Simply put, it is a good thing when Christians read scripture together. The “Exodus Year,” therefore, presents a lot of exciting opportunities for our communities in Southern Ohio. The strength of the program (as it was when it was first done at St. George’s with Mark’s Gospel and then with Exodus), is in its ubiquity and flexibility. In other words, the biblical text is being talked about in every gathering at church including business meetings but at the same time you or your group can move at your own pace.We also encourage a “No Shame” approach to reading scripture. Let’s admit that while some of us are very familiar with scripture, many of us just don’t read the Bible. Well, let’s not allow shame to keep us from starting! Tragically, a lot of folks even think they have to be scholars to read the Bible or that one has to read it in Greek. Sadly, I’ve watched people get discouraged about reading scripture when their more “learned” brothers and sisters vaunt their proficiency. That really doesn’t help. The truth is that most people in our culture love stories, novels, and movies. I firmly believe that you’re more equipped to read scripture than you know!
What follows is (Part 1) a list of things to keep in mind when leading / participating in a Bible Study and (Part 2) a Simple Lesson Plan you can use.
► The Bible is above all else a story. It’s not “just a story” in the sense of a fable. But it is a Story (a drama) nonetheless. Let it unfold before your eyes. Don’t make assumptions, but rather let the story tell you (the reader) what it wants you to know. Herman Melville wanted readers of his story Moby Dick to know that the whale is white. That was a detail he wanted readers to get. But there are other details he simply didn’t think all that important. So as a reader, it’s always best to focus on what the story-teller wants you to know rather than miss the story-teller’s point.
In the creation narrative at the start of Genesis you have many opportunities to get the point as well as miss the point: God creates out of nothing; he speaks creation into being through his word; he makes humanity in his own image; and he declares all his work to be very good. Fixating on 24-hour cycles or even the question of evolution frankly misses the point of the story. Moreover, when the subject of creation comes up again in the story, you can easily miss the reference because you got side-tracked from the point. It’s not wrong to ponder those other questions, but those aren’t the questions the story-teller is leading you to. Be open to the writer! Reading the Bible or any other story requires granting a certain submission or trust to the writer: she or he is the one telling the story.
► As I said above, no one expects you to be an expert. But don’t make a big fuss about that. Always remind folks in your group that we’re reading a STORY and we’re reading it TOGETHER. Those two points are actually deeply important theologically: we are a story-shaped church, meaning that we live into the story and let the story become “our story,” and we read the Bible not in isolation, but as a community of followers/readers. You should let that perspective soak in to your own approach to reading scripture. If you can get those two things (story and community), that’s all the “expertise” you need.
► Beware of the easy “Life Lesson” approach! There is always a danger in Bible Study to run fast and hard for a “moral lesson.” While scripture has a lot to teach us about how to live, scripture is not about you and me directly. Biblical characters are complicated and they don’t always present themselves as “examples for living.” Instead, the narrative ought to draw us into its reality, and we are swept up into God’s Story. So watch out for the alternative, which is start with us and then hunt through the Bible for nuggets of advice to make our lives better, like a self-help book or Chicken Soup for the Soul. You will hit lots of passages that really don’t lend themselves to be read as moral lessons – and then you’ll be lost as to what to say about them and you might (tragically) come away from Bible Study wondering if the Bible really does have anything to say to you and me. Instead, let the story sweep you in, much like you would read a novel or movie. Just remember, you wouldn’t start a movie and 5 minutes after the opening credits start asking what this has to do with your life.
► Try to make connections with earlier parts of the story. Encourage your sisters and brothers in your group to do this too! Help them to become savvy readers. When someone notices a theme repeated, then you’ve hit gold! Congrats!
► Make sure you’re using a Study Bible. There are lots of these on offer. I myself use the English Standard Version. But there are a lot of options and frankly I’m loathe to wade into conflicts on which to use – it’s not all that life-giving. The KJV is going to be tough to read. And the Message is really a paraphrase, so I’d avoid that one. Use the study helps at the bottom of the page in your the Study Bible, but don’t be a slave to them. In other words, look over them and if they’re interesting, draw your participant’s attention to them.
► Let conversation happen. Have the reigns in your hands, but don’t grip too tight. Remind your participants, we want to let the story speak. It’s ok for their thoughts to wander a bit, but gently bring them back to the story. Remember: a Bible Study is a community event where we share our lives together, but don’t forget that the main purpose is to get to know the story. As a leader, gently steer folks back to the story. Youth are actually really great about this because they know in school that the class period is going to end soon. It’s perfectly fine to say, “we just have to keep moving in our story.”
► If you hit a question that you can’t answer, then fearlessly say “I do not know.” And that’s ok! It’s ok not to know the answer to a question. Try asking your priest. But be comfortable if she or he looks back at you and likewise says “I do not know.” Not knowing something isn’t a “Bible Study Fail.” There are lots of those: ignoring the text and talking about things that have nothing to do with the story; forgetting that this is a drama unfolding before us; projecting our baggage (which we’ve all got) on to the characters. The biggest fail is just not reading at all. However, not knowing something is perfectly reasonable. Just keep reading!
► If you’re leading a Youth Bible Study, remember that Parents are the chief disciple-makers of their children. That’s a healthy philosophy for Youth Ministry in general, since most of us have recognized the pitfalls of the old model of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the one in which parents handed over their God-given ministry to their kids to a hip youth minister who just held pool parties. If a youth has questions that can’t be resolved in your time together, then affirm her questions and encourage her to talk about it with her parents. Example: “That’s an awesome question, and I’m really impressed you noticed that! I honestly don’t have an easy answer for you. I think it would be a great idea to talk with your parents about it.”
► Enjoy this! Enjoy the opportunity to read scripture with a group (even if they’re Middle School kids).
► 15-20 minutes of Preparation
(1) You’ll want to begin by looking at the assigned passage of scripture, but before you do that, get some context. Unless this is Session #1, always go back and read what you read last time.
(2) Then read the assigned passage. Be sure to read the study helps at the bottom of the page in your Study Bible to see if they might be helpful in your conversation. Always read with a pencil, pen, highlighter in your hand. You are free to mark in your Bible. Do it!
(3) Then look over just one of the many commentaries we’ve suggested (for example John Goldingay’s Exodus for Everyone).
(4) Pray. Open yourself to God and let him use you in this simple but important ministry!
► 40+ Minute Lesson Plan (this will go by faster than you think – relax!)
I recommend always having three things for a Bible Study: your Study Bible, sharpened pencils, and doughnuts! When you arrive, the prevailing atmosphere should be a conversation. Relax! You are not standing before a class, but rather sitting with a group. People can sense that, especially youth.
1. Welcome everybody. If you’re working with youth, introduce yourself by the name you’d like to be called (Mr. Jones, Tom, etc). Bible Study is critical in forming Christian community; and, likewise, Christian community is a critical part of Bible Study.
2. Go around the room and do a “check-in.” A check-in is where we see how everybody’s week has been. Health, for example, will certainly be the topic among some demographics while hard tests in school will be a topic for another demographic. Among youth, one might ask whether anybody is in a sports team this fall? How’s scouts going? Anything you want to celebrate? Let them warm up to each other.
3. I like incorporating the Collect of the Day at this point; these start on page 211 of the prayer book.
4. Ask everyone what they recall from last time. See if you can help them (remember to have at least skimmed the previous week’s passage).
5. Then comes the real meat of your time together: offer pencils so folks can really engage with the text and then go around the room reading the assigned passage. You can go around the room, each person reading a couple of verses or perhaps a paragraph. If someone has trouble pronouncing a word, help them. If you can’t pronounce a word, that’s ok too! It’s ok to laugh about that.
The Bible has lots of levels of meaning, known as “senses”
(1) The Historical / Literary sense is how your passage fits into the basic story, both of the particular book of the Bible and the whole of the Bible as well.
(2) The Eschatological sense (big word!) is how the passage points to God’s ultimate purpose to redeem the beloved creation.
(3) The Allegorical sense is how symbols can be used by the writer. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, for example, read the story of Melchizedek in Genesis as an allegory for Christ. Exodus is rich in this regard.
(4) The Moral sense is what this passage has to say about how you and I, as Christians, are supposed to live. I know it’s attractive to go to this sense first, but it really should be the final “sense” after the others. And sometimes we get into trouble seeing figures in the Bible as exemplars instead of complex characters in a story. Only after seeing the whole movie or reading the whole novel, and seeing it open and close are you able to say things about its “moral.” While there is a moral sense to scripture, don’t rush to it. It’s perfectly fine to stay close to the Historical / Literary sense (in other words, the story).
6. To close, remind everybody about upcoming events at church and then pray! It would be great if you could share the act of leading extemporaneous prayer with members of the group. We Episcopalians aren’t always comfortable doing this (much like we’re often scarred of reading the Bible). But if you, as a leader, can model how to pray, group members will become more and more comfortable. Pray about the issues folks named at the start of the gathering. Pray for things going on at church. Pray for peace and for our neighbors. Pray for the mission of the church. It can be that simple.
Congrats – you can lead a Bible Study!