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How to Lead a Bible Study Effectively

diverse Bible study sitting around coffee table

I have often been asked to help laypeople in our churches prepare devotional messages for civic clubs, work, home, or Sunday school classes. I have worked with staff ministers to help create meaningful small group studies for groups within the churches I’ve served. So, whether a minister seeking to equip others for small group Bible studies or a member of the church wants to prepare a devotional for a club or small group, I believe there is a need for the following thoughts on how to lead a Bible study. So, I will try to demonstrate how to prepare a devotional by crafting an example devotional. Our lesson uses the following devotion and Scripture: “Listen, Learn, Love: 3 Lessons on Leadership, God’s Way, from Psalm 119:1-24."

There are several steps in preparing a small group Bible study or devotional for your gathering, which includes: the selection of a text, and questioning the text. These steps guide you to the explanation of the text and the exposition of the text.

Selection of the Sacred Text

Unless you were assigned a text, you would need to find a text from which we speak. One could begin with a topic. Many websites provide Scriptures arranged by topic: “What the Bible Says about Grief,” and so forth. These are useful sites for their purpose. However, I want to challenge you to move beyond that approach. I advocate the consultation of a daily lectionary (a book that provides a schedule of readings from the Bible). In this way, I deal with the text that is before me. There is usually an Old Testament text, a Psalm, Epistle, and a Gospel reading. I recommend beginning your study with Scripture rather than topics. Such an approach requires asking questions of the text and allowing God’s Word to direct the reader’s thoughts rather than bringing a topic to the text. Now, there is nothing wrong with beginning with an issue and finding text that relates. I am not knocking that! Any pathway to the goldmine of Scripture is a good one, as long as it leads you to the treasure! 

Hopefully, I am giving you one more way to go about preparing a devotional. I do admit that it is my preferred way. I have never lacked direction from God using the Scriptures of the day from a given lectionary. For this study, I am using the ESV Daily Lectionary (a very fine lectionary that combines both my preferred translation, the English Standard Version of the Holy Bible, with a lectionary crafted from the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer). The daily reading for this coming Wednesday, 29 August 2018, includes Psalm 119:1-24. I might select all of the text or a few verses. For this example, let’s choose the following verses:

Our Text - Psalm 119:9-16

"How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to our word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.

Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips, I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies, I delight
as much as in all riches.

I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word."

The Example
The title of this devotional will be “Lessons for Leaders.” If you must “name” your study (e.g., to print a program), why not wait until you walk the steps of preparation. The devotional title will emerge from the transition from the “Expository Vision” to the division of your argument (i.e., the “body” of the teaching, with divisions, or the “points” of your teaching).

Questioning the Text: Humbling Yourself before the Word of God

Augustine reminded us that before we can be preachers of the Scripture, we must be hearers of the Word.  No one can instruct another in the words of Christ before, first, sitting at the feet of the Master. I feel that I must inject a needed word about this critical step. To question the text is not to impugn God or the Holy Bible. It is, rather, to discern the Holy Spirit's intent in the passage for the sake of God’s people (and the mission of God in the world today). We must approach the Word of the Lord in great humility. 

We question the text because we invariably bring our own biases and presumptions with us. Without such self-diffidence, our unknown biases arise like Barbary pirates to plunder the meaning of God’s Word. Come to the text with all of your questions. Sit before the biblical portion as you consider the likely burdens of those who hear you. You were not being the snoop in this case but rather considering the context of universal human struggles. Those human trials will most certainly be represented in your group no matter how small. Is there a challenging passage nested within the larger context? Please don't skip it. While you do not need to have a seminar within your devotional about all of the schools of thought about the “hard saying” or controversial passage, you merely mention that “this is a difficult passage that has had several interpretations and is worthy of its study.” Then, after acknowledging the problematic text, move to the more important message of the passage you are seeking to unfold. Mostly, complex texts are nested within a larger context that is dealing with a more extensive subject. So, bring your questions to the text.

The whole of the work that follows is part of “expositing” (to clarify meaning or explain in detail) the biblical text. This is the prayerful, careful, and humble work of “drawing forth” the propositional truth (thus, “exposit”) of the Word of the Lord for today. I said, “prayerful,” for you must go about this work with prayer. Pray the text. Pray it back to the Lord. Plead with Him to show you His Word for those to whom you will minister. I say “humble” for humility is the necessary posture of a lesser subject before a more extraordinary Being. This is God’s Word. You and I are mere mortals. We must have the power of the Holy Spirit to discern His Word. In a real way, the process that is going on here is that the Spirit who dwells in you must “recognize” Himself in the Word He has breathed forth (2 Timothy 3:16).

Some questions of the text include (but are not limited to):

1.What is the presenting issue in this text?
a. A subsidiary question is, “What is the intent of the human author here?” “What is the discerned intent of the Holy Spirit in this passage?”

2. What is the saving response revealed in Scripture about the presenting issue (You are building on each question; the questions are not in isolation but form a building block of answers providing you a statement of testimony)?

3. Whom do I see? Where is Christ in this? (Consider the whole redemptive plan of God and ask yourself, “Where are we on the ‘redemptive plan historical flow’ of history?)

a. Most often, after you determine the “presenting issue” of the text, you will begin to see the Biblical answer to address that issue; this is the “expository vision” of the text. The vision always lifts the burden.

4. What does this say to me? (Write down your answer; keep writing it until you have a complete sentence)

5. What does this say to us? (Again)

6. What does life look like if we follow the answers in this portion of God’s Word?

The force of these questions will help you to arrive at the next crucial step in your preparation:

How to Locate the Meaning of the Text: Exegesis and Exposition of the Word of God

  • Isolate the presenting issue that the divinely-inspired author is addressing. 
  • Then state it and personalize it.
  • Draw forth (“exposit”) the vision of hope and healing, and salvation from the text.
  • State this as it is happening in the text. It would be best to establish the biblical truth (the “exegetical truth”) before you can move to the expository fact. Without the biblical truth clearly stated, anything said afterward is “unbelievable.”

Next, Bring Out the “Universal Truth of God’s Revealed Word” for Our Time and Our Lives

Write it out as an “A/B” construction. Here is an example: As every believer must face (A) (the presenting issue) in our lives, so (B) God gives us (the “expository vision”). I teach our preaching students in seminary to write out this “proposition” or “main idea” or “Big Idea” or (as I call it) “the Expository Statement” until they have a clear, persuasive, concise statement that can fit on a “Post-it Note.”

So, here are the steps applied to Psalm 119:9-16.

1. What Problem or Presenting Issue Is the Text Addressing in the Lives of Leaders? 
Try to single out one significant issue or problem that the author is addressing in the sacred text. Since King David wrote it, it is ostensibly concerned with leadership. David is focusing on temptations that come to young men. He is concerned that young men can commit certain sins that will leave a woundedness or a limp for the rest of their lives. Some mistakes can leave lifelong consequences. The king, who knew a thing or two about such mistakes, is giving seasoned (and Holy Spirit-breathed) counsel to young men on how to prepare for a life of leadership.

2. How Can We Best State That Problem or Presenting Issue?
Perhaps, we state it like this: “In every season of life, leaders face temptations. When leaders fall into temptation, they inevitably derail the mission they once led.”

3. What Does the Text Say about This Problem or Presenting Issue?
“The Psalmist guides us. He teaches how young men can maintain their bearings, keep their eyes on the goal, from life-crippling bad decisions.”

4. What Does This Say to Leaders — to Us — This Morning?
“God has given us lessons for leaders from Psalm 119 that can lead to faithfulness and effectiveness.”

5. A Transition Question Could Be: What Lessons Do We See Here?
The answer provides the “argument” or a teaching/devotional/Bible study point with transitional statements. For example, “We see three essential signposts to direct leaders to faithfulness and effectiveness.” [In the above transitional sentence, the phrase “signpost“ is a “keyword.” Keywords tether each of the headings or “points“ together.]

Arranging the Text: Teaching the Truth of God’s Word

Then you move into the teaching. Thus, you might say, [ At this point, I will just proceed with a devotional on “Listen, Learn, and Love: A Biblical Guide to Leadership God’s Way.”] “The first signpost [Note the use of this keyword in the transition.] in Psalm 119 that we see is this:

1. Faithful and Effective Leaders Listen
David asked, “How can a young man keep his way pure” (verse 9)?

Leadership is, of course, having such influence over others, either by relationship or authority, that others follow. Would you rather have people follow you out of power or out of a relationship? I suppose if you are a general, you might answer authority. Yet, before D-Day, 06 June 1944, General Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Atlantic, went down to be with the troops. The Abilene, Kansas farm boy is seen in one famous photograph mingling with enlisted men of the 101st airborne division, the “Screaming Eagles.” The thousands of American, British, Canadian, and Commonwealth nations that stormed Normandy's beaches followed a vision and a leader. Were these gallant farm-hands, watchmakers, truck drivers, ministers, bricklayers, lawyers, physicians, and greengrocers—all highly-trained Soldiers, by then— following out of authority? Or out of respect, honor, and, in a word, relationship? The answer is self-evident.

David was such a leader. He was responsible for a whole nation of other leaders. As he gave direction to young men, he demonstrated something that he repeatedly practiced: David talked to himself. David asked questions of his soul. We see this, for instance, in Psalm 42, (Whether the Sons of Korah includes David or not—we don’t know—the verse is indicative of David’s introspection): "Oh my soul, why are you disquieted within me? Even in a time when he is feeling down, he takes his feelings to the Lord. Spurgeon wrote convincingly that the Psalm was composed by David: “Although David is not mentioned as the author, this Psalm must be the offspring of his pen; it is so Davidic, it smells of the son of Jesse, it bears the marks of his style and experience in every letter.” See Spurgeon, Charles H. The Treasury of David; Charles Spurgeon Bible Commentary.

Good leaders talk to themselves. Taken the wrong way, you may want to put those kinds of leaders in straitjackets and lead them away! But of course, what is meant here is that a leader is reflective in the most spiritually healthy way. “What are the traps before me? “Lord, is my leadership about serving others or promoting myself?“ There so many other questions that we can ask ourselves. The Bible says that bringing our lives to the bar of God’s law is a good and healthy thing. It is suitable for leaders to step back, go to the Lord, as Jesus did when he retreated to the mountains of the sea, and ask the Lord, “Father, who am I today? How can I serve you and others better? “

A suitable leader lessons: he listens for signs of trouble; he listens for voices of opportunity; he listens to others, but most importantly, he listens to God. Isn’t that the kind of leader you want to follow? And isn’t that the kind of leader you want to be? Before leaders talk, leaders listen. There is a second signpost that guides us as leaders from this passage.

2. Faithful and Effective Leaders Learn
We learn more about David’s leadership principles: “With my whole heart, I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart” verses 10-11). David moves from listening to God to learning from what God has to say. He says that he does so “with my whole heart.” Israel's monarch is focused and passionate about learning the Lord’s ways that he might apply God’s Word to his life. As a king and a leader of leaders, nothing could be more vital than learning. And there is no more extraordinary place to learn than at the feet of the Master.

In the Gospels, we observe Jesus and His disciples in a sort of classroom. It is definitely “on-the-job training,” but a continuing classroom in which the Lord Jesus teaches His disciples about the truths of God and life in the Kingdom of God. One of the most exciting things to note is that the disciples were not merely learning about theological systems (as crucial as systematic theology is to understand the sweeping narrative of the Kingdom of God), they were learning about God (which is, of course, “theology” proper) and they were learning about themselves. They were absorbing the effervescent vivacity of the One who was speaking to them, the One that they called “Teacher.”

We also see the David will need to store the Word of God in his heart. The heart is a metaphoric warehouse, filled with a fantastic assortment of deeply personal and often mysterious items, picked up along the pathway of our lives, often without knowing it: jealousies, old bruises, roots of bitterness, memories of birthday parties, boot-camp, a lie that you told as a child, and so many diverse things. These storage bends of material all have a common lineage: an event coupled with emotion—sadness, fear, happiness, love—and that fusion of information and emotion creates long-term memory. Long-term memories are “stored.” Some of us “hoard” hurtful or even poisonous things that we need to release. We need to clean that warehouse out. But, because of the power of the fusion of emotion and data, that is not easily done.

Jesus taught that if something terrible is removed, something worse will seek to fill the vacuum. What God desires for you is to replace the painful items stored away with His Word. And the only way that His Word is appropriately stored is with an emotional interaction with the Word of God. That is bound to happen if you begin your time of learning the Bible while praying, “Father, show me Your will in Your Word. Lord, fill me with the truth that sets me free.” God will answer that prayer. The prayerful dialogue between you and the Lord will "store" that Word in your heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. I am not talking about mere memorization of a Bible verse. I am saying that you must be existentially engaged with the living Word of God. That may mean memorization as a consequence of the more profound divine moment of God’s touch. This is how we store up God’s Word in our hearts. And the thing is: God’s Word is alive. When His Word is “in the warehouse” of your soul, it will grow, nurture, and bring medicinal healing to other parts of your soul. It is like implanting a slow-release medicine that kills the bad, destroys the painful, and soothes the soul's soft tissue, bringing healing; to painful memories, abusive relationships, broken dreams, and even to trauma.

Keeping oneself from sin is answered in learning and storing — not just in the head but also in the heart. We have asked the question, how are you listening? The question then you must be, “Are you learning?” I used to serve as the president and chancellor of a graduate school of theology. I enjoyed the graduation ceremonies. I loved seeing their families and friends gathering to celebrate what is a remarkable accomplishment. But I enjoyed seeing the graduates personally. As I looked at each one of them coming to me, reaching out their hand to shake mine and receive their degree, I thought to myself, “Now, here is another wonderful story of God‘s grace right before me!“ And I often handed a degree to a new fledgling pastor or missionary he would whisper to them, “remember, this is merely a license to learn.”

Everything we have learned before this day gives us a license to learn more for tomorrow. And not just to learn something, but to learn something and give it away to someone else. All of our experiences and all of her education, courses, classes, what we learned at our mother’s knee, what we know from our father’s workshop, all converge into our hearts. We remember them. We cherish them. That is the way it is with God’s Word. Faithful and effective leaders not only listen. Leaders learn. Now, if all we did were “listen and learn," we would just be like a giant-jowl squirrel in the autumn: we would be accumulating acorns for our winter stash. But that is not why leaders listen and learn. Leaders listen and learn so that they can become the people God wants them to be and then to do something else (or we should say “to become someone else“):

3. Leaders Love
The word “love” is not used in this particular part of Psalm 119. In other places, David says, straightaway, “Lord, I love thy law” (Psalm 119:97). But here, he uses the word “delight.” The word is very similar to love. To delight is to have one’s heart and entire person filled with joy, consumed with blessedness, with soulful satisfaction in the object of one’s passion. In David’s case, the delight was for the Lord himself and His Word. Why? Because as he delighted himself in God and his Word, this “joyful love”—delight— brought about an anointing over David. This anointing protected him. This anointing seals in the wisdom of God into the heart of the leader named David.

Leaders listen. Leaders learn. And now we see that leaders love. Do you know what is interesting about all of this? Everything that we read in the text is about leadership taking place “below the waterline.” In other words, these leadership lessons are dealing with the leader’s innermost being. These lessons are dealing with the leader’s relationship with God. These lessons are dealing with the leader’s assessment of “self” before God.

Who is the most outstanding leader in your life? Perhaps it was your father or your mother. Maybe it was a friend; or a coach. That leader might have been a high school teacher or a college professor. But one thing is for sure: our best leaders — by definition, that means leaders who are faithful and effective — are leaders who listen, learn, and love. What if that leader described in this passage was you? For what others do not see below the waterline they experience when the ship is underway. If there has been no listening, no learning, and no love, you can be sure that the only people following them must follow them by rule or authority. And sometimes that is OK. But how much better it would be if leaders lead by relationship, not just control. Come to think of it; there was One who had all of the authority in the universe. But he chose to lead with love.

What kind of leader will you be today? The answer to that question is altogether related to this question: what kind of follower are you?”

Other Important Issues: Questions, Time, and Leading a Group

Questions
I have focused on the composition of the study, not on small group leader dynamics. That is another lesson. Allow me, then, to just add a word on the topic. The venue will determine your questions. If you are in a home Bible study meeting, you could ask the questions after each significant “movement” in the study. For example, you would ask a question for group discussion after the introduction, then after each “point” in the presentation. If you are at a more public event, and questions are expected, and group discussion is desired, you would wait until you conclude. In this example, the devotional is a “Bible message” with a response rather than a discussion.

As to how to pose questions, the answer is altogether related to God’s Word and applying it to the lives of those before you (with you). “What questions does this section of Scripture suggest?” Begin with the text. You will undoubtedly see the questions, and answers, emerge. Deviate not from this fundamental strategy. Avoid questions that “re-adjudicate” the prayerful, quiet, solemn journey of inquiring into the presenting issue and the expository vision. It is not that you are infallible! It is instead that your teaching needs application. You are not asking questions of the text (of God) but asking questions of people. Therefore, for each major movement of the text, you’re asking how this relates to those before you. “What does this mean for your life as a mother? What does this mean for us as leaders? What does this first point of the message say to those in school? What hope does this convey to one with cancer? How do we make this work in our busy lives?

Time
The seasons, months, and years were created by God to regulate time. Know the start and finish times before you begin the Bible study. Ask someone responsible for the venue. If there is a vague reply, urge the host to announce starting times and closing times. Ask your pastor, your boss, the chairman of the Rotary Club, etc. Then, stay UNDER that time. Remember that if you have questions, you must consider those within the total time allotment. This matter of time is quite essential. It is not the case that God’s Word doesn’t deserve ALL of our time. It is that God has given us so much time. We are to be wise, to redeem the time. I have never heard of a mob of angry parishioners gathering outside of the door of the manse or vicarage demanding that the pastor “cease from being on-time!” I am ashamed to say that I have experienced something akin to this (not that bad, I must say) revolt for “going over” time. I used to have one lady come to the front door, and if I had gone past noon, she would stomp her right foot. She would pronounce my crime and her verdict, all the while rat-tat-tatting her antique brass-tipped cane on the church step! I might differ with this lady’s expression. I cannot object to her lesson. And, to her credit, the angry echoes of that walking stick still frighten me! So, by golly, it worked! But I don’t want any rat-tat-tatting going on with you.

Leading a group
Let me say once more, the intent of this lesson does not include group dynamics. Now, this is an important topic. If you are in a small group, the lack of pastoral oversight by the leader can lead to a failure to communicate. I will say that the topic of small group leadership deserves more attention. Here are some things to note:

1. The Bible study leader does not have to be the small group leader.

2. Small group leaders must facilitate, not teach, once they are in that role.

3. Small groups are often composed of those quick to respond and those who are somewhat hesitant. Do not encourage the former, and do not try to change the latter. Ask the question that leads to application.

4. Do not make your small group a biblical quiz game show. 

5. Don’t return to the exegetical study. Establish it, and move to application.
a.There is a caveat to this. Sometimes, a Bible study's focus becomes a sort of “group encounter” of finding a passage's expository vision. In that case, refer to the main questions taught earlier.

6. Prayer.
-For understanding;
-For the intent of the Lord to be realized;
-For each person in the group.
-For souls to be saved, lives transformed, and the Kingdom of God to advance.
-For yourself—faithfulness in all things.

Facilitating a Bible study, Sunday School lesson, or small group Bible study is one of those activities we might erroneously write off as “volunteer church work.” The sublime is often disguised by the familiar. The truth is, leading a Bible study is a direct response to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. Minister not in your strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit. How is that accomplished? Prayer, submission, and remaining in touch with the intent of the text. Then you will surely know: It is not just that prayer opens God’s Word to you, the teacher, but most importantly, prayer opens you to God‘s Word. When such a sacred encounter happens, you will never lack a lesson.

Photo credit: ©Sparrowstock


Dr. Michael A. MiltonMICHAEL A. MILTON (Ph.D., University of Wales; MPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; MDIV, Knox Theological Seminary; Cert. in Higher Education Teaching, Harvard University) serves as the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine College and Seminary. A Presbyterian minister (PCA, ARP), Milton has penned more than thirty books, hundreds of articles in journals, magazines, opinion columns, and newspapers. As president of the D. James Kennedy Institute and Faith for Living, Milton has served as a public theologian. His work has been cited on numerous national media outlets as he provides historic Christian insights into faith and life in a changing world. Dr. Milton's record of ministry includes seminary chancellor, president of three seminaries, senior minister of one of America's historic churches, founder of three congregations, and a Christian academy. A composer and artist, Mike and Mae Milton reside in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Learn more at michaelmilton.org/about. [from a press release by McCain& Associates.]




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