Where do I start?
Leading a study
You’re leading a Bible study. It’s a group. It’s the Bible. You’re scared. You lie awake at night wondering, how am I going to lead a good Bible study?
Okay…maybe you’re not scared. But of course you want the study to go well, and of course you want it to be engaging, encouraging, challenging, and even fun. It’s a tall order. The good news: It can be all of these.
It’s true: leading a Bible study is a serious thing and not always easy. In fact, it can be hard to figure out how to involve everyone so it’s not just you (or the overly-well-informed person to your left) yakking the whole time.
Another challenge is helping a group deal with the actual text rather than people’s preconceived notions about the passage. And it can be difficult to engage the scripture in ways that lead us to real change, not just a better collection of Bible knowledge. Perhaps you’ve been part of an ‘inductive’ or ‘manuscript’ study through InterVarsity or you got a taste of this method if you studied Ephesians in a giant group at Urbana 06. While it is not the only form of inductive study, the manuscript Bible study we currently use was developed in the 1950s and 60s by an InterVarsity staff named Paul Byer and some of his friends.
Trained as an architect and therefore appreciative of layout and structure, Paul was studying Mark’s gospel and wanted to see how different parts of the story lined up with one another. He got a second Bible and tore out pages in order to look at them side-by-side. Then he marked them up with pens and notes to track what he was seeing. When students came to InterVarsity Bible studies, they were asked to bring two Bibles. In time Paul and his friends saw that:
This was a fantastic way to see how Mark had built his gospel; and
Perhaps typing up the manuscript would be more efficient than continuing to tear up multiple Bibles.
Paul continued to study and lead this way, still adding notes to his own, yellowed manuscript as he taught well into what most of us would consider his “retirement” years.
Paul Byer taught on nearly every continent. Others beyond him have studied and led manuscript Bible study in wildly diverse situations and cultures. The two of us have taught in South Africa, England, the Philippines, and in Canada and the U.S. in all kinds of different settings; many of our friends have taught in countries where preaching and conversion are illegal, or where they don’t even speak the language of the people they’re studying with.
One of the best things about this format is that it’s accessible to a wide variety of people. Because the questions come from the group and the answers come from the text, you can adjust manuscript study for language, age, intellectual ability, and local culture. What never changes is the Word itself, and the point of this kind of study is to keep looking at the Word. We’re out to discover what the text hoped to say to its original audience.
Fellowships that have done manuscript studies find the community formed around studying plays a huge role in their experience of the scripture. When you think about it, the Bible is about a community (the people of God), written by a community (all the authors and others who participated in passing down the stories), written to a community (most of Paul’s letters are written to whole churches; the few pieces of scripture written to individuals can be assumed to have been read and interpreted in community), and is best understood in a community.
Gathering around the Word and hearing Jesus together helps fellowships into considerable depths of community, which is the condition biblical writers would assume of God’s people. When you approach the text together, you reap common language around the text as well as the group’s discovery of the story together, which define and shape us communally and individually.
Manuscript study starts with willing hearts, a commitment to work together, and a basic set of skills. We have been using disciplines of observation, interpretation, and application at Urbana’06. And you can use the same approach when you lead a Bible study on your own campus. Read on.
Where do I start?
To begin, let’s think about how God deals with his Word:
As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, making it flower and sprout, giving seed to the farmer and bread to the hungry—That is how my word will be which comes out of my mouth: It shall not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, or without succeeding in its mission. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
That’s pretty good: God is in charge of his Word, and there’s no chance it won’t succeed. Which is amazing, when you consider that God chooses to involve us in the mission of his Word:
Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will be saved—both yourself and those who hear you…Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a worker who does not need to be ashamed, because you handle the Word accurately. (Paul to Timothy I-4:16; II-2:15)
The challenge to us, then, is to trust God to work through his Word and to work diligently to handle it well.
Now let’s consider the characteristics of most groups. We know that people come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have different levels of experience with the Bible. Some come with many assumptions; others have no idea what to think.
In many campus environments you’ll have only an hour, or maybe less, to complete a study. The setting will probably be casual. You want people to get to know each other as well as getting to know Jesus. You need to find a way to help people into the experience of a deep dive into scripture and the discovery of amazing treasure. But you need to do it within the limitations of the time, the setting, and the people involved. Here are some suggestions.
Just a word about prayer here. Pray from start to finish. Leading a Bible study is something you do with God. The point isn’t to do out alone, do a bang-up job, and then give a report to the Lord about it. No—Jesus is the author of our faith and he’d like to be in on the study with you. So pray that way. Ask for God’s help. Pray for the people in your study. Believe, and then ask Jesus to help your unbelief.
Step One: Select A Passage
Many fellowships find it advantageous to have all groups studying the same passage week-to-week. Everybody in the community then has the common experience of the Word to discuss and apply together beyond their study groups. Another advantage to this approach is that leaders can prepare studies together, which is a great way to meet God in the Word and in community. Whether you’re doing the same passages or everyone is selecting their own, here are some guidelines for choosing.
Look for engaging stories that are straightforward and applicable. We strongly recommend that you start with stories and parables, since that’s where Jesus, the Master Teacher, started his teaching. Pauline and other New Testament material is predicated on a deep understanding of the gospels. Most people, whether they know it or not, can use more time around Jesus in the gospels directly. And of course Leviticus and its kin are fascinating, but they’re difficult to teach in this context. Look for stories.
At the beginning, look for shorter passages rather than longer ones. It will frustrate your group if they never feel like they have enough time to talk about the passage. Try to find stories that are manageable within the time you have. Some passages, such as the parable of the prodigal son, can be divided and studied over two or more weeks, because they’re really two stories in one. Don’t divide too often, though, because you don’t want to exclude those who weren’t there for the previous study. You don’t have to go through a whole book.
When you’re doing short studies week to week and in a more casual setting, it’s okay not to do an entire book – even though a whole-book study (like the gospel of Mark) can be an incredibly valuable experience. Consider exploring a person through stories, such as encounters of various people with Jesus or Jesus’ parables.
Here is a list of ideas
Once your group has some experience you might look at a character like Abraham or David or study Psalms. As your group is learning to study together, stay away from passages that will bog you down in difficult interpretation (e.g., Galatians 4:21-31 is not a good starter passage). It is very important that you get time during the study to apply the passage – that is do and respond to the scripture in real life – especially during the first few studies when you are setting the tone. Keep that in mind as you choose a text.
Once you’ve chosen a passage, type or legally download the text double-spaced without verses and chapter divisions and with wide margins and, if possible, line numbers so you can make notes as you study. Make copies for your group and keep one to prepare yourself.
Step Two: Study the passage thoroughly
If you want to teach the Bible, your first task is to be taught by the Bible. Your job as a leader is to study and apply it to your own life. If you do this, you will be ready to lead your group. There is no shortcut to this process.
Ask God for help and use your best study skills to study the passage thoroughly on your own. Do what you do in any inductive Bible study: observe the text, ask questions of it, look up cultural references and words you don’t know, cross-reference to the Old Testament. Begin to develop questions about what the author might have intended to say to his or her original audience. Give yourself several hours to do this and do it at least a few days before you plan to teach. Some leaders like to go through the passage every day for several days.
Once you’ve worked on your own, we strongly recommend that leaders gather ahead of time to study and prepare and pray together. Even if there is no group of leaders to gather with, try to convince a friend or two to be your prep partners in this endeavor. Communal study allows each person to bring a different perspective to understanding the text and is part of what your group will experience when you lead it. This is one advantage of groups of leaders studying and teaching the same passage.When you meet as a team of leaders, you can prepare by simply doing the study together. There’s no substitute for time and attention of focused study. Do the steps of observing, interpreting, and applying the text.
Step Three: Let the message affect your life
God’s Word and God’s Spirit change people’s lives. We know God accomplishes what he wants to accomplish. Nevertheless, if you are resistant to God’s Word in your own life, you may hinder others from hearing the Word clearly. Your own willingness to hear and accept God’s Word (and by accept it, we mean actively take it in and be changed by it) is much more important than your skill level as a teacher.
We have a leader friend, Drew, who was perhaps the most awkward communicator we’ve ever known: loud and constant ‘”um”s and oddly mechanical hand motions interrupted his speech. But Drew was so engaged and so powerfully changed by his encounters with Jesus in the scripture that his Bible study grew and grew—till it was so large he had to split it!
If you’re anxious or doubtful about your teaching ability, pray against this anxiety. If you tend toward overconfidence, ask God to remind you of the futility of effort apart from him. The issue is not you, but the Word, and the point is not that you do it perfectly but that you give yourself to it wholeheartedly. You win people to what you win them with. If you are won to the depth and power of the scripture, you will begin to teach in ways that lead your group in that direction.
Step Four: Answer these questions and make notes
You may discover lots of interesting side-notes as you study, but not every item will be useful to your group’s understanding. What will help the group? Work on these questions as you study:
- What is the main point of the passage? If you see several main points, list them all, but try to narrow your list to the one that’s most directly the main thing the author is trying to say or show to the reader.
- What key observations and connections will people have to make in order to find the main point?
- What can I ask that will help my group make these observations and connections? This may all sound more highly structured than you’d like, but it won’t seem stilted if you have done thorough preparation and can engage with your group from the heart rather than the notes in front of you.
- Finally, work forward from the main point to ask, How can I help people see how the main point applies in real life? Remember, you can begin to get at these questions by recognizing your own process in and response to the text. Once you’ve made notes on your text, you’ll be ready to expand into a plan for leading the study.
Leading a Study
You’re squished into a room with eight other people who’ve come to check out your study. You’ve got a passage picked out and your well-studied, thoroughly-prayed text in front of you. The coffee and donuts are on the table. It’s time. If you’ve led a zillion studies, you might know just what to do at this point. You could wing it. But…let’s say you’re not, and you’d like more help: A plan, perhaps. The steps below are designed to give you two things: An idea of how a small group study should flow, step-by-step; and a set of guidelines you can use to plan.
Step Five: Plan a warm-up
You don’t have to dive into the passage as soon as you’re in the room. You’re not a professor. Warm up is important. It might be as simple as letting people hang out and talk for a few minutes. Food is a good way to help people relax, too. Consider offering food during the study rather than waiting until the end. Most people can manage a cookie and some coffee and still concentrate, and offering it early (and even throughout) prevents food from feeling like some kind of reward for having stuck out the hard part. It communicates that this is a hospitable, communal experience.
You can also ask a question to get people talking – but it needs to be the right kind of question. Make sure you’re asking something socially appropriate in your context. Avoid calling anything an “icebreaker”. Often in Christian settings we don’t think twice about asking each other, “How has God blessed you this week?”, or “How did you start to follow Jesus?” But those sorts of queries might flip, offend, or exclude people who are just getting to know Jesus or who don’t know churchy lingo. Stick with natural questions that make sense to most people.
We often ask something random, such as, “Cats or dogs?” or “Why is it easier to do the dishes in someone else’s kitchen than it is in your own?” or “What’s the most important sporting event ever played?”
Think of things that are fun to talk about, accessible to everyone, and not likely to spook people. If your group is all committed Christians and this is your aim, you can also do sharing and prayer, as well as worship, in warm-up times. Think through your context and go from there.
Pay attention to each person. Listen carefully and make an effort to connect with everyone in the group. Folks will be hoping for you, the leader, to make them feel welcome and at home. Your body language, eye contact, and conversational skills must be engaged. Having—or not having—these skills will affect your study by helping or hindering communication and group growth.
Don’t spend too long on warm-up and chatting. You’ll want enough time to do the study.
Step Six: Present the text in a way that helps them listen
People need to hear the Word. Don’t just open with half an hour of individual study and some colored pens. There are many ways to open the text to your group:
- Have each person read it on their own, silently, for a few minutes.
- Have one person or several people read it aloud.
- Have people read it dramatically. This can be as complicated as preparing a script and asking people to practice, or as simple as assigning characters or parts around the circle.
- Have the group close their eyes and visualize the scene as it’sread, then describe what they saw.
- Read it and have someone follow by retelling it in their own words.
The first step in receiving the Word (actively taking it in) is hearing. And to hear we must listen. Jesus starts many of his parables, “Listen!” and how he labels things as “for those who have ears to hear…” The better you can help people listen, the better chance they’ll have of getting past their presuppositions about the passage and hearing what the authoris really trying to say to us.
Tip: If there are facts not in the passage itself but important for understanding the passage (e.g., When the sower sows the seeds, why does he throw it so randomly? Didn’t they plant in rows?), set the scene for people at the beginning (right before or right after the passage is read for the first time): “In first century Palestine, farmers often planted by scattering seeds across large fields – literally ‘broadcasting’.” This will give you more time to focus on the story itself rather than having to back up and define things once people have gotten confused about them.
Tip: Make sure that if needed, you clarify what has just happened before this point in the story, too. If you’re starting with the return of the seventy in Luke 10, you will need to clarify that the seventy went out a few verses ago.
Step Seven: Ask for initial observations and questions
The rule in inductive study is, there are no stupid questions. The Bible was written to be understood – not hidden. Often the most apparently obvious questions and observations are the most crucial for understanding.Ask open-ended questions. Some examples:
- What do you notice about this scene?
- What is most striking about this story?
- What do you notice about character X?
- What words or themes are repeated?
- Are there any words that stand out to you?
- What doesn’t make sense?
- What seems obvious?
- Is there anywhere the story seems to shift or turn a corner?
Avoid easy-answer, fill-in-the-blanks, and leading questions. Some examples not to ask: Who are the characters? Where do they go? How many sons are there? While it’s tempting to use this sort of question in order to get people talking, you can be assured the conversation will die very quickly. These questions are too easy to answer, too obvious to generate interest. It’s important for people to observe the obvious stuff – but don’t try to force participation through it. Rather, take whatever has been observed and ask questions like the first set, above, as you continue in the process.
During the observation phase, you should also let people ask questions. Ask them to bring up anything they didn’t understand, new words and ideas, and to ask questions about the text. You can get the group (or yourself) to answer things like definitions but answers to interpretive questions (“Why does the author make such a big deal about the pig farmers?”) should be saved for the interpretive stage of the study. If someone asks a technical or factual question (e.g., “Are they by the Sea of Galilee when this happens?”) feel free to give an answer right away and move on.
Show your group that their questions are important by taking notes and coming back to them later in the study. Don’t spend too much time on this step. People want to figure the passage out, not just sit around noticing it. It’s okay to add observations as you continue into interpretation, especially once people have identified most of the key items in the text.
Tip: When you ask questions, think of it as fishing. Only you’re not fishing for answers – you’re fishing for thoughtful participation. The question is the bait. People bite when they look closely at the passage, think hard for a moment, and then give an answer that wasn’t already given by the question. This engages them and others, and they start to learn how to fish (search the text thoughtfully) for themselves.
Step Eight: Go through the passage section by section
For the sake of time and simplicity, you will probably want to decide ahead of time how to break the passage down into parts that can be examined more carefully. Breaking a text down into sections is a way to get group members to work together and in a logical progression, rather than trying to deal with a flurry of unrelated comments from everywhere in the text at once. A section can be as big as a whole paragraph or as small as a few lines. Divide it so that you can pay the most attention to the most important material. Once you start moving through the text, be prepared to do the following:
- Ask more questions to get at more observations. You may need to tease out missing details.
- Ask the group for possible answers – from the text – to questions already raised but not yet answered.
- Ask questions that will help your group interpret: Why do you think? What’s the point of the parable? What is the author getting at?
Your notes from Step Two will help you keep track of the most important things. But be ready to add to them, as your group is sure to see some things you missed.
Tip: Move quickly. It’s okay to spend time on significant things, but don’t get sidetracked into tangential issues and don’t try to squeeze everything out of one sentence before moving to the next. Many passages are understood only once you get to the end and work your way back through.
Step Nine: Always bring people back to the text.
When in doubt, have coffee later.
If someone launches into a long, irrelevant story, reads extensive notes from their Super Study Super Bible, or expounds their favorite six-point argument for predestination, call them back to the text. We often stop people by saying, “Y’know, that sounds so interesting, but we’re going to get back to the story.” Sometimes you will need to say, “Can you show me where that is in this text?” If they don’t have a pretty clear, quick answer, you can always say, “That might be connected, but since it’s not really directly in this text, let’s move on and maybe we’ll see if it connects once we’ve understood the story.”
If you have a group prone to tangents and excurses, they might eventually come to laugh at themselves when you say, “Wait. What were we looking at again? Oh, yeah! The text.”
Sometimes people are challenged, upset, or threatened by the Word, and they throw things into the discussion to distract themselves (and you) from the pressure of the Holy Spirit. If you notice someone acting this way once, gently encourage them back to the scripture. Their troubledness may be a sign God is at work, so try to help them stick with it.
Sometimes acknowledging that this is scary actually helps people feel free to have the experience they’re having. You might say something like, “When I first studied this passage, it made me feel…” to signal to the uncomfortable person that you, too, are experiencing the challenge of the gospel. It’s okay for you, and for them, to feel it.
If the person doesn’t respond to your gentle invitation to stick with the passage, you might have to shut down a persistently distracting line of talking. You can simply say, “I hear you struggling with this; but for now let’s stick to the passage, and then after the study is over, maybe we can get coffee and talk some more.” Find a way to honor the person’s real process without sidetracking the whole group. And while you’re at it, also find a way to be clear and firm.
You need to be flexible. Your group might see the story in entirely different terms than you prepped. They might envision the characters completely differently. They might even recognize something you didn’t notice when you prepared. Someone might launch into a bit of application early. Use these moments to energize the study: “Hey! I’ve never seen that before!” or “That really challenges me, too.” Absorb these unexpected comments and insights into the flow of discussion, appreciate them, and move on. (The unexpected stuff is half the fun.)
Don’t let verbose people take over the group. The Talker has been in our studies more than once. Rather than letting someone go on until everyone resents them or feels shut-down by them, graciously intervene: “We’re making some great observations, but I’d like to hear more from the rest of you besides Ted and Linda. What are you others seeing?” If The Talker persists, try a slightly more direct approach: “Ted, hold onto that thought– Let’s hear from the rest of the group first.” If the behavior persists, schedule time for coffee with the person and clearly explain how they can participate in a more helpful way.
Often the troubling people in fellowships are tolerated but never really engaged or challenged. Toleration is not love. The leader’s work is to have conflict, to face people’s frustrations and struggles with them, and to develop vision for them as healed and redeemed people – and that includes growing their social skills through communal situations such as your Bible study.
People do lots of untoward things in groups. Side conversations, daydreams, and flirtatious behaviors may all show up. It’s not unusual for some to come in late. As you can, encourage members past distracting behavior by gentle exhortation, but even more by leading engaging studies that help them focus.
Step Ten: Ask for the main point
The main point may already be apparent from working through the text. But it’s helpful to ask people directly to state the main point of the passage. Get them to express it in their own words.
Remember that to be true to scripture, we are looking for the main thing the author wanted to communicate to the reader – not just anything the group liked, and not how this passage fits into the theology someone already had. There may be several important points the author is making, and many ways of stating the main point.
Step Eleven: lead your group into application
There are many possible ways to lead your group into grappling deeply and accurately with the implications of the text for their own lives. There are several good applications for every passage. Have a couple of options in mind so you can flex with the group’s particular take on the study. Here are a few approaches:
Ask an open question: “What does this mean for us?” This can be good for groups that tend to be creative and open to taking God’s Word seriously. Avoid this question if your group isn’t like this; if the application of the passage isn’t easily seen; if your group tends strongly toward abstraction; or if your folks are very new to the Bible. If you do use this question, be ready to follow-up with further questions to help people think deeply, personally, and specifically about the applications they are suggesting.
- Create guiding (but not leading) questions: “If Jesus is calling people now – on this campus – to do what the seventy did, what would that look like?” It can take a series of questions to get your group to think thoroughly about application. As always, avoid obvious, rhetorical questions; go for what will make the group think.
- Do an application event: “I want to find out what it would be liketo do what the seventy did. You’re all welcome to meet me here at 10pmon Thursday, and we’ll pray and then split up into pairs, go out to the apartment complex, and see who welcomes us in.”
- Sometimes leading your group in an activity that applies the passage before they study it can be useful and powerful. Jesus often worked this way: He did not give a lengthy explanation to his disciples about what it meant to be fishers of people until after he fished them. They saw it happen before they heard about what it was.
Taking action can be the most powerful way to apply a passage, because obedient action is crucial to following Jesus. Trying out Jesus’ words by doing them can be a life-changing experience for those in your group not yet following Jesus. Be willing to do some things that are a little wild, a little out-of-the-ordinary. But use good judgment about what your group is ready for, and make sure what you’re asking is an accurate way to start applying the passage. Make sure people understand what you’re planning, and make it optional so they’re participating freely.
Tips: Don’t let application get crowded out of your study. Set aside time to apply, even if you didn’t get to all the material you had in mind. If you find it difficult to have adequate time, you might invite the group to share a meal the next day so you have time to explore application. You can also study a passage one week and apply it the next, especially if you do some active application together.
Be ready to share a story from your own life or the life of someone you know (and whose permission to share you have been granted). Think of ways the passage has been true for you, or ways you’ve seen Jesus do what you see in the text. As Jesus demonstrates so well, stories convey the Kingdom better thanabstraction could ever dream of doing.
HOW DO I KEEP GOING?
Pray and get prayed for. And learn.
Leaders need God’s attention and help. After you have finished teaching you may notice that you feel vulnerable or rattled. That’s okay. If you’ve really grappled with the text, you have probably let God in – and then you let other people into your process. You have also likely spent yourself on caring for your group. Ask a friend to pray with and for you after you have done this kind of ministry. You need God’s presence and protection then as much – and maybe more, if that’s possible – as when you’re preparing to teach. Don’t be shy. It doesn’t have to be a marathon – just a few minutes. And while you’re at it, you can pray for God’s Word to continue to accomplish its purpose in your life and the lives of your group.
Finally, you need to know that teaching and leading Bible study well is more of an art than a skill set. Find well-trained InterVarsity staff or other older leaders who will watch you teach, teach with you, let you teach with them, and learn as you watch and work. There is no shortcut, no technique – it’s a spiritual process learned better by apprenticeship than by classroom. Enjoy knowing that if you’re willing and you ask, Jesus is even more interested than you are in helping you become an excellent Bible study leader.