in question. Avoid questions that invite the answer Yes or No, and shun ‘dumbing-down’ questions that have all-too-obvious answers!

“As we look at verses 6-12, let’s identify some of the descriptions Paul uses of the ministry that he and his fellow-apostles were carrying out (1 Thessalonians 2:6-12).”    Plenty will come out, from such a question – gentle like a mother…..sharing not only the gospel but our lives as well….you had become so dear to us….our toil and hardship….night and day….not to be a burden….holy, righteous and blameless….dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children.

The questioning picks up again. “In practical terms, what can be learnt from this about Christian standards of service today?” 

And by now the study is veering into application. A little later it can turn into prayer. How long has the whole thing taken?  Maybe forty minutes? Yet if a study goes well, an hour can fly by in what seems like twenty minutes. The aim is refreshment, rather than exhaustion; it is healthy if the time ends with everyone wanting more!


There certainly are a few!  First, there is The one-man show – in which the leader simply dominates all. This kills real learning. You learn best what you discover and articulate yourself. But sometimes we find ourselves faced by The Great Silence. This is quite a common problem. It is, generally, the right question that will break it up. If the group is really sticky, what can help, initially, is simply to invite members to say which verse or portion they like best. 

But sometimes we are struggling with The Show-off. This can be the participant, eager to display a knowledge of Greek words! If necessary this member can be taken on one side, and be told that too much erudition of this kind only stifles discussion. But in addition to this, there is The red herring – by which idiomatic expression is meant diversion of attention from the main question onto some side issue. It is a very common problem. The leader simply has to get the study back on track: “Maybe that can be taken up again over coffee; but what about Paul’s main point in verse 8?”

Sometimes a group study becomes paralysed by The Pet Theme on someone’s part. All too often it is the leader who is at fault - and who can blame the participants if attendances fall off, when they simply cannot bear to hear the leader banging on about Millennial prophecies, missionary experiences in the Jordanian Valleys or great tennis players of the past!  

Ever been in The Paper Chase, when studying the Bible with others?  Often it is one member who is responsible for the chaos of pursuing Bible cross-references throughout the study. There is no problem with the occasional cross-reference, but the plot is completely lost when all you can hear is the frantic rustling of Bible pages, as group members struggle to keep pace with references in Numbers, 1 Kings, Isaiah, Hebrews, Romans and Jeremiah!  A little gentle umpiring may be called for: “Great, Sue, but I think time may be against us. We might keep that one to the very end, if time permits. Back to verse 11 again?”


The leader does well to keep track of how the discussion is going, and of the key points raised. If necessary, jot some of them down while the discussion proceeds. Then, as the study ends, these main truths and applications can be highlighted, and – if prayer is to follow – can be brought in as topics.

If members can come away from the group with one mighty discovery established, that will be cause for praise! 

It’s cumulative. Nothing but the Bible and its truth can change society. If we can’t believe in the truth of Scripture working in and through small groups, we might as well put up our shutters. It was Karl Marx who perceptively observed, “Luther, by giving the Bible to the people in the vernacular language, put into their hands a powerful weapon against the nobility, the landlords and the clergy.”