Opening the Bible for Seekers

Small groups that thoughtfully use Scripture can serve an evangelistic purpose.

It is now clear that large numbers of people have become Christians through peer-group discussions of the Bible. And when unchurched participants become serious about the Christian faith, they normally begin attending church, often the church of their group's initiator.

Whole churches have been built using this method, and the gospel has penetrated neighborhoods and workplaces that likely would not have opened up to other evangelistic strategies.

What are the keys that make these groups succeed, causing the local church to grow? Here are six:

Safe Invitation

Instead of being asked to "join" a Bible study, people are invited to a home to hear about an idea: a discussion Bible study group for adults who aren't experts. After dessert and coffee, the host or hostess explains how the group will function, using the method of inductive (investigative) study. A twenty-minute sampler—one incident from the Gospel of Mark—gives a taste of what's ahead. Those interested set a time and place to start studying.

The same thing can happen on the job. Any group that meets on neutral territory is less threatening for newcomers than meeting in a church. Lunch-hour groups meet every week among Wall Street businesspeople, research scientists at a pharmaceutical corporation, and executives and clerical workers at a chemical firm; there's also an after-work study among garage mechanics with their Christian employer, and breakfast studies (weekday or Saturday) among small-town tradesmen and professionals. Workers who know one another through their jobs but meet in homes range from lobstermen on an island off the Maine coast to astronauts and their spouses in Houston.

Protective Structure

An ideal ratio is six to eight people studying the Bible for the first time with only one or two firm Christians. Groups with too many "experts" do not appeal to raw beginners.

A group of six to ten is large enough to stimulate interaction and new ideas but small enough to let everyone speak and respond to the comments of others. If a group is twelve or larger, discussion tends to split into two or three competing conversations. The moderator has to exert strong control and may be tempted to lecture. The quiet people and those who know the least sit back. Sometimes they stop coming.

But when everyone has a fair chance, each participant is greatly influenced by what she discovers and shares in the group. What she hears herself saying about Jesus' claims will be remembered long after she forgets what someone else tells her. We recall only 20 percent of what we hear but 70 percent of what we say. That's why discussion Bible studies are powerful agents of change.

Whole Book Bites

Newcomers to the Bible need to lay a foundation before they can handle studies that skip around. Using selected verses here and there to present the gospel message confuses the person who cannot set them into a meaningful context. They also put the person at risk when approached by a cult using a thematic presentation. If methods are similar, the biblically untaught person has a hard time distinguishing between what is authentic and what is counterfeit.

Those new to Bible study should start with Mark; it's clear, concise, full of action, and does not require familiarity with the Old Testament. No wonder missionary translators usually begin with Mark.

Well-prepared Questions

Groups function best with questions that help them observe, interpret, and apply what they find in the Bible text. The questions should be forthright enough to allow each person to take a turn as moderator, moving the group paragraph by paragraph through a chapter. The material must not assume that everyone understands Christian jargon or can easily comprehend a religious mind-set.

Three Ground Rules

The following ground rules protect a group against misuse of Scripture:

Confine the discussion to the chapter being studied. This keeps the newcomers at equal advantage. As the weeks go by, of course, everyone's scope of knowledge enlarges, and the group is able to refer back to chapters previously studied.

Expect everyone to be responsible for pulling the group back from digressions. The moderator's job is greatly eased if others in the group help say, "We've gotten onto a tangent. Let's get back to the chapter."

Agree that the document (Mark, for example) will be the authority for the discussion. People should not be coerced into believing the Bible, but they can be encouraged to be honest about what it says and to refrain from rewriting it. As a group continues to study week after week, most members come to recognize the Bible as authoritative.

These guidelines keep a group on the path of orthodoxy. It is difficult to promote heresy in a group studying a book of the Bible in context.

Nonexpert Study

Not every member should attempt an outreach Bible study. A wise pastor will not try to get the whole church into this approach to evangelism. Some Christians tend to tell others too much too soon. The discussion approach requires patience and a willingness to let the non-Christian build a framework of Bible knowledge and discover Christ's claims for himself.

But once this has happened, the person is much more likely to hear and believe a gospel presentation from the pulpit or from a Christian friend.

For those the church wants to encourage in this kind of outreach, a preparation series of four or five Wednesday nights or an all-day Saturday workshop may be used. Such a training program should include:

  • An explanation of inductive study.
  • Instruction in sensitivity to the non-Christian.
  • Practice in introducing the idea of a Bible study to friends and colleagues.
  • Participation in an actual Bible study discussion.

Copies of the study questions for Mark should be available as well.

At one such workshop, two men were role-playing the initial invitation. Jim later reported, "When Charlie asked me how I'd like to 'join a group and study the Word of God,' he lost me. I was suddenly aware that a person who had never studied the Bible would not call it 'the Word of God.' It would have been better if he'd simply asked me if I'd like to be in a Bible study for nonexperts. I would have said yes to that."

Outreach can start in a neighborhood with one or two young mothers from the church inviting women on their block. The daytime group becomes so valuable that they want their husbands to share the experience, and an evening Bible study begins for couples. Next, businesspeople start studies at work.

Those who come to Christ through a discussion Bible study are able to reach out to their friends in the same way. Meanwhile, church members mature spiritually and become more effective leaders in the church. Small-group Bible study is a ministry multiplier.

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