How to Help People Read and Understand the Bible for Themselves
Reflections from the early stages
I grew up in the church, but when it came to the Bible I didn't understand what I was reading.
I was in the youth choir. I was a praise dancer. I was very involved, but generally it was more about seeing my friends than hearing the Word. In college, I was in an awesome Bible study and in the gospel choir. I started learning the phrases quiet time and accountability partner. I was challenged to memorize Scripture. And while these things were important, I still didn't know how to study the Bible on my own.
My own journey has taken me deeper into learning how to read the Bible, but these early stages remind me what it was like when I was just starting out. Now as a mental health professional, I find myself drawing from some of these principles as I meet people where they are and equip them to move forward into health and healing.
Here are some tips for church leaders based on my observations along the way.
1. Just because people are showing up every Sunday doesn't mean they understand the Bible.
This was me. Maybe you can remember a time when this was you. If so, never forget it. Understanding the Bible may be old hat for you now, but for many it's new and strange, even uncomfortable. Remember that feeling, and do all you can to explain, explore, and excite—even for those who have been in the church for years.
2. Why should people study the Bible? What is the heart-level reason?
What is your "why"? What keeps driving you to read Scripture? Share this with the people you lead.
In my current counseling and coaching practice, I specialize in behavior change and helping people heal from hurt and trauma. People want to emotionally heal, break bad habits, and start good ones. In some cases they struggle to heal, break free from addiction, unforgiveness, and anger. There are various pathways to personal transformation, but no one makes any headway unless they have a reason to do so. And if you want to lead people into the Bible, they need to answer the "why" question for themselves.
3. What tools can you offer to help others study for themselves?
Sometimes a leader's most important task is not telling people what the Bible means, but connecting them with a resource that works for them. For some, that might be a method—like inductive Bible study. For others it might be a Bible dictionary, study Bible, or commentary. Increasingly, people are wondering how to get Bible resources online—or even in an app format.
Consider having "How to Study the Bible" classes on a consistent basis. Make sure the teachers bring all the excitement that Scripture deserves. Don't assume that people know it all already, but don't be afraid to challenge them either.
In my case, as I served in a church youth ministry after college, the youth pastor announced that he was going to walk us through a hermeneutics class.
That's right: hermeneutics.
I didn't think I would enjoy it in the least. I was no seminary graduate, and this sounded like pretty high-level stuff. But as it turned out, I loved it. I wanted more. It was basic enough to engage my interest. It was as if my eyes were slowly beginning to open for the first time.
That class set me on a life-long course of discovering the Bible. Now I truly appreciate when the teacher or preacher breaks down Scripture, provides some historical context, discusses who the author is, and more. I want to see the big picture, but I also want the tools and guidance to dive into the details for myself.
4. What feedback are you inviting? How do you know whether people are really understanding Scripture?
As a professor and counselor, I've learned the importance of feedback. Formal, informal. Questionnaires and conversations and body language. Sometimes the feedback comes in the form of changed behavior. Are they understanding the content, do we need to revisit any points before we move onto the next chapter? Are they following the plan? Are these things having positive results or do we need to try a different approach?
The same is true in any Bible-teaching ministry. You need feedback, but people might be shy about offering it (except for those who always do). Ask the people you want to hear from, or haven't heard from yet. Hold a Q&A session. Invite people to email you. You're not looking for ratings on your performance, but for how people are starting to understand Scripture. Revisit last week's message or lesson and see what they remember. Better yet, ask how they plan to apply what was taught. Let them tell you how Scripture is transforming their lives.
I currently serve as a leader of a young adult and singles ministry at my church. Some folks assume that all this group wants to discuss is dating and marriage. And, yes, those subjects do come up, but there has also been another desire expressed. They want to learn how to study Scripture. So we have focused on the Bible, and there has been an overwhelmingly positive response.
I'm familiar with that journey. Many of these young adults feel they've just been going through the motions of reading the Bible. I started at this point too. But now we're all wondering how powerful our lives would be if we truly understood what we were reading.
Thanks to the support of our faithful financial partners, American Bible Society has been engaging people with the life-changing message of God’s Word for more than 200 years.
Help us share God's Word where needed most.
Connect with our Bible engagement blog for leaders and receive a Bible-reading Habit Guide for your community.