A friend of mine meets women from her church on a regular basis to catch up and pray. But she reads the Bible with them only occasionally when certain issues come up. It’s not because she isn’t committed to teaching the Bible; on the contrary, she is a women’s pastor and a faithful minister of God’s word. It’s more because of a past experience of one-to-one Bible reading that was “super awkward”. She said, “There was a lot of pressure to be open and to talk about personal or deep issues. Doing Bible study felt strange because they were prepared and knew the answers, and so it was like I was being tested.”
Many of my women friends had similar worries when it came to reading the Bible one to one with other women. They voiced concerns like, “If I read the Bible with one of my friends, will my other friends feel left out?”, “Who leads if we’re peers?”, “How do you stop meeting without hurting anyone?”, “If you give priority to reading the Bible over chatting, will the other woman feel like you don’t care about her?” and “Will reading the Bible together spoil our friendship?” Even those who had had good experiences of one-to-one Bible reading were concerned about avoiding awkwardness.
I’m sure that even if these things haven’t featured in our experiences, we’ve all tasted something of them, and they make us cringe inwardly. We’ve all had awkward friendships and awkward moments, and we’re anxious not to repeat them. So we may decide not to read the Bible when we meet women one to one. Or we give lip-service to the task of Bible reading by leaving it until the very end of our time together, and then we only just squeeze it in. We’re willing to forgo the benefits of one-to-one Bible reading because we’re afraid of awkwardness.
Smoothing out the awkwardness
At this point, if you were hop – ing for a foolproof method for curing awkwardness, you’ll be disappointed; I don’t have one. The sol u tion to overcoming awkwardness will differ according to the individuals meeting one to one. But I suspect there’s something valuable and even liberating about confessing how often we are tempted to allow our fear of awkwardness to displace our desire to teach one another from God’s word. So often what drives our choice not to read remains unknown and unsaid. But once exposed, we can choose differently. That said, there are a few simple things you can do that can make a real difference in overcoming awkwardness.
Firstly, it helps to understand that one-to-one Bible reading has some awkwardness built in to it. One to one, by definition, is an unseen ministry. That is, unless you are one of the participants, you can’t actually observe how to read the Bible one to one. This means everyone learns how to do it by being ‘thrown into the deep end’—by getting stuck into it and actually doing it themselves. Some of us will be naturals at it; some of us will be more ‘practice makes perfect’ types; and some of us will improve with age. So for most of us, some awkwardness will inevitably be part of the learning curve—particularly when you start meeting one to one with someone new. Acknowledging this principle is like putting on glasses when you’re shortsighted; it brings clarity and perspective to your own awkward experience, enabling you to leave self-pity behind and get on with it.
Secondly, a lot of awkwardness in one-to-one Bible reading is caused by using a model or method that doesn’t suit the relationship or context. The beauty of one-to-one Bible reading is that it accommodates so many different combinations of readers—mentors and trainees, mature Christians and younger Christians, core members and newcomers, peers, acquaintances, even old friends. Think about someone you’d like to read the Bible with one to one. Which of the following models would best describe how you would approach the situation?
- A preacher with a congregation of one.
- A Bible study leader with one group member.
- A quiet time shared with one other person.
It’s not a trick question; the option that seems the most relationally appropriate to you is the right one. For example, if you were meeting one to one with someone like Don Carson, it would be more like a private sermon, with you lapping up all the wisdom you can. Or if you were doing a set of introductory Bible studies like Just for Starters with a new Christian where you’ve prepared answers to the questions in advance, it would be more like a Bible study group for one; the new Christian would expect to be guided through the Bible passage and to have their answers corrected by you. Obviously the model you use will depend on the other person; no particular model will fit every individual. Also, you may change the model you use over time.
For most women in most situations, I think the shared quiet time is the most helpful model. I like this model because, like quiet times, there is no authority figure other than God in his Word. In addition, there is the camaraderie of two fellow travellers sharing along the way. Also, it’s very flexible; you can choose how long, how much and how deep your study of the Bible will be—whatever suits your time, circumstances, maturity and abilities. At times, all you may be able to do is read the passage and pray together. At other times, you may be able to explore commentaries together.
Thirdly and finally, the real trick in the shared quiet time model of one-to-one Bible reading is creating an environment in which both readers can contribute genuinely. Two somewhat counterintuitive things that can help are, firstly, do no preparation and, secondly, be happy with no answers.
One of the most awkward situations that can arise is when one reader prepares the text in advance. This has the effect of introducing a secret agenda and a not-sosecret leader. But if one person has a secret agenda, it can stifle the other’s contribution as the agenda-holder tries to direct the discussion to the things she has prepared. If both of you do no preparation, there will be no secret agenda, and you can approach the text with the same freshness, even if you have differing levels of Bible knowledge. Alternatively, you could agree to do the same amount of preparation. But no preparation has the advantage of not needing any extra time beyond the meeting.
Not having the answers doesn’t always equal not learning. We always learn when we read God’s word, and we should expect to. But some questions have no answers, or their answers are bigger than one meeting or one passage. Being content with no answers now and then allows for the possibility of chasing ‘wild geese’ and red herrings. The real value of this lies in you being able to choose the direction your study takes without the fear of being judged as ‘silly’ or asking the ‘wrong’ questions. As with quiet times, it’s helpful to take a longterm view of learning.
The benefits of a little awkwardness
Conversely, there are a few ways in which one-to-one Bible reading can actually make meetings less awkward:
- Reading the Bible together can protect us from becoming self-absorbed. Meeting regularly to chat and pray can be very enjoyable, but there is always the inherent danger that all our conversations and prayers will turn into selfish concerns. Sometimes we will find comfort in our common failures, but at other times, we will butt against each other as our self-interests collide. Reading the Bible takes the focus away from us and places it firmly on God.
- Reading the Bible together can protect us from favouritism. Because relating to one another is not the primary reason why we meet, we can meet one to one with women we don’t know very well, or with women we wouldn’t normally spend time with. We do not have to share personal things with the other person beyond what’s appropriate for the relationship, but instead can share deeply of the things of God from what we read.
- Reading the Bible together can give us the priceless treasure of a friendship that has been enriched by God’s word. In 1991, a friend and I met to read the book of Zechariah together. Although it’s been a long time since, the benefits of that period in our lives have endured. Now it’s not awkward or unusual for either of us to share some interesting or challenging morsel of Scripture whenever we catch up. We’ve retained the habit of encouraging each other with God’s word 18 years on.
There is another way of looking at all this. It may actually be good to seek a certain kind of awkwardness in our oneto- one meetings. This is because the awkwardness that arises when our sinful natures are confronted by God’s word is an awkwardness too good to be missed by those who wish to be more like Christ.
Isobel Lin is chair of the EQUIP Women Conference. To find out more about EQUIP, visit www.equip.org.au.