3 ways to avoid relativism in group bible discussions

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In a Bible study group where the leader employs discussion, “relativism” occurs when participants look inward for answers, rather than observing and interpreting the Bible text for that day. It’s a focus on “what you think the verse means,” rather than on what the text says and means inherently. Relativism occurs when learners unintentionally “create meaning” through subjective opinion about the topic or Bible passage. Here are three ways to prevent relativism, or a “pooling of ignorance,” when your group meets.

1.       Prepare the Participants – Ignorance evaporates when all participants commit to old-fashioned study of the Bible passage. Determine a reasonable amount of “homework” time and ask members to sign a covenant. Devoting thirty minutes to the passage prior to each session won’t turn them into scholars, but it may prompt them to shuck preconceived notions. When you meet, they’ll already have some rapport with the biblical text.

Another option is to employ published materials. Look for a Bible study curriculum providing student workbooks as well as leader’s guides. An alternative is to prepare study questions yourself and distribute them a week ahead of time. When you meet, incorporate the homework questions into the publisher’s (or your own) more extensive lesson plan. Let’s look at an example of how this could work.

In Mark 5, three people experienced Jesus’ life-changing power: a demoniac, a woman with an issue of blood, and Jairus’ daughter. A week prior to the study on this passage, I gave my small group members the following questions and asked them to devote 30 minutes to their personal study:

·         What effects did Satanic influence have on the man?

·         What words/phrases in verses 6-15 show Jesus’ superiority over Satan?

·         How would you describe the way the main characters approached Jesus with their needs?

·         What characteristics of Jesus can you find in these three episodes?

·         What trait of Jesus illustrated in Mark 5 means most to you right now? Why?

2.      Mix the Members – Whenever you divide into smaller clusters for Bible discussions, don’t approach the allocation of members indiscriminately. A typical collection of learners consists of both “new and used” Christians. John and Mary came to Christ six months ago, without one iota of church background. Leslie and Rhonda joined the church two decades ago and have sat at the feet of excellent teachers. In each small group, put a more biblically literate person with two or three newer believers. Or assign a young adult sponsor to each buzz group of teens. Set up your groups so that the less mature participants will profit from others’ maturity.

3.      Enlist the Experts – Don’t use discussion for what discussion was never meant to accomplish! Some Bible passages are difficult to interpret without the insight covered by a sound commentary or book on a particular doctrine. Instead of soliciting learners’ opinion when a clear-cut conclusion can’t be gleaned from a text, do your homework and lecture for several minutes. Otherwise you put out the welcome mat to ignorance or subjective opinion.

It’s critical that Bible study leaders study the Word on their own and avoid excessive dependence on somebody else’s research. Yet a leader must not rely solely on his or her own findings and ideas. The teacher who learns only from himself has a fool for a teacher!

Note: My June 22, 2015 post, “2 Essential Skills for Bible Study Leaders,” includes a strategy I call “Qualifying My Questions.” There you’ll see how to word Bible study questions in a way that directs their attention to the text rather than to subjective opinion.

What suggestion can you add for avoiding relativism in group Bible studies?


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