Worth reading

NIV_blueWe’re not all natural readers, but my experience is that reading brings great reward. I struggle to read the great novels or works of fiction. But I’m a fan of sports biographies, and works on leadership, people, organisations, and new ways of thinking and doing. But hands down the most instructive, life-changing, and liberating book I’ve ever read—and continue to read is the Bible.

Apparently it takes less time to read than Game of Thrones and not all that much more than Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. And while these are great stories, the Bible is so much more. If you’ve never really dipped into the Bible, can I recommend you give it a shot. Grab a modern translation—replace the old King James with a New International Version or the Holman Christian Standard Bible—and give it a read. Maybe start in the second part, the New Testament, and discover the extraordinary account of Jesus. It’s a book of life and hope and, contrary to popular opinion, extraordinary relevance and applicability to life now.

If you’d like to read the Bible with someone else, this can make it easier and more fun. Let me know and I will see if I can arrange a reading buddy or even a reading group.

For those of you who have read the Bible—’have’ being the operative word—and want to dip into it again, here are a few suggested approaches to get you restarted.

  1. Read the whole Bible through in one year. A good option is to get a Bible reading plan and follow it. Such plans are available on line or on smart phone Bible apps.
  2. Listen to the Bible on your mp3 player as you travel to and from work, go on holidays, or exercise.
  3. Use some Bible study guide, such as those produced by Matthias Media, which help you through an entire book of the Bible. These provide some commentary and ask questions to assist your understanding and application of the passage.
  4. Get into a routine Monday to Friday that fits with work and other regularities. Don’t worry if the weekend doesn’t fit the routine – do something different on weekends.
  5. If you know another language then, after you have looked at the passage in English, read through it again in the other language. This with help you give more attention to the meaning.
  6. Read with a friend and discuss what you have learned. Or both of you read on your own and then make contact to discuss it together.
  7. Read the Bible out loud to yourself.
  8. Use Search the Scriptures – a three year Bible reading program. You can take this at whatever pace you desire. Maximum benefit is gained if you take the time to write your answers to the questions.
  9. Follow Don Carson’s For the Love of God to read the Bible over one to four years. Excellent commentary by Carson. Available free on the Gospel Coalition website.
  10. Keep a journal of what you have learned and intend to apply from your reading.
  11. Prepare for sermons and Bible studies by reading over the passages beforehand.
  12. Read a passage with a view to giving a very brief talk which explains it, illustrates it and applies it. Then you can talk to me about finding an opportunity to give it!
  13. Try the S.O.A.P. approach. Read or write out the passage of Scripture. Note your observations and questions of the text. Decide how you are going to apply what you’ve learned. Pray that God will give you understanding and enable you to put it into practice.
  14.  ‘Manuscript Discovery’ is a term given to the study of the text of the Bible without chapters, verses, paragraphs or headings included. This means you have to do more work, with the result that you learn more. You can do this yourself simply by printing out the text of the Bible from Bible Gateway and removing all added numbers and headings.
  15. Commit verses to memory.
  16. Type out the entire Bible.
  17. Come up with your own ideas… share them with others

Sounds of silence

nutsboltssmalliconYou ask a question of your group and you’re met with blank looks and the sounds of silence. What do you do?

We all have different tolerance levels when it comes to silence. Some leaders are tempted to jump in and immediately answer their own questions. This isn’t a good idea, as it doesn’t do much for group dynamics! If you need to answer your own questions then you might as well be giving a lecture, not leading a small group discussion or Bible study.

As a general rule you can assume that the silence will seem longer to you than it will to others. People need thinking and processing time. Some need more than others. If the silence continues for an unbearable period, then you might want to ask the group if anyone understood your question. Perhaps your question was unclear, confusing, or too complicated. Maybe you’ve actually woven more than one question together and people are trying to unpack what you’ve asked. It might be helpful to rephrase your question, or ask if there is someone in the group who could repeat the question in their own words. Asking good questions is a skill to be mastered and we will pick up on this in other posts.

Leading better Bible studies

Leading Better Bible StudiesLeading 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.

Scan 2A 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)

Scan 3Rod 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.

Scan 4Rod 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.

Spice it up

spiceitupSpice It Up, by Mike Hanlon and James Leitch, is not a Spanish cookbook, nor a guide to better sex! It’s a course to equip leaders to lead more engaging Bible studies. If Bible studies are your thing, then I hope you haven’t had the experience of being bored to death (especially if you’ve been in a group with me!) Far too many studies end up being mundane and pedestrian. Sometimes we plough through the passage, asking basic comprehension questions, and fail to understand what it really means or what we should do in response. This course aims to overcome these problems. Bible study should be stimulating and life-changing.

Spice It Up is an 8 week course aimed at giving confidence to leaders in handling the Bible in a small group environment. The beauty of this course is that it’s compact and simple, while integrating wisdom from other books and resources. It acknowledges dependence on ideas and material from Growth Groups by Col Marshall and Leading Better Bible Studies by Rod and Karen Morris. This is a great start for new leaders, but it’s also an excellent refresher for those who have previously received training in leading Bible studies. It covers the following topics:

Week 1   Why Bible Study Groups
Week 2   Basic Bible Study
Week 3   Making Bible Study Come Alive
Week 4   Group Dynamics
Week 5   Understanding and Integration
Week 6   Learning Cycle – Application
Week 7   Preparation
Week 8   Practice Sessions

A real strength of this material is how it pushes the leaders to be more interesting AND to go deeper into the Bible. It’s a big mistake to think that the Bible and fun are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Instead of superficial pedestrian yes/no type questions, we’re urged to use creative strategies that connect people to the text and highlight it’s relevance. For example, instead of asking…

  1. What does it say?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. What does it mean to us?

we’re encouraged to explore with the group…

  1. What is surprising?
  2. What is thought provoking?
  3. How does it inspire and challenge us?

This course helps us to use questions well. We should consider the likely responses to any question we ask, but avoid questions that are really a quiz, asking people to discover the answer in our heads. We’re encouraged to have prompting questions up our sleeve that keep the discussion going. These might include extending questions (e.g. Can you explain that a bit more?”), justifying questions (e.g. How does that fit with what we’ve been talking about?”), and redirecting questions (e.g. Any other thoughts?”).

People learn in different ways. Some are more auditory, some visual, and others kinaesthetic. Recognising this opens up creative opportunities for engaging the group. The authors are huge fans of engaging people in a common space, especially by the use of a whiteboard. If people speak and get to write things on the board, then all three learning styles are engaged to some extent.

Spice It Up encourages leaders to add a step between meaning and application. This step asks how what we are learning fits with or shapes our overall theology and connects with the rest of the Bible. It helps people to do theology in a practical way. It also demonstrates that our thinking and practice are to be shaped by the Bible, rather than simply filtering the Bible through what we already believe.

The course also pushes us to apply ourselves to application. Too often we overlook this area and then tack on a question like “So how does this apply to us?” if there’s time! If the goal of Bible study is to see people’s lives transformed by the Word of God, then this is simply not good enough. The advice is to use more concrete and specific questions, to probe more deeply, and to introduce scenarios that highlight what the passage will mean in specific situations.

There are so many practical tips in this material. A whole chapter is devoted to how to go about preparing a study. There’s a string of appendices covering issues such as discovering your learning and communication styles, templates for preparing and writing studies, specific issues for studies from the Gospels and parables, factors of group life, relationships between leaders and personal ministry to members of the groups, and memory prompts for quick Bible studies.

Spice It Up describes the groups as Bible Study Groups. In our church context we’ve given small groups a variety of names and the current one is ‘growth groups’. They’re not intended to be simply Bible study groups, but also involve prayer and personal ministry. For this reason, I’d be inclined to speak of Bible Study in Groups instead. Maybe, then, this course could be accompanied by a series of other courses such as Prayer in Groups, Relationships in Groups, Promoting the Gospel in Groups, Personal Ministry and Care in Groups!

However, the strength of the book is in assisting us with leading better Bible studies. It does this with clarity and simplicity. It’s an excellent resource that is backed up by a website that includes training videos, Bible studies and other resources. The course material can be purchased from this site.