When it comes to Bible studies, I've decided there are basically two types of people: groupers and go-it-aloners. Groupers are those who study in groups—they sign up, do their homework (or not), and enjoy the camaraderie of going on a journey with other people. There's nothing wrong with that! Other people often see things from other perspectives; digging into the Word as part of a team can be a richly rewarding experience.
But sometimes that's not an option. The group's schedule doesn't line up with yours, or you're not all that interested in this session's topic, or maybe you've just had enough of other people for a while. (Hey, it happens.) Then what do you do? How about joining the ranks of those who study solo?
As the sole member of your study group, you get to make all the decisions. (Hopefully they'll be unanimous!) What to study, when, where, even why is up to you. The first—and probably the biggest—decision is what to study. Pray for guidance, then consider this: do you want to go with a teacher, a topic, or a territory?
Do you just love [insert your favorite Bible teacher's name here]? Do they have a study you haven't yet worked through? Well, there you go. And truly, that's not a bad way to choose. After all, a good teacher can both engage and enlighten. Plus, if you're familiar with this person's work, you're probably comfortable with their theology and methodology. That was easy, wasn't it?
Maybe you've always wanted to know more about [fill in the blank]. There are Bible study guides on just about every topic out there. Your church librarian, mentor, friends, family, even a friendly staffer at your local Christian bookstore may be able to help. Don't feel you have to limit yourself to published study guides, either. Sometimes striking out on your own with a good commentary can be very rewarding.
(Psst: look left. In the column on the left side of your screen, under "Resources," you'll see a tab that says "bible study tools." That link will take you to some VERY useful stuff—though I'd take it as a personal favor if you'd finish this article before clicking over there.)
I'm using this term loosely to cover studies of whole books or sections of the Bible. My pastor does this; we're currently going through the book of Mark. There's a lot to be said for a slow, deliberate survey of Scripture, taking time to ponder each point instead of speed-reading through the book. It's a lot like the topical study mentioned above, but with less flipping of pages.
7 Steps to Bible Study Success
Once you've chosen what to study, there are a few additional things to keep in mind. Here are some simple steps to help keep you going and growing in the Word.
- Set a Goal. What do you want to get out of this study? An intimate knowledge of Proverbs? A clear understanding of Paul's attitude towards women? A deeper relationship with the Savior? You're not guaranteed to get what you want—God is full of surprises. He may take you on an unexpected detour. But having some idea of what you're after will help keep you motivated.
- Set an Appointment. Seriously, mark it on your calendar and make it a priority. My friend Marilyn Meberg has what she calls "Jesus, Tea, and Me" times every morning. I love that; it sounds like a standing date with a friend. And it is. You didn't really think you'd be studying the Bible alone, did you? It's the living Word of God—he'll be there. (You don't want to stand him up, do you?)
- Stay Awake. I don't mean literally—although I've nodded off over my Bible a few times, haven't you? I'm talking about mental alertness. Reading your allotted verses with half your brain somewhere else is a waste of time. (Yes, I do speak from personal experience.) Pay attention to what's going on in the Scripture and in your spirit. It takes discipline, but it's worth it.
- Listen. The best Bible study is a conversation with God. For that to be an actual two-way conversation, one must remember to hush every now and then and let him talk. (Confession: this is where I often fail. I'm pretty good at filling in my little workbook blanks and shooting off my mouth. Giving God a chance to get a word in edgewise . . . not always so much.)
- Keep It Fresh. If you get bogged down, change it up a bit: move to a different location, try a new Bible translation, read it out loud. If you're studying a story, try acting it out in your living room for the dog's amusement. Rap it. Write it in your own words. Replace one of the names in the story with your own and read it again. Don't be afraid to get a little silly—who's going to care? The cat? He's not impressed with you anyway. Don't be afraid to tell the Lord that you're stuck or bored or just don't get it. (It's not like he doesn't already know.) Ask him for help; he won't mind. James assures us, "But if any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God for it. He is generous to everyone and will give you wisdom without criticizing you" (James 1:5).
- Check In. Having an accountability partner is one of the best ways to ensure you actually do the work. It's so easy to let ourselves off the hook; we're quick to think, "God will understand, or at least he'll forgive me." But having to confess to another person that we blew off our Bible study…that's motivation.
- Reap the Reward. When your study is done, give yourself a gold star—or a new Bible, or a hot fudge sundae, or permission just to sit and stare at the stars for an entire evening, or whatever floats your proverbial boat. It's an accomplishment, celebrate it! Of course, your real reward will be the knowledge you gain from studying the unchanging, life-giving, Word of God.
Susan Ellingburg is a natural-born Texan who sings at every opportunity, reads as much as possible, and cherishes every day she gets to spend with friends. She's a serious foodie and not-so-serious gardener who is determined not to let being single stand in the way of living an amazing life. Read Susan's blog at tastinggod.wordpress.com.
**This column first published on October 14, 2010.