Reading the Bible together while apart: WhatsApp and the Swedish Method

  • Peter (Pedro) Blowes
  • 11 September 2017

Versión en Español

I delayed entering the social media world for many years, while watching and thinking about how to use it well. I observed that it’s great for keeping people up-to-date and for making arrangements, but I wanted to make it useful for ministry, rather than just to organize ministry.

Then the suggestion to use WhatsApp for a Bible study group came to me from a Christian from a Muslim country! Another key inspiration was the years of experience of a Christian psychiatrist, Dr Hernandez, who once told me that the best indicator of (good) mental health is having a daily quiet time. The challenge was to combine these great ideas.

So we began. Our first experience using WhatsApp combined with the Swedish Method of Bible reading involved reading the book of Deuteronomy in preparation for an ABUA (Argentinian University Bible Association) conference. Since then we have read a number of Bible books together (Galatians, Hebrews, John’s gospel—and we will read Romans next). 

How to get started

Here’s how you can get going, using Deuteronomy as the example. 

  1. Create a new WhatsApp group, adding a friend who has already agreed to the idea, and name it, e.g. ‘Reading Deuteronomy’ (add a photo—perhaps of the first page of Deuteronomy).
  2. Create a link so that other people can be invited to the group. Be aware that anyone with the link can add themselves to the group.
  3. Prepare a description to be sent along with the link invitation:
    Hi, I’d like to invite you to join a Bible reading group studying the book of Deuteronomy. Commitment to this group involves reading and adding a comment to the group in WhatsApp for about five chapters of Deuteronomy each week.

    I’ve found that it’s important not to pressure people into joining up; that level of obligation tends to be reflected in a lower level of contribution to the group.

  4. Send the link to anyone you want to invite (by any communication medium you choose). It pays to be aware as to whether your invitation is intended to be public (i.e. you don’t know everyone who has signed up) or private (specific people you have in mind). It is also helpful to indicate the date the reading group will commence, and once the group commences it is important to clarify the readings each week to more or less keep the readers together.
  5. Send the following instructions to those who choose to join the group (changing the [text] to the emojis for lightbulb, question mark, arrow and speech bubble):

Dear friends,

I hope this reading group will be of great benefit to you. If you have any suggestions about how to improve the group, please send them to me privately.

The task for five days each week is:

Read the passage from Deuteronomy. (This week we will be covering chapters 1-5.) Add a comment each day, which could be one or all of:

  • [Lightbulb] Chapter:_ Verse:_ I am impacted by… because…
  • [Question mark] Ch: _ Vs:_ A question I have is...
  • [Arrow] Ch:_ Vs_ I would like to apply in my life….. . Pray for me.
  • [Speech bubble] I would like to share with someone I have in mind… from chapter… verse… Pray for me.

I suggest you copy and paste from the above to make it easier to contribute. Please do not question or make any comments about other people’s contributions, or answer their questions in the group. Prayer would be welcome.

Please be patient while we get the hang of it.

Running the group

WhatsApp specifics

Getting an in-person tutorial from someone you know can be helpful if you aren’t familiar with WhatsApp. I find that using WhatsApp Web makes it easier, especially if the preparation is done in Google Docs or Word and then cut and pasted into WhatsApp. If people are using only their smartphone, and find it difficult to cut and paste the template, they can try the WhatsApp icons from the phone (some people have been very creative!). At the end of the day, concentrating on the Bible and people’s contributions are obviously far more significant than the formatting in WhatsApp.

The maximum effective group size appears to be 20 people or less. It may be necessary to offer alternative links, or distribute participants into various groups if more than 20 join up.

The Swedish Method

If your participants are unfamiliar with the Swedish Method of Bible reading, seeing you and others doing it in WhatsApp will help them catch up. It is also helpful to invite people to read this article on the Swedish Method or this summary.1

Comments and answers

Not allowing debate or answering questions in the group is to prevent ‘digital slamming’, which puts people off. This gives people the confidence to try, and to learn by experience. Furthermore, by not allowing others to answer questions or pontificate means that this Bible study process is multipliable without coordinators thinking they need to know all the answers before they can lead. It also reduces the “sharing of ignorances”.

If people do start commenting on other people’s contributions, it is important to stop that quickly, perhaps by personal contact or a group message reminding people of the instructions. This avoids flooding the group with comments and reactions, and stops people getting into arguments. WhatsApp is not a good platform for complex discussions.

Many people would like to have discussions and to receive answers to their questions. Even though this Bible reading process does not leave much room for that, it is encouraging to see how people’s Bible reading improves over time, as they start to read the Bible for themselves in a focused way.

Growth and teaching

It is perfectly appropriate, and encouraged, to investigate and later share the answers to one’s own questions. I have invited people on their non-reading days to attempt to answer one of their own questions. For example, I took advantage of the opportunity to write a reply to my own provocative question from Deuteronomy: Should we kill people who attempt to lead people astray from the gospel? In it I sought to show how to read the Bible theologically, and how to interpret the Old Testament in the light of Christ and the Cross, as well as show that from the New Testament. In the WhatsApp group I simply provided the link to my answer in my Google Drive—so it doesn’t fill up the WhatsApp screen and overload people—and applied the same in-group restriction of not commenting on my answer. At the same time, I have invited people to join in conversation with me privately.

While there is no active ‘teaching’ process, reading the insights of others generates a communal corrective to interpretations of the text. 

Managing members

The majority of the work is in the first few weeks: getting the groups going, assisting new members, and encouraging discipline from the outset. If people were invited but didn’t respond, it’s worth sending a second invitation to join the group even after it’s been running for a week.

Those who make no contribution in the first week of participation are deleted from the group after two or three (diplomatic) public and private encouragements to participate and not be ‘balcony gazers’ (unless they explain any special circumstances). Those who are deleted are welcome to sign up again to the group on the condition of making five contributions each week.

The passage studied

A book as long as Deuteronomy has its own challenges, including not getting bogged down and saying the same things over and over. However the group actually worked really well. There is no need to rush through passages, as it is important to feel the weight of the Bible’s words. Deuteronomy has been our longest concerted effort so far at 13 weeks, though John has taken nearly nine weeks (by dividing the book into 15-25 verse lengths).

There has also been a successful reading group using the same approach but covering the Bible passages referred to in God’s Big Picture (by Vaughan Roberts). Those who had a copy of the book supplemented their Bible reading with their book reading.

After the group

The original experienced group created a great space to incorporate new people, as they were able to observe what others wrote and see group expectations in practice. There have so far been at least 11 groups of about 20 people using this method,

A number of group members have other Bible reading programs and Bible study commitments and so have not joined up to subsequent groups, which is fine. However the feedback (I used Google Forms) clearly indicates that participants have been encouraged in rediscovering the freshness of Scripture, the imminence of God in his word, and the delight of spending time reading, reflecting and sharing what they have read. The sense of connectedness with other readers is high.

Innovations

We have now used this process in several different ways.

  1. We have used it as an evangelistic tool where people sign up along with their non-Christian friends and take responsibility for personally following up their friends outside of the WhatsApp group. This group was time-limited (four weeks), and only covered three readings per week. By coordinating the reading programs, members were then invited to merge into the ongoing five reading per week program. From the evangelistic group reading John, none of the invited members withdrew after the initial four week commitment.
  2. By using a QR code on advertising, we have invited passing students to join up to a ‘Bible Zone’ reading group at the university. This group reads four passages per week in John, and we then extend an invitation to meet together to read Ecclesiastes in person once a week.
  3. We use WhatsApp on our smartphones for making our “Swedish study” notes when we meet. That way we can share our points immediately, and anyone who can’t make it to the physical group that day can still join in (doing their study at the same or a different time) and pray. We are hoping this will prove very significant in our context where ‘dis-encounters’ due to strikes, sickness, transport problems, and holidays are a common occurrence.
  4. For people with good observation skills (perhaps through previous experience with the Swedish Method), and who commit themselves to slightly more demanding Bible reading we have added a new group with the following additional tasks:
    • [Door key] The central message of this passage is:
    • [Target] The principal application rising from this passage is:

    Replace the [text] with the appropriate emoji. The same instructions of not questioning or making comments on others’ contributions still apply.

Getting people to read their Bibles, and keeping Christians connected, is a great challenge in the post-modern megacity where we live, as it would be across large distances and for people who are unable to access good Bible teaching. Much of the world fits into these categories.

My prayer is that this simple tool can help build and strengthen Christian communities by God’s word—in cities and wherever else it can be put to use. WhatsApp may be a passing fad, but for now in some parts of the world it’s the chief communication tool. Let’s make the most of it while we’ve got it. 

1. The Swedish Method was introduced by a Swedish pastor, David Berglund, to the Church of Sweden in Västerås in the 1940s. Its impact was significant amongst the youth of Sweden, especially students.