Give Your Study Some Context

Give Your Study Some Context

Help group members understand the Scripture you're discussing

Note: This article is excerpted from Field Guide for Small Group Leaders.

Many small-group leaders feel the need to teach their group members by providing a lot of information, principles, and theories instead of leading an actual discussion. In case there is any ambiguity, let me be clear: this is a bad idea. It's called lecturing, and it should be reserved for professors behind their lecterns (and to some extent pastors behind their pulpits).

But that doesn't mean small-group leaders should have nothing to say. We should. In fact, I believe it's important that group leaders spend a little bit of time explaining the context of a Bible passage or topic before the group digs into a discussion. I also believe that group leaders need to address context on two levels: textual and personal.

Textual Context

The textual context of a passage in the Bible is the frame that surrounds that passage and gives it meaning. This frame is made up of several elements:

  1. The verses that come immediately before and immediately after the Scripture passage under discussion.
  2. The book of the Bible that contains the passage under discussion.
  3. All passages of Scripture that were written by the author of the passage under discussion.
  4. The Bible as a whole.
  5. The cultural and historical setting experienced by the author as he wrote the passage under discussion.

The first two elements are often referred to as the "immediate context." They operate like the white lines on both sides of the road—they show us where the text has come from and where it is going, and they provide a boundary that keeps us from wandering away from the text's proper meaning. The final three elements are often referred to as the "broad concept." They operate like a map, showing us the country surrounding that particular road on all sides.

Here's my point: One of your jobs as a small-group leader is to provide a brief overview of the textual context for the verses your group will interact with during a discussion. And you want to provide that overview before the discussion gets started.

You don't want to get carried away, of course. You don't have to dig through a myriad of commentaries and hit your group members with every piece of relevant information you uncover. That would be lecturing, and lecturing is bad.

No, your goal is simply to highlight a few facts and ideas that would not be considered "common knowledge," and that you believe will be helpful to your group members during the discussion. Hopefully that kind of information will be included in the curriculum your group is using. If not (or if you wrote your own material), you should be able to compile some useful information during the process of identifying a "big idea," writing discussion questions, and so on.

Personal Context

Personal context refers to the experiences and attitudes of your small-group members that frame their interaction with each passage of Scripture. In other words, just as the verses before and after a passage of Scripture have an impact on its meaning, the personal stories of your group members will impact how they interact with that passage of Scripture and its meaning. This includes their stories as individuals as well as the collective story of the group as a whole.

To continue the analogy I started earlier, if the broad context of a Scripture passage is like a map, and the immediate context is a single road on that map, then the personal context is the condition of the person attempting to follow that road on that map.

That being the case, another of your jobs as a small-group leader is to maintain some level of awareness regarding the condition of your small-group members as they prepare to discuss a passage of Scripture. If most of your group seems exhausted, for example, and you had planned on delving into a deep doctrinal exploration of Romans 5, you may need to change things up a bit. Or if you were going to lead a discussion on a Scripture passage that deals with grief (Psalm 22, for example) and you learn that one of your group members has just experienced a death in his or her extended family, you would have a responsibility to include that person's experience in the group's discussion of the text.

The bottom line is this: It is important for you as a leader to highlight the textual context of a Scripture passage in order to help your group explore that passage more fully. In the same way, it is important for you as a leader to point out anything from the lives of your people that may serve as an obstacle or an enhancement to the group's discussion.

An Example

My small group recently worked through the book of Revelation, and we started off by exploring the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. Here are the nuggets of textual and personal context I provided for the group when we studied the letter to the church in Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17):

  • Reminder: all seven letters to the churches follow the same structure. They start with an image of Jesus; they talk about what the church has done well; they talk about what the church has done wrong; they encourage the church to stand strong in the middle of hard times; and they describe a reward for those who do stand strong.
  • Pergamum was located on the coast of the country we call Turkey today.
  • Pergamum was one of the rare cities in the Roman Empire that was allowed to administer capital punishment, which was called "the right to the sword." This is important for understanding verses 12 and 16.
  • I understand that several of you are anxious to start digging into the juicy parts of Revelation that deal with the end of the world and all that. But that starts in chapter four, so we'll need to stay away from those discussions until we get a little farther into the text.

See the idea? Not too long. Not too much information. Just a few helpful facts and observations to prepare the group for an interesting discussion.

—Excerpted from Field Guide for Small Group Leaders: Setting the Tone, Accommodating Learning Styles and More by Sam O'Neal. Copyright 2012 by Sam O'Neal. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

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