The hard work of preparing pre-prepared Bible studies
So I read Tony Payne’s recent email (The death of the self-prepared Bible study) and I can’t help but feel something’s not quite right about it.
Now, it doesn’t happen very often that I think Tony is wrong. I’ve learned over decades of working with him that he seldom is. (Those of you who work with a really smart colleague will know how incredibly annoying this can be.) So I’m going out on a limb here—probably with my pruning saw grasped in the wrong hand—to critique what he said.
Contrary to what you might suspect, my complaint with what Tony wrote is not that he has single-handedly undermined the market for pre-packaged Bible study material, which, as he points out, has been a staple of our publishing ministry for over 30 years.
No, I think he is exactly right when he says:
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.
The mistake I think many people make is assuming that pre-packaged Bible study material means a lot less preparation for the leader and so involves less “hard-won knowledge of the passage’s key message”.
If you’re taking your leadership role seriously, I don’t think that’s a correct assumption.
Of course, there may be some time saved in not having to work out the questions you need to ask to help your group discover that key message. The pre-packaged study has those questions ready to go, and they are written by people who are experienced not just in understanding the text of Scripture but also in forming well-crafted questions. That’s a very specific skill that not everyone has—although most of us can get better with practice and feedback.
But aside from the process of generating questions, the way you prepare the passage as a leader should be pretty much the same whether you write your own studies or use a pre-packaged set.
So what is the role of pre-packaged Bible studies?
Well, if the studies are written by experienced and faithful Bible teachers, there is something reassuring for you as a leader in knowing that the direction the study guide takes is what you were thinking too (“I’m on the right track!”). After all, we know the weighty responsibility of leading people in God’s word, and we don’t want to guide them down wrong paths.
But if you use the pre-packaged studies as a replacement for doing the hard work of understanding the passage for yourself as leader, then that’s not good. (Although, to be frank, it’s probably better to use reliable pre-packaged materials than just under-preparing and ‘winging it’.)
Ah, wait a sec. That actually seems to be what Tony is saying…
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.
Okay, maybe I was wrong about him being wrong. Again.
P.S. I should’ve known Tony wouldn’t be wrong about this. In Session 3 of The Small Group and the Vine training course, Marty Sweeney and Tony talk about how and when to use pre-packaged Bible studies. They say:
But here’s the important thing, whether you use pre-written material or work it all out yourself, it’s the same process. The same three stages: Go to the word yourself. Work out how you’re going to lead your people there. And then actually do it when the group gathers.
By the way, if you haven’t had a look at this course, I highly recommend it as a core foundation for small group leader training.