Sometimes, we get a select any topic for a Bible study. Perhaps a regular leader is asking you to fill in for her, and says you can pick any topic you want. Or maybe there is a one week gap between your summer study and your fall study, and you just need something for that week. If you can pick any topic, you could select your favorite Bible passage, a topic you just read a book on, or one that you participated in a really good study on in the past. That’s not too overwhelming of a task.
However, other times the topic is selected for you. Perhaps your Sunday School class goes by the lectionary or the Bible study leader you are filling in for wants you to continue based on the study that they are leading. In either of these cases, preparing the Bible study can be much more intimidating for the new Bible study leader.
In this Bible study lead by the pastor at a very nice St Pete church, you can learn how to prepare a Bible study on any topic. This is a great resource for prepping for that Bible study you have to lead!
Intro: I promised I’d talk about the different aspects of a successful Bible study (3 goals), and I think that is a good place to start this week.
Different Kinds of Bible Studies
First, there are different kinds of Bible studies, mostly differentiated by which of the 3 main goals of a small group they focus on the most. So the 3 broad kinds of small group bible study are, fellowship oriented, study oriented, and prayer oriented. Within each type of study there are more specific types of group. For instance, different ways of doing a fellowship group might be dinner with each other, sports, movies, classes, hanging out at a bar, or parent/child play dates. Different ways of doing a prayer group might be praying for each other, praying for the church, or praying for a specific social or community issue (for the High School students, local abortion clinic, etc). Bible study groups are also diverse: possibilities include going through a book of the Bible, topical studies, studies based on last week’s sermon, studies from a book or pre-printed series, or in depth study of one passage or topic.
Each of these different kinds of classes would probably still have components of fellowship, prayer, and Bible study. For example, a dinner group might focus mostly on fellowship, but would probably still have a 10 minute meditation and end with prayer, and likewise, even the most Bible focused Sunday School class still has time before the class starts to catch up or get to know each other, and probably opens and closes with prayer. It’s important to remember that each of these three components is important when leading a small group, and not to ignore any of them (while of course some will get less time than others, depending on the group).
Each group is unique, and it’s important to have some understanding of what the group wants to be when it starts up. So it’s a good idea to have a talk with the group on your first meeting to see how much time people want to spend in fellowship (do they want an icebreaker, to spend 20 minutes chatting and catching up, or just get to studying the Bible), how much time in prayer (2 minutes to open and close, or 25 minutes at the end to do a circle prayer), and how much time in actual study (and even what kind they prefer… more interaction or more lecture, more topical or more by the book, etc). Some of these decisions may already have been made, eg, if it’s a study based on a book that the church hands out.
Topical Bible Studies
I promised that today we’d learn how to do a Bible study on any topic, so of course we’re going to talk about how to do a topical Bible study. Previously, we’ve been talking about how to do studies based on one chapter or passage from the Bible. Topical studies are a bit different. They cover way more ground, going to and fro in the Bible rapidly, which potentially means extra preparation. On the other, they’re much easier to fill time with, because A, you can just give everyone a verse to read and discuss, B, it’s so much easier to make a point and to formulate questions when you can just go to the verse that answers the question, and C, studying 4 or 5 main passages means you don’t have to go as deep in each one. It’s also almost guaranteed relevant to your group, assuming that you pick a good topic (you’re not going to get bogged down in Lev. Or something). They’re also easier to advertise. Additionally, it’s kind of fun to go through the Bible and see what it has to say on a particular topic, but challenging.
Regular studies are profitable, and are a little easier to prepare for (don’t have to pick a new topic every week, don’t has as much material to learn), but sometimes get rote. They go in depth in one area, but run the risk of missing the larger picture of the Bible, although topical studies run the opposite risk of failing to understand the content.
Basically, I like topical studies, but they can be a little more work. You tend to learn more, and making the pieces fit is the good kind of hard that grows you (eg, study on judgment or judging; how do we fit all of the various verses on this together?). Studying the Bible topically is also very useful for personal study; it’s one of the ways that I think I’ve grown the most as I’ve gained more and more knowledge.
How to Write a Bible Study on Any Topic
So how do you actually prepare a topical Bible study? The first step is obviously choosing a topic. The easy way to do this is just to keep it simple: love, judgment, spiritual gifts, grace vs. works, any one of the fruit of the spirit, marriage, etc. There are probably 30 great topics that we can come up with at the drop of a hat. The topic you start out with might not be the one you end up with, however. Let’s say you start out wanting to study love in the Bible, but in your research you find out that there are several different types, so you narrow that down to friendship love in the Bible, or God’s love for us.
One of the most important ways to select a topic is by looking at the people who are in your Bible study. What are their interests? What are their struggles? Do you suspect one of them doesn’t understand grace, or has trouble forgiving? You can also just ask them what they’d like to study, and you’ve got a topic. This is a very important way to select topics because it has the advantage of being automatically relevant, and therefore interesting and more likely to result in spiritual growth.
There are two other great ways to pick a topic. First, you can use a topical index like Nave’s on Bible gateway. Halley’s Topical Index is also useful. These are great because they give you a bunch of verses to check out and in Halley’s case, even a sort lesson plan for a potential study. In Nave’s, you’d basically just browse. Second, you can use Amazon’s Christian Living books section (or any book store’s) to look for books that are about certain topics and just steal the idea about the topic.
Read Everything the Bible Has to Say
So you’ve got a topic, now what? This is actually the easy part, in my opinion. Basically you just read everything that the Bible has to say about that topic and take notes. Patterns will appear. The questions you need to ask and the verses you need to cover will frequently become obvious as you do this reading, and if your initial premise was false, you’ll have a chance to figure that out and adjust.
But how do you find everything that the Bible has to say about a particular subject? A concordance (or Biblegateway) is your best friend. There are times when this is easier than others. Let’s say you want to do a study on love. Well, that word appears 500 times in the NIV. Too many to read by far. But there are ways to narrow this. First, you might limit your reading to just the New Testament. That knocks it down to 200. What you need to do is add some words related to your topic, for instance, love + friends, love + friend or love + brotherly. You can also pick related words, like companion or brother, and look under those. Be creative.
What if there are no results at all, for instance if you wanted to do a study on the rapture? Try changing the version search, and try to figure out related concepts or passages. Realistically though, if you wanted to study something like the rapture, a word that isn’t in the Bible, then you’d probably have to go to a topical book like Naves, or more likely, an actual book about the rapture to find the verses (unless you’re like me and just sort of know most of them… in which case you can pray and usually enough of them will come back to you to find them with a search). You can also just do a google search and find a list of passages, but I’d be cautious about taking at face value everything I found about the Bible on the internet. Don’t let Google do the work for you, in other words, but help with the research.
Now that we’re reading all of these verses, certain patterns should start appearing. What are some of the common themes you’re seeing (that are of interest)? What new insights about the topic are you coming up with? Group the verses and write down these insights. They’ll form the basis of your study. You might have one group of 3 to 10 verses all buttressing a single point, or (commonly) you might find a few groups of verses that each go into an insight you want the group to examine.
Checking the Context:
Once you have found what appear to be a good group of verses (or several groups), before you go any further, you probably should make sure they say what you think they say. The easiest way to do this is simply to read them in context. That means read a few verses ahead and a few verses behind to see that everything makes sense. This doesn’t have to be as in depth as other context checks, just read the area around the verse and is something doesn’t fit or makes you think you’re wrong about that verse, either do more research or simply stick to your other verses.
Finding the Questions to ask:
The questions you come up with might be slightly different from the observation, interpretation, application questions we discussed earlier, as we might spend less time on each verse. For instance, if your goal is to cover 10 verses, you probably shouldn’t ask observation, interpretation and application questions about all 10 verses. That would take forever, and probably be redundant.
You probably had questions going into the topical study, like “What does it mean to have Christ-like love?” or as simple as “What does the Bible say about love?” These questions probably guided the insights you had and the way you grouped the verses. In other words, the questions that you have to ask are much more apparent with a topical study: What does verse A mean in light of verse B? How are passage 1 and passage 2 alike and how are they different? What do they say about how we should live our lives?
You’ll be able to ask the observe/interpret/apply questions if you have any longer passages of scripture, but many of the questions you ask if you’ve got many verses you want to cover will be of the nature, “What do you think that says about our topic?”
Organizing the Verses:
If you have 3 or 4 longer passages or 10 or so shorter ones, you’re going to want to organize them in a way that makes sense, and builds towards a conclusion or an interesting discussion (it’s ok not to have all the answers if there’s an interesting discussion to be had). The way I usually organize my verses is to take a pair of conflicting passages, or start with a passage that seems to say one thing but probably don’t in the light of other passages. So if the conventional wisdom seems to be espoused in verse A, I’ll start there, but then move to verse B, which is related to the insight I had about this topic while studying it. This either provides for an excellent opportunity for discussion (where the wiser folks will hopefully argue for the point that is less obvious), or a chance for you to lead the group to the insight you wanted to share with them. For example, if I were going to do a study titled “What is Love?”, I might start with a verse that implies love is an emotion, but move towards the conclusion that perhaps it is more of an action with each verse.
I also promised a more hands on experience this time, and so we’re going to try to do that. Since we talked about love above, let’s use that as an example.
Love of course is way too broad a topic; we’re going to have to limit it. How might we do that? One way is to talk just about the love of Christ. This is still a pretty broad topic, but easy enough to research without a PhD, too. What are the possible questions that we’ve got about the love of Christ? At first glance, a few I might have are “are we really supposed to love like Christ loved? Is that even possible?” “what proves that Christ loves us?” “how did Christ love others?” “How can we show the love of Christ for others in our lives?” That doesn’t mean that we’d use all of these questions in our study, but those are just some questions that we’ll have in the back of our head as we study, because they’re pretty interesting ones that a Christian might struggle with.
First do a topical search on Biblegateway.org (link on the homepage). This results in a ton of possible topics. Picking “Love of Christ, The” we go on to see a page that includes various insights about the love of Christ (many that we hadn’t previously considered). A few interesting ones include:
To be imitated ( John 13:34;15:12; Ephesians 5:2; 1 John 3:16)
MANIFESTED IN HIS » Dying for us ( John 15:13; 1 John 3:16)
MANIFESTED IN HIS » Washing away our sins (Revelation 1:5)
MANIFESTED IN HIS » Interceding for us (Hebrews 7:25;9:24)
TO SAINTS, IS » Unquenchable (Song of Solomon 8:7)
TO SAINTS, IS » Constraining (2 Corinthians 5:14)
TO SAINTS, IS » Unchangeable ( John 13:1)
TO SAINTS, IS » Indissoluble (Romans 8:35)
Then we would simply read all of these verses and take notes on what excites or interests us, and any questions that come to mind, then try to organize it.
In reading the topic “To be imitated” the answer to one of our questions pops up to me. How do we actually love with the love Christ had?
1 John 3:16 16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
We’re able to love like Christ did only when we remember what he’s done for us; just as we’re able to forgive when we remember what Christ has forgiven us, or sacrifice for others when we remember what Christ gave up for us. I’d definitely use this in the study.
The way I might combine all of this info is to show how Christ treated his friends, and then so that we should imitate this love ourselves. You would probably want to end with a question that is application and discussion oriented, like, “easier said than done; what are some practical ways that we actually can imitate Christ’s love?”