How to lead better Bible studies: 5 mistakes your group wishes you didn’t make

Carl Laferton | September 6th 2016

It took quite a few Bible studies going badly before I realized that there was a common link—the Bible study leader. And that was upsetting, because the Bible study leader was me.

Leading group Bible-studies is hard. Unlike sermons, you don’t have the floor. Unlike your daily devotions, you don’t have it all to yourself. Unlike leading family devotions, you’re likely not a generation older. To lead them well is hard work.

In many ways, realizing I wasn’t naturally great, and would need to prepare properly, was the most important step on the road to become a good, or at least competent, Bible-study leader. Humility and hard work, allied to the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit, take you a long way in any ministry.

That was ten years ago now. Since then, I must have sat in hundreds of Bible-study groups—some that I was leading, some that I was a member of; some that went badly, some that went brilliantly (and some, even, that went well while I was leading them). And now it’s part of my job to edit or write group Bible studies for use by tens of thousands of brothers and sisters around the world, in every conceivable circumstance and setting.

Along the way, I’ve identified five main mistakes that we make in leading our Bible studies—these are the things our group members might be quietly wishing we didn’t do. Here’s what I’m now trying to avoid as I sit down each Thursday night with my Bible-study group, week by week:

1. Preaching. I am not in the pulpit. So I am not to be the main speaker. It’s my job to lead people into the Bible, to enable them to burrow into the Scriptures for themselves, to let them talk and ask questions and discuss among themselves. If at the end of the evening I have spoken the most in my group, I’ve failed. In a Bible study, there must be interaction.

2. Lecturing. I am not in class, and the purpose of my group is not for us to fill our heads with knowledge, and go home happy with our new cross-references. I’ve sat in so many groups (and led so many) where we have spent so long understanding the text that we haven’t stood back to be awed by the Christ we see presented there, nor have we taken the time to apply what we have seen to our hearts and hands. In a Bible study, there must be application.

3. Meandering. I am not running a book club. I need to gently guide my group back to the passage when they wander into talking about their own opinions or doctrinal hobbyhorses. I need to keep my group moving through the passage rather than getting bogged down. There is an art to knowing when to let a group take a turning into an area that will provide fruitful discussion, and when to stop a group going down a dead-end. People need to go home knowing what the passage was about and how it showed them Christ. In a Bible study, there must be direction.

4. Rushing. I have an hour and a half. So we’ll never be able to cover three hours’ worth of questions! If we’re seeking to cover, say, the narrative of Samson in Judges, we are not going to be able to stop at every verse—if I allow the group (or force the group) to spend 45 minutes on the first three verses, the rest will be rushed, and I’ll end up either preaching or lecturing (see Mistakes # 1 and 2). And, worse, there will be no time at the end for reflection and for prayer. In a Bible study, there must be time for meditation.

5. Innovating. There’s always a brand-new, cutting-edge, small-group curriculum out there. Oftentimes, they really do have some new ideas for helping a small group grow in faith and godliness. But truly, the best small-group curriculum is the Bible. Any DVD or download or book that ends up being used, quoted or remembered more than the Scriptures isn’t a good addition. Put it this way: if I’m going to use a resource in my small group, I want it to be on the table next to people’s Bibles, not on top of their Bibles. A Bible study ought to be transformational, and it is the Word of God that transforms people.

A Bible study ought to be transformational, and it is the Word of God that transforms people.

These five sound negative (mainly because they are). But imagine a Bible study that avoids all five. It’s interactive… it’s applied… it’s directed… it’s meditative… and it’s transformative. It’s the kind of study that requires a lot of hard work—I know that, because it’s the kind of study I’m always seeking to develop with the men and women who write our Good Book Guide series, and it takes time, effort, and a lot of re-writes! It’s the kind of study that builds churches as it grows Christians.

No one really remembers who wrote those studies, or who led them. Just as a good sports referee is rarely noticed, so a great Bible study has a leader who is little-noticed. What is noticed is the Scriptures, and the person remembered is the Lord Jesus. Which makes all the hard work well worth it.

What makes a good small group Bible study? Discover what Al Mohler, Mike McKinley, Phillip Jensen, Sam Allberry and others think in this video:

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Carl Laferton

Carl Laferton is EVP Publishing/Editorial Director at TGBC. He is the best-selling author of The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross God's Big Promises Bible Storybook, and also serves as series editor of the God's Word for You series. Before joining TGBC, he worked as a journalist and then as a teacher, and pastored a congregation in Hull. Carl is married to Lizzie, and they have two children. He studied history at Oxford University.

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