How to Have a Profitable Assembly “Bible Reading”
by Michael J. Penfold
A feature of many congregations of God’s people around the world for the last couple of hundred years has been the weekly consecutive verse by verse discussion of the Bible, chapter by chapter, book by book. Such meetings used to be referred to as “conversational Bible Readings”. Although the name may have changed over the years to “Bible study” or something else, a format that combines an introductory Bible exposition followed by a conversational Bible study into one event for the benefit of the whole local church is still followed in many countries. Scriptural warrant for such meetings is discussed elsewhere on Webtruth.
Having sat through thousands of such meetings over several decades I am convinced that a good “Bible Reading” is a valuable, helpful and edifying feature of assembly life. But “good Bible Readings” don’t just happen. They take preparation, study and wise implementation. Two things are essential:
1. All participants should be convinced of the value of the format and
2. Helpful guidelines should be followed to maximise profitability.
Let me address these issues one at a time.
The Value of the Format
Local assemblies are supposed to be places where God’s people are taught the Bible. We need to hear “the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4), to “earnestly desire the Word” (1 Pet 2:2) and to “rightly handle the Word” (2 Tim 2:15). God’s people must have a high view of and be interested in the actual content of Scripture. Indeed, elders are responsible to ensure that the believers in their care are fed with the Word. This is their primary responsibility (Acts 20:28, 1 Tim 3:1, Titus 1:9, 1 Pet 5:2).
However, as most readers will be aware, there is Bible teaching, and then there is Bible teaching! Be assured; doctrinally weak pick-me-up sermonettes and non-expositional spiritual pep-talks bring no glory to God and are of no lasting benefit to God’s people. Anyone can find three mentions of a particular word, give each one an alliterated heading and fill in 30 minutes of “teaching time”. But sitting under that kind of diet for 10 years will leave an assembly pretty much biblically illiterate and certainly theologically weak. Vast themes of Scripture will remain untouched, huge swathes of the Bible will be a black box to God’s people, and much of what they know won’t be understood in context.
There is no escaping it. If elders are to carry out their divinely mandated responsibility to “feed the flock of God” there must be a serious weekly attempt to teach the Word of God in context. This will involve verse by verse work, interacting with actual paragraphs, passages and chapters, expounding the main point(s) from the actual flow of the text. This applies whether sermons are textual (one or more texts/verses), expository (one or more passages/chapters) or topical (tracing one or more themes).
We are now ready to road test the “conversational Bible Reading”. Is it up to the task? Yes! In addition to traditional one-way 40-50 minute expository sermons, a Bible Reading format – combining exposition and discussion – functions well as a teaching forum for the Word of God. As an assembly works through one Bible book after another, there will be no escaping or avoiding the context, the flow or the theme. The “deep wells”, the “hard things” and the “strong meat” will have to be grappled with and investigated. Furthermore, the verse by verse format allows God to speak through what He has spoken in the order He has spoken it. The saints will be fed.
Here is a 4-point summary of the benefits of the conversational Bible study:
1. Christians are built up in their most holy faith (Eph 4:12)
Bible exposition and discussion builds theological strength into a community of Christians. The input of those with the gift of teaching who lead and contribute must always be aimed at building up believers in their most holy faith. Paul says “Let all things be done to edification” (1 Cor 14:26). An assembly that sits under a steady diet of helpful structured expository Bible Readings will grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. Christians become “fully fitted” for godly Christian living (2 Tim 3:16-17)
Well-taught believers are godly believers, marked by good works. By “well-taught” I’m not just talking about head knowledge. “Well taught” means having heard, understood and imbibed the true implications of the Word of God. And not just a few favourite passages. All of God’s Word is profitable for teaching, conviction, correction and discipline with a view to spiritual usefulness. If all of God’s word is profitable, we should be making an attempt to teach and study all of God’s Word when we meet together. The “Bible Reading” format where the Word of God is understood in its depth and breadth – verse by verse and chapter by chapter – helps to instil in us the necessary doctrine to equip us to live for God’s glory. Remember, God’s truth must be understood propositionally before it can be lived out practically. This is reflected in the layout of epistles like Romans, Ephesians and Galatians. Doctrine first – practice next. The overarching message of Paul’s epistle to Titus is “doctrine inspires duty, and duty adorns doctrine”. In other words, how I live is based on what I believe (Titus 1:2, 2:1, 10-11, 3:3, 8).
3. Christians are preserved from false doctrine (2 Tim 2:15-16)
Nothing will preserve an assembly from false doctrine like a thorough-going contextual understanding of the Word of God, verse by verse. As we “rightly divide” the Word, we will learn to spot error a mile off! The cults and false religions thrive on so-called ‘proof texts’ taken out of context. But no one who is familiar with the context of Acts 15:20, for example, would ever fall for the Jehovah’s Witness line that “abstaining from blood” means not taking blood transfusions!
The story is told of an employee in a Bank – years ago – whose job it was to look through bank notes and discard fraudulent ones. As he set aside a bad note from a large pile of good ones, an onlooker remarked, “You must have studied thousands of fraudulent bank notes in your time”. “No”, said the inspector, “I only study the real one; that way I can spot a fraudulent one straight away.”
4. Christians learn the value of “every word of God” (2 Tim 3:16)
As a congregation works through a passage sentence by sentence, both the inspiration and importance of Scripture is constantly reinforced. Each word matters, because inspiration is verbal. Every word matters, because inspiration is plenary. Anyone paying attention in a “conversational Bible Reading” will be able to see for themselves how an interpretation is arrived at. “How to study the Bible” can be, to a certain extent, picked up along the way as progress is made and the workings of hermeneutics are demystified. Expository study does more than interpret and explain the text; it shows how to interpret and explain the text as well.
We now come to the need for helpful guidelines in the conduct of “Bible Readings”.
We were told in our youth to mind our ABC’s in Bible study sessions. “A” stands for “audible”. If a brother is going to contribute, let him lift his head and speak up. There are no medals for mumbling! “B” is for “brief”. Seek to make comments and ask questions briefly. Avoid dominating proceedings by long rambling repetitive comments and interventions. “C” stands for “context”. Remember, a text out of context is a pretext. Make sure what you contribute is consistent with the context of the passage under consideration.
In addition to those three headlines, I’m going to list a series of practical guidelines as bullet points:
A gifted Bible teacher should introduce the passage to be studied and then lead the discussion. The introduction will outline the context and flow of the passage, but will leave plenty of meat on the bones for discussion. If there are difficult or controversial verses coming up, these can be flagged up, views can be aired and a steer given.
The same man should not lead the Bible study every week. All gifted men in the congregation should take their turn in leading. As younger brethren start to participate and show interest and promise, they should be encouraged to take their turn too. Young men in their 20’s are perfectly capable of leading a Bible study if they have gift and are serious students. It is the responsibility of the leader to make sure that the passage is taught and understood (no matter what help he may or may not receive from the floor). He should regularly summarise what is being contributed before encouraging progress to the next verse or paragraph.
If the Bible study lasts an hour, the introduction should be no more than 15 minutes (or 10 minutes for a 45 minute study). For the very first “Bible Reading” in a new Bible book, a longer introduction is warranted, and you might consider devoting an entire meeting to a full-blooded introductory sermon without comment from others.
Everyone intending to be at the study should at least read the passage before coming! Any brother intending to take part should put some detailed study into the passage at home prior to the meeting.
In densely packed parts of the Bible (like Paul’s epistles), 3-6 verses may be ample for a 45-60 minute session. In the gospels or the Old Testament, longer passages may be considered. It may help to state what actual verses are to be covered beforehand, to give a steer and avoid laid back brothers going too slow on the one hand, and type-A brothers going too fast on the other!
6. Avoid by-path meadows
Avoid constant story-telling and other diversions. Only three questions really matter: 1. What is the author saying? 2. Why is he saying it? 3. What does that imply for us the readers?
7. Avoid regurgitation
Going over and repeating “what we discussed last week” is unwise. One or two sentences should be enough to pick up where you left off last time before moving on.
8. Avoid repetition
If someone else has made a point, you don’t need to make the exact same point in different words.
All comments should be address through ‘the chair’. To avoid the Bible study becoming a free for all where matters can get out of hand, the brother who is leading the conversation should do precisely that: lead.
After the expository introduction, a lively flow back and forth should be encouraged. A format where the first man speaks for 10 minutes, then the second speaks for another 10, then the third for another 10 is not enjoyable. That is just a set of mini-sermons, not a truly interactive Bible study. The study leader should encourage brothers to take part by asking for comments and questions and giving encouragement when helpful contributions are forthcoming.
Arrange the chairs in a circle, a horseshoe or three sides of a square to allow all to hear and all to see.
As you progress through the passage, and as you reflect afterwards on what was said, ask yourself “If I was a new believer, or a young believer, would I have understood the meaning of the passage in its context and would I have realised what relevance it has to me?”
The acid test is this: are most people in the congregation going away saying to themselves, “I really enjoyed that Bible study tonight and I got a lot out of it”, or are they saying, “That was boring and I couldn’t really follow it. I am more confused than when I came”? Ask around…you might be shocked.