Thursday, 6 July 2017

On writing study material for home groups

Writers of devotional material as well as retreat leaders like to give value for money. Column inches indicate a job well done.

Over a lifetime attending study/fellowship groups, and often leading these, a certain phenomenon has become familiar. Published study series for home groups usually have (for each session) an icebreaker, the input material with associated Bible passages (or taken from a book chosen to study), then a number of challenging questions covering different aspects of the theme. The group usually starts with socializing and drinks/snacks, and ends with a time of prayer – usually preceded by discussion about who and what needs praying for.

In retreats, similarly, sessions include input material followed by exercises and questions.

As cafĂ© worship has taken off, the same scenario plays out – input material with small group discussion then a plenary session.

The phenomenon I observed was that in every case there was too much going on. Too many passages to study (or too long), too much input, too many questions/exercises. I watched leaders hurrying groups through as time began to run out, shutting down discussion, focusing on ‘moving on’ and getting through the material in the booklet/schedule – all at the expense real listening, real sharing.

When I wrote my 100 Stand-Alone Bible Studies, I originally called it 100 Bible Studies For Chatty Home Groups (but the publisher didn’t like my title).  The idea was simple – that the content of the session would be provided not by the material in the book but by the people at the meeting. So each study has a theme, a short selection of relevant Bible passages (given in full to sidestep the party game of Looking Up The Text), a paragraph of input commentary, then three questions – and finally a prayer to finish off. There’s a foreword explaining how to use the material, and how to structure and prepare for the meeting.

The format assumes that the group will spend a substantial portion of the evening chatting over coffee – finding out what’s new and of significance in each other’s lives. This is vital pastoral care, and should not be rushed. After perhaps 45-60 minutes of this, it’s time for the study.

The crucial thing about writing the study material is ensuring that the questions are open. Not “Do you think the Virgin Mary is relevant to the church today?” (a closed, yes/no question), but “Where in your everyday life do you meet women who remind you of Mary?” (an open question with, crucially, no right or wrong answer).

Such open questions help build the bridge between the eternal Gospel and the changing and specific circumstances of contemporary life. Questions with no wrong answers encourage trust and confidence. A skinny format of only three questions ensures everyone is heard and there is time for the satisfying unfolding of discussion.

There is also space for what the Japanese call ma – the interstices that give meaning to what is present. Breathing room.

You do have to keep your nerve to offer this kind of study. Though I piloted my 100 Stand-Alone Bible Studies thoroughly, an early Amazon review of the book said, “Each study section has only three questions. It is thoughtfully written, but would not keep our group talking for than 15 minutes.”
Because I absolutely knew this would not be so, I had the confidence to disregard it – note the reviewer said “would not keep our group talking”, not “did not”. As the reviews began to trickle in, nobody reported the problem she anticipated.

I’ve noticed that many ACW authors write devotional/study material. Please take courage to write the less that is more, the notes that affirm the group more than the writer, developing confidence in sharing and learning together by offering the small outline that trusts the group to produce their own theological work.

Keep it short, keep it simple, trust the people, and above all – keep the questions truly open.


  1. This is really sensible and practical. We need to really listen to the Word and let it percolate in rather than rush through ticking boxes!

  2. As someone who has written a fair few studies in my time, and learned in the process, I can only say 'Amen'! If your group can't manage with three questions, either they don't know each other well enough yet, or you are actively trying to stop them knowing each other too well (and yes, some leaders do do this).