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Avoid meaningless Bible study

Avoid meaningless Bible study

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes.

In this case, I prefer the NIV: “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

In the past week, I led a study on Ecclesiastes 1-2 with two different groups. One was a group of 20-somethings, the other 60-somethings. While we dwelled upon some great truths from God’s word, both groups struggled to stay with the thought and flow of the text. Both groups wanted to jump beyond the text and impose a sometimes helpful, sometimes not, framework upon the text.

I was pushed, pulled and goaded to go in just about every imaginable direction other than where the text was going. And it happened in just about the same way with both groups.

Though I’ve led hundreds of studies, I’m still struck by just how hard it is for a group to stay with the text (and to be fair to these groups, I struggle too!).

If the Preacher was speaking to the situation, he might echo himself in 1:15: “A study comes and a study goes; what is lacking cannot be counted”. No matter what the text says or doesn’t say, is there a meaning in the words on the page for those participating in the Bible study? Or will they just get out of it whatever they want?

Okay, enough of my Preacher-style cynicism; ownership time. Did I prepare well? Did I pray for God’s mercy in granting all of us sitting under his Word the eyes and ears to see and hear properly? Did I do the key task of finding the main point of the text? Or, to put it more broadly, did I have a main teaching point?

When I have a strong key idea for the study, after much time in preparation and prayer, I can usually weather the storm that wants to pull me off course. But when I’m lax and assume that a group of people who’ve been Christians studying the Bible for quite some time will catch on quickly to the trajectory of Ecclesiastes… well, it’s a battle against the headwinds.

My take home? Get under the skin of the passage. Every time I open the Bible in preparation for a talk, study or discussion, I work hard at coming up with a main teaching point. This is one of the best ways to love the group in front of me: feeding them well (John 21:15-17).

Even if you know and do this regularly, it is always great to refresh on the big idea. Don’t underestimate just how much you can drift away from this work.

Thankfully there are lots of places to go to for help. In two different books, Growth Groupsand Saving Eutychus, chapter 4 is the place to go for some great thoughts and instructions on working hard at the main idea. I reread them regularly to keep me going in this discipline.

There are a number of other resources out there to help teaching/leading studies. Some of the best I’ve used are:

And to those who aren’t leading a group or study: this still is an invaluable habit to form when reading Scripture. Ask as you are reading, “What is the main point of this passage?”—and if that main point often revolves around yourself, the resources above will be really helpful in developing a Bible reading habit that helps you see the difference between the main theme and aim of a passage.

Groups still may struggle with finding the meaning of the text at hand. But, with a bit of focused effort on working out from the main, author-intended point, I will venture to say it won’t be “utterly meaningless”.

Marty Sweeney

Marty started Matthias Media in North America in 2006. Previously he was a full-time pastor and since then he has returned to pastoral ministry (part-time). He oversees an apprenticeship program and small groups at Old North Church. He lives in Poland, OH with his wife Abby and their four children (and a standard poodle named Theophilus). He is the co-author of The Small Group and the Vine (with Tony Payne).
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