There is one question I receive more than any other when Christians discover I’m involved in a collegiate discipleship ministry: What materials or resources do you use?
I appreciate the eagerness behind the question, as folks generally aim to improve their own efforts to make disciples of Christ. But sadly, my answer doesn’t usually satisfy the inquirer.
The Bible. We use the Bible to make disciples.
Now I concede that we have found a variety of extra-biblical books to help with a variety of topics, and we may put such resources to use in particular situations. But we have no overarching, pre-written curriculum we follow to help us make disciples of college students. By conviction, we sit down with students, open God’s Word, read it, and discuss it.
But more importantly: We teach our people how to study it for themselves. Do you believe that you can, too?
A few years back, I described a four-part model for empowering churches for serious Bible study: learn, model, teach, and coach. Within that framework, I’ll now zoom in on how to teach people good Bible study skills. What does it look like to develop a culture of training and discipleship in the Scriptures?
1. Have a method
Everyone already has a Bible study method, actually—though some people are more intentional about it than others. So one possible method is to read a passage, read a commentary or study Bible when you feel stuck, and believe or act upon what the commentator wrote. Another possible method is to decide on a topic for study, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth with respect to that topic, and look up whatever portions of Scripture then come to mind.
Now some Bible teachers have great skill but can’t articulate the method that got them there (like a competent driver who doesn’t have to consciously select which pedal to press when coming to a sudden stop). Some of the best Bible teachers do what they do intuitively, and their listeners therefore cannot imitate them. Such unconscious competence becomes an enemy to the effective training of others.
So don’t expect people to be able to start studying the Bible after only sitting under your teaching. To train them, you have to break down what you do into steps. Your awareness of the path you took in your own study is the prerequisite to inviting others to develop those skills for themselves.
And the simpler the steps, the more likely it is that people can follow them. The more they follow the steps, the more likely it is that the method will sink in. The more the method sinks in, the longer it will last. Therefore, people need lots of coaching and practice to pick up the skills. You can’t rely on a single mass seminar or class unit to develop a culture of ongoing discipleship in the Scriptures.
2. Train a few
Now it might sound counterintuitive, but you can’t develop a culture by changing everything at once, because many will resist such widespread change. So if you want to train your church members in Bible study, a church-wide program is not likely to be very effective, at least at the beginning.
There’s a business adage, spuriously attributed to Peter Drucker, that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And though the church is not the same as a business to be managed, the adage taps into a reality of human existence: if you wish to train people in a way that sticks, it is better for you to develop a culture than to put together a comprehensive program or curriculum.
To begin developing a culture you must first assemble a few key influencers. Who are those who are most likely to respond to instruction? Who is most eager to study God’s Word? Get those people together and train them first. In his classic work The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert E. Coleman provides an inspiring analysis of how Jesus employed this very strategy to change the world.
“If you wish to train people in a way that sticks, it is better for you to develop a culture than to put together a comprehensive program or curriculum.”
Pull those influencers aside and teach them your method (see the previous section). Ask them to practice it while you observe. Give them feedback on how it went, reflecting what went well and what could be improved. Then continue the cycle: instruction, practice, feedback.
When you work with a few key influencers, who begin to see results in their ability to study the Bible, the momentum will take over and you won’t be able to contain the enthusiasm.
3. Raise your expectations
Here’s the thing with church-wide programs: In order to make them palatable to every person, we must adopt the expectations of the person with the lowest tolerance for expectations. So we don’t ask much of them and—surprise, surprise—don’t get much in return.
But by launching your culture-renovation initiative with only a few key influencers, you have the opportunity to not lower but raise your expectations.
Invite them to join you in this training, but clarify early that it comes with a cost. You expect them to commit to attending every training session. There will be homework. They will not merely sit and listen to you, but they will speak and do the work themselves. As they practice the skills and demonstrate their work, they will receive respectful but frank coaching on what went well and what can be improved.
These folks are influencers for a reason: They want God to use them to make a difference in others’ lives. So you can make wise use of that inner motivation to begin shaping the church’s culture toward improved personal Bible study skills.
When you raise your expectations, some of those you hoped to join the training may need to bail out. That’s okay. Trust the Lord with whomever he provides for you to work with. I would rather have three or four fully committed Bible students than twelve, fifty, or even one hundred who may not truly internalize the skills.
4. Set them loose
Once you’ve begun the initial training, and the students are seeing results in their ability to study God’s Word, you’ll soon be ready to launch them. It could take anywhere from six to twenty-four months to get to this point, but this is where things truly begin to multiply.
When your influencers are ready to venture from the nest of their own training, you can establish small group settings (or perhaps make use of current small groups). Invite your trainees to lead small group Bible studies so that more people in the church can experience the delight of studying God’s Word.
Having trained your leaders, it’s now time to lower some of the expectations for these new small groups. The goal here is to win and woo more people by enabling them to taste and see the goodness of the Lord in the Scripture. To show people that they can know God directly through his word, without requiring a written study guide or curriculum to mediate their relationship with the Lord.
So your trained leaders can lead groups of people to study through a book of the Bible together. They can form communities where people simply bring their Bibles, read them together, and discuss how God might use these words to change the world. No huge commitment. No homework required at first. Just places where people can show up and find the life of Christ proclaimed in all the Bible (John 5:39).
The hardest part is giving up control to see what the Lord might do, because you won’t be able to personally lead or attend every group. But you can trust the One who cares more about his sheep than you ever could.
5. Check in
Sending out your trainees to lead others in Bible study is not the end of the process but only the beginning of the revolution.
You can visit each of the groups to observe and give feedback. Every so often, reassemble the leaders to discuss how their groups are going and to encourage one another. Draw out their joys and sorrows. Provide some instruction or motivation from the Scriptures. Find out what questions they have and what needs they may have for further training.
In addition, you can meet one-on-one with each leader to provide personal coaching and encouragement. Such check-ins will provide you with intel on how to continue fostering a culture of Bible study across the entire church.
After a year or two of these small group Bible studies, you’ll probably need to help your leaders think ahead and not grow comfortable with running their groups the same way forever. So each of your leaders ought to identify one or more group participants with potential to become leaders themselves.
Perhaps you can take that second crop of potential leaders and train them the same way you trained the first crop. Or perhaps you could encourage each current leader to take ownership of training their own students. Either way, show them how to include instruction in the method (the first point above) as part of their teaching ministry.
It is wonderful when a church remains faithful in teaching its people the content and teaching of the Bible. But it is another order of wonderful when a church is faithful to train people how to discern the content and teaching of the Bible on their own.
This is scary, because it means people will learn to constructively evaluate the small group leaders and preachers. Regular people will be equipped to provide a degree of feedback, coaching, and training back to the church leadership. You could choose to feel threatened by that. Or you could delight in the gracious God who grants to the flock of his people such a strong culture of Bible study.
Logos offers a number of Mobile Ed courses that can assist you in developing a method to train others in Bible study skills.
- Learn to Study the Bible, with Darrell L. Bock
- How to Read the Bible, with Peter J. Leithart
- Introducing Literary Interpretation, with Jeannine K. Brown
- Reading the Bible as a Complete Story, with Chip Bennett and Warren Gage
Mobile Ed: BI100 Learn to Study the Bible (4 hour course)
Regular price: $149.99
Mobile Ed: BI110 How to Read the Bible (2 hour course)
Regular price: $69.99
Mobile Ed: BI131 Introducing Literary Interpretation (5 hour course)
Regular price: $189.99
Mobile Ed: BI202 Reading the Bible as a Complete Story (4 hour course)
Regular price: $149.99
Additional resources to inform your training:
- The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert E. Coleman
- The Master Plan of Discipleship by Robert E. Coleman
- Knowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Study the Bible by Peter Krol