Are the people in your church diving into God's Word on their own? Do they spend time learning to read and know the Bible for themselves?
For many pastors, that’s a disturbing question. I know it is for me. Overseeing a growing church is so challenging - recruiting new volunteers, prepping for next week’s sermon, making space for pastoral care, hiring for that new position - that it’s easy to wake up one day and realize “I’m not sure if the people in my church know how to navigate God’s word.”
The most common discipleship tool of most churches is their small group system, but even there, whether via a written curriculum, sermon discussion questions, or whatever else, actual engagement with the Bible feels rare. Some of this is due to the vast difference one small group leader to another. Some small group leaders may be former pastors of 30 years who can walk their group verse by verse through Ezekiel without breaking a sweat! But then there’s another leader who might be a super intense businessman who just became a Christian last year, loves Jesus with all his heart, but who probably knows Patrick Lencioni’s books better than the Bible. How can church leaders create a small group system that creates space for all their groups to learn the Bible for themselves when there are so many variations in available small group leaders?
I’ve been asking myself this question for 11 years of ministry, and while I’m still fine tuning the answer, I’ve become convinced there’s a way to make Bible study central to all your small groups in a way that both empowers your mature and trained small group leaders, without overwhelming the new ones. Here’s 7 steps on how to create a Bible study-centric plan any small group can do.
1. Pick a Book of the Bible
The Bible comes alive whenever you camp out in one book for a period of time, and allow the writer’s voice, audience, and themes to breathe. Pick a book of the Bible that 1) is fairly easy to read (maybe don’t start with Leviticus or Hebrews), 2) not too long (looking at you, Isaiah), and 3) relevant to where your community is at. One of Paul’s letters like Ephesians is always good, with its focus on identity in Christ, practical application, and teachings about community.
2. Provide Your Groups With Basic Background & Context
A transformational moment for many Christians is when they begin to understand the Bible as first a book to other people, at a specific point in time, and then to them. Parsing the context of a book in the Bible doesn’t require a theology class. As a matter of fact, there are lots of good resources online that break down the context, authorship, and themes of the Bible. This example from Charles Swindoll’s website is just one of dozens easily available. If you have a small groups pastor, you could assign them to create a list of possible resources that fit your church’s theological perspective, and make them available to your leaders.
The one caution is to not overdo it! You want to communicate to your leaders up front that they don’t have to be experts to step into this.
3. Read One Chapter Each Week
Have your groups cover one chapter of the Bible a week. There will be some weeks where they don’t come close to covering the whole chapter, which is fine! The goal isn’t to cover every verse, but to give your groups plenty of material to talk about each week. You can also encourage your groups to read the chapter throughout the week, and show up at group ready to discuss.
4. Have Leaders Prepare By Identifying 2-3 Questions
As we’ll discuss in a moment, the small group model I’m describing is very open-ended, and easy to lead. That being said, there is a small amount of preparation needed from the leader. Encourage each leader to spend time praying and reading the text, and finding 2-3 questions to ask the group. These questions can range from leading (what do you think this means?) to application (how do we do that?). A common problem here is for leaders to make observations disguised as questions—expounding on their thoughts or reflections at length, then ending with “what do you think about that?” Leaders may have an observation they’re hoping the group gets to, but encourage them to keep that to themselves until later in the meeting time. The goal is to have some general prompts ready to go, in case no one is talking or someone takes the group on a long rabbit trail away from the text.
5. Make Sure Each Group Begins With Prayer
I know this seems obvious. Here’s why I mention it. My belief in the small group discussion model I’m describing is this: God speaks through his word, and we as leaders don’t have to micromanage that. We can trust the Holy Spirit to move people toward truth. Empower your leaders with this truth, and teach them to lean into it by opening every group with a time of prayer that acknowledges the need of the group to hear God speak, and the invitation for him to bring his word alive.
6. Create Space to Read and Reflect
As nice as it would be for every group member to show up ready to discuss the text, we all know that won’t happen. And even those who do may need a second to disengage from the busyness of life, and reconnect with the text. I like to have groups read through the chapter a section at a time, and then pause after each verbal reading to give each person time to collect their thoughts.
I then encourage leaders to start conversation about that section with a simple prompt: “What stands out to you from this section? Any thoughts, observations, or questions?”
7. Make Sure "I Don't Know" Is Okay
There’s a deeply entrenched lie in both our national and spiritual culture that believes “I don’t know” to be a shameful sentence. It’s certainly scary for me to say! When someone raises a complicated question about predestination, or genocide in the Old Testament, or what Paul was talking about when he randomly talks about “baptism for the dead” there’s a need we all have to ramble at length until we find an answer we hope explains it all away.
This is deadly for a small group, for several reasons. 1) It puts immense pressure on your leaders to know everything. 2) It tells everyone in the group they need to know all the answers as well. 3) It keeps people from wrestling with Scripture, taking it before God, and saying “we don’t understand this, help us. 4) It increases the likelihood of your leaders telling their groups something that is unbiblical.
So make sure all your leaders know that saying “I don’t know” is a GREAT answer, and then give them next steps when those moments happen. Make sure they have a staff person they can turn to with their questions. This gives you (or another pastor) the opportunity to disciple one of your leaders more, which is a win.