Each Thursday evening, my routine is the same. Swirl into the house after dinner with my in-laws, help get the bedtime routine off to a solid start, pop downstairs to make a quick cup of tea, and then head back upstairs to the office, where I settle into the rocking chair nestled in the far corner. My tea steeps and steams as I balance my phone on a wooden filing cabinet and start the FaceTime call. Sometimes, when I’m really on top of things, I even remember to tilt the clock so that I can better keep track of time. One by one, initialed colored squares flip to show the faces of three other young women, and it’s time to begin.
I found myself unexpectedly leading our virtual Bible study at the beginning of the pandemic. What started as a coffee date just before the first shutdowns led to a study of the Book John, and first one friend and then another joined as they heard of our weekly study time and asked to be a part of it. Physically, we’re stretched over a few hours of interstate, and I have yet to meet two of the young women in person. But the weekly routine of praying and discussing Scripture together has become an anchor in my week. Over the last year and a half of much personal and communal upheaval and uncertainty, it has been a gracious gift of God to me.
One of the underlying motivations for our study was a desire in the hearts of each of these women to take their faith more seriously but not knowing how or where to start with the Bible on their own. From a biblical literacy standpoint, we’re starting from scratch. Stories or facts that long ago became rote for me are suddenly fascinating bits yet to be discovered. It’s as if I’m seeing the story unfold afresh and given new eyes to see it.
I feel sometimes a weight of responsibility (and also an immense joy) in being the first person to take the time to help them study the Bible. It’s as if they’re learning to read, and I’m their Kindergarten teacher. They’ll move on (Lord willing) to other teachers and eventually to rich and long-standing self-study, but I want to get them started off on the best footing possible.
As they approach Scripture with deep openness and fascination, I reflect often on how little they have to unlearn and how much they have to explore—and on the best way to expose them to Bible study. What will give them the tools they need to build a solid foundation? What skills and information do they need to read the Bible well on their own? I can’t say I always get this right. I’m sure there will be things they will need to unlearn from me. I’m sure there are times when I should say more—or less—or someone else would be much better at providing an explanation or responding to a difficult or loaded question. As imperfect as my approach may be, I find myself coming back to several key principles that guide me as a leader as I seek to help them grow not only as students of the Bible but also in their relationship with Christ.
Encourage and welcome the questions they bring to the text.
After reading the passage out loud together, we always begin with the initial questions and observations they bring to what we’ve read. What stuck out? What is unclear? What do they wonder about? Sometimes this includes initial emotional reactions as well (including, to my delight, frequent laughter). Making space for questions, I have found, encourages our wonder and imagination in relation to the Bible. We’re reminded of all we don’t know. We are welcomed into a story in which we sometimes long for more details. We remember that we sit as students of the Bible and disciples of the Lord whose story it tells. It also removes the pressure to understand everything at first glance, and thus to ignore parts of the passage that may genuinely be confusing or challenging, controversial or convicting.
Celebrate what they understand and can figure out on their own.
There is much within the Bible that demands careful and extensive study. There is much that rewards continual and repeated examination and meditation. But there are also passages and parts of passages that can be understood easily with careful reading. As a leader, I make space and ask questions to provide them opportunities to learn, discover, and share before I offer my own explanations or insights. This, I think, builds confidence and helps them see that the Bible is not incomprehensible, and it removes a bit of the daunting feelings of studying the Bible for the first time.
Teach them to pay attention to context.
This is true of both the immediate context (how does what comes before or after help us to understand this passage correctly?) and also through slowly exposing them to important highlights of the biblical story, as they arise in the passages at hand. Sometimes this means we take the time to read an Old Testament passage or I summarize a part of the biblical story that they aren’t familiar with. Learning to read the Bible within both its immediate and redemptive-story contexts is essential to correct biblical interpretation. It is a cornerstone of biblical literacy. And by modeling it from the beginning, I hope it becomes instinctual for them as they continue to study and read other parts of Scripture.
Be honest about what I don’t know or when there is a range of traditional interpretations.
I want these women to know that I’m still learning about and from the Bible as well. I am far from having all the answers or from perfect and consistent obedience. So I share this when it comes up. I am also clear when I know there are diverse views on a topic or passage. This doesn’t mean I don’t share the conclusion I’ve come to, but it does mean I try to speak hospitably and fairly of my fellow brothers and sisters who hold different biblically rooted views. In the end, I hope this encourages these women to continue to study on their own and gives them the freedom to hold a different view than my own, in the present or the future.
Delay the “application” part of our conversation (as much as possible) until the end of our study time.
One of the major things I had to unlearn as a student of the Bible (as do most people I know in my own Western, American context) was the immediate attempt to apply a Scripture passage to my life, without first reading it in context as it would have been heard by its original audience. I jumped much too quickly to “what does this mean to me?” I want these women to apply the Bible to their lives, of course, but not at the expense of truly hearing the Bible speak. So we start with (and spend the bulk of our time) discussing and understanding the passage itself, within its context, and then we close with exploring how it connects personally to our lives.
Teach them to sit as a student of Scripture by letting it convict, instruct, or guide their thinking and behavior.
In this, they are learning to be a disciple of Jesus, to see the world as he does, to learn what he loves, to live as he would lead them to. I see this as the ultimate goal of our times together. Facts about the Bible are meaningless unless they lead to active, faithful discipleship. The big “win” moments for me are not when they remember a specific detail or can interpret a particular passage with little to no assistance on my part. Instead, they are the moments when I can see how the Holy Spirit is moving and working and transforming them in real time.
I’ve heard of the changes in their speech and interactions with coworkers. I’ve seen them moved by the love of Jesus, as they see how he chooses and works in the lives of imperfect people—just like us. I’ve heard of how they’ve shared what they’re learning with family members and friends. I’ve observed them summarize the message of the gospel so clearly and succinctly that I can’t help but be in awe.
In all of this, I find the Holy Spirit working in me as well. I’m reminded just how living and active the Word of God is—and how powerfully transformed we are when we keep company with the Word, Jesus Christ himself. In a season in which I so often grieve the action and inaction of those who claim his name, I’m refreshed and energized as I see God present and active in his simple, beautiful work of changing lives. To be on the frontlines of such work leaves me wondering week after week, as I sit in the silent wake of our time together, if I benefit even more than they do.