The first time I did a one-on-one Bible study was because a student had asked me. Although I was a campus minister at the time, I was new to the ministry and was still searching for a way to approach students. But this Korean student who knew that I was a minister and who had participated with me in worship services approached me and asked if I could teach him the Bible. I agreed without thinking twice.
For several months we did a one-on-one Bible study. We met once a week and read scripture, discussing passages and diverse cultural experiences that we brought to the reading. He would come with the strangest and most original questions I had ever heard from anyone. Sometimes I had the answer; other times I had to take time to dig deep into my theology or anthropology books for an honest and satisfying response.
I still remember that Bible study very well because it challenged me and made me come up with creative ways to communicate the gospel to another person. Although we came from two unrelated cultures (Azerbaijan and Korea) and met in a third culture (USA) that was not related to either one of us, the desire to understand the gospel propelled us to debate and appreciate the insights we gained. I think I learned from him just as much as he learned from me — if not more.
Another memorable but very short one-on-one Bible study I did was through a Skype call with a young Christian from Afghanistan. Barely past his teen years, the young man knew very little about Christianity or the world outside of his town. Imagine a new Christian who did not even know who Paul was. Not that I’m belittling his faith. In fact, the opposite is true because to become a Christian in Afghanistan just by hearing about it requires a lot of courage and maneuvering. It is literally a matter of life and death.
Unlike the Korean student, I had to adjust to him a lot because he would often call in the middle of the night — around 3 or 4 am — to ask a question about his Christian faith. I sent him some books teaching the basics of Christianity and repeatedly informed him about the best times to call me, but he didn’t seem to register my suggestions for whatever reason. I could only sustain it for so long. When you wake up several nights in a row and your sleep pattern is disrupted, you have to make some tough (and unpleasant) decisions.
I remember my Bible study with that Afghani believer because despite the cultural concepts we shared, it was not easy to communicate. I was confronted with questions that I was not prepared for at all. I had to teach the very basics of Christianity and the Bible yet adjust it to an Afghani context with very specific needs. What was worse — this student had a lot of misunderstandings about the western world and the world in general. So I was constantly trying to find ways not only to communicate the gospel but also to dodge misgivings that were often aroused from his limited context and my unpreparedness for such a unique situation.
As I found ways of reaching out to students and becoming their friend, I had the chance to teach more one-on-one Bible studies. Later I got involved in group Bible studies too. But these two Bible studies stayed with me and confirmed my feelings about various Bible study formats: one-on-one Bible study sessions are more preferable if the purpose is to engrave the gospel into the soul of the believer and along the way grow with that believer. One-on-one Bible studies are more fun, challenging, and insightful too. I feel like the Lord stretches me in this format more than in a group format of Bible study.
That said, in this blogpost I’ll introduce you to several tips and tricks that will ease your one-on-one Bible study sessions and make them smoother. These are hard-won and experience-based tips, so I hope you apply them in your one-on-one Bible study sessions and serve the Lord better.
Let’s start with a definition. The one-on-one Bible study format means that there are only two participants in the study session: teacher and learner. In the rest of this post, for the pastor or teacher I will use the word “teacher,” and for the one who learns I will use the word “student” or “learner.” From my experience, students usually learn better and retain the material better in a one-on-one study session.
One-on-one Bible study is especially suitable for several reasons. 1) It is good for in-depth teaching. Unlike a group format, in one-on-one Bible study, the teacher and student can focus on one topic because their attention is not diverted to questions or discussions with other students that take place in a group format. 2) It is easily adjustable. In one-on-one Bible studies, the teacher and student can adjust to one another easily. Since the two are the only people participating in the process, they can consider without difficulty many factors affecting the learning process such as personality, character, habits, etc. 3) One-on-one Bible study is more personal. The teacher and student may feel more comfortable with one another in a one-on-one setting than in a group setting, and that would affect the outcome.
Tips for effective one-on-one Bible study sessions
1.Learn the person’s background, worldview, character, and personality.
Know well the person you are working with because that will make a huge difference. In the first session or before you start the Bible study, ask questions about his or her character, personality, lifestyle, reasons for the Bible study, family background, and interests, etc. And always make sure you ask whether it is okay to ask questions about his or her background, family, and life.
After you ask the questions, take notes and think about how to adjust your teaching according to the information you’ve received. If the person is a visual learner, you will need visual tools. If the person is a doer rather than a thinker, you will need to come up with some in-depth assignments. Below are some questions that can help you come up with your own ideas, but this list is by no means exhaustive.
What are the specific reasons you want to do this one-on-one Bible study?
What do you do when you have free time? Do you have any interests or hobbies? Would you mind sharing them?
What kind of learner are you? Visual? Auditory? Kinesthetic (learning through action or activity)?
What kind of family did you grow up in? Any avid readers in the family? Was it a believer family?
What is your education, or in what field do you specialize? Philosophy? Math? Carpentry? Flower arrangement?
Would you mind sharing your favorite movie? Book? Memory?
How well do you know the Bible? Do you read it? If so, how often?
What are the basics of your belief? What specific elements of faith or practices of faith do you wrestle with?
Who or what do you think affects your understanding of the Bible and faith more? Your pastor? Your parents? A book you read?
2.Learn from your student.
Your student is just as critically important to your development as a believer and as a teacher as you are important to hers. If you don’t pay attention, you may negatively affect someone else’s connection with God. If you are diligent, honest, and open, you may be the person through whom the Lord shows the true image of God to the learner.
So don’t take your ministry of a one-on-one Bible teaching lightly, and treat your student as an equal to yourself in matters of the heart. The fact that she learns from you does not make her inferior. The best mindset to apply in order to accept the learner as someone whose heart is no less closer to God than yours is to cultivate the habit of learning from your student. Learn from her insights. Get feedback from her about your teaching style. Be attentive to her experiences because her unique life and perspective may teach you something that you would never find in thick theology books. Also, let your student know that you are learning from her too. It will encourage her.
However, remember that this tip is dependent on the context and culture. In some cultures (like Eastern Asian cultures), the teacher really has a high authority, and the student may be puzzled to find out that you are learning something from her too. So take into account the background of the person.
3.Establish a friendly relationship within proper boundaries.
In the long run, the way you establish and sustain a relationship with the learner will affect your one-on-one Bible study sessions more than anything else. Be attentive to the larger cultural context and immediate context in which you do the Bible study, and adjust yourself accordingly. It is good to be friendly and open. It is a must to be honest. But friendliness and openness must have boundaries so that the session does not turn into offensive joke-making, flirtation, or beyond-the-subject gossiping.
So make sure you establish proper boundaries that leave space for the both of you, and do not create situations where you intrude upon the learner’s personal space. You can establish a friendly relationship within proper boundaries by being cautious, honest, and observant. Discuss these matters in your first Bible study session by sharing your own expectations in terms of communication. Ask questions about her expectations too.
4.Contextualize the lesson, expectations, and outcome.
Contextualizing the lesson means that you are adjusting the study of the scripture to suit the learner’s purpose just as the learner is adjusting her expectations of what the Bible study will bring or do for her. Expectations are contextualized when your personalities, the level of familiarity between the two of you, and any age or gender-like factors are taken into account. You can also contextualize the outcome of the Bible study by finding ways to get feedback and to measure the end result of each session.
The contextualizing is more of an art than a science because the things you take into account change from learner to learner and require reading people’s behavior. However, the general and common pattern in all contextualization is that the learner’s needs and purpose come first.
This does not mean that you ignore certain scriptural teachings or cultural norms for a respectful interaction if the learner finds them unpalatable. Challenging the student is also part of contextualizing the lessons or outcome because ultimately you are in a business of faith-based transformation, and you are called to help people to transform.
5.Make the lessons and sessions fun.
Fun in this context does not necessarily mean light-hearted or laughable. As I use it, it means interesting and entertaining. Some biblical subjects are hard to digest or may have shocking elements, especially for a person who sees life in black-and-white or whose worldview is very rigid. You job is to make the biblical teachings smooth so that the student can learn them without any unnecessary hiccups or misunderstandings.
There are various ways of making lessons and sessions interesting. Most of these ways depend on what you and the learner find to be fun, but some patterns are universal and could be applied in various forms. Here are some of them.
Tell stories. Telling stories is better than lecturing because stories are about people rather than abstract concepts. Use your experiences, anecdotes you’ve heard from other people, and public events to craft a story.
Make the lessons practical. Connect the lessons to the immediate need of the learner, and show her how she can apply it in her everyday life. You will retain her attention more than if you shared some purely theoretical concept.
Include in the session other activities to break up the flow. If your one-on-one Bible study lesson consists mostly of sitting and chatting, you may want to remember that any activity, when it takes too long, becomes tiring. So intersperse your one-on-one Bible study with some other shorter activities.
The simplest way is to take a break, but you can come up with more sophisticated tricks if you invest a little bit of your time beforehand to figure out what makes the learner tick. It can be as simple as playing a game of rocks-scissor-paper or as complex as writing down several arguments against your teaching to challenge you.
6.Recall the overarching purpose. Deepen the faith; broaden the worldview.
Every one-on-one Bible study session you teach and every one-on-one Bible study teaching program you undertake will have unique goals and purposes. But these purposes and goals connect in what I call an overarching purpose: the faith-based transformation of the learner and you. More specifically, the transformation is meant to deepen the faith in Christ and broaden the worldview of the kingdom.
Once in a while, recall this overarching purpose and reiterate her specific goals. Talk about them with your learner so that both of you know what is the ultimate goal, why you are both in it together, and where you will end up. This will refocus you both and keep you on the same page.
Your one-on-one Bible study sessions serve this overarching purpose in various ways. For me, to deepen the faith means to make the learner’s faith more flexible by opening her eyes to the details and complexities of the scripture so that her faith does not cave when someone else challenges it. I teach the student to wrestle with the dilemmas of life and the paradoxes of faith. I make her aware of her own assumptions and her taken-for-granted worldview so that she may apply her faith with a nuanced and balanced self-criticism.
What do you do to deepen the faith and broaden the worldview of the learner? Here are few tips.
7.Balance practice with theory.
One of the things I pay attention to in my one-on-one Bible studies is how to equip the learner with a few elementary and easy-to-understand theoretical tools. These are mostly philosophical, hermeneutical, literary, and historiographic concepts. I teach these to the learner so that she becomes more self-aware in the process of biblical interpretation and understands the value of thoughtful and justice-based inquiries into the scripture.
This is important because paraphrasing the scripture, summarizing the Bible, or repeating age-old dogmas is not a real one-on-one Bible study. It is an escape mechanism for a lazy teacher who does not want to do his part of the job and prepare the lesson in depth.
Obviously, a purely practical one-on-one Bible study is important as far as reviewing the scripture and applying it to everyday life goes. But for an in-depth study and a way to prepare the learner to continue on her own, you need some theoretical tools. Learn the basics of philosophy, hermeneutics, and biblical criticism, and use them to help your learner.
8.Talk to the student, and discover an appropriate method of teaching the Bible.
One of the things you may want to adjust to your student’s needs is to understand what method of teaching would be most appropriate for her. By method of teaching I mean the various techniques and strategies that maximize the learner’s understanding of the Bible and deepen her faith.
For example, one such method is the inductive method of Bible study. I personally use it only as an elementary and introductory method of teaching and never as an in-depth method of understanding the Bible. It is not designed to handle in-depth matters such as confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, self-scrutiny, reduction criticism, oblivious bibliolatry, hermeneutical circle, and critical reading, etc.
With intellectually gifted students who are open to probing the word of God from every perspective, I use the Socratic method to tease the person’s confidence in the scripture so that I can shake it up and rebuild it later on much stronger ground.
In a one-on-one Bible study, the general principle is to use one method as the main method and another method as a complementary method. Be flexible with your method because various texts of the Bible may require different emphases in methods. For example, Ecclesiastes requires a philosophical reflection while the Book of Numbers requires more of an understanding of genealogies, historiography, and more. So experiment and develop a habit of thinking in terms of your method.
9.Prepare and share an outline and your desired outcome.
Not all one-on-one Bible studies require an outline. For example, if you are doing a causal, kind of improvisational one-on-one Bible study, you may not need an outline. Even an in-depth study of the Bible does not need an outline at all times. But that requires a very high-level of biblical knowledge (I call it PhD level), creativity, and extremely good communication skills apt for managing unexpected situations.
When doing an in-depth Bible study, I almost always use an outline that I work on meticulously. It is not necessary to share your outlines with students, but if they want it, you should make your outline easy-to-understand. Sharing builds trust and makes your student see your overall thinking process.
It is good to include details in your outline that you may forget or your learner may find interesting. These details are like the bread and butter of a one-on-one Bible study, so pay attention to them.
The desired outcome is the expected outcome that you and your learner have agreed upon. You may include it in your outline, but it should be realistic and specific. If you write, “Upon the outcome, the learner will understand the Bible in-depth,” you are saying nothing really. But if you write, “Upon the outcome, the learner will be able to see connections between the genealogies in Numbers and in Matthew, recognize the importance of genealogy in the Scriptures, and apply the conclusions drawn from it in her life,” then you are being more specific.
10.Prepare for the one-on-one Bible study diligently, and pray.
If what I have written so far has not convinced you how much there is to learn about and develop your one-on-one Bible study teaching skills, you may want to come back to the text again in the future and read it with fresh eyes.
That matters. One-on-one Bible study is a spiritual work and demands attention. Simply put, you are dealing with other people’s connections to God. You job is to repair that connection if it is broken, to tune it if it is loose, and to create one if there is none. Its importance to their spiritual growth and discipleship cannot be overstated.
So prepare for the one-on-one Bible study diligently as if you carry your cross on your back, and pray because you are not alone. The entertainment industry and the habits of indiscriminate consumption are idols of the modern world that not only work alongside you but also against you. Pray for the learner and for yourself so that God may grant you insight, patience, and humility in teaching.
(Want to know why prayer matters so much? Then, click here.)
Above all, don’t give up. Remember, you are not alone. God’s love and justice are with you, and the Lord’s angels pave the path for your work.