Small Groups Are Missing Something

Skills for Helping Others Study the Bible

By David Drury

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“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” - 2 Timothy 3:16-17


Over a decade ago my father, Keith Drury, developed a seminar training on how to teach the Bible.  Appropriately called “Teaching the Bible,” the traveling seminar was fascinating to me as a college student at the time.  I learned a great deal from it about studying the Bible myself and how to teach others to do the same.


Since that time I believe the landscape of the church has changed somewhat when it comes to discipleship.  It seems that Adult Sunday School, while still having a place at the table—is certainly no longer the dominant mode of discipleship in the church.  We might say that small groups have usurped that role… but that is only partially true.  In reality, discipleship in general is fading.  Adult Sunday School, whether because of teacher shortage or space limitations or strategy changes, has faded in many places… most notably in larger churches.  But small groups have not, as a discipleship program, truly replaced Sunday School in the role of disciple-making.


I believe that small groups do 80% of what I, as a local church pastor, would like to see done in discipleship.  I’ve seen them be more effective at building relationships, including new people, developing leaders, fostering a connectedness in the body, serving together, and a host of other positive things in the life of an ordinary Christian.  However, I’ve yet to see small groups in general become especially effective at the one thing that adult Sunday School classes were most effective at: and that thing is teaching the Bible.


For all the limitations of Adult Sunday School those classes were really good at the transfer of biblical information and the growth of knowledge and insight in the Word.  Yes—I do believe that knowledge is not the end all.  In fact, I’ve long felt that a lot of Bible knowledge without the fruit of the Spirit is a recipe for disaster in the church.  So my suggestion is that we work long and hard to help small groups do the “other 20%” so that they have a well-rounded and fully developed pattern for making disciples.


The Key Element


The most important element in enabling this to happen is for the leaders of small groups to be studying the Bible themselves and to be passionate and equipped for helping others to study the Bible as well.  Some of this is a personal disciplines issue.  If a leader is never in the Word how can they motivate and hold their group accountable to being in the Word as well?  Some of this is a resource issue.  If a leader doesn’t have a good Bible study resource they may feel they don’t know where to start in helping others learn the Bible.  However, there is an amazing amount of great material on developing personal disciplines of Bible study and there are even more amazing Bible study resources out there for small groups.  In fact, there’s so much out there now it’s almost at overload level.


I believe the most strategic issue for small group leaders is not disciplines or resources.  It is skill.  We have not taught small group leaders how to show others to study the Bible.  In the past year I’ve taken the time to do some very basic Bible study skills during meetings and small groups.  At first I was doing it casually just as “something to do” in those settings.  (Isn’t it amazing how after 6 months all of us as small group leaders are just “looking for something to do” with our group and usually we grab the first idea that comes to us!)  In these settings I was intrigued at how most of the people—which were leaders themselves—had not ever really experienced what it’s like to do a cross-reference or word study in the Bible, for instance.  They had never charted a passage.  They didn’t recall ever just sitting and pondering a passage during a Bible study.  This was when I remembered my father’s “Teaching the Bible” seminar where I learned many of those skills in the early 1990s. 


I’ve come to believe that the one key element in turning 80% effective small groups into disciple-making machines that run at a 100% clip is to train the leaders in the skills that work best in helping others to study the Bible.  So I have one person to blame for this problem: myself.  As a pastor with small group leader training at the top of my list of responsibilities… I simply haven’t done this enough for my leaders.  So here I want to explain several of those core skills that I believe work best at helping others learn the Bible in a small group setting that I learned from my father.  (The original Teaching the Bible Skills are © 1994 by Keith Drury.)


Core Skills in Helping Others Study the Bible




Have you ever led a group discussion and asked a question that turned out to be a dud?  You know how it goes.  You ask: “So, what did everyone think of the passage this week?” and you just get silence in return.  Well, that’s because the question is bad.  It’s too generic.  People could have a thousand different thoughts after that question instead of just one.  They can’t narrow it down and give you one.  No one wants to break the ice.  Good questions make good groups.  Leaders know this.  Asking questions is perhaps the primary role of a small group leader during a group meeting.


Asking questions is the first of these core skills in helping others study the Bible.  Fast-paced questioning helps a group uncover what the Bible says and means, and how it applies.  An example of this in a study of Matthew 5 would be saying “What do you think might have prompted Jesus to go up to a mountainside?”  Then asking “What did He do? Who do you think sat up front?" (Matthew 5:1)


Advantages of using questions in a small group:


Cautions about using questions in your group:




Here’s the bottom line on this core skill: asking fast-paced questions is a wonderful way to uncover the actual content of God's Word in a small group—providing a model for personal Bible study.




Doing a word study in a small group is a great way to tackle a topic everyone is interested in but still focus on studying the Bible.  By tracing one term throughout a whole book or the whole Bible you a group can engage with a very relevant issue with the Bible as the guide.


An example of this from Matthew 5:13 would be studying the word “salt” by comparing and Discussing Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34-35; Colossians 4:6; Genesis 19;26; Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; Judges 9:45; 2 Kings 2:20-21; 2 Chronicles 25:11; Job 6:6; Ezekiel 16:4 and James 3:11-12.


Advantages of doing a word study in a small group:

·        Supplies a whole-Bible approach to truth.

·        Aids people in finding scriptures (those that don’t the books of the Bible they begin to learn through usage).

·        Gives us a comprehensive, systematic development of an idea.

·        It is memorable - it is hard to forget a great word study.  Sometimes you remember them for decades.  The word provides the hook.

·        Teaches working with Scripture, not just talking religiously.

·        Develops permanent, foundational, theological concepts.

·        Develops familiarity with the Word.

·        Gives a clear impression that the Bible is important in this group.


Some cautions about doing a word study in your group:

·        Some people who can't find books in the Bible may be frustrated at first.

·        Some adults can't or won't read aloud in the group.

·        Can be overwhelming if you don't drop some references (for instance, the word “believe” is found 85 times in the book of John alone).

·        Too "academic" feeling to be used frequently in most small groups.

·        If you assign out the scriptures to be read many will not listen to the others read.



·        Do your research. Use a concordance or use

·        Narrow down the references. Know where you're going and what each reference talks about so you’re not surprised.

·        Remember the great terms. While word studies are easier to do on obscure terms, don't overlook these great terms of Scripture: faith, grace, love, peace, mercy, salvation, righteousness, holiness, redemption, adoption, belief, comfort, truth, compassion, promise, confession, justice covenant, faithful, glory, heaven, joy, praise and prayer.

·        Don't exhaust everything. A good word study doesn't have to cover every verse in the Bible where it appears in order to be effective. If you ignite interest, your group can finish the study on their own later. Remember, leading the group is not the end of Bible study, it is supposed to ignite interest in personal Bible study after group meeting.

·        Allow at least 10 minutes. A word study can be done in less time, but don't count on it.

·        Do it together. Rather than assign all the verses out at once, proceed one verse at a time as a group (this takes longer but enables you to focus everyone’s attention on each Bible verse).


Here’s the bottom line on this core skill: A good word study is so relevant and memorable that it can teach our group members an entire-Bible approach to a concept that they remember for years to come.




Discussion may seem like an obvious thing in a small group.  It’s the bread-and-butter of most every small group meeting.  But what we often forget is the purpose of discussion.  In a good small group discussion is simply helping the group to think out loud together.  It’s like the entire group is one brain and they think through some passage or question together.


A key principle to discussion is that there is more than one answer to the question that sparks discussion.  When you’re doing the “asking questions” skill you’re doing rapid fire one-answer questions.  When you’re doing discussion you’re piquing the curiosity of the group and helping to guide them through a discussion of the topic or passage.


Advantages of using discussion in a small group:

·        It can be exciting, fast moving, interesting & it creates lots of energy.

·        The group members feel worthwhile—that they have something to contribute.

·        People just enjoy it… they want to come back next time for more good discussions.

·        Helps people think something through as a group (everyone is smarter than anyone)

·        Gives individual Christians a model of how to think a problem through.

·        Helps us learn to tolerate some differences of opinion.

·        Studies show that adults learn up to seven times more when they participate in the learning process.


Cautions about using discussion in your group:

·        Aimlessness—sometimes a group can feel like it’s not going anywhere

·        False doctrine—it’s hard to call someone wrong in today's world in an open discussion.

·        The least wise may talk the most at first.

·        Easy to lose control to an EGR and "dominators" may talk too much.

·        "Pot-stirrers" who just like a good argument.

·        "Sidetrackers" who like to take the class off into the sunset.

·        "Hobby-horse" types who twist things toward their pet issue.

·        "Ego-trippers" who tell long personal stories.

·        "Snipers" who attack the church/pastor/others with their side-comments.

·        Group leaders may be tempted to be slack in preparation, letting class members "fill the time."



·        Write or choose good discussion questions. Then you can say "Back to our question."

·        Keep control. Try to have the discussion pass back to you after each person. Moderate, don't capitulate - stay in control of the discussion

·        Listen. Don't look back at your notes or book, or around the room. Look directly into the eyes of the group member that is talking.

·        If you have to, correct an EGR privately. Sometimes you just have to, but never do it publicly. Better to try something like, “Now, someone who hasn't talked yet..."

·        Don’t let the group "Talk themselves out." Always stop discussion with people having more to say.

·        Take back control of the discussion before the end. Never, ever, ever, conclude a group time with discussion...always end with a different skill that ties things together (ponder is a good one and prayer works too)


Here’s the bottom line on this core skill: Discussion is fraught with dangers, but if led well by the group leader it can multiply learning in adults.




Doing a cross-reference in a group helps us get insight on a verse from other scriptures listed in the cross reference column of the Bible.  An example of this would be tracing related ideas about being "hungry and thirsty for righteousness" (Matthew 5:6) by checking the cross references in Luke 6:21; John 4:14, 737; Isaiah 55:1-2 and Proverbs 9:5.


In order to do this at least the leader needs a cross-reference Bible.  But it compels other group members to learn how to really dig into the background of a Bible story.  Few Bible Study Skills help people desire to learn to study more.  By stretching your group with this skill it helps them know they still have a whole lot more to learn.


Advantages of using cross-references in a small group:

·        Teaches your group members how to do personal Bible study.

·        Gives the exciting feeling that "we are discovering this together."

·        Contributes to a whole-Bible approach to learning.

·        It’s a great help to new Christians—gives them a powerful grip on the Bible.

·        Exposes students to themes that are present throughout God's Word.


Cautions about using cross-references in your group:

·        Acting like you know it all—and they don't.

·        There are sometimes inviting sidetracks in the cross reference.  It expands too much at times.

·        Some cross-references have an obscure relationship to the starting verse.

·        May end up "proof-texting" one's own ideas, rather than seeking to discover God's plain truth.



·        Do a simple one every group meeting. Almost always you can find one good verse to cross reference on. This will gradually teach the whole-Bible approach to your people and they will start doing it on their own—in small group, in church, and eventually in their own study.

·        Whenever possible, do it from a group member's Bible or your own if no one has one… instead of from a handout. This teaches them to use their own Bibles, and not just to be impressed at how well you are prepared.

·        Do your own cross-reference study first. Try not to get blind-sided by verses you never expected.

·        Head off sidetracks at the pass. If there is an obvious sidetrack in a cross reference say something like, "Now in the Corinthians verse, we'll only deal with the idea of the Holy Spirit."

·        Encourage people to read in context—get the bigger picture rather than just a corner or one color.


Here’s the bottom line on this core skill: Cross-referencing teaches our people the habit of using other scriptures to gain a better sense of background and context and teaches them to interpret specific scriptures in light of the rest of scripture.




By dividing into even smaller groups within your group you can encourage more interaction and get more covered.  Many times a sub-group time during a group meeting spices up the meeting and gets everyone moving around and interacting on a much deeper level.  An example of this kind of skills would be dividing the group into two sub-groups: group 1 - "In what ways are Christians to be like salt?"; group 2 - "In what ways are Christians to be like light?" (Matthew 5:13-16)


Advantages of using sub-groups in a small group:

·        Multiplies participation—everybody can talk in a sub-group.

·        It is exciting and fun.

·        Waters down any dominator or EGR’s influence.

·        Builds way better connection and friendship.

·        Can separate husbands from wives—ends "couplespeak."

·        Great way to cover more in less time.

·        A good break from using other methods—varies the group meeting.  Time flies when you use sub-groups.

·        Teaches adults to "instruct each other."

·        Supplies a great model for small group Bible study.


Cautions about using sub-groups in your group:

·        A dominator could potentially ruin the experience of one of the sub-groups.

·        Too invasive for some—they prefer the privacy and non-involvement of
the bigger group.  (However, people don’t always want what they need.)

·        Groups lose a few minutes deciding who will lead or who will write down their notes.

·        One group always finishes too quickly, another can't finish at all.

·        One group always has more fun; some might feel, "I got in the boring group."

·        The report is never as good as the actual sub-group work.

·        Sub-groups get on sidetracks easily.



·        Let them warm up. The first minute or two is usually "wasted" with small talk,
agreement on who will take notes, and who will lead. This is natural and wholesome—don't be alarmed by it. Let their talk-engines warm up.

·        Mix up the ground rules. Sometimes divide spouses, which will significantly enhance involvement of men who let their wives do their speaking in the group. Sometimes have all women and all men groups, and sometimes just let them gravitate into any groupings they want.

·        Don't fret over anticlimactic reports. Remember, 95% of the learning occurs in the sub-group, not during the report. Keep the reports short and use them for teaching the other groups, but not for too long.

·        Don't capitulate leadership—consider staying out of one of the groups, but don't divide into buzz groups and watch. Walk around and sit in on each group for a few moments. Listen for a while, and then nudge them on track. For instance, no matter how clearly you explain what they are to do, the first thing they always do is say, "What are we supposed to do?" Be there to help.

·        End the group meeting with something else. The sub-groups' reports are hard to make exciting, so plan your group time to end with something else besides the reports.

·        End the sub-groups before they fizz out. About 10 minutes is usually plenty.  Stop for reporting before they lose steam.

·        Be clear with the topic for each sub-group. Narrow topics are best.


Here’s the bottom line on this core skill: sub-groups multiply learning by multiplying participation.




Charting something is simply arranging biblical content into a chart form to gain insight on what the Bible means and says to us today.  Doing a chart work as a group can take some extra preparation but it can be a great deal of fun and helps organize a discussion.


An example would be to chart the eight blessed quality in Matthew 5:3-12 (The Beatitudes) on the left with the result of each quality on the right.  This provides a great group activity to spice up the discussion.  It’s great for a group to feel their “getting on task” and diving into a passage.


Advantages of using charting in a small group:

·        Promotes taking notes.  Everyone wants to “fill out their chart” or it feels incomplete.

·        Appeals to the logical mind or task-oriented types.

·        Arranges information in a usable format.  They will likely remember it later.

·        Avoids jumbled and disorganized group meetings.

·        Makes the group feel they "made" something together.


Cautions about using charting in your group:

·        Small group leaders can sometimes get too wrapped up in the cute chart.

·        Stretching truth to fit your chart.

·        Sometimes group takes "making the chart" as the goal, rather than learning.



·        Combine with other Bible study leading skills. A chart is a good place to collect truth from other skills such as cross-reference, sub-groups and word study.

·        Make a hand-out chart they can fill out and take home.  Then it’s “their chart.”

·        Lead the entire group in completing the chart together. Don't just tell them how the chart comes together information to them. Lead them in the discovery as a group.


Best portions of Matthew to use the charting skill:

·        Matthew 5:1-12 The Beatitudes

·        Matthew 5:21-48 The 6 New Teachings of Jesus

·        Matthew 13:1-23 The Four Soils

·        Matthew 23 The Seven Woes

·        Matthew 27:45-56 The Final Moments of Jesus’ Life


Here’s the bottom line on this core skill: Charting arranges information for easy understanding and correlation which enable a group to discover truth in an unfolding way that is memorable and very different as an experience.




Paraphrasing as a group leadership skill can be a blast.  It’s just a matter of putting scripture in our own words and each person can do it if they take the time.  It helps bring out the application of a verse to each person’s life.  In a small group people can use a paraphrase of a verse they are studying to better communicate what God is telling them through Scripture, and it encourages those people who are better at explaining themselves through writing than speaking to express themselves.


And example of paraphrasing would be have each person in the group paraphrase Matthew 5:13 on a card or a piece of paper you’ve handed out.  Then have those that are willing read it to the whole group.  One person may write: "You salty Christians should keep the world from getting rotten, but if you're no different than the world, you're good for nothing."  Another may say, "My followers are the salt at the dinner table of life; but like that salt, if you get accidentally mixed up with the pepper and don’t taste like salt anymore then I’m going to have to get some new followers.”


Advantages of using paraphrase in a small group:

·        Like translating itself, it forces thought on the meaning of the Bible.

·        It increases participation because everyone is contributing the same thing.  It levels the playing field.

·        Teaches understanding of the Bible truth; not just a reading of the words.

·        Shows that truth transcends time—God's Word is still true today.

·        Increases interpretation and application in the group.


Cautions about using paraphrase in your group:

·        Show-offs and smart alecks can distract from truth with their cute paraphrases.

·        Some people just can't do it; their minds won't work this way.  Allow for that possibility.

·        Paraphrasing can drastically change the real meaning of the Bible.

·        Some may feel offended, since paraphrases are changing the Bible.



·        Use paraphrasing as a "ponder project." In silence, have each class member write out a paraphrase of a verse or conversation.

·        Try having them re-write a verse as a prayer they would pray to God.

·        Always have several read. If possible, let everyone read his or her paraphrase.

·        Pause after each one and let it "soak in." Keep looking into the eyes of the reader and repeat a word or phrase you liked or say, "Nice one!" Then move on to the next group member. Remember, if you ask someone to write something, let them read it. They made it, so "put it on the refrigerator” in a sense.

·        Simplify instructions. If you say, "Paraphrase that next verse," it will freeze up some people. Try, "How would you say that verse in a child's language?" or "If you put the essence of that verse on a bumper sticker, what would it say?"


BOTTOM LINE: Paraphrasing forces us to process the actual thoughts of the Scriptures through our minds, thus capturing the truth in our own words in a memorable and applicational way.




Small groups are all about talking.  We get together to chat.  But having a silent time to think with nobody talking after you’ve done study together can help the group assimilate and think through what they are getting out of it.  Some group meetings can be a whirlwind of information and discussion—and a time of pondering, especially at the end; can help everything come together for your group members.


An example of this would be to ask everyone in the group to think in silence for 3 minutes about this question: "When was a time that I deserved worse, but someone gave me a break and showed mercy," or "What is a good example of being meek?" (Matthew 5:7)


Advantages of using times to ponder in a small group:

·        Helps your group members to actually think.  (Thinking is a good thing, by the way J)

·        Gives a break in a fast-paced group discussion with a lot to swallow—allows "digestion."

·        Enables slower minds to develop ideas too.  Some people just operate in a lower gear of processing.

·        It can be totally counter-culture-cool. Have you ever seen anyone on TV thinking?

·        Let’s the group "breathe" with their minds—catch their breath from constant talking.

·        Theologically it emphasizes the Holy Spirit.  (Also a good thing!)


Cautions about using times to ponder in your group:

·        One person will always try to talk, some people hate silence!

·        Seems like "wasted" time, since we Christians value talking so highly.

·        TV has taught us to not ponder, but rather to adopt others' opinions.  So it might be a hard transition for those that, “don’t know what to think.”

·        Pondering can send some people off the deep end because they never get any time to think in their lives.  It can be distracting to them.

·        It takes a fair amount of discipline to keep a group quiet.



·        Assign the "ponder point." Select the issue, verse, or discussion question.
If it is not a verse, write it out so they can see it or have them ponder a group question already written down.

·        Make it spiritual. Pondering is not merely a human activity, like developing an
opinion. It is a spiritual activity. Pondering is shutting up long enough to allow
the Holy Spirit's "still small voice" to speak. Tell the group to let the Holy Spirit
help them to think on the ponder point.

·        Explain the ground rules. No talking out, no talking to each other. Just ponder
the assignment. Laugh and mention how hard it is for us all to keep quiet. Head off talkers ahead of time. "Shhhhh..." someone if you have to.

·        Consider playing a song. Music enhances pondering for some. Generic, unfamiliar music is better to keep the group focused. It also supplies a natural ending to the ponder time—much better than a timer. Most people cannot
stand silence longer than 3-4 minutes. (No wonder so few hear God speak!)

·        Plan a ponder time for application of the study that week... ask your class to let the Holy Spirit guide their thoughts on applying that week’s study.


Here’s the bottom line on this core skill: A time of total silence enables Christians to ponder great truths, giving time for the Holy Spirit to speak to our people.


Small groups have great potential to really create fully developed disciples of Jesus Christ.  By incorporating these and other Bible Study skills into your group meeting time you can really launch a group to growing in Christ like never before.  Mix it up.  Try something new.  Surprise your group.  Stretch them.  But get them in the Bible like never before!  Show them learning from the Bible can be fun & interesting.  And just watch them grow!



Copyright © 2006 by David Drury

Original Teaching the Bible Skills copyright © 1994 by Keith Drury (used with permission here)

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