By the Participatory Approach Support Team, LEAD Asia-Pacific
When Bible Study Practices Don’t Produce What We’re Hoping They Will Produce
While our specific areas of ministry may differ, we all want to create environments for those we serve that help make studying the Bible active, engaging, creative, meaningful, and accessible! We long for spiritual transformation and empowerment in their lives, but this sometimes requires taking a closer look at the way things have always been done and what may truly help others to know God more intimately.
Many Bible study methods aim to promote discussion and deep thinking for spiritual growth. However, this may not be what learners experience if open discussions or reflections are not encouraged. Rather than promoting open and in-depth discussions about what the Bible means to the learners, Bible study is often seen in the church as a way to teach correct Biblical content. As a result, actual Bible study practices often use a lecture style or involve quiz-style close-ended questions and answers (that is, every question has a correct answer, and the point is to get it right). Lecture-style teaching is effective in delivering established knowledge about the Bible, but it is primarily a one-way communication that assumes knowledge to transfer only from the teacher to the learner, with little room for the learner to contribute to meaning-making. Similarly, quiz-style questions and answers may look like a discussion, but it often fails to engage learners deeply since they are not expected (or even allowed) to make original and meaningful contributions.
Both lecture-style and quiz-style approaches imply a learning process that is likely to be passive. That is, learners follow a closed program with predetermined objectives, content, scope, and outputs. An unintended outcome is learners who are able to replicate the “correct” answers about Biblical content, but may not be able to see their own role in engaging with the Word of God for themselves or their fellow learners. This in turn limits their ability to dig into God’s Word independently, or apply Biblical truths to their day-to-day life. The Word of God remains disconnected from their lives.
A Valuable Shift
To increase agency in a believer’s learning, a Bible study can be carried out by means of facilitation—helping people to think and talk together about what matters to them. Rather than providing content and leading a group to a specific conclusion, a facilitator provides a structure for participants to generate the content for mutual learning. The facilitator also guides the process of discovering what the Bible passage means through dialogue. By providing opportunities for open-ended discussions, a facilitator can help learners focus on topics that matter to them.
When learners are invited to freely explore Biblical content for meaning (as opposed to producing model answers), they are more likely to come up with questions that relate to their everyday lives and to people they know. As participants become actively involved in learning from the Bible, they experience better retention, deeper understanding, and more personal application of what the Scripture teaches.
Good facilitators can help participants get beyond the mindset of “arriving at the model answers.” When facilitators communicate trust and the expectation that participants are capable of active and personal learning, participants are also more likely to rise up to the task and figure out for themselves what the Bible has to say to them. As a result, a participatory Bible study produces learners who find for themselves meaning and joy in engaging with Scripture, generating life changes through the Word of God.
What Does a Participatory Bible Study Look Like, Practically?
Participatory Bible Study methods focus on facilitating discussions about Bible passages.
The methods can take many forms, often involving open questions, visualizations, and structured discussions. In one example, facilitators ask for a volunteer to read a Bible passage aloud to the group, and then the facilitator guides the group through the passage again by having them compile a thorough list for the following questions:
- “Who?” (i.e. who are all the characters in this story?)
- “What?” (i.e. what did each person or group do? Or, what does this text tell us about each one?)
- “Why?” (i.e. why did certain things happen, or why did a character act as they did?)
- And finally, “What Does It Mean (for Us)?” (i.e., what may be life applications we can draw from this?)
During the “Who?”, “What?”, and “Why?” sections, participants provide suggested answers, and scribes within the group note down all answers for the group to see. Through this process, each individual thinks actively about the passage and makes observations about all the parts of the story, but all group members are also communally engaging with the Word together, learning from one another, and adding their own reflections and applications to the group members around them.
In that last section “What Does It Mean (for Us)?”, participants are encouraged to reflect silently on what all these things mean for them today, and how the Holy Spirit might be speaking to them about applying these Biblical truths. A variation of this is to invite participants to reflect aloud in small breakout groups, and share a few highlights back in the whole group.
Visually, actions in the “What?” category and motives in the “Why?” categories are attached to the “Who?”, so that actions and intentions are connected to their respective characters. Everyone in the group is encouraged to share, and no answer is demeaned or excluded.
Depending on the Bible passage and the Bible knowledge of the participants, facilitators may need to provide background information about the historical context, and any details of the story that are found in other chapters. A facilitator who is also a Bible teacher can fill in the information gaps that may be needed for the participants to understand the focus text.
That said, even if the facilitator is a lay leader and finds it challenging to provide more information, it is still important to open the floor for participants to ask questions. The facilitator’s role is not so much to provide answers, but to allow the group to be curious and make sense of the text together. By opening the floor to questions, other group members may also participate by sharing what they know. Everyone, including the facilitator, can continue exploring related information from other Bible study resources after the meeting, and share their findings in the next meeting. Hence, it is okay and important for the facilitator to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” Ultimately, what is important is the availability of a safe space for active and ongoing learning to happen.
Encouraging Believers to Go Deeper in God’s Word
After a participatory Bible study, participants often comment that they noticed things in the passage that they had never noticed before. They find that characters that had always been in the background for them suddenly meant something to them, taught them something new, or even convicted their hearts of issues they needed to deal with. This model of study has encouraged both mature and new believers to interact with Biblical texts, and to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in their minds and hearts when they engage with His Word.
If you missed the EMDC Online session on Participatory Bible Study Methods, where the “Who? What? Why? What Does It Mean?” Bible study was demonstrated, you can find and watch that here.