I’m a fan of the interactive Bible teaching format. I still believe there is an important place for set piece sermons. They suit particular teaching/preaching needs and particular learning styles. However there is a real benefit to giving people the opportunity to open up, ask questions and discuss. So that’s why we have used an interactive format at our Sunday night meetings over the past few years. Teaching a big group who are all at different styles is different to reaching but it is also different to teaching a small group. So over the past few years I’ve found it helpful to run with a particular format. I’d like to share it here.
A. For starters
We usually start our discussions with either an ice breaker which may provide for some light hearted discussion or a topical question. I prefer the latter though it can be combined with something fun. The aim here is to get people thinking about how they and others would approach real life issues.
Note that at this stage, we are trying to get people to think about the practical issue and so we are not expecting them to open their Bibles yet. However it doesn’t matter if someone does pick up on a particular Bible verse but we want to give equal opportunity for others who don’t know the Bible to talk about how they would approach the question.
What we are really doing is beginning to set up the application. In our own preparation we will have come to a conclusion about the main point of the passage and how to apply it. The Bible discussion format is not a free for all. Our aim is still to teach from God’s Word.
This is a warm up exercise and should only last a few minutes. You do not always need to take feedback from the different groups. Sometimes we hear one or two stories and sometimes we go straight to the next bit.
B. A Look at the Bible
This is the main part of the Bible study. I divide it into two parts
1. Questions that encourage people to observe what the Bible passage is saying.
Too often we already have an idea in our heads about how to approach a subject. The result is that we think we have an answer and we got to the Bible to find support. The risk is that we can miss the depth and riches of what a Bible passage is saying and we can even try and end a bible passage to fit our own views.
So I include questions here that encourage people to look at the detail of what the text is saying. This might include getting them to summarise the passage or retell it in their own words to each other. We also identify main characters, what is said, big words and repeated themes.
The challenge here is to get the pace right. You need to allow enough time for people to observe carefully and find the detail but you also don’t want to give too much time or people start to get into debate/discussion about their opinions on how to understand and apply the passage.
Sometimes it is helpful to get people to feed back their answers to the main group but you don’t necessarily need to get them to go through all the questions again. You can ask people to summarise or you can pick up on one or two key questions.
2. Digging a little deeper
Once we know what the text says, we can work hard on understanding what it means. This is where I encourage people to think carefully about a particular word, phrase or theme within the passage. Sometimes this will be because there is something we might find difficult to understand or difficult to accept. Sometimes there will be potential controversy. Usually, most of the clues to help us grasp the meaning will be in the existing text. We are working towards an understanding of what this specific texts meaning and purpose is. Sometimes it may be helpful to refer to other bible passages but I do so sparingly. The risk is that by looking at a lot of other texts, we can miss out on what they mean in their own context. We’ve not done the groundwork and so we end up with a wider Bible discussion but not a deeper one.
During the group discussion, you should be ready to go round to the various groups to listen in and find out how they are getting on. You may need to stop with a group for a short period to help refocus the discussion and to answer any questions where they are struggling. This also helps you to pick up where a particular group have hit upon a useful insight which will be helpful for the wider group.
Remember that when you have split people up onto tables for small group discussion that a big part of whole group feedback is getting an accurate summary of the table discussion. So choose carefully who you go to for the feedback. Use people who you know are able to report back accurately and concisely. At this stage I will often go to a person rather than ask people to put their hands up. Some people will struggle with feeding back. They will repeat their own answers which may or may not reflect the discussion
Once you have got a clear summary of the discussion, you can then follow up and draw others in to hear different perspectives and opinions. Be ready to use follow up questions to draw out the discussion further.
C. A Look at ourselves
We finish with questions that help us to apply the Bible teaching to our own church and personal lives. Sometimes we use case studies, sometimes a discussion question. Sometimes we provide space for quiet reflection after summing up. The application questions should take us back to the topical questions from “For Starters” and help those present to see how the Bible passage answers those questions and issues.
Remember again that you have been preparing a study in advance with the aim of teaching God’s Word and helping people to hear Him. You are not just facilitating an evening of stimulating conversation.
So, you need to know when it is time to bring feedback to an end. People may still have their hands up and want to add something but there comes a point when the gathering have seen what God is saying an the text and now know how to apply it and so further comment will distract from that, not add to it. Draw things to a conclusion and close in prayer. People are of course free to continuing talking and discussing on their tables. Often we see that a small group will have been challenged by what they have heard from God and so it is wonderful to see them taking time to pray for each other afterwards.