How to Lead a Bible Study: Tone
This next "How-To" series will be focused on a skill-set I teach all of my student leaders: how to lead a Bible study.
The first thing we'll look at (and we'll return to it more in depth) is an often neglected aspect of leading a Bible study: tone. We want our Bible studies to have a "gospel tone", which means - to borrow from Keller's categories - our Bible studies' tone shouldn't be "irreligious" or "religious."
Irreligion looks to the self, ultimately, to determine what is right and wrong. While we DO want irreligious people to be in our Bible studies, we as the leader need to be setting up a culture that invites a different response. For example, if we look at each passage of scripture and merely ask: "What does this mean to you?", we are inviting a tone that looks to ourselves for guidance, rather than to scripture. If we invite application that "solves" our life's problems (rather than applies scripture to those problems), we are inviting an irreligious tone, because our own goals are the lens through which we're interpreting scripture. If we're not inviting people to check their interpretations of scripture by the passage itself, we're inviting an irreligious tone.
The main question an irreligious person asks of the Bible is: "How does this fit into my life's own narrative?"
On the other hand, we make an equal and opposite error when our Bible studies have a "religious" tone. Religion (as I'm using it) views the Bible as a platform for performance, rather than a vehicle for relationship. Religious people (think the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son) use the Bible to perform before God and others. Our Bible studies can easily become places where this kind of performance is encouraged. For instance, if our Bible studies tend to give immediate "answers" to people's questions or issues, we're encouraging a "religious" tone. If people do not feel comfortable confessing sin and shortcomings, our Bible studies have a religious tone. If our Bible studies use "us and them" language, they have a religious tone. If our Bible studies stay in the abstract, theological realm of discussion, and are never applied personally, they have a religious tone. If our Bible studies use theological/insider language or jokes without defining terms, they have a religious tone. If the study speaks disparagingly of "culture", their city, or non-Christians, it has a religious tone.
The main question a religious person asks of the Bible is: "How can I perform my way into God's kingdom?"
What we want, instead of each of these, is a gospel-tone to our studies. Gospel-toned studies center on the story and work of Jesus, rather than us. As opposed to the irreligious, this kind of study will take the Bible's words seriously. It will do the work necessary to understand what scripture says, because it values Jesus' word over our own. It will seek to apply the story of scripture to the story of life, rather than apply our life's own narrative to the story of scripture. As opposed to religious studies, a gospel-toned study will be marked by vulnerability, honesty and openness. It will be marked by graciousness and gentleness, and kindness toward outsiders rather than judgment. The studies will be hospitable places, where people from all kinds of backgrounds can come and offer their thoughts/feelings/experiences. As a good mentor of mine has said: "If no one's being a heretic in your Bible study, you're not doing it right." What he meant is that hospitable Bible studies give room for everyone, while still guiding the conversation in a gospel-centered direction.
The main question of a gospel-centered study is: "How does this passage show me more about Jesus? How can I live more fully into His reality?"