Awkward silences or contentious conversations. Starting off with a group of twelve but now there’s only three or four. Many of us know these experiences with Bible studies in the parish, but they don’t have to be that way. Maybe you’re looking to start a new small group bible study or refresh and revitalize the one you have. Where to start? Our parishes are diverse places. People come to the Bible with a variety of assumptions, guidelines, even expectations about how to read and understand Scripture. These principles are often unconsciously held. They can range between believing there is one meaning to a biblical passage and that God verbally dictated all the words to the writers, to believing that the patriarchal, ancient, culturally far-removed contexts of much Scripture makes it irrelevant or even harmful . Denominational backgrounds also have a big influence on the way people read and understand the Bible. What is your hunch about the assumptions held by those in your parish?
Practical Resources to Grow Bible Studies
Most parish leaders want to see people grow in their faith through a thoughtful study of Scripture. The Anglican tradition holds that the Holy Spirit can guide faithful interpretation for communities in particular times and places through holistic practices of prayer and worship, study, service, and life in community. A Bible study can be a significant place but is not the only place that we are formed by the biblical narrative. Perhaps you wonder if you might need a couple of different bible studies at different times to meet people where they are at. Here are some possibilities mostly from the Journey to Baptismal Living website sponsored by the North American Association for the Catechumenate.
Lectio Divina Bible Studies
One of the most popular formats for Bible study is some form of lectio divina. It’s easy to see the appeal. Lectio divina (divine reading) fosters a prayerful approach to Scripture. It doesn’t require a huge amount of background knowledge on the biblical passage, and yet it assumes that the Holy Spirit will and does speak to us in our time and place through the Scriptures. It’s also an accessible format for people who are learning English as a second language, have reading disabilities or are children. Lectio divina engages different voices to read the scriptures aloud. For most of church history people heard the scriptures. Speaking aloud and hearing is the primary way we engage the Bible at a Sunday Eucharist. Lectio divina can also be a good format for those who have had bad experiences with contentious bible studies or where one or two people have dominated the discussion. It honours the theological listening and speaking of all participants.
How to run a successful lectio divina bible study? Here are a few key principles:
- If it’s a new group or new members are present, review the format of lectio divina that you are doing. Write the steps on a flipchart and give an introduction to the practice. There are some samples here, and here.
- Communicate group norms. Common and important norms in lectio divina include: no questions or comments on what others say; anyone is free to pass on sharing with the group; all are asked to observe confidentiality; sufficient silence between readings of scripture and after each person speaks;
- Prepare the space. A circle or semi-circle seating arrangement works best. Choose a place that will likely be quiet. Offer water or other non-caffeinated drink and some healthy snack.
Here is an approach to lectio that is particularly suited to new, unchurched people coming fresh to reading Scripture and ambivalent about it. It could also be helpful to longtimers going through a new period of questioning or for whom scripture study has never really gelled as one of their spiritual practices. It’s called the Skeptic’s Bible Study.
Another lectio divina based format called Gospel-based discipleship simply, clearly, and effectively puts bible study into relationship with other practices and relationships for Christian life. It even offers a basic rule of life to introduce folks to a more holistic approach. It’s also a homegrown resource from the Sacred Circle!
Bible Studies with Reference books
Maybe you have a lively few folks preparing for confirmation or those who are asking for a bit more scholarly approach to biblical study? There are great ways to help folks get comfortable with using dictionaries or commentaries while still helping them think through the relevance of scripture to their lives and building community in your parish. Here’s a basic six step format which can allow participants to take an active role in research and reflection. Have a few different translations and a few good dictionaries and commentaries available or even a few good study bibles. Here are some of my one volume recommendations. If needed, give a quick overview on how to use them and then ask folks to look up the relevant terms and passages. Ask someone to record important points on a flipchart and get prepared to facilitate conversation. Establishing group norms at the beginning will help.
If you have a group that has a fairly high level of trust with each other and wants to delve into the tough or strange texts of scripture, here’s another approach that encourages a lot of brainstorming and a surplus of interpretations. It allows for group wrestling with the passage.
Bible Studies with Imagination
Finally, the Anglican tradition often attracts artistic and imaginative people. Poets, playwrights, visual artists, and musicians have found a home in the Anglican church -- maybe your church! Bible studies don’t need to revolve around talky, academic formats or even silent, still and meditative ones. These formats might work well for a retreat day too, giving people an opportunity to move and engage their own flesh in the biblical story. This one includes both attention to biblical context and to imaginative role play. These two simple formats could work well for writers: write your own synopsis or focus on the verbs. And, this one would be great with an all ages group inviting them to really absorb and retell a biblical story.
Bible Studies that have worked for you
What has been your most memorable and formative experience with bible study? What made it good? Maybe you can distill the format into a page or two and share it with me. I’d love to hear and share about it. Your own enthusiasm and love for a particular kind of study is important as a leader too. And if some of these seem out of your bailiwick, perhaps someone in your parish might come to mind who would relish being a leader of that format.
Image credit: Nathan W. Pyle / Via buzzfeed.com