Leading Better Bible Studies: Essential skills for effective small groups by Rod and Karen Morris is a compendium of valuable information on small groups ministry. The authors draw together a wealth of material acquired through theological training, adult education study, and years of practical experience leading Bible study groups. There’s much more to Leading Better Bible Studies than teaching us how to lead better Bible studies, but the Bible is clearly central to the whole agenda. This book is intended to assist leaders to ensure their groups are about helping people (i) grow in their relationships with God, (ii) become more like Jesus, and (iii) experience the joy of doing this in relationship with others.
A strength of this book is its balance. Good small group leadership requires people to build biblically-shaped competence in a range of areas. Leading Better Bible Studies outlines seven areas important areas for leadership development. While the book follows a logical sequence, any chapter can be dipped into at any stage.
1. Being a Christian leader
The assumption is that leaders are men and women seeking to know God and serve him in their role as leaders. They must be Christians who trust in the saving work of the Lord Jesus. Leaders are not called primarily to impart their own wisdom, but to help the members of the group grow in their knowledge and love of God through studying the Bible. This will require leaders to focus on Christ, depend on the power of God’s Spirit, delve deeply into the Scriptures, pray humbly, teach in word and example, and call people to change in the light of God’s word.
2. Helping people learn
The main task of the leader is seen to be helping people learn from the Bible. This will, in turn, shape all the other ministry in the group. This takes diligence in understanding the Scriptures and it also requires the leader to understand how people people learn and how we can assist people to learn.
The content of our teaching is so important that we must use the best possible methods to enable people to learn. (p2)
Rod and Karen apply their understanding of adult learning principles and the adult learning cycle to enable leaders to suitably connect with the variety of people in their groups. They show how people learn through stages, but also how individuals have a preference for particular stages of the cycle. Activists tend to focus on the challenge of something new and fresh. They love the ‘doing’ part of learning. Reflectors take more time to reflect and consider how things relate. They look for patterns, connections and explore things from different perspectives. These people tend to take more time to come to their conclusions. Theorists are more into formulating explanations and developing principles. They’re keen to draw everything together into coherent unity. Pragmatists are keen to get to the point where the ‘rubber hits the road’. Recognising the different stages and preferences for learning can assist the leader to engage all members of the group better and, hopefully, help the pragmatists not to get so frustrated with the theorists!
3. Learning from the Bible in groups
This is the longest chapter in the book and focuses upon the leader’s central task. It looks to develop skills in handling the Bible, both personally and in the group. The foundations of understanding Scripture in its context are well presented here. We’re encouraged to look at the detail in each passage, within the overall theology of the whole Bible. Three aspects are developed in studying the Bible:
(i) observation – what does the text actually say?
(ii) interpretation – what does the text mean?
(iii) application – how do we respond to what the text means?
This chapter is a treasure chest of strategies for doing Bible study in our groups. It helps us to get beyond the boring Q and A approach of so many studies, and explore creative means of learning together from the Bible. They are designed to help people learn from the Bible and not simply discover what’s in the head of the leader! There are 21 different approaches to Bible study outlined here, each with an example study to share.
4. Developing group life
Many of us will have had superb experiences of small groups, along with others we’re still trying to forget. This chapter focuses on the ‘people’ side of our groups and how to develop groups that really work. It’s highly practical, dealing with issues such as group size, when and where you meet, developing mutual expectations of the group, building trust, sharing responsibilities, good communication, celebrating milestones, and more. Groups go through life cycles and good preparation enables the group to navigate these well. They require attention to task and maintenance functions. Finishing groups well can be as important as starting them well. If you’re looking for a range of activities to help people in your group get to know each other, this chapter offers you another 24 great ideas!
5. Helping people pray
Prayer is often emphasised in theory in Bible study groups, yet neglected in practice. We know of groups which run out of time and have only a perfunctory prayer to open and close the meeting; of others which never move beyond the mundane and superficial; and of still others where only one or two people pray, while everyone else remains silent. (p151)
I suspect many of us have been involved in groups that struggle to pray. The strength of this chapter is that it offers practical steps to model, teach and encourage people in our groups to pray. And it needs to begin with the leader.
6. Sustaining group members
A good Bible study leader will seek to look after the members of their group. They will care for each person with regard to their relationship with God, and what’s going on in their lives. They will seek to equip the group to build one another through God’s word and loving service. This requires more than simply preparing a study and opening our homes each week. It requires perseverance and hard work, understanding of people, good communication skills, capacity to work through and resolve conflicts, and more. But it also requires a healthy grasp of the limits of our responsibility. Ultimately, the people in the group are God’s responsibility, not yours. Therefore there are limits to your accountability. (p188) A healthy reminder!
7. Continuing as a leader
How do we keep leaders fresh and willingly serving God in this ministry for the long haul? The book finishes with some more practical wisdom. Refreshment is key to doing anything long term. People need change, variety and breaks. While they may no longer need basic training, they may benefit greatly from ongoing encouragement and support. Supervision, peer mentoring, personal reflections and self-appraisal are all useful tools for developing leaders.
Rod and Karen suggest focusing on the person, the people, and the process. These three areas are all important for healthy leaders and healthy groups. They include a few pages of questions and ideas that could be used either personally, or by a supervisor who is encouraging another leader (p195-8).
Leading Better Bible Studies finishes with a list of resources on a range of topics related to each of the chapters. These are good resources, but it would be useful to update them to include materials written since the first printing of the book in 1997.
I’ve worked through this book on a number of occasions previously. It’s been my ‘textbook’ for teaching courses on leading Bible studies. Along with other books, such as Growth Groups, it’s been a ‘reference guide’ for equipping myself and others to lead. Our church is implementing a strategy of coaching and mentoring for our growth group leaders. My hope is for every coach to be familiar with this book, so they are better equipped to support the leaders under their care.