Some of us may have had a science teacher along the way that gave us the freedom to experiment. Phrases heard in that class might have included: Let’s see what happens if we do this! I wonder if this will work? and They call it trial and error for a reason. The teacher was just as anxious as we were to see what happened when Mentos were dropped into a bottle of carbonated drink. That same teacher purchased different brands of carbonated drinks for the next science class just to find out if one produced more foam than the others.
In this approach, the Experimenter discovers right along with the group. They may have a general framework to follow, but always with an open end. It is about the experience and the discovery. The Experimenter guides the group through a discovery process, while the group creates the final product. The group members prepare before the group time, with the expectation of contributing to the experience by sharing their discoveries, testing their conclusions, and asking their questions. The group is provided content prior to the meeting to examine and process prior to the group time. That way, the group can start when the first person arrives.
The Experimenter must prepare for multiple contingencies, since he or she does not know the exact direction the group time may take. Experimenters may have a general idea based on their own study, but there is always the possibility of a rabbit-chase lurking. This approach could also be described using the terms propose/do.
The strength of this approach is that the thoughts and insights of group members are valued. Not all ideas are equal, but at least each can be explored and compared to the larger whole. It also encourages active participation. In fact, the amount of interaction determines the length and quality of the group time.
But the level of interaction is also a core weakness. Guests will not be able to jump in without some type of help. Not everyone wants to interact with every subject or, in our case, every Bible verse. The lack of structure, or perceived lack of structure, will frustrate some group members. The structure of a class helps people organize and focus their thoughts. They need the clues and the prompts of the Presenter and Investigator. The group time also lends itself to the chasing of rabbits, some of which are not worth chasing. Group members don’t mind rabbits every once in a while as long as they get to the meat of the matter as well.
One of the biggest potential dangers of using this approach exclusively is the teacher losing his or her credibility. The Experimenter is an expert on the process, but the group wants someone who is an expert on the content as well. If the group believes they are just as knowledgable as the leader on a subject, they look elsewhere for answers to the hard questions and when they are in a crisis. When that happens, the Experimenter loses his or her place in the group and is no longer needed.
Over the past three posts, we have examined three different approaches to engaging the group. Since each has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses, which one is best? Does it simply come down to a teacher’s preference? How do you know which one to use and when? That is the question we will examine in our next post.
G. Dwayne McCrary is the team leader for Adult and Young Adult group resources at Lifeway, leads two weekly Bible study groups (one for empty-nesters and one for 4-year olds), serves as an adjunct professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and carries 20-plus years of church staff experience. He is married to Lisa (both native Texans), and they have two children and one grandson. Find him on Twitter: @gdwayne.