International Bible studies: Getting started

Anne Woodcock | 18 Apr 2012

So how do we go about starting a Bible study group with internationals?

A. Think about what sort of Bible study to do.

Evangelistic or Christian teaching? A Bible book or a topic? Starting with Genesis or Jesus? The “big picture’” or verse by verse? These questions can help you:

  • How long are your international friends around for? Just for the summer (eg: younger language students)? It’s best to offer a repeat programme of short courses introducing Christianity. Three years or more (eg: uni students and ex-pat workers and families)? Aim to cover a whole gospel. Possibly for ever (eg: economic migrants and asylum seekers)? Build relationships that will encourage them to take part in an on-going Bible-study group.
  • What’s the majority level of English? A Bible overview, topical study or “big picture” approach, involving large amounts of Bible text or lots of cross-references, will be difficult for those with only basic English. Better to stick to stories or one chunk in “bite-size” pieces.
  • What background do they come from? Are they mostly Christianised? (Even so, don’t assume they’re knowledgeable about the Bible, or key Christian concepts). Is everything about Christianity completely new to them. Or have they been given a distorted view of Christianity? For complete beginners, the first chapters of Genesis, the life of Jesus or a suitable evangelistic course are good options. Think carefully about how you explain concepts like God or sin (more on this later).
  • What life-stage have your participants arrived at? For a long-term Bible-study group where the level of English is not too basic you might consider looking at something relevant to their particular situation. For married women with children, you could study what the Bible says about marriage or the role of women? Young single people may respond to a Bible-study on the purpose of life (Ecclesiastes) or a look at the future (Revelation)?

B. Think about the structure of your group.

  • Keep groups small. Language-learners are often nervous about speaking, and this is more difficult if the group is large. 6 people or fewer is probably ideal, but those with very basic English may need one-to-one Bible study, or someone who can translate as necessary.
  • Differing levels of English. This may make it difficult to teach everyone together. If possible, draft in some extra English-speakers to help you. You can start and finish the group together, but split into smaller groups or pairs—each with one native English-speaker as a helper—to look at the passage.
  • Mixed or single-sex groups? Mixed groups won’t be a problem for young people and Europeans. With older people, Asians, Muslims etc. it can be more effective to divide into male and female groups.

In particular, older men from cultures where seeing to be proficient is important are often reluctant to speak English in front of others for fear that their mistakes will cause them to “lose face”. Small single-sex groups or one-to-ones with British men who will work hard to build good relationships with these men are key.

Anne Woodcock

Anne is an editor at the Good Book Company and active in teaching the Bible to internationals, women and children. She is married to Pete, with two grown children.