Mark Wingfield: A guide to four types of Bible study learners

iStock / Fatcamera

Just because you gather people in a room and call it Bible study doesn't mean everyone learns in the same way, says a Baptist pastor. Here are the four types of adult learners he has found in church small groups.

Have you heard the story about a time long, long ago, in a faraway place, when adults gathered for Bible study and everyone in the class studied the same thing at the same time and learned the same way?

Yeah, that day is gone – if it ever really existed.

It turns out that just because you gather people in a room and call it Bible study, they don’t all “get it” in the same way. We now know a lot more about learning styles, teaching styles, personality types and every other aspect of how adults learn.

It’s impossible to keep up with all the research on learning, but one thing is clear: it can be overwhelming to try to please every student. Whatever approach a teacher takes, he or she inevitably risks alienating others who have a different learning style.

As someone who has taught adult Bible study groups for about 30 years, I’d like to suggest a simpler way to think about adult learning styles. Here are four types of adult learners that I’ve found in church small groups:

“Go deeper.” These are the folks for whom the Bible can never be complicated enough. The more hidden detail to unearth, the more cross-references to find, the more trivia to memorize, the more lists to generate, the better. These are the people who love Bible Study Fellowship and similar programs that other folks believe make simple Bible truths as tangled as a Gordian knot.

Some people genuinely fall into this category because their minds just work that way. They are detail- and research-oriented people who absorb data like sponges and always want more.

Others, sadly, place themselves into this category under false pretenses. After all, one way to ignore the clear admonition of Scripture is to proclaim it more complicated than it appears. It’s a lot like the explanation I once heard a prominent pastor give for why he preferred preaching from the King James Version of the Bible: The inferior translation, he said, gave him more to explain in his sermons, which made him appear more studied.

“Whatever. If the doors are open, I’ll be there.” At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who don’t care what the lesson is about or who the teacher is. These are the folks who attend whatever the church offers -- or least whatever they perceive is “acceptable” church involvement. They are not discriminating and are easily pleased.

Some of these casual learners are indeed just that -- casual learners. They’re not going to be anxious about Bible study; they enjoy being there. It’s what they do and where they enjoy being.

But do they learn anything? Probably so, and maybe more than we who are more demanding might expect. However, this group also includes those who show up primarily for reasons other than Bible study: making business connections, finding a mate, getting a captive audience to hear what they have to say, or perhaps just being part of a group and not feeling lonely.

“Let’s talk about that.” Lectures were once the dominant form of adult teaching in most churches, but today many people prefer a discussion format. For some folks, the discussion is the lesson. Even when classes feature a mix of lecture and discussion, it’s the discussion that these learners prefer -- and the more robust the better.

For one Sunday morning class a few years ago, I regularly challenged myself as a teacher to walk in with nothing more written down than I could put on a 3-by-5 index card. I wanted to ensure that I focused more on facilitating good discussion than disseminating information.

Planning good questions, I learned, was the key to having good discussions. For both the teacher and the class, asking and answering good questions can be more challenging than memorizing Bible facts. Leading a good discussion, I discovered, is harder than giving a lecture.

While many adult learners value both approaches, some will happily discuss every topic to death, even if the discussion is not grounded in facts and knowledge. And when discussion degenerates into intense debate, some learners can feel overwhelmed. For this reason, a hybrid approach that combines teaching with discussion is often the most productive.

“Make it fun.” A friend of mine once observed that a successful pastor we knew was not much of a preacher, "but he is a great after-dinner speaker.” The same can be true of small-group Bible study leaders.

Sometimes, the teacher’s personality is the main attraction, with the Bible study content secondary at best. While teaching purists likely frown upon this learning style, it can serve a purpose, drawing in people who otherwise might not engage in Bible study at all.

But the “fun” these people seek often is about more than a charismatic teacher. Some adult Bible study groups spend more time on socializing, eating, listing prayer requests or engaging in personal accountability plans than in actually studying the Bible. Although such classes are far from ideal, they too can serve an important role, providing learners with needed opportunities to socialize.

But are they Bible studies? Those who learn this way and those who don’t likely will answer that question differently.

So what are churches and study leaders to make of these different learning styles? Should every church organize its adult Bible study groups according to these four types?

Probably not. The reality is that most Bible study groups include many types of learners, and that’s a good thing. We all need to learn from each other and to be reminded that there’s value in wrestling with Scripture, applying its lessons to our lives, making learning enjoyable and being faithful in attendance.

The challenge is to break away from the one-size-fits-all approach that the old denominational models once assumed worked. Churches need to incorporate varieties of teaching styles within particular classes and small groups and also to offer a variety of groups that appeal to all kinds of learners.

For teachers, the call is to not get stuck in a rut. Choosing a variety of curriculum resources -- videos, books, lectures and discussion -- is one way to ensure that students’ different learning styles are addressed. If you’re leading a class or small group exactly the way you did it 10 years ago, it might be time for a checkup.