Over the last two years I have been a pastoral intern for the Western Australia Conference in Perth, Western Australia. The internship process is designed, above all things, to give pastoral interns exposure to diverse areas of ministry for their personal development. This includes giving Bible studies, preaching sermons, visiting people in their homes or the hospital, organizing and participating in baby dedications, funerals, baptisms and a whole slew of other activities that a young pastor would have to know before going from pastoral intern to licensed minister. Consequently, the internship process is one that is filled with lots and lots of learning and figuring stuff out.
Over the next few weeks I would like to take the time to share some of the lessons I have learned. The first is related to giving Bible studies. After giving countless Bible studies over the last two years I have picked up on a few things. Here are 4 quick but super important points.
1. Adapt to different personality types. Not everyone is the same and, consequently, not everyone will respond or even enjoy the same Bible study topics. Some, I have found, really get into the deep stuff. Others simply zone out. It's not that they are less spiritual, they are just different. Some prefer a relational approach to the Bible, others really enjoy the scholarly type of approach. Some really enjoy Daniel and Revelation. For others, its a complete waste of time. I remember studying Daniel and Revelation with one particular student who exhibited enthusiasm over it. But every time we got back together she could not remember a thing that we discussed the week before. Eventually, I completely shifted my approach and had to put Dan and Rev on the shelf. However, there is no formula for developing a set of Bible study topics by matching them to a personality type. The best approach is to simply ask the student what will work best for them. Sometimes they know. Sometimes they don't. Test, measure and adjust as you go along. Remember, the goal of Bible study is to connect the student to Jesus, not to turn them into theologians. So do whatever works for them.
2. Learn the craft of the tailor. This second tip is simply an outflow of the first. Once you have learned that you need to adapt your doctrinal teaching to different personality types you need to learn how to tailor the study method itself. Some are perfectly content to go through a pamphlet with you. Others enjoy the question and answer format. And others simply want to have a conversation. I often begin by asking a new student to write down all their questions in a card for me. I then analyze the questions for patterns. Often times all of the questions boil down to one or two grand themes. From there I tailor the studies, including the language I use, to make sure I am addressing the things that the student is most interested in. One particular student I had simply did not connect with any typical approach to Bible study. I had a hunch something was up so I asked her if she had ever accepted Christ. She said "no" even though a couple of months before we had explored the gospel and I asked her if she wanted to accept Christ, to which she said "yes". Now, only two months later she couldn't even remember. Chances are she was totally zoned out in our gospel study and said yes because she felt that's what she was supposed to do. So I shifted approach. Instead of doing study pamphlets I had her watch a movie or YouTube video that covered a specific Biblical theme. Then, I would ask her questions about the movie and allow her to, essentially, teach the class. All I did was listen and direct the conversation. In the end, she learned tons more than the first time around.
3. Avoid the "factory mentality". Once again, point 3 is an outflow of the first two points. Many Bible studies are given as if the students where cattle in a factory conveyor belt and you had to get them in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible. This translates into impersonal, irrelevant and uninteresting Bible studies. The student soon senses you are not interested in them and are simply trying to get the studies done and over with so you can dunk them in the water. Not cool. Avoid this at all cost and if necessary repent of this mindset. Students are not products. They are infinitely valuable souls purchased by the blood of Christ. We need to take the time to get to know them and pour love into their lives, not just doctrine. I made it a practice to pause the Bible studies every few weeks so I could spend an hour just getting to know how the student was doing in his or her personal life. I also took notes on some of their stresses so I could pray for them and revisit the issue in the future. Letting them know you care for them and are there for more than just a "shove religion down your throat" session is super important.
4. Teach how, not what. One of the biggest turnoffs to millennials and post-moderns is when they are told what to think. Old school Bible studies were very much like this. It was all about what you had to believe. If this is your approach, make sure all your study contacts are over 50, because apart from a few rare cases is simply doesn't work with this generation. Rather, they want to be taught how to think and there is a difference between teaching someone how to think through an issue thus giving them to tools to make up their own mind, and telling them what to think about an issue thus robbing them of the ability to think for themselves. However, in order to do this properly you, as the teacher, must familiarize yourself with much more than your own personal belief system. You must learn what others believe as well. But more importantly, you must appreciate what others believe even if you don't agree with it. This will enable you to build truth-seeking relationships where your motive is to lead others into the truth rather than argue or belittle alternative viewpoints. For example, one of the topics students often ask me about is alcohol. If I sit there and tell them all the reasons why they should not drink alcohol I will lose them immediately. Instead, I have familiarized myself with the differing view points and even come to appreciate why some people hold to these views. I present them all to the students and allow them to wrestle with them. Of course, I still explain why I believe what I believe but the student is now free to think through the issue for themselves rather than feeling coerced by an authoritative figure. I encourage every Bible teacher to be a student of the culture, the philosophical view points that under-gird our society (such as relativism, individualism etc.), the beliefs of other religious traditions, and even the diversity of faith-practice within your own church community. The ability to dialogue calmly and impartially when discussing divergent points of view is a strength that will enable you to connect and lead others to an appreciation and love for the truth as it is in Jesus.