If you’re anything like me, you know how hard it can be to settle on a Bible study.
You want to grow, and you know having a solid Bible study group is a part of that. But there are so many factors that determine whether or not a Bible study group is the right fit for you.
Sometimes it just takes patience to really feel like you’re part of the group and like you have a place there. Even among believers, you can feel like strangers. It takes time to get past that stage of any relationship.
Make no mistake—if you want to grow spiritually and get the most from your Bible study group, relationships matter.
But it’s not always a matter of patience. Sometimes, something really is missing.
If you’re wondering if that’s the case for your Bible study, here are 10 tips to effective Bible study (and they all start with “F” to make it easy to remember).
If you want a Bible study that makes a difference in your life, fellowship matters (Acts 2:42).
Fellowship is a connection that goes deeper than friendship—it’s founded not on worldly experiences, but on the spiritual values you share, like prayer, faith, love, and Christ.
The Faithlife Study Bible points out that the word used for fellowship in Acts 2:42 “denotes sharing something.” It goes on to say, “the early church formed a tight community based on what they had in common spiritually and physically.”
Growing up, I used to think fellowship was a formal Christian term for “friendship”. It was a nice word you said when you wanted to tell someone that you valued your relationship with them.
But fellowship is so much more than that. Fellowship is born out of shared faith, and it grows into personal prayer, wisdom, and love.
Fellowship isn’t some elusive quality you hunt for and discover—it’s the interaction of a community of believers. (click to tweet).
Like friendship, the more experiences you share together, the stronger your fellowship grows. The more you pray, eat, grow, and live together, the more your Bible study reflects the biblical relationships it’s modeled after (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
Some people don’t like it when a small group tries to have a meal together. It takes time away from their family or other important tasks. In some cases, it’s simply the knowledge that having a meal together means that Bible study eats up more of their schedule (for those people, I would point back to #1).
Consider this note from the FSB on that same verse, Acts 2:42:
“The early church’s fellowship is evidenced by their communal meals. The breaking of bread could allude to participation in the Lord’s Supper. In such a case, their unity focused on the person and work of Jesus” (emphasis mine).
Eating together does a number of things:
- It forces us to slow down.
- It allows us to provide and care for each other.
- It lets us share our homes in a more personal way.
It creates opportunities for casual conversation. You know how valuable it is to have other perspectives as you study Scripture, why not soak in other perspectives about life?
Or, this can also be a more focused time to discover how we can pray for each other.
While eating dinner with some friends a while back, someone asked: “If God said to you, ‘I’ll change one thing about you right now—whatever you want,’ what would you ask him to change?” We each went around the table sharing some of our deepest insecurities—the things we are constantly aware of in the back of our minds. When we were done sharing, my friend said, “Thanks guys, now I know how I can be praying for you.”
The question slipped into our casual conversation so naturally that our responses were genuine glimpses into our hearts, not canned answers served up for formal occasions.
You can learn a lot about people when you take the time to eat together.
As stated earlier, friendship and fellowship are similar, but they’re not completely synonymous.
I think you can have fellowship with someone you wouldn’t consider a friend, and you can be a friend with someone you do not have fellowship with. Each takes a different kind of relational investment. Croft M. Pentz says, “Friends are those rare people who ask how we are and then wait to hear the answer.”
Fellowship means spiritually investing in each others’ lives. Friendship means physically investing in each others’ lives.
Don’t wait until the next time your small group meets to talk with each other. If someone asks for prayer about something big in their lives, pray for them—but don’t stop there.
Maybe there’s a particular day looming over them: back to school, a wedding, a funeral, a doctor’s appointment. Pray, and then reach out to them. Text them. Call them. Visit them. Show them that their life matters to you. People are busy, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to not show our brothers and sisters that we love them.
With a weekly or monthly Bible study, it’s too easy to separate our small group members from the rest of our lives. It lets us compartmentalize, and assign their friendship to Thursday nights, or Monday mornings.
Not everyone can enjoy the blessing of having a Bible study with their closest friends, or people they see every day. But when Jesus calls us his friends, I think we can make an effort to be friends with his other friends (John 15:15).
For some people, having a designated time for Bible study means a much needed break from family.
It means a chance to focus on the relationship that matters most (the relationship that makes them a better parent and spouse). Studying the Word with other believers is a time for them to take a breath before changing another diaper or resolving another argument.
For others, time away from family is stressful. “Small group night” means one spouse is left to care for all the kids.
And it makes every second count.
It’s important to respect each others’ families. Remember, most people’s priorities probably look something like this: God, family, work, everything else.
Part of respecting each others’ families is being conscious of how you use the time you have for Bible study. If someone’s spouse is left to hold down the fort with four kids back home, it probably isn’t a great idea to have half an hour of small talk before cracking open a Bible or bringing Jesus into the conversation.
At the same time, if leaving your family is hard for you or your spouse, it might be a good idea to find a Bible study where your family is welcome.
Growing up, my parents were part of a Bible study with several other couples who had kids. We would all gather in one home, and it gave the parents the chance to get into life and the Word together, while trusting that their kids were in good hands downstairs (where we were far enough away to not be a distraction, but close enough to grab a parent if things turned into Lord of the Flies).
If you share the most important part of your lives with people in your Bible study (God), why not share the second most important part?
Getting to know each others’ families helps your friendship and fellowship grow as you pursue Christ together. Knowing someone’s family adds a whole new layer of context to every trial you bear together.
If you have kids, maybe that sounds impossible to you.
It’s easy to feel like sharing your family with others is a burden. Your kids wear you out, so how could you ask someone else to spend so much time with them?
Let me tell you a secret: sharing your kids isn’t always a burden.
As a young, newly married man, I love spending time with the kids of my older friends. I know when I offer to take care of their kids, I’m serving my friends—for a moment, I get to lighten the load. As someone without kids of my own, it’s also great practice for when I someday become a parent myself. When my wife and I babysit together, it gives us the chance to see how the other interacts with kids, and glimpse a side of each other we don’t normally see.
The bottom line is, your family is part of what makes you who you are.
If you want to get the most from your small group or Bible study, you should know each other’s families. It’s tricky to find a system that works for your family, and if it doesn’t work for your small group to include your families, learn how to love each other by respecting each others’ time.
As the body of Christ, we are all part of a much bigger spiritual family (Mark 10:29–30, Matthew 12:46–50), and if we truly love each other, we will learn to love each others’ families.
Some of the best friends in my life are the ones I can go years without seeing, and still feel like nothing has changed when we’re reunited. Our lives can move miles apart, but our friendship transcends time, distance, and even silence.
For me at least, small groups don’t work like that.
Sure, I can hop into any group that’s studying the Word and know I’m going to learn something. I’m comfortable talking about God and sharing my life in a setting like that, even if I don’t see everyone regularly or know anything about anyone beyond the fact that they’re believers.
But if I go weeks, or months without connecting with my small group, how can they hold me accountable, or keep up with what’s going on in my life?
The more frequently you meet with your small group or Bible study, the more intimately involved you can be in each others’ lives.
You can follow up on prayer requests, or ask about a struggle or temptation someone was dealing with. You can actively walk through life together, instead of getting a summary a month later.
The longer you wait between meetings, the more you will have to either play catch up or rely on notes.
Talk to each other, and find the right balance between respecting each others’ time and investing in each others’ lives.
Incorporating faith into your small group may seem obvious, but it’s important to recognize that again, there are tons of Bible studies with tons of different purposes.
For some small groups, it would be completely inappropriate to make faith a prerequisite.
I’ve spent the last few years working in outreach ministry with middle school kids. Some of the kids in my small groups have grown up in the church, and for others, it’s the first time they’ve opened up the Bible.
In that context, the structure of the small group focuses on helping the least experienced member learn and grow. If someone is exploring God, I might ask them what they’d like me to pray about for them, but I’m not going to ask them to open or close our time in prayer.
There is certainly value in reading and discussing the Bible with nonbelievers, but some of small group’s greatest treasures stem from shared belief in Jesus.
In 10,000 Sermon Illustrations, one example says, “Everyone has faith in something—faith in some religion, faith in one’s self, faith in fate, faith in evolution, faith in mankind. Even the atheist has faith in his own reason. But there is only one real faith that works for time and eternity.”
Which “faith” leads us to grow in Christ?
If personal growth is your goal when you choose a small group, you should surround yourself with people who will pray for you, encourage you, and challenge you with the power of the Holy Spirit.
If faith isn’t present, it could be why you aren’t growing in the ways you need to (Hebrews 11:3).
The Bible isn’t boring. Your small group isn’t a college class. It’s a group of people exploring God’s Word and living life together in light of what his Word reveals to you. You share knowledge of the greatest truth the world has ever known. That’s something to be joyful about.
Some of your greatest experiences of fellowship can come through some of the most fun things you do with your small group. Like food, fun creates an entirely different environment for you to share, interact, and love the people in your small group. What that fun looks like is dependent on the people in your group.
For my small group with middle school students, sometimes fun means we play basketball or Frisbee before we get into the Word together. Other times, it means we play video games and drink Mountain Dew. For older small groups, we’ve gone bowling or played board games.
It all depends on the people you have, and the best ways to get them together. Personally, I’m not a fan of bowling at all. I’m terrible at it (I’m lucky if I can hit 70). But I can go and enjoy it because I know how important it is to have fun together and enjoy each other’s company.
When your small group looks like a checklist (confession, prayer, Bible, prayer), it can make people feel like checkmarks too. Don’t let your small group get stuck in a routine—break the mold, and have fun together.
In the group of people you choose to share life with, you should feel free to share as much (or as little) as you want about your life. The more deeply you pry into your heart and the more honest you are with yourself and your peers, the more you discover just how much God loves you.
If you don’t feel comfortable confessing something to your fellow believers, it makes it that much harder to move through it, and it turns asking for prayer into a delicate dance. Be open. Be honest. Share your lives with each other (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9, Proverbs 28:13).
Still, there are a lot of factors that could restrict the freedom someone feels in their small group.
The questions you ask your small group should be invitations, not instructions.
If your questions are too specific or narrow, it may lead someone to feel like what they have to share is inappropriate. Encourage each other to share what comes to mind as you reflect on a passage, or what someone else has shared.
There are a lot of reasons why gossip is toxic. One of those reasons is that it destroys trust. If your small group members can’t trust each other, they won’t feel free to share what they need to.
It may feel strange to have to tell adults not to discuss other people’s personal lives outside of small group, but gossip isn’t something we just “grow out of,” nor is it a problem that’s isolated to youth. It’s sin, and we aren’t immune to its temptations.
Sometimes when people have the freedom to say whatever is on their mind, they say things we don’t agree with. Let them. The way you respond to someone else’s thoughts can quickly determine the freedom of the group.
I’m not saying you can’t disagree with someone—because you most certainly will. When you disagree with someone, respond out of love for the person, not hate for the idea.
Help everyone get the most out of your small group by creating an environment that creates freedom—not one that restricts it.
Ken Sande, founder of Peacemaker Ministries and president of Relational Wisdom 360, says, “Christians are the most forgiven people in the world. Therefore, we should be the most forgiving people in the world.”
Scripture says something similar in Matthew 6:12, Colossians 3:13, and Ephesians 4:32.
If the call to forgiveness extends to all our neighbors, shouldn’t it be all the more true in our small groups, where we’re surrounded by believers?
Our church is not immune to sin. It isn’t a bubble where humans suddenly cannot sin when they enter. Its members are not blind to our actions.
Sometimes we screw up. Sometimes we hurt each other. Christians are still humans, but the difference is how we respond to sin—in ourselves, and in others.
Ken Sande goes on to say about forgiveness:
“It is impossible to truly forgive others in your own strength, especially when they have hurt you deeply or betrayed your trust. You can try not to think about what they did or stuff your feelings deep inside and put on a false smile when you see them. But unless your heart is cleansed and changed by God, the memories and the feelings will still be lurking in the background, poisoning your thoughts and words, and preventing the rebuilding of trust and relationship.
There is only one way to overcome these barriers, and that is to admit that you cannot forgive in your own strength and that you desperately need God to come in and change your heart.” — The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict
Genuine forgiveness is a key component of authentic fellowship, and fostering an environment where people feel free to share their lives, their hurts, and their deepest struggles.
Holding grudges (no matter how small) will hold your small group back from experiencing everything Christian community has to offer.
The Bible is sacred and serious. Its implications are eternal. But the way you study the Word of God together doesn’t always have to be structured. You don’t need a template—you just need the Bible, each other, and the Holy Spirit.
Any structure you implement in your small group should be prayerfully considered, and agreed upon by the group. If it doesn’t serve the group, what purpose does it serve? Anything you do together should be discussed together—even if one person is leading the small group.
Everyone is free to choose to come to your small group or not. It’s safe to assume that people choose to come when they feel the small group is beneficial. So add things to your small group when the small group believes it will benefit everyone. Don’t decide for people what they need or don’t need without first hearing their thoughts.
For more on small groups, check out the Small Groups with Purpose Collection:
What are the best parts of your small group? Share with us in the comments!
* * *
Faithlife makes it easier to stay connected to your small group. Create custom reading plans or choose from over 45 premade reading plans. Share prayer requests throughout the week and make Community Notes right in the text, so you can share your thoughts when you have them. Study together, even when you’re not together. Start a small group on Faithlife today!