By Narelle Atkins
Teaching God’s word through small group Bible studies is an important and fulfilling ministry. Have you thought about writing your own Bible studies and then wondered whether or not you’re qualified to do so? In this article we will go through our approach to creating Bible studies, including:
- working out what to study;
- the deductive method of Bible studies;
- formulating appropriate questions to meet the needs of your group;
- an example of developing a Bible study series;
- an example of a step by step approach for developing a Bible study;
- avoiding heresy;
- handling difficult questions; and
- maintaining effective group dynamics and confidentiality.
Conception of 30 Minute Bible Studies
Back in 2004, Deb and I made the decision to start writing Bible study questions that met the unique needs of our group members. Our big issue was time. Our children were small and with all the interruptions it would have taken us two or three hours to do a typical one hour Bible study. We had a two hour time slot, assuming everyone arrived on time. Prayer and fellowship were important elements of our group that we didn’t want to leave out. So we wrote questions that were designed to take thirty minutes without interruptions. We wrote application questions that were relevant to our group members. And the 30 Minute Bible Study concept was born.
What to study?
The questions you’ll need to ask are:
- What does your group want to study?
- What is the make up of your group? For example, does your group consist of new or mature Christians, or a mix of both? Do they lack Old Testament Bible knowledge? Do they understand important Biblical concepts?
- What is your group interested in learning? For instance, are they interested in learning about specific people or a particular book in the Bible?
You’ll find numerous Bible study resources at your local Christian book store. Our blog also provides resources that you may find helpful.
Method of Bible Study
We use a deductive Bible study method where we systematically explore the meaning of the set Bible passages in the context of the Bible as a whole. It’s a process of discovering Biblical truths that can then be applied to the life situation of group members. This is a widely used method of Bible Study that relies on the Bible as the absolute truth and the source of all the answers to the study questions.
For example, our Gospel of Mark studies are an in depth, verse by verse approach to Bible study. We worked our way through the Gospel of Mark, studying each verse in the context of the Gospel of Mark and the Bible as a whole. Our Messages from the Messiah studies explore different Biblical themes. Our People of the Old and New Testament studies focus on a particular person in the Bible.
How to write Bible Study questions
It’s essential to consider the purpose of your questions. The questions should do a number of things. They should help group members to understand the meaning of the Bible verses for the original readers. The questions should reveal the context of the Bible passage; how the passage relates to Jesus’ teachings and fits into the Bible as a whole. The questions should challenge group members to think about the implications of the Bible verses to them. It’s also helpful to consider the actions and motivations of the people in the passage. For example, in Study Ten of our Gospel of Mark studies we ask questions like: “Why did the disciples wake Jesus?” and “Of what were they afraid?” (Mark 4 verses 38 and 41). The questions should help you and your group members to apply the Biblical truths to your own lives.
Try to avoid questions that rely on “stating the obvious”. If you have seekers or new Christians in your group then a few easy questions can give them confidence and help them to feel more comfortable in your group. You don’t want to frame questions that force a meaning which isn’t there in the related passage. This can be problematic when writing topical or issues based Bible studies. Avoid picking out verses from here and there and throwing them together to present your viewpoint on a specific topic or issue. Always look at the Bible as a whole and don’t ignore the passages that contradict your initial premise. Your application questions should not misrepresent the meaning of the passage.
It’s important to be careful that you don’t have a strong bias in the studies that leads people down a particular road. You can’t assume that even if all your group members attend the same church that they share the same set of beliefs in all areas. The Christian faith contains different denominations precisely because there are gray areas that people can’t come to an agreement over. Well known examples include the debates on creationism versus evolution and predestination versus free will. Treat each other’s opinions with respect. Even if you disagree, do so with a loving attitude.
Phrase your study questions in such a way that they are not too open-ended but are not a simple yes or no answer either. If a question appears to have a simple yes or no answer, then dig deeper and ask why. It’s important to not only learn Biblical truths but to understand why they are important and the underlying foundation for these beliefs. For example, in our Abraham and Sarah studies, God makes a covenant with Abraham. It’s great to know that God made a promise to Abraham: God would give him land, his descendents would be a great nation and they would be blessed. But it’s important to understand why this covenant is significant and how it fits into God’s overall plan of salvation through Jesus.
Writing application questions
Writing application questions can be a challenging exercise. In general, the last one or two questions in your study will be application questions. You want to challenge group members to consider the Biblical truths they have learned in your study and how they are relevant to them and can be applied to their individual life situation. Some groups will have a strong caring and sharing element and detailed discussions will be generated from the application questions. Other groups will have members who prefer to individually ponder the set questions and there will be limited discussion. Knowing your group members and their comfort levels in sharing can be very helpful when writing application questions.
The process of developing a series of studies
As an example of how we develop our studies, I have outlined below a summary of Deb’s approach to preparing our James’ Bible studies.
Our group decided that they would like to study the book of James. We prayed about this and Deb started to prepare the studies. Deb firstly read James all the way through, without any notes or distractions. Things came to mind that she wanted to share with our group and work on ourselves. Deb noted difficult sections that would require additional help to understand.
Deb then read “Vital Signs”, a commentary by John Dickson and Simon Smart (Aquila Press 2006). This assisted her in preparing her studies, providing cross references to other Bible passages and ideas for questions to bring out the main themes.
She started to divide the letter of James into “bite-sized” chunks for study. She found these sections didn’t neatly line up with either the chapters in Vital Signs or the headings in her New International Version (NIV) Bible. So she read over her notes again and started from the beginning; refining questions and adding other verses for illustration and understanding.
Our first James’ Bible study will be an introductory study. An introductory study gives the group a chance to “meet” the person who wrote the book or letter, and maybe discover a little about the circumstances in which it was written. Things to consider included: the intended audience of the time, the context and the kind of writing it is, especially whether it is descriptive (what happened), prescriptive (commands and advice about how to live) or even apocalyptic (about the end of the world), symbolic, poetic etc.
James introduces himself and his intended audience in the opening chapter. He calls himself “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”. “Vital Signs” points out that the title of servant is one of both humility and honour, for a servant both serves the master and speaks on the master’s behalf. Verses from the Gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians and Galatians helped to establish the identity of the author of this letter as James, the brother of Jesus. James was a well respected figure in the early church, although he did not believe in Jesus until after his resurrection. James met the risen Jesus, he was regarded as a leader in Jerusalem and he was considered an apostle by Paul. In 62 AD he was martyred for his faith.
James’ intended audience were the Jewish Christians who had been scattered among the nations, many after the death of Stephen. Writing for the “Twelve Tribes” affected his choice of examples and emphases in the same way that it affected Paul writing for a primarily Gentile Christian audience. James’ closeness to Jesus is evident in his phraseology and his bluntness, often so similar to his brother’s own teaching, especially the famous Sermon on the Mount. Deb found she had seven questions regarding the first verse of James, with 13 other references to help draw out all of the above.
2. Drafting the questions
From the first verse of James, Deb wanted to get across James’ identity, his audience and his intentions in writing the letter. She wanted to draw out the similarity of style James’ shares with Jesus and how the letter of James is relevant to us.
Hebrews 4:12 says: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” 1 Timothy 3:16 and 17 adds, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”‘
She decided that the above verses were a good foundation upon which to write application question. She wanted to hear how our group members think the Bible is relevant, and maybe find out some of the pre-conceived notions they might have about James.
The remainder of the questions used the format of: How; What; Where; Why; and When questions. Deb wanted the questions to flow naturally as we examined James 1:1 and the other verses that help introduce us to James and his first century readers. The questions needed to be simple so they could be answered by someone who might not be familiar with the Bible or for whom English is not their first language. At least one question must ask: “How will you respond to what you have heard today?”
3. Road testing our studies
Deb and I test and refine our rough drafts before we present them to our group, and we run a “practice” study. During our practice study we pull out questions that don’t make sense, questions that can be answered so simply that the point is easily missed or insensitive application questions. This is the stage we are now up to with James.
Deb and I also brainstorm the most difficult or distracting questions and side-tracks that may pop up. This gives us an opportunity to do some extra research and to try and have an answer ready in case it comes up in our group.
Step by step example of writing questions for a specific study
There are many questions that can be drawn from a Bible passage. In this section, we provide a brief description of how we wrote Mark Study Ten. We chose to do a verse by verse approach of study for the Gospel of Mark. For a thirty minute time frame we wanted no more than eight or nine questions. We looked at the natural breaks and sections within the chapters. We ended up splitting the Gospel of Mark up into forty five short studies, starting at Mark 1:1.
Mark Study Ten includes the verses in Mark 4:30-41. The NIV Bible splits these verses into two sections: The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-34) and Jesus Calms the Storm (Mark 4:35-41). In Mark Study Eight we asked questions that defined the meaning and purpose of parables. So we didn’t need to cover this again in detail. Our group had an understanding from previous studies about why Jesus taught using parables. We consulted our reference books, including The Servant King: Reading The Bible Today – Mark by Paul Barnett (Aquila Press 2006). These books and commentaries helped us to understand the meaning of these verses.
We discovered that Ezekiel 17:22-24 contains prophesy about Jesus. The Messianic promise in these verses uses the imagery of God’s kingdom being like a tree. This led us to thinking about how the Bible often describes kingdoms as being like trees that provide shelter. So we had the foundation for our first question: The Bible often describes kingdoms as being like trees that provide shelter. (Read Ezekiel 17:22-24) What is special about the tree in Jesus’ parable?
We then looked at Mark 4:30-32: ‘Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”‘
The above verses talk about the mustard seed being the smallest seed you can plant. Yet the mustard seed grows and can become the largest plant in the garden. We thought about the parallels with God’s kingdom and formulated our second question: Out of what small beginning does God’s kingdom grow?
Next we studied Mark 4:33-34: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything”.
Jesus explained many Biblical truths through the telling of parables. Then later he would explain in detail the meaning of the parables to His disciples. We pondered the length of time and numerous discussions that Jesus would have had with His disciples. We thought about what affect Jesus’ teaching of His disciples would have on the Kingdom of God. This led to our third question: How did Jesus’ slow and patient teaching of His small band of disciples grow His kingdom?
Since we were looking at two different sections in one study, we decided that three questions on the first section would be sufficient, given our time constraints. We chose to write three questions plus an application question at the end on the next section of verses.
We next looked at Mark 4:35-38: ‘That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”‘
We thought about what it would have been like to be one of the disciples in this situation. The disciples were stuck on a boat during a fierce storm, with waves breaking over the boat. How would they have felt? Did they fear the boat would sink? And what would they have thought about Jesus, who was asleep at the back of the boat whilst the storm surrounded them? This led to our fourth question: Why did the disciples wake Jesus?
For our fifth and sixth questions, we studied Mark 4:38-41. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
We considered addressing the concept of miracles in this study. After reviewing the next few chapters, we decided that Mark Studies Thirteen and Fifteen were a better place to explore this issue. Again, time constraints played a big factor in our decision. We wanted to define why the disciples were afraid, which became our fifth question: Of what were they afraid in verses 38 and 41?
Jesus’ response to the disciple’s fear of drowning was insightful. He challenged the disciples to consider why they were afraid and how that related to their faith. We pondered why the disciples might have lacked faith in Jesus. This became the foundation for our sixth question: What faith did they lack?
We looked at the overall meaning of the passages. How could what we learned in these verses be applied to our lives? The disciples faced a difficult situation during the storm and Jesus questioned their level of faith in Him. Did the disciples believe that Jesus would look after them? Did they understand that Jesus had authority over nature and could calm the storm if He chose? We thought about how our faith affects the way we cope with difficult situations in our own lives and came up with our application question: How can faith impact on the way we cope with difficult circumstances?
Tailoring studies for your group
Studies can be customized to suit the needs of your group members. For example, you could use the questions in our studies and mould them to be more relevant for your group. This can be helpful if you want to increase the theological depth of the study to make the study more interesting and challenging for group members. On the other hand, decreasing the theological depth of the study can help seekers and new Christians understand and learn the more basic theological concepts. It’s a matter of knowing your groups needs and setting the study at the right level. But you need to know what you’re doing. You don’t want to lose the essential meaning of the studies by adding or removing questions.
“Postcard from Palestine” by Andrew Reid (Matthias Media) is an excellent resource that will give you more information on how to write Bible studies. Other resources we recommend and have used in the preparation of Bible studies include: NIV Study Bible, New Bible Commentary, New Bible Dictionary, Tyndale commentaries, The Bible Speaks Today series and Reading The Bible Today series (Aquila Press).
Leading Bible Studies: How to avoid heresy
A major concern for all Bible study leaders should be to avoid teaching heresy. Heresy is doctrine that is contrary to the teachings in the Bible. In 1 Timothy, we are warned to look out for teachers who teach false doctrines. The consequences of teaching heresy are spelled out in the following verses.
1 Timothy 6:3-5 says: “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain”.
In James we are told to take very seriously the role of teaching God’s word. James 3:1 says: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly”.
As a leader you need to understand the theological concepts that you are teaching your group members. Formal theological training is very helpful because it provides you with a strong foundation of Biblical knowledge to draw upon. Reading books written by well-respected Biblical scholars on the subject matter before you lead the study is also a good idea. Prepare detailed leaders notes so you will be familiar with the concepts being discussed. It’s a good idea to anticipate in advance some of the curly questions that may arise from the study.
Tangents and difficult questions
Be prepared for difficult questions in advance. If your group is under a tight time schedule then you can set up “group rules” where you don’t discuss tangents or complex and difficult questions that aren’t directly related to the study until a later date. You could have an “Ask a Question” week where you gather up all the difficult questions and discuss the answers. This is always a good week to ask your Pastor to visit your group, so your Pastor can address these difficult questions for you.
You will never know all the answers to all the questions asked in your group. Be honest and admit when you don’t know an answer. You can find out the answer for the group later. Always remember that some tangents can be helpful and will add an additional level of understanding to the subject matter at hand. As the leader this is your call to make, as well as shutting down tangents that are irrelevant or distracting group members from focusing on the content of the study.
For some groups it can be helpful to set homework. If a number of your group members have read the passages beforehand then the whole discussion will probably be deeper and more considered. If a study contains lots of passages from various parts of the Bible, it may be helpful to print out the Bible passages and distribute copies to your group members. This will save time by not having to flick through the Bible in search of passages. It can also be less embarrassing for those who are not so familiar with the Bible to have a print out of the Bible passages in front of them. It’s helpful to do this if you have group members who regularly forget to bring their Bibles to the study group.
Make prayer a normal part of your study. Before the study: Pray that God will reveal Himself to you as you read and study His word. After the study: Pray for something you have learned and want to apply to you life.
Group confidentiality is very important. Set rules so that your group members are aware of their responsibilities. Prayer points need to be kept confidential and are not to be discussed outside the group without permission from the relevant group members. Gossip outside the group about personal comments made within the group will only cause dissension and grief for everyone involved.
Following Jesus’ example
As a leader you need to aspire to follow Jesus’ example in how he taught others. Don’t be judgmental or arrogant in the way you teach and lead your studies. Avoid making group members feel inferior or guilty. Show love, generosity and humility as you lead others to grow in their faith. Be a good role model and example for your group members. The way you live your life will have an impact on the members of your group.
This article is intended as a short introduction on our approach to writing and leading Bible studies. I hope you have found this article informative and welcome your feedback. I encourage you to keep on teaching God’s word and leading your group members to a greater understanding of the Bible so they can grow in their faith.