How to Prepare and Lead an Engaging Bible Study

I’ve been leading Bible studies at midweek church groups for the last seven years. I’m by no means an expert but I thought I’d share some tips that I’ve learnt along the way.

Preparing a Bible Study

Preparing a Bible study well can make a huge difference when it comes to leading it. If you’re well prepared, it will be easier to lead, and your group will get more out of it.

Understanding the passage

Before you begin preparing and writing a Bible study, you need to read and understand the passage. After all, if you don’t understand the passage, neither will your group! You could make use of the sermon notes I’ve posted, or check out the Enduring Word commentary. It’s helpful to write a summary sentence that neatly summarises the main point of the passage. If there is one thing from the study that you want the group to take away, what would it be?

Writing questions

Once you’ve understood the passage and have a summary sentence, you can begin writing questions for your study. Typically, there are three types of questions you will want to include: observation, interpretation, and application. They all serve different purposes but will help your group understand the passage confidently. Let’s look at each category in turn.

Observation

Observation questions help your group understand what the passage says. They help ensure everyone is on the same page before more detailed discussions take place. Don’t ask questions like “What does Jesus say in verse 5?” Instead, you could ask questions such as, “Is there anything surprising or unusual about what Jesus says in verse 5?”

Interpretation

Interpretation questions will help your group understand what the passage means. Examples include “What’s significant about the details Luke includes in this story?”, “Why do you think Paul speaks in the way that he does?”, or “What do we learn about God’s character through this passage?”

Application

Finally, application questions help the group consider how the passage applies to them in their daily lives. What does it mean to live the passage out and how can that be achieved? Example of application questions include “What would our church look like if we lived this out?”, “How can we encourage each other to show love to those around us?”, or “What does it look like for you to live this out in your workplace this week?”

For both observation and interpretation questions, I’ve found the Enduring Word commentary to be really helpful. I often create questions based on the content, especially if there are interesting observations I hadn’t noticed when reading the passage myself.

When writing questions, I tend to work through the passage from beginning to end, unless there is an obvious reason not to, asking observation and interpretation questions on each section. At the end, I’ll ask application questions to get the group thinking about how the whole passage applies to our lives today.

How many questions?

You will need to adjust the number of questions according to the time you have with your group and the size of the passage. For example, if you only have half an hour for your study, don’t prepare lots of observation questions, as you won’t get to the heart of the passage. The studies I have written typically last an hour. Observation questions tend to need the least amount of time allocated to them, whereas discussions on interpretation and application last much longer.

I’ve found that having around 12 questions prepared is enough for an hour’s study, though this will depend on the nature of your group. For some questions, I will have related follow-up questions that can be asked if necessary. It’s always better to have too many questions than too few. You may wish to note which questions you definitely want to ask, and which ones you’ll ask if you have time.

Know your group

It’s important to write questions that are appropriate to your group. For example, if your group is largely made up of new Christians, don’t ask lots of deep, theological questions. If you have non-Christians in your group, or there is that possibility, keep that in mind, too. You don’t want to make them feel that they can’t contribute by asking hard questions. Instead, ask open questions that lead to a healthy discussion around the passage. At the end, bring it back to the gospel and ensure your main point is clear.

If your group is made up of people who have been Christians for a long time, feel free to ask more theological questions. However, don’t let them detract from the main thrust of the passage. In fact, spending more time on application questions might be more beneficial. Have a longer discussion on what it means to live out the passage and how it applies to each individual’s life.

Creativity

If people in your group are particularly creative, you could come up with a creative exercise instead of observation questions. Examples include:

  • The Hashtag Challenge – come up with a summary of the passage and a hashtag that fits into a tweet
  • Write a newspaper article based on the passage
  • Come up with ideas for a film based on the passage
  • Draw a storyboard that tells the story of the passage

Examples

I’ve posted many Bible study notes on this blog. Here are some examples of Bible studies that I particularly enjoyed leading:

Leading a Bible Study

Leading a Bible study is a skill that takes practise, but is well worth investing in. It can be daunting at first, if you’re not used to leading a group, but over time you will see the value of this important ministry.

Timings

Have a start and end time for your study that’s consistent each week. People like to know when something will finish and it’s loving to stick to that limit. Try to start on time and if people are late, hopefully they’ll learn that they need to arrive earlier. Likewise, try to finish on time. People, including the host, may have work or other things they need to get done. If people still want to chat, they can still do this informally afterwards, but others may need to leave.

In my church, we tend to arrive at the host’s house at 7:30pm, after which there’s around 20 minutes to chat and get drinks before starting the study at around 7:50. We make sure to finish by 9pm.

Don’t worry about asking all the questions you’ve prepared. Keep an eye on the time as you’re leading so that you can skip questions if necessary. Ask the most important ones that will enable your group to take away the main point.

Starting your study

As you start your study, it’s a good idea to recap the previous week, particularly if you’re working through a book, a letter, or section of the Bible. This allows anyone who missed the last study to get an idea of what was discussed. Instead of giving a recap yourself, start by asking the group if they can summarise what was talked about.

Before you dive into your study, either pray before you begin, or ask someone to pray for the group. Ask someone to read the passage, or more than one person if the passage is quite long. Hopefully, everyone will have a Bible but it’s good to have a few spares handy, or have printed copies of the passage to give to people.

After the passage has been read, you may want to give a minute or so for people to read it silently, particularly if it was long or rich. If you have printed copies, some people may find it helpful to annotate it (such as parts that seem important or parts they don’t understand).

Before you start asking the questions you’ve prepared, you could ask for any initial thoughts from people, or if there’s anything they found surprising. Any questions that arise will hopefully be addressed during your study as the discussion progresses.

Don’t preach!

As a leader of a Bible study, you are not there to preach a sermon, you are there to lead a discussion in which everyone can participate. As you’re asking questions and people answer, it can be tempting to wait until someone says what you’ve written in your notes. It’s best to not look for specific answers, otherwise people will be less likely to contribute if they can’t give the “right” answer. Feel free to contribute with your own thoughts or content from your notes, but don’t preach a mini-sermon after each question! If people give answers that seem unrelated, you could ask, “Where do you see that in the passage?”

What if no one or only one person talks?

Hopefully your group will have people who are likely to contribute if there are moments of silence. However if it seems that people aren’t engaging with the study, or only one person is answering, you could try asking people to discuss a few questions in pairs or threes. This ensures that everyone gets a chance to talk. After a few minutes, you can gather feedback from each small group.

What if someone asks a question I hadn’t considered?

Questions during a Bible study should always be encouraged. It’s possible that someone will ask either a difficult question, or one that you haven’t thought about. That’s perfectly okay! In fact, it shows that people are thinking about the passage and are hungry for answers. If you don’t know the answer to a particular question, it’s okay to open it up to the group and ask, “What do other people think?” As a group leader, you’re not expected to know everything there is to know about the Bible. We can all learn from each other and that’s partly what makes studying the Bible with others so valuable. If no one else knows the answer, make a note of it, do some research during the week, and bring it up at the next study.

Consider the size of your group

Depending on people’s commitments, the size of your group may vary each week. Hopefully most people will be regular attenders but this might not always be the case. For most weeks, you could probably lead the study with the whole group and have a fruitful discussion. If there are times when it feels the group is too big to lead as a whole, you could get people in smaller groups (as suggested above) and then get feedback. Feedback is essential in these situations so that you can ensure everyone is on the same page. If you don’t get feedback, some groups may have completely missed the point and you wouldn’t know.

I’ve found that if you have more than 10 people, it can be hard for everyone to contribute. On these occasions, I’ve adopted the above approach so that everyone has a chance to talk.

Asking people directly

If someone in your group isn’t contributing much, you could try asking them a question directly (such as, “What do you think, Bob?”) but only if you know they’re happy for you to do that. Some people, particularly if they’re new or less confident socially, might prefer to listen. After a few weeks, as they get used to the group, they’ll hopefully start contributing.

Beware of tangents

If there’s one thing in common between all the midweek groups I’ve had the pleasure of leading, it’s tangents! It’s easy for people to go off-topic quite quickly and end up talking about something entirely unrelated to the passage you’re studying. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with this but there will be times when you have to bring the discussion back to the passage. If the discussion clearly isn’t going anywhere, don’t be afraid to jump in and cut it short, repeating the question you originally asked.

Praying

It’s important to allocate time for your group to pray, both through the passage that you’ve studied, and for any specific requests that people in the group may have. How you do this is up to you. You could have a section for prayer at the end, but just make sure you finish the study on time so that people can share anything they’d like prayer for. Again, if you have a large group, praying in smaller groups might be best if you’re short on time.

Alternatively, you could allocate time before the study to pray through personal requests, so that this isn’t rushed at the end. I’ve found that this approach works quite well if you have a group that likes to talk a lot!

Venue

From my experience, I’ve found that midweek Bible studies work best in a home. People are more comfortable and relaxed, and are therefore more likely to be open and honest during the study. The host can provide drinks (and snacks) and background music can be played as people arrive.

I’ve also led studies at a neutral venue with other groups in the same room. While there are benefits to this, I personally found it harder to lead a study. The background noise from other groups isn’t ideal and although it can’t be helped, it can hinder your group’s discussion. If another group happens to finish early, noise levels can increase as your group is praying.

Other Thoughts

Socials

From time to time, you may wish to organise social events within your small group. These provide the opportunity for people to get to know each other better, and can be evangelistic. Depending on the diversity of the group, it might be difficult finding something that suits everyone. However, something simple like either going out for a meal or hosting a meal at someone’s house can work well.

Other options could include:

  • Cinema (though you may wish to combine this with going for food/drinks so that people can chat)
  • Going for a walk
  • Going to a concert
  • Hosting a barbecue

Social events don’t have to take place on the same day that you’d normally meet for a Bible study, but is often the best option given most people have other commitments during the week. Alternatively, after church on Sunday could be suitable.

Prayer emails

You could send an email each week to the members of your group with prayer requests that have been shared. This helps anyone who was unable to attend to still be able to pray and to be kept informed. Alternatively, you could use a WhatsApp group so that people can freely share prayer requests at any time, or invite people to a social event, etc.

Good luck!

Finally, the key thing to remember is that the Bible is all about Jesus. Your role as a Bible study leader is to show people this and encourage them in their Christian lives. Every passage in the Old Testament points to Jesus, and every passage in the New Testament is either about Jesus or points back to him. It’s a real privilege to be involved in church ministry such as this.

I hope you’ve found this post useful. Please do share it with others if it would be helpful to them. Feel free to comment with any questions or additional thoughts or tips you may have.

How My Church Engages with People Living with Learning Disabilities

At our recent church weekend away, I attended a helpful seminar entitled In His Own Image, in which we looked at how, as a church, we can engage with people who live with learning disabilities.

In our church, we have three people who live with learning disabilities. They have trouble with speech, reading, and understanding the world around them. In the seminar we looked at what we have done over the last year to help them, and how we can further that ministry.

We began by reading Genesis 1, which tells us that we are all made in the image of God. We took it in turns to read a verse each, something we could all do without needing to think. For people with learning disabilities, that might have been extremely difficult. We must never assume that everyone can read. To illustrate this point, we then watched this video:

I think we all found it quite moving. You can see the amount of effort they had to put in to read and understand something that we had found so simple. It was a stark reminder that the gospel really is for everyone. No one is excluded. We are all made in the image of God, and that must include people who have learning disabilities. So how can the church best serve them and encourage them to grow as Christians?

It’s great to welcome people with learning disabilities into church, but we must do more than that. Around 18 months ago, a couple of people at our church started to think about this. One of the ideas was to start a midweek small group aimed particularly for people with learning disabilities. After lots of planning, thinking and praying, this small group launched in September 2017.

The group isn’t labelled differently but is treated in the same way as the other groups. After all,  its purpose is the same. Small groups exist to help people grow in their relationships with God and in their understanding of the Bible, and to encourage them to share the gospel with others.

The group is also open for others to join. Each week, there’s time for the group members to chat and catch up with each other, before a story or passage from the Bible is taught. The teaching is very visual, and so for visual learners or for others who find reading difficult, the group may be more suited to them. Large print Bibles are used, or printed copies of the passage, complete with illustrations to aid understanding.

Singing in church, or expressing worship can be difficult for those with learning disabilities. In the group, songs are sung with sign language. Once the group is familiar with a song, we’ll sing it in church and everyone is encouraged to join in with the sign language. This I Believe works really well with this.

Everyone in the group is encouraged to pray and there is always allocated time for this at the end of each session. An object is passed round so that everyone knows when it’s their turn. If they don’t want to pray out loud, they can just pass the object on. When the group started, no one prayed. Now, a year later, everyone prays. It’s hugely encouraging to see how each member of the group is growing in their faith and in confidence. Hopefully we will soon see them praying in other settings too, such as in church on a Sunday.

Alongside encouraging them in their faith, it’s important to encourage them in their mission to share the gospel with their friends. Everyone in the group knows others who aren’t Christians, and it’s been great to see them bringing friends to evangelistic events.

In the seminar, we also spoke of how people with learning disabilities often understand more than what we give them credit for. The problem is that they can struggle to show their understanding to us. We need to be aware of this and ask ourselves, “What can they teach us?” We’re all made in the image of God and we can all learn from each other.

I realise that we only scratched the surface of this topic in the seminar. There’s so much more that needs to be discussed and talked about. There are all kinds of learning disabilities. How can we do more to reach those who find it extremely difficult or impossible to come to church? People with a level of autism who aren’t comfortable in new situations may never get the chance to step inside a church. There are others who could come to church, but would find it too loud or overwhelming. Churches need to think carefully about these issues. They should work hard to come up with solutions so that everyone has the chance to hear and respond to the gospel.

As a church, we still have work to do in supporting those with learning disabilities. However I do believe we’re on the right track, and the ministry to them so far has been very encouraging.

Gospel, Kingdom and Mission – Church Weekend Reflections

We have just returned from our church weekend in Abererch, Wales. It was a great weekend of fellowship, teaching, and fun. It was especially encouraging seeing the whole church family enjoying each other’s company, and growing in their love for God, and for one another. Even the rain didn’t dampen our spirits!

Treasure

We had three main teaching sessions, in which we looked at the themes of gospel, kingdom and mission. One thing in particular that struck me was how we are so prone to storing up treasure here on earth. We can easily become obsessed with building security for ourselves, such as in our careers, our mortgages, or saving for the future. Yet, in Matthew 6, Jesus tells us the opposite:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The truth is that one day, the treasure that we store up on earth will be gone. Companies could go bust. Our houses won’t last forever. Retirement savings soon disappear. Why invest in something that’s temporary when we can invest in the kingdom of God that will last forever? That’s the challenge I came away with and will be dwelling on for a while.

Remembering

We also had a campfire, where we sang some songs of praise and were encouraged to remember what God has done in our lives. For example, what sequence of events led you to church, or led to you becoming a Christian? Sometimes we can get so caught up in the present that we forget to look back and reflect on what God has done in the past. Even in hardships, we have to remember that God is good, all of the time. It’s so important to remind ourselves of that and to encourage each other with the good news of the gospel.

Below are some notes from the three teaching sessions. I also attended a seminar on engaging with people living with learning disabilities.

Gospel (Romans 3:19-26)

The word ‘gospel’ is mentioned many times throughout the New Testament. It grips Paul. It’s the good message, the good news. Evangelism is the sharing of that good news. In Romans 1:1-17 it’s mentioned six times. The gospel was promised beforehand and it concerns the Son. It’s the power to salvation and God’s rescue comes through it. In Ephesians it’s referred to as the truth that saves us. God has entrusted us with this message.

Adam and Eve rebelled. We reject his law and can’t live in his presence. It’s our sin that separates us from God. As it was in Adam and Eve, it is in us. At the beginning God is preparing his people for the sacrifice he was going to make. Isaiah speaks of a suffering servant. God promises a king and a sacrifice. Jesus is perfect humanity and perfect God. Jesus surrenders himself on the cross. The way is provided for forgiveness of sins. Before the throne of God how could we justify ourselves? But if our sin is atoned for, it’s not the same. The way to accept this good news is by faith. We should appreciate the gospel.

There is nothing more deep or more glorious than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Where do you go to see the love of God? Go to the finished work of Jesus. Is it as central to us as it is to God? People argue over so many small things but this good news is supposed to captivate us. Never lose sight of what God has done for us. The good news of Jesus is the power of God to rescue people, no matter who they are, or where they’re from, or what their background is.

Kingdom (Daniel 7:9-14)

What’s your kingdom? What’s the thing that sets your heart in motion? What are the things that excite you? Fun, career, enjoyment.

God reveals the future before Jesus is born (Daniel 2:44). Kingdoms are coming one after another but there will be an ultimate kingdom that will never be destroyed. The kingdom is the place where the King rules (Lord’s prayer). Jesus spoke of the kingdom. He said it’s near (Mark 1), it’s in your midst and it’s here. It’s like a mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32). It will grow.

Jesus brings in the rule of the King. He establishes a kingdom that will never be shaken. It will endure for eternity (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus will reign forever (Revelation 11:15). What are you living for? Our actions probably give us away. Our thoughts definitely would. God is calling us to find an identity in an eternal kingdom. Don’t store up treasure on earth (Matthew 6:19-21), store up treasure in heaven. What we build in that kingdom will last forever. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:31-33). His kingdom is more important than anything. It’s about knowing the blessings of God now and for eternity.

Are you part of that kingdom? What are you building for? Are you investing in the kingdom of God? Why build a kingdom for something that will last for 10 years when you can build something that will last forever?

Eternity is our retirement.

Mission (Matthew 28:16-20)

Jesus asked people to follow him in this issue of kingdom building and working under his rule. It’s about reaching out to others with the gospel. If we’re following Jesus surely we’ll do the things that he does. Seek those who are lost. Paul says the love of Christ compels him to share the gospel. We know there is this good news that transforms us and there’s a kingdom that lasts forever.

How do we make disciples? Not everybody receives the gospel with joy. Sometimes we get fearful. It might not have the response we want it to. Our labour in the Lord is never in vain.