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 How to lead small group Bible studies

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The purpose of small group Bible studies

Many churches have home groups, where believers meet together regularly for prayer, Bible study and fellowship. They are one of the most important aspects of church life. They are designed to be a more intimate forum for people to get to know God better, and to grow spiritually. They are an important time of Christian fellowship, when people can talk about and discuss the meaning of the Bible to their every-day lives. The small group is a place to bring biblical teaching in a more interactive way, helping people to learn and apply the Scriptures for themselves.

Leading a Bible study in a home is often the first opportunity a person may have in ministry. It is a good place to begin, as it is far less threatening than standing up to preach.

A small group Bible study needs to be prepared for carefully, if it is going to be fruitful. The leader needs to be as well prepared as he would be to preach.

Preparation

The first stage in preparing to lead a small group Bible study is to select the passage and study it for yourself. This step is the same whether you plan to preach from the passage, or to lead a Bible study. How to do this is described in detail on the Study Passage page. You should read that page before continuing with this page.

Once you have studied the passage for yourself, then you are ready to begin the planning of your Bible study.

During your preparation, you need to consider carefully the application of the passage, first to yourself, then to your group. In what way do you see that this passage could speak to the specific people in your group?

Find out about your group

If you are invited to speak in a church or group you are not familiar with, it can be helpful to speak to the person who invited you, in order to find you as much as you can about the group, and what God has been doing recently. These are some questions to help you find out about the group:
What is their culture? (urban / rural)
What is the average age range? (youth / middle age / older people / mixture)
What are the family situations? (singles / young families)
What are their occupations?
What kind of church or group? (denomination)
What is the general level of Christian commitment?
What is their knowledge of Scripture?
Are there any particular needs that you are aware of?
What has God been saying to the group recently?

Of course, this does not take the place of praying, seeking wisdom from God, for what He wants to say to the group.

Application of Scripture

Your application of Scripture need to be adapted to the life-situation of the people in the group. You need to think very carefully about application from the passage, remembering to be very practical. Think about how this passage could be relevant in different work situations, in family life, in child-rearing, in education, or Christian ethics. Think also about wider social issues such as politics, business or medicine. Some of the people in the group may have very influential jobs.

The role of the leader

A group needs a leader, who must take the lead. The leader is not the teacher of the group, but the person who leads the discussion and co-ordinates the meeting. A small group Bible study is not a lecture or a sermon, and the leader must resist the strong temptation to preach. You should aim to make the time as interactive as possible, involving each member of the group.

Before the meeting, the leader must be very well prepared, and know the text very well. It is also essential that the leader is enthusiastic about what the passage is about.

These are some of the jobs the leader should do:
1. Decides the topic or passage to be studied

2. Gives some basic input on the passage (teaches)
This can include describing the background of the passage, giving relevant cultural information to aid understanding, and any other information which may help in the study of the passage. This can be given at the beginning and at relevant points during the study.

3. The leader needs to ask good questions to enable the group to discover things themselves.

4. The leader must guide the discussion.

Structure of the Bible Study

A small group Bible study needs to be structured and organised. There are three major sections to consider: the beginning, the discussion, and the conclusion.

The beginning

Think carefully about how to begin. You want to whet people’s appetites for the Bible study. You could make a connection with today’s news, or something that has recently happened or been spoken about in church. Otherwise you could ask whether the Bible has anything to say about a particular subject, something that is an issue in people’s lives.

It can be helpful if the leader then gives a brief description of the original context of the passage, and the background of the book. This should be kept short and relevant.

Ask someone in the group to read the passage out loud, clearly, audibly and not too fast. Then ask the group to give their initial impressions about the passage.

The discussion

The main part of the meeting is when you lead a discussion on the text and its application to today. This is best done by asking questions for the group to answer. This is described in detail below.

Ending

As you come to the end of the study, give a brief summary of what has been discovered from the passage. Otherwise you could ask each person to say what was the most significant truth they have learned. Make sure that they have grasped the main point and most significant application from the passage.

It is good to end with prayer. Either all together, or in smaller groups.

Asking questions

Asking effective questions is the key to a good small group Bible study. The leader needs to ask questions which will make the people think, and therefore learn for themselves. They will be encouraged and learn more when they find spiritual truth for themselves. Having to answer questions causes them to dig into the text themselves.

After you have completed your personal study of the passage, you will need to think very carefully about the questions you will ask. Designing good questions is probably the most important part of your preparation. You will need to write them out word for word, and have them ready to use with the group.

1. Ask open questions

You should aim to ask questions which force the person responding to think about the question and reply at length, rather than with just one or two words. These are called “open questions”, and will naturally launch a discussion. By contrast, a “closed question” is simply answered by yes or no, or by a only a word or two. They are introduced by words such as, Who?, Did?, Should?, Can? If you use too many of these you will have very little discussion.

Open questions are introduced by words such as, Why, What or How?. You could ask questions such as, “What does this mean?, Why is the author saying this?, What does this mean to me?, What did you learn in this passage about ...? “

2. Keep the questions simple

Do not ask complicated questions, with many parts to them. Keep to one question at a time. If the question has "and" or "but" in it, you are probably asking two questions at once.

3. Do not ask questions which are too obvious

People are often reluctant to answer questions they consider too easy. Make sure your questions need some thought, or reference to the text, before they can be answered.

4. Give time for people to answer

After you ask a question, you need to give people time to think. Look around the group as you wait for someone to answer. Don't be afraid of silence, and don’t try and fill the silence yourself by answering the question. If no one answers, make sure they understood the question.

5. Keep the discussion going

After one person answers, before making any comment, ask a follow up question to encourage others to contribute as well. Ask questions such as "What did someone else discover?", “Is there anything else?”

6. Ask creative questions

These are questions which make people think much more deeply about the text, and especially how it should be applied today. Here are some ideas: “How would you explain this passage to someone else?”, “How would this truth apply to medical research?”, “How should this affect the way you would make decisions in a business meeting?”. Otherwise you could take the timeless truth from the passage and ask leading questions, like, “How should Jesus' teaching on riches affect the way we spend our money?”

7. Summarise the answers

If there has been some discussion over a question, it is beneficial to summarise the group’s discoveries before moving on to the next question.

Modelling Inductive Bible Study

One aim of the questions is to demonstrate to the group how to study the passage. Questions should therefore be asked about each stage of Bible study listed below, keeping each stage distinct in your own mind. For helpful questions for each stage, please refer to the Study Passage page.

Here are some sample questions you can use with a small group:

1. Introduction and overview

These are questions to help the people understand the original setting of the book, and the main point of the passage.
“What is the main point of the passage?”
“Give the passage a title in a maximum of four words”
“Summarise the passage or paragraph in your own words”
“What was the original setting of this book?”
“What situation was the author addressing?
“What was going on in the church?”

2. Observation

There are many questions to help good observation. Please refer to the observation section on the Study Passage page. These are a few ideas:
“Who are the main characters?”
“What do we learn about each character?”
“What atmosphere or emotion is seen?”
“Which are the most important repeated words in the passage?”
Look for reasons, results, conclusions, contrasts and comparisons and figures of speech.

3. Interpretation

Encourage the group to imagine they were there when the book was written, to put themselves in the shoes of the original readers or audience. Use questions to make them think about the original situation and the meaning of the text to them.
“Why did Paul write this to this church?”
“In what way would this be relevant to the original readers?”
“Why is this word repeated?”
“What does this word mean”
“What does this figure of speech mean?”

4. Application

Ask the group to identify the timeless truths Then ask questions to cause them to make that truth a concrete reality in their lives. “How do we plan to put this truth into practice in the next week?”

5. Wider Application

Ask how the timeless truths should be applied in areas such as family, church, workplace, or government.

Guiding a discussion - Group dynamics

1. The leader needs to lead.

As the leader, it is your responsibility to need to give input and guidance to the group. You need to remain in control of the discussion, setting the limits, and bringing the conversation back to the point if necessary.

2. Giving input

The leader should be the person who knows the passage best, after completing their own private study. There may be helpful cultural and historical information you will be able to contribute to the discussion, that will aid people’s understanding.

3. Your group will probably be very mixed

A typical group will consist of a variety of people with different personalities and backgrounds. Some will be more talkative, others will be more quiet. Some will be open and willing to speak about personal things, others will be more reserved. Some will approach the Bible from a more academic point of view, others will focus more on personal application. There will also be people who are new Christians, while others have been believers for many years.

Your aim is to allow and encourage everyone to have their say. You will need to quieten the talkative ones, and encourage the quiet ones. If one person tends to dominate the discussion, you may need to speak to them privately and ask them to let other people contribute as well. To encourage the quieter people, make a point of inviting them to comment. It can be difficult if you have a group of quiet people.

You may need to keep the discussion going, by asking another question, inviting others to make a comment: "What do you think? Anybody else want to say something?"

4. Dealing with questions

When someone asks a question, you may choose to answer it yourself, otherwise open it up by asking what the rest of the group thinks. Invite several people to give a contribution, then give a summary. Do not be afraid of admitting you don’t know the answer. However, inviting others to say something gives you time to think. You may need to be willing to look up the question and bring an answer the following week.

5. Dealing with “red herrings”

This is when one member of the group makes a comment or asks a question which is completely off the point. You need to decide whether you avoid it, or allow some time to be spent on it. It may be helpful to say, "That is very interesting, but ...", then bring the group back to the subject. Some people in the group may have their favourite subject which they mention every time there is a discussion. For the sake of the rest of the group, you will need to prevent them from dominating the discussion.

If you think the subject brought up is important, you may decide that you will give time to it later, or during another meeting.

6. Don't let the discussion become an intellectual argument

Some people enjoy a theological argument, but the small group Bible study is not really the place for that, as it will tend to exclude the less intellectual members of the group. You, as the leader, need to bring them back down to earth, encouraging them to make a personal application from Scripture, rather than an intellectual argument.

7. Encouraging people to be open and vulnerable in the group

This needs trust, which doesn't come automatically, but takes time. The group needs to be committed to confidentiality, that they will not gossip to people outside the group about what is said.

To encourage openness, the leader should set the example by including personal testimony of how a particular truth made a difference in their life. You can also invited people to pray for each other. It is easier for most people to be open with one other person to begin with.

8. Handling "wrong" answers

Sometimes someone will give a totally wrong answer to a question you ask. You will need to be sensitive to bring correction without making them feel foolish. Try not to embarrass them. Often it is best to move on quickly.

9. Do not forget the people sitting next to you

Most interaction will tend to be with the people sitting opposite the leader because they are in front of you, but it is important not to leave people out, just because you cannot see them so well. Look around the group and include everyone.

Practicalities

1. Advance notice

Encourage the people to be prepared before they come to the group meetings. If you are leading the same group on a regular basis, you will have a far more satisfying time if people have read the passage before the following meeting. At the end of the previous meeting, you could give each person a sheet of paper containing some questions to think about before the next meeting. If you do this, make sure that you refer to those questions during the next meeting.

2. Timing

You should plan how long your study will take, and keep to the agreed length of time.

3. Size of the group

The optimum size for a small group Bible study is between six and eight people. A larger group becomes more impersonal and loses the intimacy needed for good discussions. A large group naturally becomes more formal and more like a lecture.

4. Hospitality

If you are meeting in someone’s house, you need talk to the host to consider the hospitality. These are some things to consider: arrangement of chairs, preventing distractions (especially telephones, children and babies), timing of refreshments.

5. Seating

When choosing where to set, try to get yourself into a position so you can see everyone in the group, and have eye contact with them. It is often better to sit on an upright chair, rather than on an armchair of sofa.


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