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Global Outreach International

Three Strategies for Better Bible Studies (and the one thing that makes them possible)

07.05.17
by Rory Tyer
Better Bible studies and small groups aren't a matter of guesswork.

Jen Wilkin on Better Bible Studies

The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to keep the local church on a sure foundation. The two places this is most visible are in Sunday morning proclamation and some kind of smaller educational setting such as a Sunday School class, a life group, or a Bible study. Writing at Christianity Today, Jen Wilkin outlines three ways to prevent Bible study dropouts:

1. Structure: Your Bible study should have a clear purpose, and that purpose should be reflected in how you spend your time. Wilkin writes, "Unstructured gatherings run the risk of devolving into an endless swap meet of opinions or prayer requests, eroding attendance as 'sharing fatigue' sets in." Swapping opinions and sharing prayer requests are healthy, but if the group's purpose is to study Scripture, people who came for that purpose may become demotivated as the focus gets blurry.

2. Accountability: There should be clearly communicated expectations for participants. This helps people to understand that this meeting, and their presence there, is important. Leaders should be prepared to honor participants by involving them as active students, which includes responsibilities outside of the Bible study time and follow-up if it seems that someone is unwilling or unable to participate consistently.

3. Predictability: A better word for this might be "consistency." Leaders can retain more participants by consistent schedules, limiting last-minute changes, and having a consistent meeting structure. Leaders should also hold themselves accountable to consistently high standards of preparation and teaching.

Ministry is messy, and plans don't always work out. But planning is not the opposite of flexibility. Rather, planning creates a safe context for flexibility. As Wilkin writes: "'Organic' and 'grassroots' ministry sounds appealing—and may work well in some ministry contexts—but those terms also imply a sense of uncertainty that makes it hard to establish sustainable learning environments."

The Key Ingredient: An Empowered Facilitator

These three keys--structure, accountability, and predictability--are ultimately made possible by something we call the empowered facilitator. What is an empowered facilitator? To begin with, facilitation is different from teaching, though the two share some characteristics. For a discussion about Bible studies or small groups, these are the most relevant contrasts:

 - Facilitators aim to create and sustain dialogue between themselves and the participants as well as among the participants. Teachers aim to impart information to the participants and usually are acting as "subject matter experts."

 - Facilitators take responsibility for the "surround," the structural elements Wilkin describes. They are skilled at transitioning learners through a thought-out flow designed to till the soil for deeper participation and learning. Teachers are typically focused on depth and knowledge of content, and on getting as much of that content to the learners as possible.

 - Facilitators are emotionally intelligent and paying close attention to the group's "temperature." They are willing to pivot and make different choices if they discern there is a need. Teachers are typically focused on managing a group toward the outcome of maximum information sharing, and will pivot only long enough to get things "back on track."

 - Finally, facilitators understand the importance of relationship to learning. They recognize the need to build deep relationships (between themselves and the participants, and among the participants) and use specific tools and frames to help build relational capital. Teachers typically also value relationship, but often this is seen as secondary to the goal of imparting a certain amount of information, and the assumption is that students ought to value this information in and of itself apart from a relational context.

An empowered facilitator is one who has been given the freedom and equipped with the tools to create an adult-learning-friendly small group or Bible study. Many Bible study leaders assume that since the goal of their group is to study the Bible, they ought to minimize the amount of time spent on other things (like prayer or relationship building). Some people assume that relationships will just happen naturally, and when they don't, it must not have been the right group of people.

Empowered facilitators recognize that slowing down to build relationship at the start of a Bible study will yield exponentially more learning later on. Rather than being separate from the "goal" of the Bible study, relationship building done well is actually an intrinsic part of a Bible study's success. Empowered facilitators are aware of, and proactive about, the kinds of guidelines Jen Wilkin suggests. Ultimately, we believe the Holy Spirit uses facilitation to sanctify believers and help them internalize more biblical truth.

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Global Outreach International trains men and women to be empowered facilitators in small group, Bible study, and Sunday School settings. Please contact us if we can be of assistance to your church in developing your leaders into disciples who multiply other disciples - email hello@globaloutreach.org or fill out this brief form.