Small groups and Bible study may take place in a variety of settings, from foxholes to comfortable homes. Only one book is essential to the study—the Bible. However, as we develop the skills needed to lead a successful study we recommend using other references. These are nice to have, but should never be considered essential.
The most important step in preparing to lead a Bible study is simply to read the passage under consideration. Read it several times, and, if you have them available, in different translations. Read the passage as soon as possible after you know you will be leading the study. This both helps you understand the passage and puts it in your mind so that the Holy Spirit can work with you even when you are not able to study it in the formal sense of the word.
Do not rush to consult a commentary right away. While the passage most likely means one thing, there are several ways to consider the passage. A commentary will often lead you in one particular direction, while the situation in which you find yourself or the group may cause you to approach the passage differently.
The next step is to understand the setting in which the passage was written. Usually the passage or the particular book of the Bible will give you some clues. Often you will need to read the chapters before or after the passage under consideration to pick up the context.
If you have a study Bible, there may be some short notes preceding the text that will help you with the setting. Who was the author? To whom was the passage directed? Were there certain situations that prompted the writing? If chronology seems important, try to understand where the events of this passage fit in. What was the spiritual climate at the time, for the recipients as well as society at large? Thinking through the setting will help keep you from reading back into the passage thoughts and attitudes from the present time, which might be inappropriate.
As you proceed with your study, resist the temptation at this point to ask, “What is this saying to me?” There will be adequate time to make application after you first understand the passage.
The remainder of the personal study process can be thought of in terms of three basic questions you will ask.
- What does the passage say?
- What does it mean?
- What does it mean to me?
Under each of these question headings, you will likely employ other questions of a similar nature.
Play the role of observer
In considering what a passage says, you are playing the role of an observer. The first thing you might try to observe is the main theme. Seek to find that theme so that you do not get so bogged down in details that you miss it. You might fine tune or modify your perception of the main theme later as you study the passage in more detail, but for starting it is sufficient.
Next, begin noticing the details—repetition of words or phrases, synonyms or word/idea clusters, or unusual words. If the passage suggests action, you might note the verbs; if the passage is descriptive, nouns and adjectives will be worth noting. If the passage seems to be developing a thought, pay special attention to small connecting words such as “and,” “but,” “because,” “therefore,” “if…then,” “since…therefore,” and “so that.” Each of these is used for a purpose and will be helpful in your understanding. You might even find a natural outline of the passage (as we did in Hebrews 10:22-25).
In this observation phase, make a note of the things you do not understand and return to find the meaning at the appropriate time. As you practice this discipline, you will find yourself noting more and more details. Some will not prove to be particularly helpful; others will cause a light to go on.
As you move to the next phase—considering what the passage means—you will play the role of interpreter. If there are meanings of words that are unclear, look them up. Perhaps there are even words that you are comfortable using in everyday conversation but would be hard pressed to define. Look these up as well. A good English language dictionary is extremely useful. For words that seem to have a theological meaning, try to understand them in that context. At this point, it is helpful if you have some Bible reference works available to you. (A Bible dictionary is a very useful tool. It really corresponds to what we normally think of as an encyclopedia. It gives more than a definition, usually developing the thought historically or relating it to other doctrines.)
In this interpretive stage, you will also want to play the role of a detective. Ask some questions that look for consistencies or seeming inconsistencies. Here, the entire Bible can serve as a context. If you detect a different thought or perspective, make sure you can reconcile it with other passages that come to mind. Perhaps you will see an attribute of God that you will want to harmonize with others. It is here that you will want to find shades of meaning that distinguish one word from another.
You may not find all the answers in the time you have to prepare. You may find that others in the group will be able to give some insight as a result of previous study they have done. Relax! By agreeing to lead a study, you are not claiming to understand everything. We are all learning more and more as we grow in maturity.
As you conclude this phase, ask yourself what you have learned and how you would put it all together. Try to put into your own words what the passage is saying.
Now is the appropriate time to ask the last question, “What does it mean to me?” In this phase, you are playing the role of a servant who is trying to please his master through obedience. You are seeking to be obedient to what you learned. If an application does not jump out at you, try to discover an application through the use of the following questions: (Note the acronym—SPACE A—to help remember the questions.)
- Is there a sin to avoid?
- Is there a promise to claim?
- Is there an attitude to change?
- Is there a command to obey?
- Is there an example to follow?
- Is there an attribute of God for praise?
Prayerfully consider these questions in your personal application praying and try to be specific with regard to an application. Using whatever memory device you need to incorporate, stick with this application (and perhaps associate it with the passage being studied) until it is a regular part of your life. In Ezra 7:10 (NASB), we read:
“For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”
Having studied God’s Word and having made application to your own life, you are now almost ready to guide your group in discovering these truths for themselves. There is one more element of preparation needed. You need to formulate discussion questions before the meeting. We suggest some of those in the next section on the actual leading of the group, and they should be considered ahead of time.
Finally, before you lead, pray!