Optimizing Group Bible Study

As a group leader, there are things that you can do in your preparation that can optimize the impact of God’s Word on people’s lives (Hebrews 4:12). These practices will actually help participants get the most out of your group Bible study and become more responsive to the transformational work the Holy Spirit is doing in their lives:

  1. Pray for it – Give each gathering over to Jesus. Pray for each group member by name. Ask for specific break-throughs and invite the Holy Spirit to have His way.
  2. Preview it – It is well worth taking 15 minutes before each session to…
    • Read the key passages in at least two different translations (bible.com or biblegateway.com)
    • Refer to cross-references and commentaries to give yourself a good feel of the content and context.
    • Review the questions that are a part of the study that you are using and select the ones you sense your group will grab onto the best.
    • Reduce the volume of material given for a study session by 50%. This helps the group time feel more relaxed and more focused, which increases overall participation.
    • Rephrase the questions you decide to use in ways you think will help to spark further dialogue. Restating the same question in different ways helps people to formulate their thoughts.
  3. Focus it – Take a minute at the beginning of each session to frame what you are studying (passage, theme, and context) and what you hope people will walk away with in terms of…
    • Education – A deeper understanding and appreciation for the meaning of God’s Word.
    • Inspiration – New thoughts and new motivation for living out our faith in Christ.
    • Application – Ways to bring Scripture to life’s circumstances and relationships right now.
  4. Facilitate it – Don’t get into ‘teaching mode’ or feel like you have to have all the answers. You want Bible study to be a group learning experience where every person’s insight and personality influences the discussion. Here are some reusable questions that can enliven the dynamic of any discussion:
    • What stands out to you in this passage? What impacted you during the reading?
    • Was there something read that is new for you, reaffirming, confusing or challenging?
    • How can we apply this to our lives today?group facilitator
    • How could this be shared with people who do not yet know Christ?
      • Be patient with moments of silence. If nobody shares after a few seconds, put the question in another way. Here are a few other facilitation tips that will help to accelerate spiritual conversations: 1) Be ready to answer questions briefly and naturally if nobody initiates after giving a prolonged pause 2) People think primarily in pictures so try to portray a topic visually by applying questions to hypothetical situations 3) Provide guardrails to help keep the discussion on track so you don’t drift too far off topic.
  5. Affirm them – Make eye-contact with those who share and acknowledge their input with simple affirmations like, “Thanks for sharing” or “Good insight,” and then try to relate it back to the passage being studied or keep the momentum going by inviting others to add their thoughts.
  6. Include them – When people feel included, they feel like they belong. When people feel like they belong, they want to engage. When people are engaged, they grow. Time may not allow for every person to participate in the way they would like, but you can help them feel more included by…
    • Giving each person a purpose to fulfill in the group that correspond with their gifting and passion – start them off with small tasks that have a shorter-term commitment.
    • Circling back to people who have not shared, but looked like they were on the verge of saying something.
    • Expressing your love for them, e.g. “I’m so glad you’re a part of our group!” Simple acknowledgements go a very long way in boosting people’s sense of belonging, which optimizes group Bible study in the future.
  7. Open up – Not enough can be said about the importance of authenticity. This is essential to healthy leadership and Bible studies. The more open you are, the more open others will be. You make the group feel safe when you are real and it frees people up to be themselves, which is the kind of community everyone wants.
  8. Listen up – One of the best ways you can love on the people in your group is to listen to them. This will probably mean you lay aside your own interests, agenda, or things you would like to say. Give people your full attention and reflect back to them that you understand by nodding or putting what they said into your own words to make sure you heard them correctly. When people see that others are being heard, they will feel more secure about opening up and sharing things on their heart with the group.
  9. Lighten up – People tend to be more reserved when there is a serious edge to the study. A light-hearted atmosphere actually encourages more involvement. If you have fun with it all, others will too.
  10. Wrap-up – Summarize what happened in your group and give a teaser for what’s next before you end your group on time.
  11. Follow-up – If somebody asks a question or shares a personal prayer need during your group study, be sure to follow-up with them. Also, don’t hesitate to contact people who said they were going to be at your Bible study, but were not. Let them know they were missed and see if there is anything they need.
  12. Offer up – The way a group stays healthy in the long-run and goes deeper in their Bible study is by letting the grace of God flow outward. He wants to use our Christ-centered community to engage the world, not insulate ourselves from it (Acts 2:47; Rom 1:16, 10:14-15). God always makes room for the lost so expand your group circle as much as possible (Luke 15). He will provide the time and space for additional members if our hearts are seeking to extend His grace to those who have yet to come home. Practically-speaking, you can offer up your group by…
    • Turning your group’s attention to lost people during your time of discussion and prayer.
    • Telling members that you would LOVE for them to invite people they know to your group.
    • Thinking together about how your group can share God’s grace with spiritually empty people.
    • Traveling to locations beyond the home where you meet, e.g. hold your study in a public space or go on a mission trip together.
    • Transitioning your group into new seasons of study by empowering people to look after different aspects of your group’s life together or handing off more responsibility to a person who could co-lead with you. This will prepare your group to multiply so that more people can be impacted by the love and message of Jesus Christ.

You know your Bible study has been effective when your group members love more: They love God more, love people more, love the lost more, and love Scripture more!

Modeling Authenticity

I use to think that if something was “authentic,” it had to be spontaneous, in the moment…raw. But I’ve learned that like many leadership qualities, it is something that can be developed and honed. As athletes train to excel in competition, so leaders can prepare for modeling authenticity in their groups.

authenticity1Authenticity is worth this investment because it’s oftentimes the tipping point to biblical community. There are practical steps you can take that will enable you to become genuinely more authentic in how you lead. As a result, people will feel more of a connection with you and want to be around you more. The Lord will use your ability to be real to free others to be themselves.

So let’s look at how you can develop authenticity in your leadership and model it in your group life:

  1. When you ask a question, be ready to be the first to answer it. The more prepared you are to answer…the more ready you will be to take risks. So as you review questions you’ve chosen to use for your group’s study, envision how you would answer each and consider how to be transparent.
  2. Slow and steady The more you know people, the more open you can be. When people do not yet know each other well, take your time, but be intentional. In other words, don’t bare your soul with people you’ve just met or you might just scare them off! Note the natural progression of Jesus’ openness in His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).
  3. The earlier the better – plan to share more personally toward the beginning of your group’s time together because this will encourage more open communication throughout.
  4. Communicate biblical truth and your personal response to it. People like to know what other people think and how they feel in response to something. When you as the leader can express both, it invites others to deeper levels of participation. For example, “I know how important it is to have a devotional time each day, but there are seasons when I struggle with this…lately, I’ve let other things take priority in my life and I want this to change. Please pray for me.” Though some might view this as vulnerability that shows weakness, it is the exact opposite. Here’s what it shows:
    • A truth: Spending time with God each day is vital to our spiritual growth
    • You’re human: Nobody has it all together and does what is right all the time
    • You want what God wants: To develop your relationship with the Lord
    • You need help to respond in faith: We need God and community for life transformation to really happen!

So be the first to acknowledge that you’re only human, and despite your imperfections and idiosyncrasies, you want to follow Jesus more closely. People are more likely to be open about their personal needs when they hear others express struggles they identify with – God uses authenticity to generate ministry moments in your group life.

  1. Grace unlocks authenticity. Grace has a way of drawing out authenticity. Conversations about God’s amazing grace and our dependency on Christ have a way of encouraging greater authenticity in your group life. Leveling the playing field and equalizing your need for grace releases more realness in your group participants.
  2. Err on the side of risk. It is not unusual to have thoughts you question sharing. In your own mind, ask the Lord to help you discern if there is any reason why you should not share something that might be vulnerable or feel like a risk. Your authenticity is most effectively communicated when you put your personal interests aside and take risks for those listening.
  3. Apply the “Socratic Virtues” in your group discussions:
  • Listening – When people feel like they’re being heard, they want to share.
  • Patience – When shier people experience love expressed as patience, they will participate in time.
  • Trusting one’s doubts – If it seems like something is missing in what another person is sharing, carefully weigh if you should call it out in the group by asking questions or if you should talk another time outside the group; either action can help to build authenticity.
  • Talking frankly – Barriers to authenticity are removed when you share without hesitation or fear.
  • Postponing one’s judgment – You may not always be in favor of each one’s point of view, but you can always show your advocacy for the person sharing, especially when they are being transparent. Give people time to share their heart and don’t be quick to draw conclusions. People will not feel safe enough to share their heart if they feel rushed or judged. You want to really hear them so you can understand their heart. When people feel understood, they are more likely to be authentic. Seek first to understand because people who feel understood are more likely to be authentic themselves.
  • Willingness to revise one’s opinion and respect other points of view – Your communication style shows your value for community. If you become more intentional about inviting others to share their points of view and really listen to them when they do, you will become more effective in modeling authenticity. Willingness + Respect = Authentic attitude. An authentic attitude draws out authenticity in others.
  1. Don’t spin. When you get something wrong, acknowledge it openly and maintain a positive attitude versus trying to put a positive spin on your mistake. Be real without being hard on yourself. Beating yourself up for getting something wrong raises the stakes for others to share openly. With a smile on your face, simply share what you thought, that you learned differently, and you’re glad that you did! This makes your group even more of a safe space for people to open up.
  2. Forgiveness nourishes authentic relationships Unforgiveness disables authenticity. We don’t hold onto grudges…they hold onto us. Grudges and unforgiveness toward others (whether they’re a part of the group or not) create barriers in relationships and make it more difficult to be authentic. It’s imperative for us to be right with people if we want to be real with others.

As you model authenticity, people will be able to see Christ in you and it will inspire them to follow your example. The Holy Spirit can use this to break-through to real community, deepen relationships, fuel disciple-making, and compel your group members to impact their world with Jesus’ love and message.

Authenticity in Group Leadership

The people who have made the greatest impact on me and my spiritual formation were authentic. They were real about their lives and struggles. They weren’t insecure or territorial. They weren’t image-conscious or secretive.

Rather, they were humble risk-takers for the Kingdom, selfless advocates, and potential-seers. They weren’t threatened by other leaders or competitive with them because of their own insecurities. Instead, they tended to be self-effacing, preferring to elevate and celebrate others instead of themselves.

Authenticity is a trait that almost every human-being admires and desires to emulate, but it can be scary for many of us to model because it makes us feel vulnerable. However, this vulnerability is well worth the risk because next to prayer, authenticity is the key to success as a group leader. It’s an essential ingredient for creating the conditions for biblical community to grow.

“The irony of masks is that although we wear them to make other people think well of us, they are drawn to us only when we take them off.”
– John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them

The health of a group can be directly linked to how free people feel they can be with one another. People will gladly spend their time and energy to be someplace where they can be themselves and most people can only be themselves when they feel safe. This kind of safe environment is born out of authentic leadership that builds trust by telling the truth. Truth and trust feed into one another – as one grows stronger, so does the other.

There is no greater influence on the dynamic of a group than how real the leadauthenticity2er is with the participants. By way of example, the effect of a group leader’s authenticity is not unlike that which a mother duck has on her ducklings: Demonstrated transparency from leadership has tremendous “imprinting power!” One of the beauties of authenticity is that it’s contagious! As you model authenticity, you will see that it inspires others to do the same.

I believe that one of the reasons group members complain of the group not being “deep enough,” is not so much due to shallow curriculum, as it is the lack of relational depth among participants. Authenticity deepens relationships and results in group discussions that have more depth and challenge to them.

Authenticity builds community, earns credibility, breeds safety, and helps relationships grow deeper. People can smell authenticity…and the truth is…God is more easily found in a community that tells the truth about themselves. There are practical steps you can take to grow as a leader who models authenticity, which I’ll share in the upcoming post.

Building Relational Ministry Teams

Take the time to help your ministry teams function more like groups because healthy ministry flows from healthy relationships. By adding some intentionality to building community among people who serve together, a leader will see powerful outcomes they would want everyone on their team to experience. Members of relational ministry teams…

  • Are naturally motivated to invite others to serve alongside them
  • Feel a deeper sense of belonging and purposeservingtogether2
  • Are more inclined to remain committed to serving
  • Ooze more joy while serving, resulting in greater impact together

So how can your team experience more of the life-giving dynamic we see in Acts 2:42-47 so it can have even greater ministry impact?

  1. Appoint somebody on the team to compile everyone’s contact info and then distribute to the members on that team. Consider setting up a group on Facebook so people can stay in touch between times of serving together.
  2. Pray for one another before your ministry task together. Prayer knits people together and makes the combined effect of their service together even greater. You can keep this shorter if members are staying in touch with each other beyond your serving times. Again, you can appoint somebody on the team to help champion this.
  3. Periodically host a social gathering (e.g. 3-4x/year). Prioritize having fun together because that goes a long way when times of need or hardship arise. Find ways to spontaneously express appreciation.
  4. Find out B-days, anniversaries (in marriage and ministry) and celebrate them with your team by gifting that person with one of their favorite treats. Your communications person (see first point) or somebody else on your team can help to look after this.
  5. Stand together, facing outward. Help one another think and operate evangelistically. This can happen by praying for the lost each week, welcoming others on the team, engaging in a local service opportunity together a couple times a year, etc.

Team members who experience community while serving together are more likely to catch the vision of groups in your church and be champions of serving within them. Taking the steps above will help your teams function more like groups so that everyone can experience the joy that comes with fulfilling the church’s mission together.

Benefits of Groups

For years I would tell people how awesome groups are and why they needed to join one. I figured I would see greater results with more “stage time” and energy put into encouraging people to connect. However, the extra emphasis rarely yielded results that were much better than normal. This prompted me to rethink how to help people catch the vision for biblical community and become intentional about growing spiritually with other believers.

As with many things in our Christian faith, the most powerful actions are the ones that are simple to take. For example, I came to realize that instead of delivering just the right words with gusto, I needed to pray, asking the Lord to convey the vision to people’s hearts and inspire them to lead or connect in a group. In the process, I found that God would give me something to share that I didn’t plan on originally. Here are some other tips to help explain why Christ-followers should say ‘yes’ to being in community:

  • Avoid “selling” groups – God inspires next steps. People’s best efforts in coercion usually only result in temporary change anyways. Besides, community is not so much about what people can get from it, as it is what they can give to it. As a result, they’re blessed with more than they could have imagined.
  • Start with the ‘why’ – Answering the fundamental “why questions” for people speaks to the heart; otherwise, they’re just going to hear the un-motivational message of what we think is good for them to do. Groups are the means (or strategy) to the end of biblical community. Focus on the content of biblical community rather than the container in which it grows.
  • Emphasize purpose over need – People want their lives to count and to fulfill their God-given purpose. Think invitation over promotion. People are not inspired to get involved when groups are promoted as something that fills a personal need. Rather, biblical community enables people to be a part of something they could never do alone.
  • Have faith that God is building His Church (Mt 16:18) – Never forget that it’s God who is continuously and victoriously building His Church and making things grow (1 Corinthians 3:7). We just need to be faithful in working hard and praying hard.

There are numerous benefits to being a part of life-giving biblical community. In fact, if you dig deep into the passage that gives us a blueprint of what the early Church looked like at Pentecost in Acts 2:42-47, you can find over two dozen positive aspects of this super-natural gathering of believers. It’s helpful to have a some of these benefits in mind to share with the people you get to influence, whether it’s a few friends or an entire congregation. As a result of engaging in a group, people can expect these transformational outcomes:

  1. Fulfill your God-given purpose
  2. Engage effectively in God’s mission in the world
  3. Enrich your understanding and application of God’s Word
  4. Results in greater consistency and depth in spiritual practices like prayer, reading and reflecting on God’s Word, etc.
  5. Builds healthy spiritual friendships that are vital for encouragement and accountability
  6. Enables believers to be faithful in living out the ‘one anothers’ of the New Testament[i]
  7. Mobilizes God’s people to reach more people with the life-changing Good News
  8. Facilitates meaningful connections where each one can function as the part of the Body of Christ that God has made them to be by discovering, developing, and deploying their spiritual gifts
  9. You know God more personally and intimately in community than you ever could alone because Jesus reveals Himself through the love of other believers (1 John 4:7-12)
  10. Develops and multiplies leaders so all believers can experience full-bodied discipleship and play an active part in living out The Great Commission together (Matthew 18:18-20)

You could unpack each of these ten benefits, revealing so many more empowering outcomes for believers who are rooted in Christ-centered community. Beyond the impact at the individual level, groups build up the church and support its paid staff immensely. When groups are the basic building blocks for every ministry area in the church, more people feel a sense of belonging, stay involved, and serve together! Church staff receive necessary support, congregational care is strengthened, giving increases, and the local church can live out all the vital functions of the Church during the week!

All of this just skims the surface of the inextricable significance of biblical community to the mission God has entrusted to His people (2 Corinthians 5:16-20). An eternal ripple effect is initiated when believers pursue their God-given purpose in life-giving relationships with Him and others. The invitation into a group then is really an invitation to join in God’s mission and it’s how we can be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power (Ephesians 6:10-18).

So when we talk about the benefits of believers connecting in community, it’s not so much that THEIR needs will be met…it’s more so they can be effective in the purpose to which God has called them: To make disciples. To join a group is to join in God’s mission.

[i] There are nearly 60 references to the phrase “one another” (or “each other”) throughout the New Testament; a fourth of which is to love one another. Community makes it possible for us to be faithful to these biblical commands and exhortations.