This is a guest post by Peter Krol.
A reader of my blog recently emailed to say, “I was never intentionally taught how to lead a Bible study, and, when the time came for me to teach others how to do it, I had no idea even where to begin.” Do you know this guy? Does your church have such people, eager but directionless? They might never go to seminary, but I assure you they can become terrific Bible students and teachers.
I present Exhibit A: my friend, who is a theoretical physicist. He wrote a dissertation about non-standard neutrino interactions and their oscillation degeneracy. You might expect such an intellectual giant to struggle communicating with mere humans. And you might not expect such an academic to thrive in relational ministry. But one night I witnessed him leading a knockout Bible study for ordinary folks. He never held church office, and his Bible training came only from his experience as a church member. Yet he got so much right:
- He knew the text cold and could state its main point in a single sentence.
- He asked thoughtful questions that kept us transfixed on the text.
- He responded to the flow of the discussion without getting sidetracked.
- He showed us the beauty of Christ.
- He applied the text with both broad principles and specific life examples.
I’ve served in campus ministry for 17 years, and I’ve been a local church elder for more than half that time. I could recount many similar stories about regular church members—engineers, financial planners, school teachers, military officers and enlisted, factory workers, teenagers, medical professionals, accountants, artists, widows, retirees—who’ve learned to study, apply, and teach God’s word. My church and campus ministries have managed to empower people for serious Bible study.
How did we do it? By applying these four principles.
Learn Good Bible Study Skills
This point may seem obvious, but pastors and ministry leaders need to hear it in our day. Resources, libraries, curricula, and programs are all good things. Powerful Bible software is a marvelous gift. But be careful not to let these tools do all your study for you. If I gave you a simple Bible without any study notes or other resources, would you know where to begin? And do you have a straightforward and timeless model describing how to approach the text like a pro?
If you can’t articulate a simple Bible study method and show the fruit of it in your own walk with God, you’ll never win your congregation to the practice. You’ll inadvertently communicate that ordinary people can’t or shouldn’t try to study the Bible, and you’ll persistently work against a culture of Bible study within the church. Leaders must do more than regurgitate commentaries for their people; they must know how to handle the sacred text themselves.
Model Good Bible Study Skills
Most people learn to drive a car, not by reading the owner’s manual, but by watching other drivers and practicing what they see. In the same way, your congregation needs to see you put Bible study principles into practice. Only then will they be able to try them for themselves.
When people see a fruitful Bible study method modeled over long stretches, the method’s power will captivate them. When church leaders share what they’re learning, back it up from the text, and welcome honest questions, they gain far more influence than is inherent in their office. So within a church or ministry, a strong Bible study culture must begin with the leaders before the infection can set in. And regular practitioners have a store of credibility when it comes time to teach the principles.
Teach Good Bible Study Skills
Classes, seminars, workshops—these might come to your mind first when you consider empowering your church for serious Bible study. But those classes won’t create a culture unless people already see you modeling the principles (point #2). And you can’t model good principles unless they have already saturated your personal study (point #1). The order of these steps matters: learn, model, teach.
So after learning good Bible study skills and developing habits of modeling them, ministry leaders will need forums to make their methods explicit. Teach the steps: observe, interpret, and apply. With meaningful labels on the skills, people can identify where they need to improve.
And teaching the skills goes beyond formal classes. Teachers can label the skills in sermons, small groups, and one-on-one conversations. They just need to adopt Bible study terminology and use that terminology often to keep the principles explicit. In most Bible studies I lead, I remind participants in the first two minutes: “Our goal here is to understand what the passage says. You don’t have to believe it [we welcome non-Christians to attend], but you do have to be honest about its message. To do so, we’ll observe what it says, figure out what it means, and discuss how it expects us to change.” Say that enough times over years of ministry, and people will eventually start doing it.
Coach Good Bible Study Skills
Bible study skills are infectious, not contagious. In other words, they don’t catch very easily; they require close personal contact to be transmitted. In 17 years training dozens of people to study the Bible, I’ve seen that folks don’t really get Bible study until they’ve had ample opportunity to practice it, with coaching. Pastors can’t expect a single seminar or teaching event to create a culture; only a dogged pursuit of personal training will do it. So encourage people to try Bible study for themselves. And when they do, your role can shift from inimitable expert to beloved coach. Regularly check in, revisit the topic, and keep training people in groups both small and large.
That’s how our church has trained budding Bible teachers, such as the aforementioned theoretical physicist. As early as elementary school, our young folks are learning to observe, interpret, and apply their Bibles. Middle schoolers use their own Bibles and blank notebooks as their primary resources. High schoolers join the adult community in reading and discussing the Scripture. Small groups provide weekly practice in these skills. We train our preachers not only to state conclusions but also to show how they drew those conclusions from the text.
Learn, model, teach, and coach. You don’t need a massive new church program to empower people to study the Bible; you just have to believe it’s possible. When leaders develop these four simple habits, they foster a Bible study culture and shape a generation of Christians who can teach others to teach others.