How to run a Bible study

Here are some practical ideas for running Bible studies for different types of people and groups.

Michael Flynn

A collaborative Bible study

Good for…

  • People from cultures where memory learning is the norm.
  • People who are new to Bible study or Christianity.
  • People for whom not being able to answer questions is a potentially shameful.
  • Youth and Children (repetition)
  • People whose culture does not allow them to question a leader or tradition.
  1. Present printed passage – all to listen to it read.
  2. Read the passage again and ask people to mark on the printed page: What they like with a tick, what they don’t like with a cross, what is hard to understand with a question mark.
  3. Ask people in the group one by one what they marked with a question mark.
  4. Read the passage a third time thinking about God and us. Keep these questions in mind as the passage is read: What did we learn about God? What did we learn about ourselves/people?
  5. Write a response to the passage. What will we do about it? What will we think as a result of it? At the end of this invite those who are willing to share their responses.

The matrix Bible study

Good for…

  • People who want to understand the flow (structure) of an argument or passage.
  • People who like asking questions or like being organized.
  • Helpful for a detailed overview of a passage.
  1. Using a large piece of paper (A2 at least) mark out 5 columns of a matrix.
  2. Have the group divide their selected passage into logical or thematic sections by verse numbers.
  3. On the piece of paper mark in rows to correspond to the number of sections your group has divided the passage into.
  4. Have the group give a title to each section that is a summary of the main idea of that section.
  5. Place the title and verse numbers of your sections into the left hand column, at the start of each row, of the matrix.
  6. Continue your Bible study by asking the questions in the top row of the matrix of each section of the passage.
  7. Record summary answers on the large sheet of paper under each section of the matrix.
Sections of passage (verses)What is exciting?
Wow! God is awesome!
What is troubling?
It doesn’t fit. I don’t get it.
What is revealing?
Ah! I get it now.
So what for us?
How is this relevant to me?

An example from Acts 2

Sections of passage (verses)What is exciting?
Wow! God is awesome!
What is troubling?
It doesn’t fit. I don’t get it.
What is revealing?
Ah! I get it now.
So what for us?
How is this relevant to me?
The Holy Spirit (v1-13)    
The speech (v14-36)    
The challenge (v 37-42)    
The church(v43-47)    
This is your chance to run the matrix on Acts 2

The Swedish Bible study

Good for….

  • requires no prep
  • is easily adaptable to different knowledge levels
  • can be used without the leadership of an experienced teacher
  • a step toward preparing students for further bible study
  • a way to give everyone a chance to speak/share
  • able to be used at home by yourself or with small groups

Down side? It is not strong on the context of passages – as we know… when we take the text out of context all we are left with is a con. Or, as another wit put it: ‘I can do all things through a verse taken out of context.’ That is why it can also make interpretation or application too subjective.

Symbols for the Swedish Bible Study

First, the light bulb.

The light bulb is supposed to represent your “light bulb moment” as you’re reading the passage. What really stuck out to you? What really struck you about the passage? Write down those things.

Second, the question mark.

The question mark is the place to ask whatever question(s) you may have. Just writing them down often suggests an answer. 

Third, the arrow.

The arrow is the life application symbol. You are supposed to look at what you’ve learned from this passage and see how you can apply it to your life. And not just that… since it is a Biblical truth, you are supposed to actually TRY to apply it to your life.

Then, try the expansion pack

You can be content with what is above or press on into:

The cross symbol

The cross symbol is a prompting to look for signs of Jesus in the studied passage. This is easier sometimes than others.

The speech bubble

This is a place to write down someone’s name who you think would benefit from the things you have learned from that day’s study. And then you are supposed to actually go out a talk to that person about what you learned before the next meeting.

The Puzzle Piece

How does this passage fit into this part of the Bible? Why did the author bring it up?

Online Bible studies

One way to “Zoom Study” the bible

This is a method of reading the bible that is super super simple and does not require any expert knowledge… It might also be useful to use with Zoom (online) studies. The process works like this…

  1. First, a prayer is said to invite the Spirit to guide the reading of the Word.  
  2. Second, a passage is read aloud twice to the group. They are given two questions to consider while the passage is read: What captures your imagination? What question would you like to ask a Bible expert based upon this passage?  
  3. Third, a time of silence is observed to allow the words of the passage to have impact.  
  4. Fourth, each person in the group is instructed to find someone they do not know very well. They are further instructed to listen to that person in free speech (perhaps via a chat function online) as they tell the listener what they hear from the passage based upon the two questions.  
  5. Fifth, after the time of sharing, the group listens to the reports from the various participants regarding what they heard from their partner.  
  6. Finally, the group together discerns what God might be doing among them based upon what they heard.

The host of the zoom meeting can create “breakout” rooms where small groups of people can meet e.g. groups of two. Then the host can call everyone back together after a period of time. 

This method is adapted from a method used by mission organisations called “Dwelling in the Word” and a method of studying the bible when English is not your first language. It can be done with children involved as well. 

When nothing makes sense – a crime scene Bible study.

Useful for hard passages in the Bible or as a guide to preparing more detailed studies or talks. In group work this is suited to groups with confident literary skills, who see the strength in asking questions and who fancy that they would make good detectives.

  1. Make a model of the crime scene and summarise: Condense the themes/images/arguments/drama of a passage. Use pictures (with lines between them) or craft play if you have those skills. The overview will keep people from getting lost in the details. 
  2. Ask why did this happen? Why was this passage written? How does it help the author achieve his purpose? For example: Why do we have Revelation 6? One answer is because it explains the context of gospel ministry and God’s relationship to the history of our world. The encouragement of that chapter is despite the chaos of history caused by God’s enemies, Christ is ultimately in command.
  3. Question the suspect. Turn into your favourite detective and cross examine the difficult text in front of you. Try good cop (sympathetic), bad cop (hard and sceptical) about the details of the case. Good interrogation involves the questions: Who? What? Why? When? Where?
  4. Read the context: As for any crime scene – you have to see the whole picture. Stand back, check out the wider context of each passage and word, you will frequently discover clues to the meaning of otherwise confusing passages. For example – the 144,000 saints in Revelation chapter 7 is explained by the innumerable multitude in the second part of the chapter, but, to understand the context of the last chapters of Revelation will take you back to the first chapters of the Bible.
  5. Let the evidence lead you: History has shown us it is easy to get lost in subjective interpretations of difficult Biblical passages like the book of Revelation. If that happens with your group take note of the difficult passages and return to the group with options for either understanding it more clearly or at least greater clarity about the problems and interpretive options at a later time. This is the confused and frustrating part of any good detective drama where the clues just don’t add up to a conculsion. This is when it is helpful to retrace your steps above.
  6. Themes will lead you to a conviction.  Application of the book of Revelation has a colourful history. One mistake has been to assume it was written only for us and our times. However, Jesus is clear that it was for the churches in the first century AD and then, through them, for the churches of all times and places, including us (Chapters 2 & 3). 

To apply this book to our lives we work down into the theology/themes using questions like: 

  • What does this teach us about God or human beings or human societies? The lessons here cross cultures, times as well as our subjective interpretations.
  • Where else in the Bible have we seen this theme or image and how does that cross reference or allusion to the Old Testament help us understand this passage? This is the Bible interpreting the Bible again across cultures and times. Footnotes in study Bibles are very helpful at this point.
  • How does this theme contrast with what we do or believe today? This is hard work – it means standing in the place of the suspect (the text) and looking back at us. But, as we know from every good detective novel and TV series, the ability to see through another’s eyes is vital to solving the puzzle. What does the text see in our lives, culture and context? Or, to put that question another way, what would change in our lives if we lived out this teaching/theme?