In a previous article, we considered how to start an effective Bible study. In a following article, we addressed principles for teaching an effective Bible study. Once the hard work of lesson preparation has been completed, it is time to consider how to make the whole study—not just the teaching time—as successful as possible. This article will explore the priority and principles for facilitating an effective Bible study.
Priority — Engage the Learners
In order for a Bible study to be maximally effective, leaders must seek to engage their learners in appropriate ways. Studies show that active learning—learning where participants are actively engaged in the learning process—is much more effective than passive learning—learning where the participants are not actively engaged in the learning process. In other words, a leader tasked with facilitating a Bible study must labor to create opportunities for learners to interact with the study and its content beyond just listening.
This does not mean that environments in which listening is the learner’s primary mode of engagement are not fruitful! Believers are called to actively listen to the preaching of the Word in corporate settings. Rather, it means that Bible studies do well to complement, not replicate, other ministries of the Word in the church. Bible studies are means of implementing other methods of engagement with biblical truth for the learners and thus serve as powerful tools for spiritual growth. In the section that follows, four principles for facilitating an effective Bible study will be explored.
Principle #1: Ask Questions!
During his public ministry, few techniques for engaging listeners with biblical truth were employed by the Lord Jesus more than questions. Jesus asked “yes” and “no” questions, rhetorical questions, hypothetical questions, leading questions, etc. Therefore, facilitators should follow in his steps and make sure that all types of questions are present throughout the study. Here are some tips for the effective use of questions:
- Communicate questions in advance — Carefully crafted questions that are communicated in advance of the study can help prepare learners for deeper engagement with biblical content.
- Prioritize the best questions — When it comes to discussion, not all questions are created equal. “Yes” and “no” questions illicit only two responses. Leading questions—questions that lead to a specific answer—can frustrate learners or make them feel embarrassed by their answer. On the other hand, questions that are open ended have the ability to draw out information and insight from learners.
- Let other people answer questions — As someone who has taught various types of Bible studies, it can be tempting to answer all the questions that are asked during the discussion. While there may be settings in which it is wise for the teacher to field most or all of the questions, there may also be times when group engagement can be bolstered by posing the question back to the participants. When participants of a study feel their thoughts and observations contribute in a valuable way they will be more engaged throughout the duration of the gathering.
Principle #2: Stay on Topic
In the same way that a teacher should stick to the structure of the passage so that they don’t wander, facilitators must labor to keep participants focused on the passage during discussion. Below are a list of helpful tools for staying on topic during discussion.
- Provide relational time before the study — More than once during the course of teaching a lesson to children has a student raised their hand to say something like, “My doggy had to go to the vet yesterday!” As relational beings, we desire to communicate the things that are important to us—even when they must be communicated at the wrong time or in the wrong context. One way to help alleviate unrelated topics from hijacking your discussion about the Bible is to provide time for people to express themselves before the study begins.
- Prioritize the context — Another common theme that occurs during discussion about the Bible is drifting from the context. Here’s an example: A teacher finishes a lesson on Galatians 6:9, where believers are exhorted not to grow weary of doing good. He then asks the question, “How would you summarize Paul’s statement in your own words?” One participant answers, “We should run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1)!” While the answer is a true representation of a believer’s responsibility before God, it runs the risk of missing Paul’s intended point by equating the two contexts as identical. Many believers have themes, verses, and passages from Scripture that are dear to their heart, and that is a good thing! But a participant who distills every lesson to John 3:16 indicates that they are not growing in their understanding of Scripture. The process of helping believers grow in their ability to identify implications specific to each context will cause them to experience Scripture in new and exciting ways!
- Pull in the reins — Even in the best studies with the most mature believers, it is still possible to miss all the guardrails and end up completely off-topic. In this case, a facilitator must be able to graciously take the reins and pull the group back. Even the most edifying conversations can hinder the primary goal of Bible study—growing in the knowledge of Scripture in its appropriate context for the purpose of holy living. In those cases, it is best to suggest that the off-topic discussion is tabled until formal discussion on the passage has concluded.
Principle #3: Be Creative!
Inasmuch as is appropriate for the specifics of the study, facilitators should be creative in how they attempt to equip believers for the work of the ministry. While creativity is no substitute for sound doctrine, it can be an effective complement. Excellent illustrations, images, and videos can positively impact a lesson. Changing the structure of how your group studies a passage can cultivate fresh attention to the Scriptures. Group events outside of your regular meeting time can go a long way to build relationships. It is important to note that effective creativity will be inspired by an intimate knowledge of your group. A video that dissects Greek syntax to a group that doesn’t know Greek, a three day backpacking retreat for a group that does not enjoy the outdoors, and a group prayer night for those who don’t like praying out loud may not produce the desired outcome.
Principle #4: Be Proactive
A final note to facilitators is this: be proactive. A Bible study is a microcosm of the church body. People come from a variety of backgrounds, they possess a variety of gifts, and they struggle with a variety of challenges. Effective leadership will depend on diligent prayer, discerning observation, intentional handling of conflict, and a conviction to ensure that all things are done for the glory of Christ.