Wednesday, August 06, 2008

How do I teach Bible study?

I have found that many who think they know a lot about the Bible really do not know how to study it; they know "catechism" answers or Sunday School answers: "I don't know but the answer must be Jesus, grace, or heaven" - but they don't know how to wrestle with the text. They want someone to give them the answer.

To move people beyond that shallow approach I use a method similar to what my NT Professor, Robert Hoerber, used in his classes at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He took us through the Biblical material using leading questions to get us into the text itself. Such Bible study encourages regular use of the Bible, rather than relying on a study book. I have outlined an initial Bible study curriculum for a congregation that builds on that approach.

I start with a "Basics of the Christian Faith" class following the outline of Luther's Catechism; this Bible study usually takes 20-26 weeks depending on class discussion - and I allow any question. The handouts list only Bible verses, so that we are forced to look up the Biblical text, which we then discuss. That process does two things: 1) it gets them familiar with the Bible and 2) it gives them confidence in finding passages. Many of the people who have gone through this course have no Christian background and do not even know why there are large numbers (chapters) and the raised numbers (verses) in the text.

Then, as a follow-on to the Basics class, I developed a 12 week course, "How to Study and Understand the Bible". The basic idea is to cover proper principles of interpretation. An excellent additional resource is the book by David Kuske (see Resources at the end). Again, my study primarily uses an outline form with Biblical references only. I introduce the students to aids to Bible study, such as concordances, atlases, word studies, etc.

These two courses are followed by two Bible studies I wrote (back in 1991 based on LifeLight model) that complement one another and build upon the knowledge of the previous two: "Old Testament Survey" (covering ~60% of the Old Testament) and "New Testament Survey" (covering most of the New Testament). Each Bible study is a 12 week course, ~40 pages in length. The study pages have Bible references for daily readings and questions related to those texts - nothing else. Prior to the class meeting each participant reads the assigned Biblical texts and answers three pages of questions for the week. They have to read the text in order to answer the questions; there are no short cuts. This type of Bible study is very intense because there are Biblical readings/questions everyday. These two survey classes give them the sense of the themes, unity, theology, and direction of God's revelation (and both are very Christo-centric studies!). Added benefits are that they develop confidence in their own ability to participate fully in Bible study, and that they develop a regular Bible study time in their daily lives.

These four courses form the foundation for more detailed Bible study, specifically concentrating on individual books of the Bible.

When we study the actual books of the Bible, I seldom use a handout, unless there is a specific need (for instance, a table form that the people fill out for the churches in Revelation 2-3 or the plagues in Exodus 6-10). That is, we use the text and work through it. My own study notes range anywhere from 75 pages single spaced for a smaller book like Ephesians to 100-200 pages for Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Matthew, John, Romans, Revelation...

Again, I allow any kind of question, if it's related to the text in some way, which causes the people to think through the text and its meaning, and ultimately its application. If they don't ask questions, I do! But I don't always answer right away. I will typically respond with "How would we go about finding the answer?" - not referring to the location in the Bible, but the method of study (cross-references, concordance, dictionary, atlas, etc.). Then we work through it. Such Bible study encourages personal study and growth.

So my goal for Bible study is two-fold: 1) force everyone into the text itself, and 2) question them, so that they begin to use the tools, or point to the tools that will aid them in understanding the text.

Additional Resources:

Reading the New Testament for Understanding, Robert Hoerber (CPH)
Biblical Interpretation: The Only Right Way by David Kuske (NPH)
LifeLight Series (CPH)
Teaching Bible Classes: A Top Priority by Eldor Haake
Reading the Bible with Understanding by Lane Burgland (CPH)