One of my favorite ways to teach the Bible is in a small group setting in which there is the opportunity for give and take, for dynamic interaction over the sacred texts of Scripture. To prepare for such Bible studies, for years I have written out discussion questions that get at the big picture of a passage, as well as the details, both the “forest” and the “trees.” Well-written expository questions can unlock both the text and the minds of the participants in ways that are truly exciting. Jesus was a wonderful question asker! “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he” (Mt. 22:42)? “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons, or from others” (Mt. 17:25)? “Who do people say the Son of Man is? What about you? Who do you say that I am” (Mt. 16:13, 15)? “Which is lawful on the Sabbath? To do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill” (Mk. 3:4)? By asking such powerful, fascinating, and provocative questions, Jesus was drawing his hearers into a discussion, hopefully a fruitful one. He also was setting a pattern that his disciples could follow for generations to come.
As fruitful as small-group Bible studies are, there are some ways they can go quickly off the rails. If the leader allows that, it will be frustrating for everyone involved and will miss the powerful purpose for which God called them together. I would like to discuss three crucial mistakes Bible study leaders should avoid when leading such discussions.
Mistake #1: Failing to Teach the Bible
It may seem strange that this should even be mentioned. It is a “Bible study” after all! However, once you opt for an open but controlled discussion in which everyone is encouraged to participate, you run the risk of the time being hijacked by some special interests that have gripped the minds of a few. It could be current events—politics, a controversial current event, a pandemic, a government policy, a court ruling, a sports team going for the championship. Whatever. Our recent experiences in our nation have shown how polarized people can be on many of these issues, and how ready to talk passionately and persuasively about their views. But that is not why you have come together. Whenever I teach the Bible, I remember the purpose: the salvation of my soul and the souls of my hearers. Yes, that’s right! Nothing less than salvation! In 1 Timothy 4:13-16, Paul exhorted Timothy to grow and develop as a Bible teacher, for by so doing “you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Salvation is a process. The people who come to Bible studies are usually Christians already—but they are not done being saved. They have to grow in sanctification, their faith in Christ has to develop. And the Bible is the only food for their faith. So Bible study leaders need to feed Christ’s sheep the pure food of God’s Word. “Group think” on hot-button current events will not save anyone.
Mistake #2: Failing to Understand the Text Properly
To achieve the end I just described of feeding the faith of the people who come, the leader needs to “study to show himself approved unto God, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). This will take hard work in the text before the Bible study. To ask good questions that faithfully draw out the true meaning of the text, we need to know what that meaning is. The Bible study leader should be by far the best prepared of any member of that study. A common “pooling of ignorance” will not feed the faith of anyone. The leader needs to do due diligence in the text. He needs to see the main point, especially as it relates to faith in Christ. He needs to understand the most significant minor issues in the passage as well. The leader should prepare diligently by the power of the Holy Spirit, the very One who composed it to begin with. As the Psalmist prayed, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Ps. 119:18).
"By asking such powerful, fascinating, and provocative questions, Jesus was drawing his hearers into a discussion, hopefully a fruitful one. He also was setting a pattern that his disciples could follow for generations to come."
Mistake #3: Failing to Manage the Discussion Properly
Having done all the preparatory work, the leader will understand the text better than anyone. But it is not a sermon… the leader needs to be skillful in drawing the understanding of the text from the minds of the participants through skillful question-asking and discussion management. People tend to cherish and remember longer insights they have had themselves more than insights others have shared. A skilled leader is great at enabling the light of illumination to flash on in the minds of those present. To this end, the leader has to manage different personalities that may be there. There is the know-it-all who is just there to dominate the discussion and flash his biblical knowledge at every moment. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the quiet listener who always says good things but will never speak up unless invited. In between, there are all kinds of folks with various approaches that help or hinder the healthy flow of discussion. The leader needs to know how to affirm a person without affirming what that person just said… because honestly many answers given are not biblically accurate. So, the leader needs to know how to redirect the minds to a more helpful way of looking at that detail without crushing the spirit of the one who just spoke. And overall, the leader needs to know how to hit the essential points—all of them—in the allotted time. Navigating through the whole text without taking any major off-ramps takes a lot of skill.
This work is one of the most rewarding that any church leader can do. May God sustain you in seeing the beauty of Scripture’s truth lead to faith in Christ Jesus in all your hearers.