When I became a Christian late in high school, I knew I had a lot to learn. Thankfully, a close friend gave me a Bible, and I began to read furiously, soaking up this new wisdom. It didn't take long, though, to come across something that I didn't understand—and the notes in my study Bible weren't cutting it. That's when I joined my first, although unofficial, small group. My friend and I—both new believers—met regularly with another friend—a longtime believer—to talk through life situations and work through our Bible questions.
A year later, when I went off to college and joined a new small group, my passion for studying God's Word in community really took off. Together we could better understand Scripture and how to apply it. And boy did we need each other. As Christians on a state university campus, we faced challenging situations regularly and had conversations with peers that left us with questions. Coming together to search God's Word for wisdom grounded us.
The early church had this same dynamic.
They gathered together in homes, often in secret, reminding one another of God's promises, and relating Jesus' commands—to love God and others— to real life situations. They encouraged one another, challenged one another, and worked out what it looks like to be a Christian. We can do the same. In fact, we must do the same. God created us to live in community—and especially to read Scripture in community. It's only together that we can accurately interpret and apply the Word. So if you don't currently participate in a small-group Bible study, now's the perfect time to start one. Here are some keys to help you make the most of it:
Gather a few friends. I've had great groups from 3 to 16 people, but the ideal number is more in the range of 6 to 12. You'll want to have few enough that you can really engage with the whole group on your Bible passage. If you have a group of 16 and each person talks for five minutes, your meeting will be a minimum of 80 minutes—and that's without time for snacks, prayer, or those moments where it's quiet while everyone is thinking.
Seek the right people. Make your motives clear from the beginning: You want to get together for Bible study and spiritual growth. Sharing about your lives and getting to know one another is key to that goal, but if you communicate that developing relationships is the main goal, it can easily become simply a social group.
Get to know each other. I've found that the best way to start the group off on the right foot is spending the entire first meeting getting to know one another. Without this critical step, it will be difficult to feel safe as you discuss Scripture and how you're applying it. Serve snacks, share your stories, learn what the other people do for a living, and set the tone of safety and care. Plus, when you get to know who's in your group, you'll have a better idea of what to study. Then continue fostering relationships as you meet. One tool that's worked great for my small group is a private Facebook group that allows us all to share confidentially on a group page. This continues relationships throughout the week and connects group members to one another outside of your meeting time.
Establish Expectations. It's best to make expectations clear from the beginning. Let group members know when you'll be meeting and for how long. Share your goals for the group, and ask members to share their own goals. Discuss what you'd like to study together and what topics really appeal to group members.
Choose a study. Truth be told, this can be one of the most difficult parts of leading a group. Here are a few options to give you an idea of places to look. The key is to find something that will get you into the Word and help you apply it to your life.
Sermon-based studies: Many churches now offer studies that flesh out the weekend sermon.
Topical Bible studies: If you know a topic you'd like to cover (like relationships, marriage, or missional living) you can easily search for and download a study for your entire group at SmallGroups.com.
Video Bible studies: Lots of great preachers and teachers now have videos and coordinating studies that can take your group deeper with minimal prep. Find several at SmallGroups.com.
Book studies: There are lots of great books that can drive you to the Word and discover new insights. For something that reads more like a book, you might try something by John Ortberg. For something that feels more like a Bible study, I recommend the N. T. Wright For Everyone series.
Inductive studies: Choose a book of the Bible to study or choose a topic and work through all the Scripture passages on the topic. In this method, you'll look carefully at the text to see what's being said (observation), learn what is meant (interpretation), and then learn what it means for us today (application). For a great tutorial on this method, see Justin Marr's article on SmallGroups.com called "Dig Deep into God's Word."
Lead a healthy discussion. As you meet together, you'll learn one another's quirks. Perhaps Rosa talks too much, Jennifer never says a word, and Eleesa gets the group off track regularly. Take a deep breath and thank God that he's provided you with a group of people that are "normal" like you. There are tons of great resources for how to handle discussion issues, but here are a few tips to get you started:
Make sure, as the leader, you're only talking about 20 percent of the time. Lead by asking good questions and modeling good listening.
Keep discussion going by asking follow-up questions: What do the rest of you think? Where do you see that in Scripture? When have you experienced something like that?
Without pushing people to share if they're uncomfortable, call on people by name when you notice someone hasn't shared much.
Keep advice-giving to a minimum unless someone asks for it.
When group members disagree on an interpretation of Scripture, ask both sides to explain their thoughts. Affirm them for sharing. Ask others to share their thoughts. Remind group members that it's okay to disagree.
Say "I don't know" instead of pretending to know the answer. There's no shame in this. Just make sure you find out the answer by asking a pastor or friend, and then bring the answer to your next meeting.
Be open to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes our plans need to be set aside when someone has had a rough week or needs help with a specific situation. It's okay to occasionally deviate from the plan.
Wait 30 seconds after asking a question to give people a chance to think about it and answer. If no one answers, rephrase the question. Avoid answering your own questions.
Let your church know. Inform a pastor or other staff member about this exciting endeavor. He or she may even have some valuable training or tools for you to use.
Don't forget to enjoy the journey. God has created us to connect with other Christ-followers. As you get to know one another and study the Word, you'll all grow closer to God as well.
5 Signs Your Bible Study Is Failing to Thrive
When prayer requests are for someone's aunt's brother's mother-in-law, or the answers are always "Sunday school answers," you know you've got a problem. Combat this by focusing on getting to know one another and modeling authentic sharing.
When one person always has to remind everyone of the "right answer," or when one person dominates the discussion, no one else feels welcome to share. To end this pattern, call on specific group members to answer questions, and follow up the know-it-all's answers with "What do the rest of you think?" to keep the discussion going.
If your group is more focused on getting the right answer than on applying that truth to their lives, they're missing the point. To refocus, ask group members at the end of your discussion to share one thing they'll do differently in the next week as a result of your discussion. Then follow up.
Lack of Ownership
We're so used to being consumers, that many group members will look to you for everything—the snacks, the answers to their questions, and more. Help your group members share the ownership of the group by allowing them to help with the meeting. This will also enable participants to see how they can benefit others in the group.
Bored Group Members
This can happen for a number of reasons: the study's not working, the discussions are shallow, or the group isn't what was expected. If you sense someone is bored, find out why. You might learn something new to try, or you can give the member permission to move on to another group.
This article was originally published in Today's Christian Woman.