Principles for Starting an Effective Bible Study

by Austin Thompson

The ministry of the Word of God is essential to the well-being and growth of the body of Christ. Consider a few phrases that Luke used to describe the church after its founding on Pentecost:

And the word of God continued to increase…

Acts 6:7

But the word of God increased and multiplied.

Acts 12:24

So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

Acts 19:20

Therefore, the church must labor to ensure that the regular study of God’s Word is a central component to all ministry endeavors. This article will explore three principles that will help you start an effective Bible study to the glory of God.

Principle #1 — Define Your Study
How do you respond when someone tells you that they attend a Bible study? On one hand, I always have a general idea of what people mean when they tell me they attend a Bible study. Taken at face value, I assume it is a gathering where the Bible is the authoritative source that informs teaching and discussion—as it should be. But on the other hand, I often follow up with the question, “What is your Bible study like?” This is because the term “Bible study” has taken on an almost infinite number of meanings. The term could be used to describe a gathering of three friends who meet for coffee once a month to read through the Psalms. Or it could refer to a gathering of forty adults who meet weekly to systematically examine whole books of the Bible. To make matters even more complicated, there are often countless other positive elements that may be included in one’s Bible study. Such gatherings may include singing, prayer, games, food, evangelistic outreach, and so on.

Establishing a clear vision of how your group will be structured to study the Bible keeps participants unified and provides tangible metrics to assess the effectiveness of the study in view of its stated goals.

While a true Bible study must at the very least include the study of the Bible, there are a variety of ways that a study can be structured. Establishing a clear vision of how you will structure your group to study the Bible keeps participants unified and provides tangible metrics to assess the effectiveness of the study in view of its stated goals. Below are some categories that would be helpful to discuss prior to starting your study:

  • Teaching — Will the teaching be expositional, topical, or a combination? Will it be lecture format, interactive, or a combination?
  • Time — How long will each of your group meetings last? How long will the teaching portion of the study be? How long will you meet as a group? How often will you meet as a group?
  • Size — How large will your group be? Is there a desired size? Is there a limit?
  • People — Is this a gender specific study? Is it a study for people in specific seasons of life? Is this a study that is open to believers, non-believers, or both? Is this a study for members, regular attenders, or anyone who will come? Are people required to commit to the study or not?
  • Service — Are there opportunities for people to serve one another in this study? If so, what are they? Are there any pre-requisites for service?
  • Other elements of your study — What other elements will your study consist of? (Prayer, singing, food, games, small group discussion, etc.)

It is important to note that setting parameters for your study does not mean those parameters can never change! In fact, the occasional change might be a source of tremendous blessing! Either way, defining your study will help make sure that everyone is on the same page and stays on track throughout its duration.

Principle #2 — Prioritize Relationships
One of the best features of a Bible study is that it provides an environment where rich relationships can be cultivated to the glory of Christ. But just because it is an environment that can be conducive to rich relationships doesn’t mean that it actually does produce such relationships.

While the authoritative proclamation of God’s Word is the preeminent component of any Bible study, the Scriptures warn against a model that is overly focused on the mere dissemination of biblical truth. Paul pointed out that knowledge for the sake of knowledge has the potential to make people “puffed up” (1 Cor 8:1, ESV) or “arrogant” (NASB), while love has the power to “build up” (ESV) or “edify” (NASB).

In short, people don’t just need to be taught the “one anothers.” They need to do them. They need to practice them. In fact, one of the primary purposes of Scripture is to empower God’s people to be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17)!

Bible study participants must love to apply the principles of God’s Word towards others just as much as they love the principles of God’s Word.

Practically speaking, this means that a Bible study teacher must love the people he is teaching just as much as he loves to teach. Bible study participants must love to apply the principles of God’s Word towards others just as much as they love the principles of God’s Word.

Humans were created to be relational beings. When participants of a Bible study are committed to the truth of God’s Word and to the well-being of their brothers and sisters in Christ within the group, the potential for true change to occur is maximized. Deep waters of the heart are more readily revealed where faithful friends are present (Prov 20:5-6).

Principle #3 — Elder Oversight
Perhaps the most important criteria to prioritize when starting a Bible study is elder oversight. One reason the Lord Jesus gives qualified elders to the church is so that they might hold fast to the trustworthy Word — giving instruction in sound doctrine and rebuking those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Since Bible studies are primarily a ministry of the Word of God, an effective Bible study will have elder oversight.

Elders are able to provide accountability and ensure that what is being taught is consistent with sound doctrine. Elders are also able to equip Bible study leaders and participants with the tools necessary to be effective during their gatherings (Eph 4:12). Finally, elders are able to provide important prayer support and encouragement that will help Bible studies weather difficult seasons of ministry.

While it is possible for God-glorifying study of the Bible to occur outside the local body in places like para-church organizations and personal environments, the Scriptures make it clear that the church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of the truth. Therefore, the majority of effective Bible studies will occur within a local congregation under the direct oversight of qualified elders.

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