Bible study in community can be a profoundly enriching experience for adults. Familiar stories can spark fresh insights. A text by ancient communities that brought comfort, wisdom, and transformative possibilities to people in ancient times and places can bring the same to people today.
Bible study can also be a source of struggle and pain. Uses of the Bible that have devalued, excluded, and even condemned various groups of people in church history can continue to inflict wounds. Disagreements over a book so highly cherished can feel deeply personal. Some people may view their own confusion about what a passage might mean as a moral or spiritual failure.
How can adult Bible study leaders be mindful of these challenges and develop spaces for empowering, life-giving Bible study? In this article, I want to share some teaching techniques that have helped me facilitate small-group Bible studies for adults. I hope that the suggestions below may inspire you as you explore these pivotal ancient writings with adults in your community today.
1 | Share Your Approach to Bible Study
Because participants can bring a variety of expectations and views about scripture into a Bible study, I find it important to communicate my approach to Bible study at our first session together. Being explicit about the goals and values that I bring to the study enables me to address potential concerns that participants might bring and to open space for them to share their own goals and values for Bible study.
Three commitments that I share with the goal of developing a more hospitable Bible study space are:
- openness to multiple interpretations and insights into a scripture
- appreciation for differing perspectives on a scripture; homogeneity in interpretation is not the goal for me
- freedom to ask challenging questions and not to know what to do with a scripture
2 | Provide Inclusive, Equitable Conversation Guidelines
Establishing conversation ground rules is another beneficial first-day practice for cultivating empowering dialogue. This can be a collaborative creation of the group, a list of best group practices that a leader brings, or a combination of the two.
I often draw upon Coming to the Table’s “Touchstones,” the conversation guidelines recommended by the Episcopal Church’s Sacred Ground curriculum. I also include these guidelines adapted from various teaching practices that aim at prioritizing safety for the most vulnerable people in the room so that everyone can participate as fully as possible:
- Practice compassion for yourself as well as for others (which includes taking care of yourself if a triggering topic arises)
- Let others speak their truths as they are ready (rather than calling upon someone to speak on behalf of a whole group of people or when they are not ready)
- Share the mic by moderating your own speaking and silence, expanding the circle to keep conversation topics inclusive for everyone, and seeking not to dominate discussion
- Accept that we may disagree and strive for mutual understanding with respect
- Hold space for struggling, getting it wrong, changing our minds, and growing
3 | Invite Exploration of Scripture
Some people are hesitant to get analytical or creative with scripture because churches refer to it as God’s Word with a capital W. To demonstrate that critical and creative approaches are not at odds with Christian life, opportunities that model and invite exploration of scripture are key. As Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed shows, when adults actively participate in investigative processes rather than being passive recipients, they can gain empowering skills to further their own learning and understanding. (See especially chapter 2 in Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos [New York: Continuum, 2010].)
Some exploratory tools that can be generative for Bible study are:
- Asking participants to share their initial reactions and questions about a passage and then diving deeper into those reactions after everyone has a chance to respond
- Reflecting on different characters or points of view in the text
- Considering where the text offers “windows” and “mirrors,” a framework developed by educator Rudine Sims Bishop in her article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” (in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6, no. 3 [summer 1990]); “windows,” as Bishop describes, are encounters with different “worlds” or experiences, and “mirrors” allow readers to “find themselves” in the text
- “Wondering” in the style of Godly Play by Jerome Berryman; this inquiring mode of reflection lets participants be imaginative, and wondering about where God might be in a passage can be particularly illuminating
4 | Read toward the Margins
To deepen awareness of power dynamics at work in scripture, a helpful technique to incorporate into Bible study is to read toward the margins. I learned this approach from biblical scholar Jacqueline Lapsley’s book Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005). Reading toward the margins in Lapsley’s work involves zooming in on the speech, actions, presence, and absence of marginalized figures in the text in order to consider a passage’s meaning through their perspective. It also entails examining how a narrator frames a passage and considering potential biases toward certain characters, events, and ideas in the narrator’s rhetoric.
Attending to the margins can enable participants to reflect critically on scriptures that have been used in oppressive ways and discern alternative, life-giving engagements with scripture. Characters who might otherwise get minimized — like poor people, politically subjugated people, enslaved people, socially and culturally ostracized people, women, and children — can shed new light on a story.
5 | Name Potential Places of Struggle
When a Bible study session focuses on a scripture that contains unsettling situations or ideas, naming discomfort and struggle can create breathing room to navigate through it as a group. Sometimes participants won’t mention their struggle with a passage, particularly if they may feel like they are the only one asking their questions. An affirming word that takes seriously a scripture’s rough waters and thorny messages can go a long way. It can help participants walk with one another and gain insights from one another for addressing points of struggle.
6 | Make Time for Participants to Identify Takeaways
A fruitful way to empower participants at the end of a Bible study gathering is to invite them to share their takeaways from the study. This strategy offers participants another opportunity to be active learners and to give voice to diverse takeaways that connect with their lives.
Often I emphasize that takeaways can be questions and ponderings as well as insights; they do not have to be fully formed conclusions. I also like to extend more than one invitation so that everyone has an opening to respond if they wish to do so.
Empowering Bible study for me is about being whole human persons with God, ourselves, and one another. It involves working to halt inequitable power structures gripping people’s lives that would have us compete for our humanity, strive for power as top-down control, and ignore the wounds and oppression that people are suffering because of these structures. It entails building gatherings in Christian communities where all experience belonging and full participation because the members whom society has disempowered most experience belonging and full participation. It is about crafting tools that enable adults to come to scripture and meet the liberating, loving God that moves among its pages.
These six practices are just a handful of ways to help cultivate empowering Bible studies for adults today. If you have found a technique that can aid other Bible study leaders in facilitating empowering, life-giving engagements with scripture, please share it in the comments below!