It is important in a Bible study that participants give space for the Bible to speak to them.
But why should you start a Bible study? Because ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, as St. Jerome said. Because we want to model our lives on the life of Christ. Because we all sense that the Church is ailing from a lack of community, which all of us can help remedy "from the bottom up." Because, sadly, we are at risk of losing the faith if we are not sharing it -- that troublesome truth that the Catholic Church is intrinsically and unavoidably "apostolic." Because you see you've become lukewarm (have you?), and you want to recapture your enthusiasm from years ago.
Okay, so you have resolved to start a Bible study. So, what do you do? First, pray. Pray for wisdom and guidance. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you identify friends to invite. And this next may sound strange, but it is true: pray for humility, because (human nature being what it is) you are likely soon to be congratulating yourself for taking the initiative ("I am the only one I know") to start a Bible study. ("I am a poor and unworthy servant. I am only doing what I ought.")
Think of about four to eight friends as being a good size. You want it to be a "small group." It needs to be intimate.
What about place, time, and interval? Consider all three of these at once. They should form a coherent whole which is practicable for everyone: say, moms meeting in the morning with their young children once a week, with a grandparent watching the toddlers, or a hired teenager, or just one of the moms taking turns. Or dads meeting in someone's office over coffee and pastries every two weeks, in the morning before work begins. Or couples who get babysitters, meeting once a month in the evening at someone's house, with drinks and conversation to follow. Once a week is best for continuity, but often once a month might be the only attainable option. As you invite friends to join, propose how you think it ought to go, but be sensitive to their ideas for adjustments.
As you prayerfully plan, if you are married, do not plan anything which will imply a burden for your spouse, unless you propose it to your spouse and gain his or her free consent. A Bible study needs to be something that both of you wish, and both implicitly do, even if only one of you is participating in it.
Start with a Gospel, and only later do an epistle or a book from the Old Testament. Start with a Gospel for the same reason that the Church proposes a text from a Gospel at each Mass.
Aim to "cover" one chapter each meeting, in the sense that beforehand everyone prayerfully reads that chapter in advance. However, in the actual meeting, the leader should pick a shorter text, typically just one miracle or parable ("pericope"), for a deeper and more focused discussion.
If your group meets once a month, you can cover in this way the whole of the Gospel of Mark (14 chapters) in about a year. If you meet once a week, you can cover the whole of the Gospel of Matthew (28 chapters) during the school year.
Generally, one member of the group will feel most comfortable leading it, or will have the most time to prepare. It is not a bad thing if one person always leads it. But in some groups members take turns leading.
A meeting should begin and end with a prayer. Also, you should share prayer concerns, so that your closing prayers can include petitions for members of the group. Remember that a Bible study always has two dimensions: understanding and charity. It must edify or "build up" both the understanding of the Gospel among its members, but also their love for one another in Christ.
It is important in a Bible study that participants give space for the Bible to speak to them. They should share how the chapter or passage struck them, what made an impression on them, how it "convicted" them, how it inspired them to repent, and what new lights they believe God conveyed to them through it. Likewise, participants should propose ideas about how to apply what they are studying to their day-to-day lives.
Protestants call such an approach an "inductive" Bible study. Also, if they believe that "Scripture alone" is the standard of Christian faith ("sola scriptura"), they will believe that an "inductive" Bible study should rely on nothing except the Bible itself. So, they will engage in "word studies," which is to see how the same word is used elsewhere in the Bible. (An interlinear translation, together with a concordance such as Strong's, are invaluable for word studies.). Or they will look for parallel passages.
A Catholic, on the other hand, will aim to interpret Scripture according to the mind of the Church and therefore will find it valuable to bring in commentaries which assist in doing so. Two good ones are the "Catena Aurea" ("Golden Chain") of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Navarre Bible. One wants a commentary to be brief and concise, so as not to place a burden on everyone's preparation.
Once you start a Bible study, you may find yourself wondering -- "Why haven't I been in a Bible study my whole life?"
- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book is "Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John" available from Amazon.
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