How I teach the Bible in a household church

Following my first post of the discussion on sermons, I was asked to elaborate how I teach the Bible in a household congregation. So here’s a description of how we do it in our congregation (it may well be different in other TCH congregations).

We do classic interactive Bible studies in which the teacher identifies the big idea of the passage, and then produces a sequence of investigation and interpretation questions that lead the group to that big idea before exploring its implications in their lives.

We have found, however, that this is still a strongly literate mode of learning – somewhat akin in many people’s mind to an English comprehension exercise. I know graduates and readers (like me) find this hard to grasp, but non-book people struggle with this mode of learning. We have found it can therefore disenfranchise people from the Bible. The truth is arrived at through a process that appears mysterious to them.

So …

I have also started using a more open process of investigation (using mixing it up a bit to be honest). I still do just as much preparation as before, but come with few prepared questions. Instead we read the whole passage and then I divide it into small sections. I read one of these and then say: Any comments or questions? This creates a discussion which I guide. I’ll then move us on to the next section. I keep the sections short to avoid the group jumping around from one bit to another. The aim is to wrestle with the meaning and implications of each section in turn. I also encourage people to ask the Why? question (which often gets missed out in preaching ): Why does it say this? Why does it say it here? Why does it say it in this way? Why does it say it to these people?

Two important qualifications. First, the discussion is open-ended in the sense that I do not know where it will go. But it is not open-ended in the sense that anything goes or any opinion is valid. This is one of the great fears people have of discussion – that it will descend into a postmodern, relativistic, mush of opinion. We have a clear sense that the text means some things and not other things. Wrong interpretations are challenged and people are (gently) encouraged to see what the text is not saying as well as what it is saying.

Second, we also include presentational element. This is really important. We do not want simply to understand the passage (to engage our heads). We want to address the heart. We want to feel it! We want our affections re-wired. (For more on this see Tim Keller’s excellent audio lectures, Preaching to the Heart. These presentational elements are pre-planned and introduced as and when appropriate (often as a climax to the discussion). They can take many forms: direct address, testimony, exhortation, songs, film extracts and story-telling.

More recently we have also begun exploring the use of story-telling, influenced by Soma Communities and also drawing on the wealth of missiological reflection on chronological Bible storying. The teacher tells the story and then we discuss its significance. I may blog more on this at a future date. In the meantime here’s the set of questions we used for the book of Judges:

1. What questions do you have about the story?

2. Can you see any similarities with other stories in Judges?

3. How do we see the pattern of human disloyalty leading to God’s judgment?

4. How do we see the pattern of human repentance leading to God’s mercy?

5. What do we learn about human nature in this story?

6. What do we learn about God in this story?

7. Is there anything in this story that points to Jesus or shows our need for Jesus?

8. Are there any links to our stories? How are we like the Israelites?

9. How does the story challenge or encourage you?

10. How does this story help us understand what it mean to walk in God’s ways?

11. When might you tell this story to a Christian?

12. When might you tell this story to an unbeliever?

14 thoughts on “How I teach the Bible in a household church

  1. Thanks Tim that’s really helpful. It also cleared up the ‘being moved by the message’ part for me which I’ve always wondered about in household churches.

  2. Tim, thanks for these posts on preaching. I have wrestled with this issue as we start our missional community in Plymouth. My understanding is that the NT ‘sermons’ are evangelistic and take place in a public forum; whereas what happens in the gathered church is more didactic and therefore interactive. Although I too have listened to Tim Keller’s Preaching from the Heart Series and other talks; and feel that excitement of preaching the gospel to a mixed audience such that the lost hear and the saved are encouraged.

    So what do we do? We would get nowhere with a 30min (or even 15min) monologue with our team at present, which is the model of my past. So I turned to the techniques I have used leading small groups in the past. Much like you after serious preparation I look to 2 or 3 messages I wish to communicate about the passage and use questions to lead the group towards these (somewhat Socratic in method). This leaves the field open to explore other issues as people respond. This also can quickly contextualise the doctrine and application to the individual and the group. In Ecclesia Plymouth (EP) we read the passage from several different versions of the bible before we unpack it, which helps the kids engage and reinforces remembering and compounds understanding.

    I would like to understand more about Caesar’s use of stories at Soma, although I don’t think I want to cover my body in tattoos just to get the point across.

  3. Tim, that’s very useful. Our small group (through a traditional Baptist Church) is just finishing a series of studies on “food/meals” in the Bible. I’ve found what is most effective is exactly what you are saying – break up the passage into small peices. We at least summarise what has been read in each section as we go, and depending on what I’ve prepared, look at some questions about it. I also find beginning with, “Does anything jump out at you?” before anything else can bring up some really good insights that I haven’t seen before.

    I’m not sure we always affect the heart as I would like, though.

    The narrative approach is one I haven’t come across before.

  4. Thanks Tim,
    Great help particularly the bits talking about non-bookish learning and clarifying what an open-ended Bible study truly is.

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  6. Tim,

    Do you incorporate secondary Bible study booklets? I like a lot of Matthias Media’s materials, but am aware of potential dangers of them (advertently or not) becoming a crutch. However, might they (and other similar materials) be a beneficial and periodical supplement to the Biblical text under discussion? Or might such books promote more of the “bookish” intellectualism of which you previously warned? (On the other hand, the Bible is a collection of little books! Does one therefore become overly intellectual and bookish by spending too much time in His Word?)

    I’m aware of the tendency to cookie-cutter a particular style, but I’d appreciate your insight (if even briefly). We are in the gathering phase of a church plant here in the U.S. (Charlotte, NC), and I’ve registered for the Total Church Conference USA and am sure to learn more during some of the break out sessions.

    Thanks, Tim!

  7. Hi Michael

    We haven’t used published Bible study booklets much. I think the reason are: (1) We’ve had able Bible teacher and people we wanted to develop; (2) We want a highly contextualised interaction with the text – i.e. applied to the specifics of our situation; (3) We need a highly contextualised approach because we have a lot of non-book people; (4) It feels a bit like preaching someone else’s sermon.

    However I am re-evaluating this because I think we are thinking about how we move towards a more reproducible with people in leadership sooner. It may be that I do less teaching in church and more preparing of material for others to use and adapt. Or we may use more published resources.

    I should declare another interest which is that I am the series editor for a Bible study series called the Good Book Guides. They are produced by the Good Book company, the company that distributes Matthias Media in the UK. Here’s a link: Good Book Guides

    (By the way, I find Matthias Media interactive Bible studies way too wordy for our context.)

  8. I stumbled upon this from another blog. I just wanted to say that this is good stuff. I have used a very similar approach in teaching in a house church like setting (we actually meet in a coffee shop). I have also used it in a very traditional youth group setting. The one things I would say to anyone that wants to try this out, be prepared to shut up and let people be silent for awhile. Church folk aren’t used to this and it will take them awhile to come out of their shell. I always tell every new group before we get started that I only have a few questions written on a notecard and that is it, they are going to have to speak and that I am not afraid of silence.

    We have seen it play out that people actually learn how to study the scripture because of the simple questions that are asked. They can now go home and read scripture and figure out the who, why, how, parts. I always relate it to the proverb of teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish.

  9. Hey Tim,
    Great post. I’m a college minister, and this issue of helping people investigate and understand the why’s of a passage is huge.

    I’ll definitely add your questions to our resources that we give to our bible study leaders!

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  11. Just curious…do you think there is still a role for biblical expositional preaching in the house church movement? That is, a preacher spends time studying to discover what the Biblical author wrote specifically to that audience and then develops that same Biblical idea and relates it to the needs and thoughts of a modern audience. It sounds like you incorporate an element of preaching in your discussions, call it exhortation or motivation or challenge, etc. How important do you believe it is to do this still today? I only ask because there are some that think there is no need to ever preach a sermon. That’s just an invention of church tradition.

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