From the title you might think this article is about helping people who have English as a second language, or people with poor literacy skills, or even people suffering from dyslexia. The sort of people, in other words, that you don’t want to embarrass by asking them to read a passage out loud.
Such group members do indeed need a bit of consideration. But I’m not talking about them.
I’m talking about people who don’t struggle at all with the English language; people who might have postgraduate degrees in law or English; even people who might work with words professionally every day. They could be the ones in your group who read the Bible out loud immaculately; even long lists of Hebrew names don’t seem to faze them.
So why do they need help? It’s because they are poor readers of a different type. I’m talking about people who don’t carefully read the Bible text in front of them.
If you’ve been a home group leader for a while, you’ll be familiar with one of the telltale signs of this type of person—what I might call ‘stiff-neck syndrome’. When asked a question about the Bible, people suffering from this syndrome don’t look down at their Bibles to find the answer. They quickly respond to the question from a mental database of standard-answers-to-Bible-study-questions, or from a confident familiarity with the passage—all without the need to even glance at the text.
Of course we all have our standard answers, and I don’t want to be critical of that. After all, in other contexts we regard this as a good thing and call it ‘systematic theology’. Indeed, having a sound systematic theology providing a framework to your Bible reading is imperative, as Phillip Jensen explains:
We need to read the Bible sympathetically, something that we can only do by assuming the framework of thought of the author—in this case, God. In other words, we read the Bible well… when we possess certain fundamental convictions about it…1
But being sympathetic to the framework of an author or speaker is one thing; deciding in advance that you know what they’re going to say is another. Not bothering to attend closely to what God is actually saying in a Bible passage is like not bothering to listen to a friend because you’re sure you already know what they’re going to say. It’s not only rather arrogant and rude; it also usually results in a breakdown in communication (not to mention relationship).
In other words, our ‘system’ of theology (our framework of God’s truth as we understand it) does help us to read and understand the Bible, but it needs to be kept in its right place—under the authority of the Bible text itself. Our system:
... always feels comfortable to us because it is our system. And our sinfulness will always mean that our system is deficient. We stand in constant need of correction… Our biblical framework—our doctrine—needs to keep growing and being shaped as we read God’s word… When the passage disagrees with our theology it ought to be a source of rejoicing. Here is an opportunity to repent and grow in our knowledge of God’s truth.2
So in our home groups we need to guard against the possibility that our store of biblical understanding or our assumed familiarity with the passage is getting in the way of hearing God speak through the text. How do we do that?
Firstly, pray and be humble. Whenever we approach God’s word, we should do it with fear and reverence (Isa 66:2). We also need to admit that we are sinful and that our understanding is deficient, and ask God to reveal new insights as we read his word.
Secondly, be curious. Hunger for what God is saying (Ps 19:7-10). This should lead you to closely interrogate the words on the page. What are they actually saying? Read the text, phrase by phrase. Notice the words; the tenses; the conjunctions (connecting words). Why is that word repeated so often? What does that word normally mean? Does that meaning fit with the context? Is there an observable structure to the passage? If so, what is its significance?
Thirdly, notice the surprising things. When the author starts a sentence, and your ‘systematics’ would suggest a different ending to the sentence from the one that’s actually there—well, there’s something really interesting for you to grapple with. Why does he finish the sentence differently from the way you would? Why is your assumption about the point he is making wrong?
Fourthly, take careful notice of the things you find difficult to understand, either because you don’t know what they mean or because you’re not sure why they are being said at this point. These are your best friends: figuring them out may well be the key to unlocking the passage—or at least to learning something you didn’t know before.
All of these techniques need to start with you as the group leader. These are the things you need to do in preparing the study—before you read any commentaries or start answering the questions in your study guide. Only by observing the text carefully can you hope to help others do the same thing.
So how do you help your group members to be better readers during the group study time?
The English preacher Dick Lucas would occasionally pause during his sermons and say, very emphatically in his deep and posh English accent, “All eyes to the page!” It was his way of saying, “Don’t just believe me! Look at what the text of God’s word is actually saying.”
That’s what we want to do as home group leaders: we want to keep pushing people’s eyes down to the text to read it carefully. So ask questions that drive people to read it, like “What strikes you as the most puzzling thing in this passage? What surprises you? What don’t you ‘get’?”
(Just as an aside, if you have one or two group members who are much newer in the faith, take them aside privately sometime and encourage them about what a blessing they can be to the group by bringing fresh eyes to a passage and making observations and asking questions. They may think they can’t contribute much to the group because they don’t know much yet. But point out to them how helpful their observations can be for those who have been Christians for a long time. And encourage them not to accept trite answers that don’t seem to be what the passage is saying.)
As you are reading the whole passage of Scripture at the beginning of your study, ask people to interrupt whenever they hear something they don’t understand or are a bit surprised by, and note those things down to discuss later (a bit like using the Swedish Method). Or print the passage out for everyone and encourage them to mark it with their observations and questions as it is read out. Pause after each paragraph to give people time to make some notes.
By doing this, you help build a tension early in your group study time that generates a desire to resolve those queries or puzzles and find answers. Let that tension sit with people for a while; don’t rush to resolve it. Allow the group members time to work on it together.
And if, during the study, you feel as if people are answering the questions from their ‘standard answers database’, ask them to show you where their answer is found in the passage. If the passage actually says something slightly or even significantly different, play the role of devil’s advocate (if you’ll excuse the unfortunate expression!) and say, “Isn’t the passage saying something different to that?” You could even risk saying something you know is contrary to their (and your own) doctrinal understanding, if the passage seems to be saying something different. For example, there are plenty of places (Old and New Testament) where the plain reading of the text might suggest that our salvation depends on some work we do (e.g. “You are my friends if you do what I command you”, John 15:14; “…but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses”, Matt 6:15). Don’t let people simply answer from their systematic doctrine of grace alone, which suggests to them that these verses can’t mean what they seem to be saying. Push them hard to explain why from the surrounding words and context.
Ultimately, your ideal is for people to have read the passage and worked through these observational processes before the group time, so that you can focus less on the straightforward elements of the passage and more on the surprises it contains and its implications. But perhaps you need to teach them those skills before they can do that at home.
One way of doing this training is to run the Six Steps to Reading Your Biblecourse in your group. Session 4 of the course (‘Reading what’s there’) is all about the observation process. (Observation is the ‘O’ in the COMA Bible reading method which the course recommends and teaches. C=Context, M=Meaning, A=Application.)
But even if you do this training, laziness (and sinfulness) can still creep in, and as the group leader you need to keep pushing people to read the text—week by week by week. Teach them to be good readers, good Bible detectives. But start by being a good reader yourself.
1. Phillip Jensen, The Archer and the Arrow, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2010, p. 68.↩
2. Ibid., pp. 56, 69, 75.↩