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The death of the self-prepared Bible study

The death of the self-prepared Bible study

With all the fresh-eyed insight that returning missionaries often bring, a visiting friend of mine recently asked me why no-one here seems to write their own Bible studies any more. 

“I’m writing 1-3 studies a week in my second language, and trying to train others to do the same”, she wrote. “But I get the impression that the dominant thing in evangelical circles in Australia, UK and US is that people are dependent on pre-prepared resources or the studies provided by the staff team.”

“Am I swimming against the tide?" she asked. “Or pursuing a lost cause?”

Like me, my friend had been taught in the dim dark past that although writing your own small group studies from scratch was demanding and a skill learned over time, the rewards for both the leader and the group were worth the effort. The leader came not just with a set of questions to ask, or videos to play, but with a genuine hard-won knowledge of the passage’s key message and an excitement to lead the group to discover that same message together. 

“That's all very well,” you might say, “for university students or for people with plenty of time on their hands! But perhaps you’d like to try this in my real-world context where everyone is time-poor, where people aren’t all university educated, and where you consider yourself blessed if you can scrape together enough leaders who are willing to open their homes and a YouTube clip and press play.”

To which my missionary friend would reply (if she were here to defend herself): “Well, I find that people in my context need to spend far more time than most Westerners ever do just to keep body and soul together, and that their general levels of education are less than in the West—yet strangely, the group leaders are so convinced of the importance of understanding Scripture themselves, so that they can lead their group, that they are willing to devote their precious time to personal preparation. And they are so confident in the power of God’s word that they assume—and continually discover afresh—that when they prayerfully dig into the Bible, God invariably speaks to them a powerful word that they can pass on to others.”

In other words, if we believe something is important, we will find the commitment and time. And if we believe in the clarity and power of the word, and that God will open our eyes to understand it, we will not discourage our leaders from preparing their own studies because we don’t think they are up to it. 

"Fair enough," I hear you say, "but haven’t you (that is, You, Tony Payne, the person writing this) been publishing and promoting pre-packaged studies throughout Australia, the UK and the US for the past 30 years?!"

I could answer (truly) that it was never our intention to discourage self-prepared studies. We have always encouraged leaders to use our published studies sparingly—to give themselves a break from preparing their own, or to vary the diet. And we have also encouraged leaders to use our materials as a framework for their own preparation, not just a set of questions to parrot off. 

All the same, with the pressure to get groups going (and led), surely we should welcome some simple resources that can help new and even established leaders to get going and keep up the quality?

But my missionary friend has put her finger on something vital that the trend away from writing your own Bible studies puts at risk—namely that the task of leading a small group consists largely of leading the group on a journey of discovery, challenge and encouragement that you yourself as leader have already undertaken. It means leading them to the Word, and then letting them and the Word do the work—of questioning, testifying, challenging, encouraging, sharing, comforting, and exhorting one another towards a godly life in Christ. 

The various studies we’ve produced at Matthias Media have always been meant as an aid and support to that process—but if they function as a replacement for the leader’s own preparation and engagement with the text, rather than an aid and a stepping stone towards writing their own studies, then something needs to change in the culture of small group leadership that we are fostering.

Perhaps a stint on the mission field with my friend would help us see the difference!

Tony Payne

Since founding Matthias Media in 1988, Tony Payne has written more than 30 books, ministry courses and Bible studies, including The Trellis and the Vine, The Course of Your Life and The Tony Payne Collection (an anthology of articles and essays). He now works as a ministry trainer and writer-in-residence at Campus Bible Study (UNSW). He is married to Ali, with five adult children and six grandchildren. The Payneful Truth is Tony’s weekly text and audio journal.