Monday, May 4, 2009

Steering the Right Course in Small Group Bible Studies

Leading small group Bible studies requires hermeneutical navigation. In my experience, there are two fearsome monsters one must navigate around. One is the Scylla of theological/exegetical overload. I am prone to make this error. Sometimes a group leader will obsess over the meaning of every pericope, clause, and even word in a passage. Every interpretive conundrum must be answered; every erroneous interpretation refuted. The group leader spends long hours in preparation for the discussion. She/He pours over the text, reading commentaries, dictionary articles, etc. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this sort of rigorous study. However, it can create problems when the leader tries to lead others in an inquiry of the text's meaning. The leader enters the conversation disposed to ask all sorts of questions about the passage; questions which might sound like pure gobbledygook to everyone else in the group. If the leader isn't careful, he/she will address issues that are only interesting to him/her. People within the group feel perplexed or intimidated. Before you know it, you're talking about incipient Trinitarianism in John's gospel, while everyone stares blankly into abyss. Then, the new Christian in the group interrupts you; "wait a minute; God is three guys? Zuh?!"

The second error is the Charybdis of endless discussions about "what the text means to me." In this group, the leader poses very general questions. This can be a good thing, as such questions encourage participation. Oftentimes though, the discussion gets untethered from the text, drifting in all sorts of odd directions. There is plenty of discussion in this group. Plenty. But the study devolves into a discussion about how everyone is doing, rather than a cooperative effort to live under the rule of God conveyed in Scripture. People like talking about themselves. It's easier than talking about an archaic and seemingly arcane book.

So what's the key? How do we steer clear of these errors? How do we show appropriate concern for ancient text and modern context?

Here's what I've learned:
  1. I try to study the passage extensively. But, I don't want to ask questions that preclude people from entering the discussion. I want to ask questions that arise from my reading of the text. Then, I try to look for answers in the text. These questions are less polarizing/intimidating than those prompted by reading scholars, since other people in the group are likely to raise similar questions.
  2. I try to give the discussion structure by outlining the passage beforehand. This serves to focus the interaction, since you can work through the text a bit more systematically.
  3. I try (and generally fail) to set limited goals. I want the group to understand the big point of the passage. I want them to get the basic flow of thought. Unless you plan on meeting for 4 hours, I doubt there's time to do much more than this. Groups simply don't have the time to discuss every peculiarity in the text.
  4. I try to ask the "why" question a lot. "Why does this follow this? Why would he say this here? Why would the original hearers of the book have needed to hear this? Why does she respond like that?"
  5. I try (and generally fail) to spend lots of time on application. Applying Scripture is an art, and it takes time to do it well. A bridge needs to be created between text and context, and this isn't always easy.
Now, here's what I'm wondering: What questions do you ask? Do you have standard inductive questions that you ask every time you lead a Bible study? What questions work? What questions don't work? What pitfalls have you encountered? How have you navigated around them? I think this guy does a pretty good job.


Craig said...

I prefer the Vasteras method of Bible study. It encourages those participating in the Bible study to ask the questions and frees up the leader to guide the conversation. It seems to work well with those new to the faith.

michael said...

Helpful post. I've fallen into both of those errors in leading my community group at Sojourn Community Church... occasionally on the same night.