UNDERSTAND GROUP DYNAMICS
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014
In this study we are looking at the dynamics of group Bible study. These will vary from group to group depending on the purpose of the group, the leadership structure of the group, and the composition of the group.
DIFFERENT COMPOSITIONS OF BIBLE STUDY GROUPS
Teacher – students
This is the model used by Jesus with his disciples. He, the teacher, knew the truth, and he knew that he knew the truth. The disciples followed him in order to learn from him what he knew, because they knew that they did not know.
This is a straight-forward group dynamic. A study group of this nature will contain a lot of straight teaching. A good teacher will present his/her material in such a way that:
The students feel free to interrupt and ask questions rising out of the study material.
There is opportunity for students to respond to the study material at appropriate points
There is opportunity for students to discover or identify truths for themselves by looking up relevant Bible passages
Study notes are provided that allow for notes to be added by the student, and contain items that the students can research themselves.
The challenge of the study material to either thought or action is put to the students.
Leader – group members
What distinguishes this from the previous model is that both leader and group members learning from the same prepared study material; the leader may or may not have more understanding that the group members, but he/she is the appointed facilitator who is guiding the group through the material.
In this model it is essential that the group leader prepares himself/herself for the group study by working carefully and thoroughly through the material prior to the study group so that he/she knows where the study is going and what the difficulties might be. A good leader will also work through all the questions in the study and think about the answers. He/she will do any research necessary to lead the group through difficult questions, and take along any additional material which will help the group to come to a biblical answer or conclusion.
Here all group members are on an equivalent level of understanding and share the leadership of the group. This differs from the previous in that there is no formally appointed leader. This only works where there is a situation of mutual responsibility and commitment.
POTENTIAL DANGERS OF BIBLE STUDY GROUPS
The pooling of ignorance
Bible study groups can often degenerate into the pooling of ignorance. This happens when:
Neither the leader nor group members have any real understanding of the message and meaning of the Bible.
The leader is weak, or ‘doesn’t like being critical’, or can’t pluck up the courage to present the biblical perspective and the biblical meaning when a group member suggests something that is obviously not biblical.
The sharing of subjective opinions and perspectives rather than objective truth
This can be linked with the above. It also occurs when:
Neither the leader nor any of the group members have a real perception of the nature of the Bible – when they do nor realize or do not believe that the Bible is the once-given, inspired, infallible, authoritative and final revelation of God of which the meaning and the message is not ‘up for grabs’, but a message that is the same for all people in all places at all times.
There is an ignorance or avoidance of the principles of Biblical interpretation. This might seem insignificant, but it isn’t. These principles of interpretation guard the Bible against the kind of approach to the Bible that leads people into heresy and to disrespect for the Bible.
The leader, or the study notes, asks questions like ‘what does this mean to you?’ This is a potentially very dangerous question to ask. Bible studies occur so that the group can learn what the Bible actually teaches, not what it means to me – I might have a whole set of totally non-biblical presuppositions through which I am interpreting the particular verse being studied. What it means to me is only valid if my answer supports and ties in with the message of the whole Bible generally, and the meaning of the verse in its context in particular.
A wise group leader will guard the truth of the Bible as he/she would guard a priceless treasure. No group member’s opinion is ‘right’ or ‘acceptable’ just because they say it, or because they genuinely believe it. It might be an honest expression of what they believe, but it is right and acceptable in terms of biblical truth only if it affirms biblical truth. If the group is meeting just to talk about their own opinions then let’s call it that, not a ‘Bible study’.
This, of course, puts a great load of responsibility on the group leader or teacher, and calls for both knowledge of the Bible that can discern between truth and error, and personal skills to gently and appropriately guide people away from their non-biblical perceptions to the real truth of the Word. It is, after all, only God’s truth that sets people free [John 8:32].
THE STUDY LEADER/TEACHER
Can ‘anyone’ lead a Bible study group? Not really.
Howard F. Vos, in Effective Bible Study, [p179ff] identifies the following important characteristics of study leaders or teachers. Think about each of these. Why are they important? What would happen in a group where the leader or teacher did not have these qualities or characteristics?
Three prime prerequisites:
Must know the truth
Must live the truth
Must know how to proclaim the truth
Three additional basic requirements:
Faith in God
Faith in the Bible as the Word of God
Realisation of the importance and value of teaching
Other important qualifications for the Bible teacher:
Knowledge of the subject matter and its background
Enthusiasm about the subject
Liking for and interest in those you are teaching
Understanding of the group members and a knowledge of where their understanding is.
Vos also identifies these two negative factors in study leaders/Bible teachers.
The teacher/leader is too academic for the group.
The material is irrelevant for the group.
WORK TO A PLAN
Irrespective of which method of Bible study you are preparing for your group there are some important things that you need to do prior to the group study time:
Have an aim to accomplish in the study – know what you want to achieve, and where you want to take the group in its journey into God’s truth.
Prepare the content – as Paul advised Timothy, work hard at it so that you won’t be ashamed of the way you handle God’s truth.
Prepare questions for the group to research and answer. This will involve them actively in the learning process – involvement helps cement the truths they are learning into their long term memory. Make sure the questions relate to the Bible passage being studied, and that they are within the ability of the group to understand and find the answers for.
Choose illustrations that fit the content. Bible studies do not need illustrations in the same way that sermons do, because in Bible studies the interaction within the group sustains interest and relevance to a greater degree than simply sitting and listening to a sermon possibly can. However, illustrations can be factored into a Bible study with good effect.
Guide your group to biblical truth through use of questioning. Whether the questions are given to the group in their study notes or asked orally by the leader through the course of the study, there are several things to keep in mind.
Avoid questions that suggest the answer
Avoid questions with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers
Be sure the question is clear, brief, simply stated and relevant.
Don’t waste time on irrelevant or unimportant questions
Ask the question first, before you name the person you want to answer
Ask randomly, not in order around the group
Allow one person only to speak at a time
Prevent a few people from monopolizing the discussion
Those answering questions should talk to the whole group, not just the leader
Avoid debate, unless debate was the planned method.
Develop life application discussion points. Life application must never be confined just to the ‘what must I do?’ type questions that arise out of Biblical commands. Life application also relates strongly to ‘how does this Biblical fact impact me and my relationship with God?’ type of questions that arise, for instance, out of learning truth about God or about salvation. [In fact it is this latter type of question that often needs discussing, because our self-centred, legalistic, human minds will almost always automatically ask the previous question. We all tend to think we must do something either to make God accept us or to regain his acceptance when we think we have lost it.]