Learning under lockdown: Bible study in a socially distanced world
Doing a Bible study online? Consider these pointers, writes Terry Young, as he ends his series exploring ways of engaging with the Bible now
When I moved from commercial research to a university, I had done presentations and was a regular contributor at church and among its fellow churches that were big on lay ministry. I assumed that academic teaching was about enthusiasm, pacey delivery and a bit of structure.
Fortunately for me, I joined a department that had its teaching loads in good order, while I had the privilege of working with some top-class educators. In fact, the more I talk to those in other institutions, the more I realise how much I owe those with whom I worked.
I’ll skip the technical details but basically, we did what most churches have done in the past couple of months, except that we had the luxury of taking several years. As part of a Computer Science department we gathered lots of data and the formal protocols forced us to analyse what had and had not worked each year. By taking it in stages, we emerged with some clear ideas – here’s my playlist for higher education.
I’ve also worked with groups training Christians all over the world. It’s called Theological Education by Extension (or TEE), and a lot of what I discovered in my working life turns out to be relevant here, too. I hope some of my discoveries may help you and your group.
First, face-to-face is hard on-line but is probably the most precious part of any learning. It’s difficult because body language doesn’t work through a screen as it does in a room, so it helps to exaggerate if you smile or nod. Also, if you are trying to say (or sing!!!) something together, agree whose lips you are going to follow – that way you can lessen the problems caused by delay.
Having worked a reasonable amount on-line, my experience is that things get dodgy with more than 5-6 people. Larger groups are possible but require exceptional chairing or a simple mission, such as running through a checklist.
A simple way to think about study: Study > Discuss > Do
I would formalise these ideas for churches in three stages: study, discuss and do. As it happens, the TEE method has the same three stages: first, personal study (for head knowledge); then group discussion (where you work it into your heart); then find a practical way (hands) for your learning to, flourish.
Since the discussion is of most value, let’s focus on that and fan out from there. Just as it’s easier to say The Lord’s Prayer together if you watch one person, so it’s easier to have a discussion if everyone starts at the same place, which is why preparation is critical for on-line study. There are two steps to this. First, make sure everyone has read or memorised – and I really believe this is the time to emphasise memory work – the same passage. It also helps if people have done some wider thinking. The study piece, therefore, will include anything that gets everyone up to speed with the passage – and the previous blogs have spent a lot of time on things you might do. From my own experience, I think most people could memorise 5-10 verses a week, once they have mastered the methods.
The second thing is questions. You may want to have a single set of questions – essentially those to prime the discussion – or two sets, one for personal study to help people get to grips with the passage or theme, and one for the discussion. In either case, everyone needs to have some familiarity with the questions ahead of time.
Setting good questions seems to be a rare skill in Christian circles these days, and group study aids can be highly variable. The best have reflective questions; the poorest have an obvious agenda or amount to little more than filling in the blanks.
However, even if your material is rubbish – and there is a fair chance it will be for some of you – do not despair! Some of the best Bible study Dani and I ever took part in, started with some wholly inappropriate, almost infantile, material. Good leading trumps poor material every time.
Making a difference
Because of the on-line group dynamics, leaders need to be a little more on the ball, than with a lounge-based study. You may have to draw in those who say nothing, or recast questions that trigger an embarrassed silence. I don’t know of any way to become a great leader of Bible studies than to be a not-so-great leader first. If you want to get better, it helps to be awful now, since your group has a massive incentive to help you fix the least enjoyable hour of their lives. Most of what I do really well, I have done exceptionally badly sometime in the past.
Finally, what are you going to do with it? Learning to structure and write assessments, such as coursework, exams, or development frameworks, has revolutionised my thinking on what we want to get out of a good Bible study. SALTwork’s sketch really is spot on.
What if your assessment were to tell your testimony in 500 words and ask a mix of Christian and non-Christian friends what they made of it? What if it were to plan a better set of questions, or curate a better set of resources for the next group? How about running a Sunday morning service on a topic you studied over 4 or 5 sessions? Could you manage some personal reflections, a talk, maybe a song (depending on your group’s skill set), a well-presented reading, and a selection of material from elsewhere, while providing the usual opportunities for the congregation to participate?
Good group study is both hard work and intensely enjoyable. It needs personal commitment, neat facilitation and a yearning to make a difference with what you learn. It always has and it always will.
A word of thanks to Freda Carey and Dr Tim Green from the global TEE community for reviewing this article.
Image | Chris Montgomery | Unsplash
This is part of a series where Terry explores four ways of engaging with the Bible now:
Terry Young was born to missionary parents working in the Middle East. He has always tried to unify his life of worship and secular missions, and has been part of church leadership teams in Essex, and at Slough Baptist Church. He has written a few books that link worlds, including After the Fishermen, and Jake, Just Learn to Worship.
After a mobile early childhood his family settled in the UK to the northwest of Birmingham, and eventually he studied at the local university. After his doctoral studies he worked for 16 years in Chelmsford undertaking research and business development in the aerospace sector, where his interest was in fibre optics and photonics. In the end he gravitated to healthcare systems and moved to Datchet with a position as a university professor. He is a member of the Baptist church there
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