An Open Book: Build a Better Bible Study

You feel the Lord urging you to lead a Bible study. But where do you begin? We spoke to experts to give you the guidance you need.

Jesus reigns at the center of the Christian faith. But how do we know Him? What do we believe about Him? What should the Christian life look like? All of these questions and many more about God’s grace and His desire for His people are answered in the Bible. 

In search of answers, Christians pore over the text. Many read it daily. We listen to sermons to help us understand Scripture. We memorize verses. We sing songs with Bible lyrics. As we grow in faith, we want to know more and more about the Bible. So we join Bible studies and, at some point, many of us want to lead a Bible study. 

The information on the next few pages gives you details about developing a healthy study, how to organize it, how to interpret the Bible and ideas that will help you become an effective leader.

FOUR SIGNS OF A GOOD STUDY

Keri Folmar understands Bible studies. She regularly opens the Scripture with women from Africa, the Middle East, India, Europe, Australia, East Asia, and North and South America. In addition, she has written Bible study guides such as Faith: A Bible Study on James for Women (Cruiciform Press, 2014). Keri is the wife of John Folmar, who has been pastor of the United Christian Church of Dubai since 2005. 

Handled well, small group studies encourage Christians to stay in God’s Word. Study should help believers think deeply about what the Bible means and how its teachings apply to our lives. For potential leaders, Keri shares these signs of a healthy study: 

Study One Book. The goal of a Bible study should be … to study the Bible. Fellowship, counseling and meeting individual needs often results from a good Bible study as members get to know one another. 

Find the Meaning. Since “all Scripture is God-breathed,” according to 2 Timothy 3:16, every word is true. Each passage of Scripture was written by a man “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” 2 Peter 1:21. 

Focus on the Gospel. The fact that Jesus Christ died for sinners makes all the difference in the world and in our daily lives. It is the reason we gather to study the Bible. As we carefully examine Scripture, God’s gracious work in Christ shines through. 

Dig for the Meaning. The point of Bible study is to discover what the author originally intended to convey. We need to know the true meaning of a passage before we can apply a Scripture verse to our daily lives.

Be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.
Proverbs 4:20-22 ESV

Countdown to Launch: Organizing a Bible Study

PRAY

If you feel called to start a study, ask God to lead you. Seek His guidance in determining the group’s goals and whom you should invite, including other leaders for the study.

PARTNER(S)

Find a leadership partner or two. Invite committed believers to join your leadership team. Choose those who will benefit from the experience. As they learn and grow, they may establish studies of their own. This broadens your ministry, allowing you to disciple others for leadership.

STUDY MEMBERS

Study groups can be made up of people from your church, your neighborhood, workplace or some other connection. Each person has individual needs and expectations, which may impact your study topic. 

SUBJECT MATTER

Many studies analyze a specific book of the Bible or what the Bible has to say about a specific topic, such as parenting, marriage or finances. Most small groups use Bible study books or teaching videos from respected authors and producers. This relieves the leader from the time-consuming responsibility of researching and creating new material.Settle on the initial topic before the first meeting. When the first study ends, let the group decide the next topic.

GROUP SIZE

Six to eight members in a study are enough to prevent one or two vocal people from dominating discussions. This size also allows an adequate number of members when someone misses a meeting.  

TIME & PLACE

Healthy studies usually last 45 to 90 minutes. Each gathering should include the study, prayer for one another and some general conversation. Sticking to the promised schedule is critical to retain busy members. You may meet in a home, a coffee shop, an office or wherever you find a private spot. 

THE INVITATION

Inviting people includes:

• Settling study specifics before inviting people. If the topic, book, leader or time and place are undetermined, it’s hard for someone to commit.

• Giving face-to-face invitations.

• Inviting people who are unsure about their faith. Invite them privately. Assure them that it’s OK to come listen and to only comment if comfortable.

• Informing parents with young children whether or not there will be childcare. 

• Sending reminders about the study through social media, texts and emails.

• Renewing the invitation for anyone who misses the first week.

THE INDISPENSABLE BOOK

Our walk alongside God takes a thousand twists, turns and obstacles. But there’s a map for the journey: the Bible.

Much more than a single volume, it’s a library of 66 sacred books. The Old Testament opens with creation and unfurls the history of God’s relationship with Israel and the Jews. The New Testament reveals that redemption through Jesus Christ was God’s plan all along. 

Together, these books are the Word of God. Each was written by men through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

As the Apostle Paul wrote about the Bible, “Every Scripture is God-breathed (given by His inspiration)” 2 Timothy 3:16 AMP.

Study the Scriptures, examine them closely and apply yourself to understanding them. 

Within a small-group study, you may find that God transforms you into a committed student of His Word. You may even want to lead a Bible study as you grow in understanding.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of Truth.
2 Timothy 2:15 ESV
Americans still hold the Bible in high regard, though the numbers are declining. About 79 percent viewed the Bible as sacred in 2014, down from 86 percent in 2011. And 56 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the actual or inspired word of God with no errors.
Source: The Barna Group

INTERPRETING THE BIBLE

Use these long-established and widely accepted basic principles for interpreting Scripture at your Bible study or on your own. 

Seek the Holy Spirit. Our guide to the Truth is the Holy Spirit. Seek His guidance as you pray before studying the Word. “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” 1 Corinthians 2:11 ESV.

Leave behind preconceptions. Your goal is to understand what God is teaching, not to view Scripture through your own worldview prejudices. Strive to hear the Scripture speak, not to make it say what you want it to say. 

Use Scripture to interpret Scripture. When you come across a Bible word you don’t understand, cross-reference it to similar words and verses elsewhere in the Bible.

Consider the context. Before you read a passage, you should know about a book’s historical background, culture, intended audience and literary genre. Start by reading the book introductions in a Study Bible.

WHY DO THEY COME?

Two factors draw people to Bible studies: The need to connect with other believers and a desire to dive deeply into Scripture, says Laura Holland, a small group leader at National Community Church in Washington, D.C. 

“I particularly know a fair number of women who join studies because they are stay-at-home moms or they work in an environment where it is mostly men. If there is any situation that can cause a sense of isolation, these women like to go to a study just for women. They feel that here are like-minded people that they can connect with and that they can share their lives with. Small groups can give everyone—it’s not just a woman thing—a sense of belonging,” Laura says.

Women and men are looking for meaningful information, not just a social club. “They want to understand Bible history and culture and the whys and the hows of Scripture. Many understand that a study group isn’t just a place to make friends. People want a serious study,” she says.

Beth Moore's Bible study books have ranked as high as No. 2 on the New York Times Best Sellers List.

TEN OF THE BEST STUDIES

These Bible study guides are available online or at bookstores.

  • Experiencing God- Henry Blackaby, Richard Blackaby and Claude King
  • Mercy Triumphs: James- Beth Moore
  • One Thousand Gifts Study Guide- Ann Voskamp
  • Ephesians Study Guide- John MacArthur
  • Having a Real Relationship with God- Kay Arthur
  • John: A 12-Week Study- Justin Buzzard
  • Joy! A Bible Study On Philippians- Keri Folmar
  • Jesus The King- Timothy Keller
  • The Message of Romans- John Scott
  • Christian Virtues- Cindy Bunch

STUMBLING BLOCKS

Three Traps a Bible study moderator needs to avoid.

OFF-TOPIC DISCUSSIONS

Making the Bible the center of the study isn’t as easy as it sounds. As people in a small group get to know one another, conversations often turn away from Scripture and toward everyday problems.

“It’s important that a small group becomes a community as you get to know one another,” says small group leader Laura Holland. “But Bible studies aren’t supposed to be all about me or all about you. The point is to get into Scripture and understand it.”

Discussions drift. Someone opens up about a problem she or he is experiencing, and soon the group gets sidetracked and goes off-topic. 

An experienced leader lets the conversation go on for a few minutes. It is important to the speaker, and one function of the group is to minister to one another. 

However, if sharing personal problems threatens to dominate a meeting, a wise leader gently moves the discussion back to the Word of God after a short time. There are exceptions, of course, for truly critical situations. But overall, the spotlight needs to be on God’s Word.

THE KNOW-IT-ALL

The best Bible studies are collegial groups where everyone voices her or his ideas and opinions. But studies get derailed quickly if a know-it-all rushes into every nano-second of silence to voice another opinion. What can be done?

The leader needs to lead. If someone is dominating the conversation, the leader can turn to someone who hasn’t spoken and ask, “What do you think?” As that person ends, the leader can ask someone else, “And what do you think?” The leader needs to manage the conversation.

This doesn’t always work with an eager know-it-all. The leader may have to speak to the person after the study session. In a nonconfrontational way, the leader should ask if the problem person realizes he or she is dominating the conversation. Encourage him to back off on commenting on every point. The leader should convey that as moderator, he or she will control who speaks at future meetings. The know-it-all needs to be encouraged to listen more and speak less during the meetings, so everyone has a chance to talk.

DO THE HOMEWORK

Many Bible studies require homework in the form of study and prayer. No matter how much you disliked homework in school, give it a try now. By investing time outside the study, you’ll speed up your understanding of Scripture. Your faith will grow and you’ll see the hand of the Lord more clearly in your life.

Rick Howerton, who has led many small groups and created Bible study guides, sees a tremendous difference between study groups that assign homework and those that do not.

“A group that does nothing between the meetings accomplishes very little during its meetings,” he says.

About 50 percent of Americans believe the Bible has too little influence in today’s society, 16 percent believe it has too much influence and about 30 percent feel the amount of Bible influence is just about right.
Source: The Barna Group

LEAD THE WAY

The success of any Bible study group depends on the quality of the leader, says Will Johnston, small groups pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C. 

“With any successful group, the intentionality that the leader brings to it is the key. For a thriving group, a leader has to put in some prep work on the front end, doing the work needed in background research and preparation. Leaders need to understand the context of the Scriptures the group is discussing. It is a lot about what the leader brings to it. But it’s not about ‘I’ve got to buckle down and study hard,’ as much as it is about how a leader prepares a few discussion questions and digs a little bit deeper to draw people into the discussion, which  provides a good experience for everyone in the group,” Will says. 

BECOMING THE LEADER

Bible study leaders need a passion for two things: people and the Bible, says Rick Howerton, small group consultant at Lifeway Christian Resources and the author of several Bible study guides. 

 A Bible study leader must love the Bible and possess a desire to see others grow in their understanding of the Word. Leaders also handle a host of practical issues, such as when and where to meet, what to do about refreshments and how to help hurting members of the group.

“Being the leader is something like serving as the pastor of a small congregation. You have to care passionately about what you are doing,” Rick says.

Rick says effective leaders:

• Share decision-making with the group. “Have everyone agree on things like how often the group meets, where it meets and the level of confidentiality people can expect. Having everyone in agreement from the beginning will really minimize the problems you might face,” he says.

• Don’t have to be Bible scholars. Get a good study book or a teaching video. The leader’s job is invite everyone into the conversation. 

• Keep discussion focused on the Scriptures. “When someone brings up a hurt or a pain, a wise leader will let the person talk, then draw everyone back to the Word of God. Allowing people to share their problems has a place, but always keep Scripture as the centerpiece,” Rick says.

• Devote time to prayer and study. The most satisfying studies result when leaders and members commit to daily prayer and Bible study. This is important for spiritual growth.

For the word of God is living and active … discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Hebrews 4:12 ESV

PART OF A CHURCH OR INDEPENDENT?

Many Bible studies organize within churches, but others form independently of a church. Several Bible study leaders have differing opinions about the best approach.

Keri Folmar, Bible study writer: “Not every Bible study is church-based. Outreach-oriented Bible studies in neighborhoods, schools or workplaces can bear much fruit. However, if you want to see exponential spiritual growth, there is an advantage to keeping Bible study under the authority of a local church. People in a local church sit under the same preaching of God’s Word. When a difficult question arises, they come at it with the same foundation and can check their conclusions with pastors and elders. Church-based Bible study builds the entire church as members get to know one another intimately and form lasting bonds.”

Christine Abraham, leader of independent online Bible study, www.womensbiblecafe.com. “Many of the women who come to our studies aren’t looking for a church; they just want to study. These include many unchurched who want to know Jesus but may be afraid to go into a local church. Then there are missionaries who may feel a tremendous sense of isolation and pastors’ wives who want to connect with an outside community. Then we have observers. They may not participate but want to see how Christians engage. We’ve seen many of these people come to Christ. They may ask questions one day, and give a testimony about their baptism the next. It’s amazing.” 

Rick Howerton, Bible study writer. “Church-based small groups are more predictable. And here’s the thing: Everyone was accountable to someone in New Testament times. That’s the beauty of being connected to a local body of believers. You hear something that sounds off and you can go to an elder or someone in authority and ask, ‘Is this really what the Bible says?’”

Laura Holland, small group leader. “Church-based groups have an advantage because the church provides training and support. But there are advantages to neighborhood groups, too. It’s a definite positive that you are all living in the same neighborhood and probably have more in common with each other than in a church, where you are getting all sorts of people. That closeness gives the group focus. The leader can say, ‘The life I live is very much like yours. We may have come from different places and have different goals in life, but in day-to-day life, there are a lot of similarities between us.’”


While nearly 80 percent of Americans say the Bible is Sacred, many believe other books are sacred. Twelve percent consider the Koran sacred, 7 percent say the Torah is sacred, 5 percent call the book of Mormon sacred and 5 percent say other books qualify.
Source: The Barna Group