Part 2 of this series gave 14 steps the Bible study instructor needs to take before actually opening the Bible with his or her students once in the home where the studies will be given. It related the importance of personal spiritual preparation, a good understanding of the topic to be studied, the best sequence of the studies for these particular students, the importance of reading verses before and after the text under examination, the value of emphasizing the Good News in every teaching, the advantage of always arriving on time, the benefit of sitting around a table in a formal setting, and the importance of beginning with prayer if it won’t offend anyone. Part 3 explains the procedures to be followed once the study begins.
Your first study, to a great extent, will set the stage for the continuation of the studies. However, as explained below, it’s the mood, the tenor of your voice, the look on your face, and your diplomacy in dealing with sensitive issues and student remarks that, to a great extent, create an ambience that will prompt the students to desire to continue with the studies.
OPENING AND SHARING THE WORD OF GOD
1. Once you are all seated and have had prayer (if convenient; sometimes, at the first session, not knowing your students well enough, prayer could be uncomfortable for them), then ask everyone to open their Bibles. Be sure to show passion and enthusiasm, as well as reverence and awe, for the Word of God. Your students should learn early on that the Bible is a sacred book.
2. Now you can make a brief statement, like “Today [or tonight/this afternoon] we’re going to study about death and what happens when we die [or whatever the study is about]. In other words, where do we go when our time comes? There are many beliefs about what happens to us when we die, but tonight we want to see what the Bible tells us.” Don’t use the term “Holy Scriptures” with Muslims, since they believe that the only holy book is the Koran; rather, use “Book” or “Taurat” or “Injil.” You can use the term Holy Scriptures when you are studying with a Protestant or Evangelical; Catholics and Orthodox believers prefer this term more than “Bible.”
3. Announce the first verse. If you are using a prepared study guide, it may list these questions first, then the Bible texts where the answers are found. In any case, all present (including the instructor) should take turns reading the questions and looking up the texts, and all should fill in the blanks with the answers. If the father is present, ask him to begin by reading the first verse. If the father isn’t present, ask the eldest person present to begin. As far as possible, go from eldest to youngest; there may be a hierarchy in that group that you don’t know about, so don’t take the risk of not following it and possibly offending someone. Also, the father, as the head of the house, should be recognized as the principal person.
4. If clearly there is no hierarchy, you can simply ask who would like to read first.
5. If someone doesn’t want to read, even after some light encouragement, don’t insist. Unless students really struggle with reading, don’t skip them the next time it’s their turn. Be patient with them. Never laugh at them. Don’t correct their mispronounced words unless it changes the meaning of the thought or verse. You would be surprised and amazed at how many illiterates or semi-illiterates have learned to read by studying in a Bible study group!
6. It is very important to always have a pleasant ring to your voice and a smile on your face. Friendliness and kindness go a long way to keeping a joyful mood in the circle and a desire to continue.
7. When the verse has been read, ask the students what they have understood (and what they don’t). Explain what is obviously not understandable for the beginners. Don’t expect them to know what a synagogue is, for example, or a Pharisee, or to understand concepts like repentance. People will seldom tell you that they don’t understand/follow you; they don’t want to lose face, and they think that they understand when actually they don’t. Then you can make your comment about the reason why you relate this text to the topic of the study. It’s usually good to briefly explain the meaning, but it isn’t always necessary since some people catch on very quickly. You will have to be aware of your students’ ability to understand. Always make your explanations as objectively as possible. Never let your voice sound as if it is condemning someone’s current beliefs.
8. When you have finished your explanation, ask if there are any questions. Answer the questions as briefly but clearly as possible. If someone asks a question you can’t answer, there are at least two possible answers you can give: be honest and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that right now, but I’ll be glad to bring you the answer next time;” or (and this is the preferred answer) “Let’s all look for an answer when we go home and share it with each other next time.” This approach looks less like a master-student relationship. You don’t want the students to be afraid of you and be intimidated to the point that they’re afraid to ask questions. Furthermore, you don’t want the students to think that you are confused or not clear yourself on the viewpoint you are trying to show them or that you are attempting to appear as the great, infallible teacher who arrogantly knows everything. We don’t want to cultivate in the church a separation between the specialists and the ignorant. Remember, a little humility goes a long way, as long as you don’t appear confused and foolish. Your expertise is that you know the Bible a thousand times better than they do. Otherwise, you are someone just like them, with the difference that you have accumulated some knowledge because of your passion for the truth.
9. During your studies, never scold for not giving the right answer and never argue. If you see an argument developing, look for a way to reduce tensions and terminate the argument. Go on to the next question. You can make a simple statement such as the following to stop an argument: “Let’s go on to the next question because I think we will find your answer there or in a further study that we’re going to have.” Never give the idea that you are on the defensive. Your studies should always have a ring of objectivity, and that should be indicated in the tone of your voice.
10. If a person asks a question totally irrelevant to the current topic under study, you should try to divert that question to a later date, saying, “That’s a question that we’re going to deal with in a future study. If you don’t mind, we’ll put it on hold till then.”
11. If you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to admit it, but don’t grovel; admit it with simple elegance. For example, you could say, humbly and with a smile, “I don’t claim to be infallible, and sometimes I err unintentionally. If I have confused or disappointed you, I ask your forgiveness.” With these few words, you should be able to clear the air.
To be continued
Lamar Phillips is a retired minister and church administrator who served for 39 years in six world divisions.