1. Carefully select a purpose.
Followers of Jesus get together for all kinds of reasons: fellowship, prayer, accountability, mutual encouragement, and—of course—Bible study. Before beginning a new gathering of God’s people, carefully select the purpose for which this group will be meeting. Too many prayer groups soon find they rarely actually pray together, and many would-be Bible studies quickly turn into fellowship times or meetings for mutual encouragement. Of course an effective Bible study will provide Christian fellowship, prayer, accountability, and the mutual encouragement that comes from God’s Word. However, if the group doesn’t clearly commit to being a Bible study, it will quickly move away from being one.
Therefore, to start a new Bible study, make this goal of studying God’s Word absolutely clear to those participating. Of course prayer is essential for a good Bible study, but if this new study will include praying with and for one another, consider keeping that at the end of the study instead of beginning with such prayer requests. Similarly, consider snacks and fellowship for after the study instead of before it. By beginning with the study itself, the group will stay focused on the primary reason they have gathered: to study God’s Word together.
2. Carefully select material.
Many people today find the text of Scripture unapproachable, distant, and even scary. Accordingly, for a successful new Bible study, the group will need solid material to help each participant engage God in and through his Word. Such material ought to be text-focused, accessible, and relevant.
The material the group uses provides the means by which each participant will enter into and approach God’s Word. Therefore, carefully select material that constantly drives the study participants back to the text of Scripture. When choosing material, look for studies that have the participants read through the passages multiple times. Examine the kinds of questions the study asks. Do the answers come from the text of the Bible itself? Look for material that directly and constantly engages the actual words of Scripture. Don’t settle for studies about the Bible; find material that actually studies the Bible.
Second, carefully select material that will be accessible to the participants. A more experienced group of Bible students will be able to handle material that requires a greater amount of time in the homework and that engages in the details of each verse or passage. However, if the majority of the group is new to Bible study, the participants will need something a bit easier, material that introduces beginning Bible study concepts and practices.
Third, find material that helps the group connect the text to their lives. Materials that simply help participants learn facts about the text but doesn’t lead them into engaging with the God who gave us the text have simply missed the point of Bible study. We study God’s word so that we might know God not so that we might know about God.
Pray for the Holy Spirit to change hearts and lives through his Word.
3. Carefully select people.
I’m afraid that many who read this post will dismiss this tip (and may even be offended by it!). However, please don’t overlook the importance of carefully selecting the participants for this new Bible study. People who attend simply for the fellowship or to find encouragement through conversation can very quickly derail the Bible study and actually thwart the very purpose for which the group has gathered. Of course, as the group engages God through his Word in this study, community and relationships will grow into greater and greater intimacy. There will be times when participants in the group find themselves in crisis and the group will (and should!) stop to care for one another. However, without carefully selecting participants, there will undoubtedly be people who join the group simply for fellowship, encouragement, prayer, or many other reasons, and these people could actually prevent or hinder the carefully selected purpose of gathering to study the Bible.
So how does a leader carefully select people? When inviting people to participate in the Bible study, show the potential group member the material and clearly explain what the group will do and what it will not do. Set expectations for participation. Sell the vision of the study: we are gathering to meet God in and through his Word. Do the hard work of carefully selecting people, and you will minimize the likelihood of having to wrestle week-in and week-out to keep the group focused on the carefully selected purpose of Bible study.
4. Carefully select questions.
Once the group is gathered and working through the material, carefully select questions for the group discussion time. Avoid closed-ended questions (“Did you like the material?” or “Is adultery sinful?”). Instead, try to use open-ended questions (“How did you experience this week’s study?” or “How does God view adultery?”). Open-ended questions can help draw out what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of the participants through the study. Try questions like these: “What are you learning about God, about who he is or what he has done?” “How are you growing in your relationship with God through our study?” “What was confusing or difficult in this week’s homework?”
Another challenge of managing group discussions comes from the tendency of many to quickly move away from the text of Scripture to personal opinions or story telling. However, carefully selected questions can help the participants turn back to the text. Try questions such as: “Where do you see that in the text?” and “How does this passage speak to what you were just saying?” These kinds of questions will help the group stay focused on the clearly selected purpose of studying God’s Word.
5. Carefully pray.
Last, but most importantly, pray. The things of the Spirt must be discerned by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:6-16), and only the Holy Spirit can lead us into God’s truth (John 16:5-15). Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide you and to help you. Pray for those in the group. Pray for understanding and insight. Pray for courage to pursue the hard work of Bible study. Pray for the Spirit to lead you in carefully selecting purpose, material, people, and questions. Above all, pray for the Holy Spirit to change hearts and lives through his Word.
We need to remember—and believe—that we need to hear from God’s Word each day and other things that seem urgent can wait.
It is a great blessing that God has revealed himself and that we have access to that revelation and Bibles in our own language.
We study the Bible because it is God’s word to the world. We want to hear him.