Part of the challenge of leading a Bible study is learning how to read the Bible, preparing the material, and feeling comfortable praying in public. However, dealing with the participants of a Bible study can be an entirely different, but equally difficult, part of the equation. We have all been in Bible studies as I am also in St. Petersberg Woodlawn Presbyterian Church bible studies where the main thing that we remember is the actions or statements of the people in the group instead of the leader. The person who monopolizes the conversation¸ who takes the group off topic time and again with questions or anecdotes , or who expresses a view of the Bible that does not agree with our faith tradition can be quite challenging for the Bible study leader. And while it’s wonderful to have a new Christian or someone who is exploring the faith in your group, that definitely increases the stress level of the leader! The following Bible study gives you some great ideas of how to deal with the people part of the Bible study.
Intro: Over the past few sessions we’ve talked in detail about the different ways of preparing a Bible Study, as well as what tools to use to make life easier while you do prepare. The reason we’ve spent so much time in these areas is that the Biblical side is very important to get right, and for some it’s the most intimidating part of leading a study. However, it’s not the only aspect of having a successful Bible study. In fact, it’s probably not too far over 50%. The social aspects of leading a study are also vital for the growth of the people in the study.
The purpose of leading a Bible study is to help people grow in their faith. This ultimate goal is achieved not just through studying the Bible, but though the formation of relationships in the small group and the conversations that take place there. There are many problems that can pop up to derail this process or the process of the actual Bible study, and there are many “little things” that help tremendously that may not be intuitive for everyone to do. We’re going to talk about both how to best encourage positive social interactions as well as how to handle problems when they crop up in this lesson.
Encouraging Positive Social Interactions
First, I think it’s important to know what you can be doing to encourage people to talk during the group time and to form friendships in a small group. The extent to which you can do this depends on several factors, notably the length of the study, the type of study and the subject matter. Much of this is stuff that we’ve already talked about, but there are a few other things to cover that may or may not be common sense.
In a short term study, realistically, there’s only so much of this that you can do. It more or less is taking time to answer questions (or let others in the group answer questions) that come up during the bible study, sending them reminders and praying for them. In a longer term study, there’s more that you can do, but it boils down to shepherding them. Activities that promote positive social interactions include:
Send Email Reminders
It’s a very good idea to check in with the group members during the week, either with a short phone call reminding them of the study and saying hi, or an email or text. This keeps folks connected to the study and also gives people extra motivation to come. Obviously calling is best, but realistically email is easiest.
Pray for Everyone
We talked about this in an earlier session, but it helps quite a bit if you pray for everyone in your group, individually, once a week.
Start with Social Time or a Game
Starting with a check in time, whether formal or informal, is a good way to loosen people up and also help them feel connected to the group. Other good ways to get people comfortable are with a game or icebreaker exercise. You can find a ton of these online at youth pastor sites.
Moderating the Conversation
It’s important to correctly control the flow of the conversation. Usually this isn’t a problem; you just let others do most of the talking and interject when needed. However, sometimes this means politely cutting off people who are going on too long, keeping the study moving forward so that you can get to the application parts, or encouraging everyone to participate.
In general, the more other people are doing the talking in a Bible study, the better you are doing your job. What I mean is, the more good, productive, edifying conversation that is going on, the better you’re doing. So view your role as a conversation starter and moderator; you don’t have to anchor the whole thing or answer every question. The lecture format works well in a class of 15 to 20, but in a smaller group, it makes more sense to encourage others to talk than to do the talking yourself (unless it’s a training group or one that requires a lot of set up by the leader).
Let People Ask Questions
One of the main advantages to a Bible study over a lecture style of teaching is that people get to ask questions, and work out things in real time. If they were listening to a sermon and didn’t get a point, then tough luck, but in a Bible study, people have the option of asking questions if they don’t understand or if they disagree. For the purposes of personal growth, this is huge. You can work out things about faith that just won’t be worked out in other ways.
The implication of this is that occasionally, people are going to ask questions. So long as they’re honest and not disruptive or too distracting, you should let them. Sometimes rabbit trails can be beneficial. Remember what the real point of the Bible study is, to help others grow in their faith. It’s ok if you don’t finish everything you prepared; God might have other plans than you do!
If you see someone struggling with something or can tell that they need extra attention, it’s entirely appropriate to ask them to lunch or to talk to them after the study. Again, keep the goal in mind, to help others grow. This also applies when folks obviously need a little extra attention, say if they’re injured or if a family member is in the hospital.
Encourage folks to do things outside of the group with each other. If folks are becoming closer friends outside of the study, then chances are good that the study itself will be more productive and meaningful. An easy way to do this is to appoint a social coordinator for the group, or if that’s not something the group is ready for, just remember that there are certain events that can be celebrated together, like a 1 year anniversary or someone getting a new job, etc.
How to Overcome Problems:
Another topic that I’m sure everyone would be interested in is how to overcome the various problems that we’re faced with in the course of leading a Bible study. We’re going to look at the 3 most common problems today: silence after asking a question, avoiding rabbit trails, and problem personalities.
How to Avoid Silence
First, I want to say that silence after you ask a question is not always bad. Sometimes it’s good for people to think about something for a little bit before answering. That’s ok. After a certain amount of time, however, it gets awkward, and you need to know how to deal with it.
The first strategy I’d use is good planning. If you’ve loosened folks up with a check in time and with some softball “observation” type questions, chances are they’ll be willing to share their insights. Sometimes, though, if it’s a hard question, people may have a tough time responding even if they’re warmed up. If you think that this might be the case with one of your questions, what you should do (assuming you can’t reword the question) is prepare a back up question or two that you can ask following this question if there’s nothing but blank stares.
Here’s what I mean: Let’s say that you ask your group, “What do you think Paul means when he says, “why then are people baptized for the dead?”” That’s going to elicit some blank stares, more than likely (since we don’t know what he meant ), so you might have some questions prepared that help break the harder question down, for instance, “Do you think that he was trying to argue for the idea that the Resurrection had already taken place, or against it?”
Another tactic is to include the answer to your question, or a hint to it, in the question itself. For instance, if the answer to your question is in verse 12, let people know that. It’s not a test, we’re trying to help people think through and come to the conclusions themselves. Another example of this is to make the question a leading question; “What do you think Paul’s exasperation with the Galatians is leading him to this conclusion?”
How to Avoid Rabbit Trails:
On the other hand, sometimes the problem is the opposite: instead of silence, you get a group who wants to talk too much about something that just isn’t the most productive thing to talk about. This isn’t uncommon with controversial subjects or certain personalities. But what do you do about them? How do you politely escape?
Usually you can just halt the conversation by saying, “Guys, I think we’re off topic. Let’s try to stay focused on what the text says,” or something similar. Sometimes a rabbit trail will just peter out on its own if you leave it alone for a little while, and often it’s best to either nip it in the bud immediately or just let it go for a minute or two to see if it’s profitable or not. Rabbit trails that are a distraction from the Lord or that in your opinion aren’t worthwhile should be stopped though. Usually many of the people in the group would like to get back to the topic at hand, not just you.
Another popular form of rabbit trails is being asked a question you don’t know the answer to and taking the bait. This is one of the most anxiety producing problems that a small group leader faces: What if I’m asked a question in my study that I don’t know the answer to? Not necessarily about the material that you’re planning to cover, because obviously you can prepare for that, but one of the big ones, like “Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?” or “What about miracles?” It’s usually better to say, “I don’t know” or throw it back to the group. You can also just give it your best shot (while being upfront about not being sure) or pass it off to a pastor.
Handling Different Personalities in a Small Group Setting
Being 100% honest with you, the biggest problem that you are likely to face in your small group is going to be the personalities involved. There are certain personality types that can make leading your group quite a challenge. Then there are other folks that aren’t so much of a problem as they are folks who need to be treated a little differently.
I know you’re all scared of silence, but the most difficult to deal with folks are the ones who don’t know how to be quiet. You guys all know people like this, I’m going to assume. Certain personality types just never let anyone else get a word in edgewise. This is poison for a group, because if left unchecked this will cause frustration and resentment. Folks will simply stop coming rather than deal with this individual.
How do you handle someone who talks too much? How do you keep the group from being frustrated with them while at the same time keep them from feeling stifled or insulted? This can be quite a challenge, but it’s doable. I don’t necessarily recommend directly commenting on their lack of basic social mores; folks with this problem are frequently unaware of it and may be deeply offended by a conversation like this (not that they don’t need someone in their life to tell them this). (obviously folks like this are frequently socially unaware in general, although sweet folks)
The better way to handle this situation is to learn to cut in on them when they’re taking a breath ;). I’m only half joking; the best way to deal with these folks is to cut in and restate what they said or cut in, thank them for their opinion and ask the rest of the group for theirs. In other words, this requires keeping a reign on the person’s tongue for them.
Waaay on the other side of the spectrum is the person who needs to be drawn out of their shell. In any group, you’re likely to have one or two who don’t interact as much or who prefer to listen. This isn’t necessarily bad; it doesn’t mean that they aren’t learning something or getting things out of the lesson, but if it’s because they’re uncomfortable or disengaged, then you need to do something to draw them out.
There are a few ways to draw someone out. First, you can just ask them a question. “X, you look like you’ve got an opinion; what do you think?” Second, these are folks that you can talk to after the class. Sometimes there’s a reason they’re being quiet, and sometimes they just need a little longer to warm up than other folks. “I notice you haven’t been speaking up much; is everything ok?”
Next week we’re going to go through a sample Bible study, and hopefully bring all of the things we’ve learned about over the past few weeks together. I’ll probably have us cover the first chapter of Revelation or perhaps a topical study. Any preferences?