The type of Bible study that OCF seeks to encourage is one where people approach God’s Word and discover for themselves the truths contained in it. Researchers continually point out that people retain truth and information that they discovered themselves at a much higher rate than if they had simply been told that same truth or information. Therefore, the leader needs to see himself or herself as a facilitator, not as a lecturer.
The crucial question the leader needs to consider in the shift from personal study to leading the group is this: “Of the things learned, what should be told to the people and what should they discover for themselves?” As Bible study leader for the week, take the time to formulate questions that result in self-discovery. Consider telling the group only those facts—from your study or reference books—they could not be expected to uncover simply with their Bibles, such as background information or a specific meaning you uncovered in a dictionary you want to use as a springboard for the discussion. It might even include a statement regarding the approach you will be taking, perhaps stating the main point of the passage and the truth you are extracting (if the purpose of the study is to understand the rationale behind the truth).
Your series of group discussion questions should follow the same pattern you used in your personal study: observation, interpretation, and application. As you ask the observation questions, direct the people to first give responses right from the text, using the very words of the text. These questions should be relatively easy to answer and will serve the purpose of getting people to engage in the self-discovery process of talking. Questions and calls for responses in this category might look like this:
- Who are the people involved in the story?
- What are the action verbs in verses 4-7?
- Put the story into your own words.
- What attributes of God are mentioned here?
- What is the definition of faith given in verse 1?
After you have had the group discover all the pertinent points, move on to the second set of questions, those designed to understand the meaning of the things observed. Questions you use might sound like this:
- What did Jesus mean when he said, “You must be born again?”
- Why was it significant for the writer to use the word, _______?
- What is the difference between mercy and grace?
- What is the connection between faith and hope?
- How do you reconcile a God of wrath and a God of love?
When you ask questions, avoid asking those that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Those questions usually don’t generate discussion. As you logically develop your thought, you might find yourself going back and forth between observation and interpretive questions. That is acceptable if it fits the progression you desire. You may also have to field interpretive and application responses and hold them for later if you are not finished with the observation responses.
It is not uncommon for people to try to jump ahead of you. When they lead you at just the right pace to affect a good transition, use the response to your benefit. If it is premature, you have the right as the leader not to let them move ahead too fast.
Navigating potential problems
One potential problem of a self-discovery-type Bible study is that people may make wrong statements, and the study may turn into a “share your ignorance” study. As the leader, you are in the position to prevent this through your personal study. You can also nicely challenge a wrong response by asking the responder to point out the portion of the text that prompted the response.
You can also ask others to give their understanding of that portion. Where there is room for differing thoughts, allow for it. When the response is obviously wrong, you as the leader will need to ensure that the correct response is achieved before moving forward. But as the leader, you do not always need to give the correct response.
When the correct response to an obvious observation question is given, you will likely move on. When you are into interpretive questions and responses, don’t simply move on when you get the desired response. Allow others to comment. This will usually result in a more complete answer as others join in the satisfaction of discovery and build upon the response.
Work your way through the passage alternating between observation and interpretive questions as necessary. You will likely have some of those questions written out ahead of time. This allows you to listen to the responses without worrying about formulating your next question. You should, however, learn to ask additional questions based upon what you hear. These may be questions that merely clarify the response.
At other times you will hear a good thought and want to explore it. As long as this is helpful to understanding the passage, feel free to pursue those areas. If they look like they will distract you from the direction you are leading the group, don’t chase those bunny trails. Remember, you are the leader-facilitator and are expected to properly direct the group.
In the interpretive and application portions of the study, be aware of the flow of questions and responses. If a pattern is being established where there is one response to every question and all responses are being directed back to the leader, seek to get out of that pattern. Ask others to respond to a response, or whether they agree, or to clarify a term or its usage. With just a little bit of practice, this will become easy to do and eventually cause the group to do this naturally.
As you conclude this section, have a summary question ready. It may sound like this:
- What is the main point of this passage?
- Would someone summarize this passage for us?
- Let’s take a moment and each of us formulate a statement of truth derived from our discussions tonight.
The final phase of leading the study is to draw people to a place of application. You can do this by simply asking the basic question, “What are we going to take away from this passage and apply to our lives?” Or you may want to direct the application in a certain way based upon some of the summary statements that were made.
If the study went well in the interpretive phase(s) and truth was discovered, most of the applications will be proper. You may need to press a little if the applications are not direct enough. Often people will state implications instead of applications. Implications will involve statements like “we should…” instead of “I will… .” If you hear those kinds of responses, press a little deeper to see if the people are willing to make direct, personal application. Be ready to model it yourself.