Leadership is a calling of God. To fulfill that calling well the leader needs to rely upon God’s teachings and enablement. If exercised in ways God directs in his word it can be a great service to Christ’s Kingdom. Otherwise it can be a cause of stress for the leader, and a source of confusion in the church.
One of the skills that makes leading a study group more of a blessing than a burden is knowing how to develop an organized plan both for preparing the group study sessions, and for leading them.
Jobs like keeping a house clean, building a deck around the pool, or even something as simple as taking your daily shower, require some kind of plan to organize the steps needed to get the job done. Success in sports is a good analogy. A team is doomed if it starts the game without some kind of strategy, and a well developed set of tactics.
The same is true for leading a group Bible study. A good plan will help keep the leader and participants focused on a specific goal in an organized way. It should result in a better understanding of what God is communicating to us, rather than just a sharing of what individuals think a given passage means.
The method described here is designed for small groups meeting to study God’s word. It’s not intended to replace the presentation of God’s word by a Minister in worship. That’s on a different level. Those specially called trained and ordained to be Teachers of the word have a high responsibility to accurately explain what God has said. Members of a church have the high responsibility of being attentive when sermons and lessons are presented. Also, the method described here is not a replacement for the duty of individual believers to be studying the Bible on their own and as families every day.
There is a valid place in the church for Sunday School classes, seminars, retreats, and for small groups meeting under the oversight of the church’s Ministers. The leaders of these classes and groups are not always ordained church officers. However, ultimately the officers are responsible to be sure that all the teachings of the church are consistent with what the Bible actually says. When someone is authorized to lead a class or study group, there should be an open channel to the officers for oversight, help and guidance.
God organized his word into individual books which make up what we know as the Bible. The best way to approach a group study is to take those books one at a time. For new groups it’s a good idea to begin with the shorter books of the New Testament. These were written for the church in the early Christian era, and are set in a culture more like our own than the Old Testament books which are set in a culture very different from that with which we are familiar. All the Bible books are good for study, but not all are good starting places.
Experience has shown that certain books of the Bible work best for getting things started. The Epistles of the New Testament are good for a first attempt at group study. The shorter Epistles are best for those just beginning this method.
The group should agree upon a meeting time and place that will work best for everyone involved. The place to meet will depend upon what’s available and convenient for everybody. The time will depend upon their work, church, and family schedules. Some have found that day time meetings work best, while others set aside an evening for their studies. It’s also good to agree upon how often the group will meet. Some find no problem meeting once every week. Others are more able to keep up with attending if they meet less often such as every other week, like on the first and third Wednesdays, or some pattern like that. Once the time is set, avoid postponing or skipping meetings except in extreme circumstances.
Experience shows that it’s best to set time boundaries for the group meetings. Studies of this show that about forty to fifty minutes seems to be optimal for the actual study time. Most schools, universities, and Sunday morning sermons follow that general advice. Add to that some time for visiting and fellowship before and after the study. The total meeting time works best if limited to about an hour and a half. If meetings go too long people tend to get discouraged. If more time is needed on some issues that come up, or if you don’t finish in the set time, it’s best to continue at the next meeting rather than to extend the discussion to where it might disrupt personal schedules, or go beyond the average person’s attention span.
First Steps in Preparation
Step 1 Read through the entire book a few times.
The letters and books of the Bible were written as complete pieces of literature meant to be read all the way through like any other book or magazine article. They should not be read as if the parts have no connection with one another. The author had a reason for writing the book other than to provide isolated quotes to be used in sermons, debates, or devotional studies.
As you read, look for the main purpose of the book. Make a list of the main themes introduced by the author for his readers. Don’t be too concerned to work out all the details in this preliminary reading. Your work will be expanded and revised later as you go through each chapter.
It’s helpful to use more than just one good translation in your study. If you use some of the more smoothed out idiomatic versions such as the New International Version of the Bible, be sure also to use at least one more literal translation such as the King James Version, the New King James Version, the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, or the American Standard Version.
Step 2 Learn the details of the book’s background
Books and letters are written for reasons that apply to the author and to the people to whom it was originally written. Luke explained the reason why his Gospel was written in the first paragraph of his book.
It’s important to have good reference books by writers and editors who believe the Bible to be God’s infallible word. Those who approach the Bible as nothing more than a work of human literature will not present the historical facts objectively and honestly.
There are some standard works for background information which are well respected by sound Bible scholars. Most of them are available through popular book distributors in both paper and digital versions. The older works which are not under copyright restriction are often available over the Internet. They can be found with most search engines and are often included in Bible study applications. A list of good reference books is included in the last section of this guide.
Particularly helpful for the layperson are the notations in the Reformation Study Bible available from Ligonier Ministries. You also will find Easton’s or Fausset’s Bible Dictionaries and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia to be helpful works.
Make note of the following findings:
- Who is the author of the book?
- What was the author’s situation at the time he wrote?
- To whom is the book addressed?
- What was the situation of those for whom the book was originally written?
- What past contact did the author have with those for whom the book was written?
- Were there particular circumstances which caused the author to write it?
Step 3 Get an overview of the content of the book
- What are the primary issues addressed in the book?
- Make a general outline of the book to trace how the author develops the primary theme.
- Are important verses translated differently in different translations?
- What key words seem to be central or repeated in the book? Look up the meanings of these words.
- Try to summarize the main message of the book in one clear and concise sentence.
- List any spiritual lessons and applications you find during your study.
The First Meeting with the Group:
It would be wise to spend the first meeting of your group going over this basic material, and challenging those attending to read through the book a few times on their own before the next meeting.
Preparing for Each Meeting of the Group
Based upon your preliminary outline of the book, divide it into individual sections. Depending upon the content you may take up one entire chapter of the book each time you meet, or you might want to break the chapters up into individual paragraphs to consider just one of those sections at each study. Work through the following activities which can then be shared with the group as you work your way through the passage for that particular session.
1. Make a more detailed outline of the section chosen for each study session.
Keep in mind how it fits with the flow of context in the book as a whole. Write out one carefully worded sentence that summarizes the main lesson of the section. You don’t have to read the sentence to the group, but it can help you focus on the primary theme.
2. Look up cross-references.
Find other verses and portions of the Bible that deal with the same or similar ideas. You can use a concordance, marginal references, or a subject index. Try to do this for each verse, or at least for each sentence or paragraph in the section you are currently studying. Often related verses help you understand the issue being addressed, and the context of quotations from other portions of the Bible.
3. List any problems or questions that come up.
During your preparation you may find some things that are either difficult to understand, or that raise questions in your mind. You may want to bring them up for discussion at the group meeting. Be prepared for how you plan to handle these issues. You might look up answers to difficult problems or conflicts between translations by consulting good commentaries. We recommend Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Calvin’s Commentaries, the Baker New Testament Commentary, and the notes in the Reformation Study Bible.
4. Write out lessons and applications you find in your study.
Write out any spiritual lessons or personal applications that you encounter in each study as you did in your study of the book as a whole.
Suggestions for Conducting the Group Study Sessions
It’s important to begin each meeting of a study group with prayer.
God’s truth is revealed through his word by the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s heart. Psalm 119:18 offers this model prayer, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”
Have a specific goal in mind for each session.
Keep in mind how each lesson fits with the primary purpose of the book being studied. As the session progresses be sure to keep things on track and under control. Work your way through the passage.
Don’t let the study time deteriorate into debates and arguments.
The goal is to learn what the passage being considered actually says and means in the context of the book as a whole. If different understandings come up, try to determine the point where those differences depart from one another. Sometimes it’s best to set the problem aside until you can do more study on it or consult with the Ministers of your church.
After each study session it helps to have a time of fellowship where group members can visit with one another, and build up friendships. Some study groups have light refreshments at that time which can be provided by members who are able to taking turns so it doesn’t become a burden on any one person.
The Final Study Session for Each Book
After your group has gone through the whole book, you should meet one more time to bring it all together. To prepare, each person should be encouraged to read through the entire book again before the last session.
1. Review the book section by section.
Summarize how the author developed his thoughts toward his primary goal.
2. Think up a title for the book as if it was going to be published on the book market today.
Let the others in the group make their own suggestions. This can help everyone remember the content and main message of the book.
3. Discuss the spiritual lessons or personal applications those in the group found particularly helpful.
Perhaps there are some good summary verses in the book which those in the group might want to commit to memory.
When you finish the discussion, have the group select the next book for study. At the next meeting go right to the Book Survey step then continue through the chapters as you did for the book just completed.
Resources for Group Studies
Bible study resources and helps are constantly changing. New writers and programmers are constantly producing new material. Advancing technology offers resources in increasingly more effective ways. The classic works by foundational scholars continue to be the ground upon which new scholarship builds. As years pass new means of making use of these materials will likely emerge, and some of the present links and connections will change. The resources presented here are current with this publication.
Most of the resources named here can be obtained through on-line book sellers such as Amazon in either bound editions, or as digital editions which can be downloaded to your computer or mobile devices. Most can also be ordered through local book stores or found in church libraries.
There are web ministries which are primarily dedicated to making classic Christian books available over the Internet. Most of the classics are no longer under copyright restrictions so the works are available for free. Among those with large free libraries are the following:
– Christian Classics Ethereal Library
– CRTA: Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics
Direct links to helpful resources can be found on the Genevan Institute Resources Page.