How to Use This Study With Small Groups
This page is intended to give some suggestions on how to use the Sunday Scripture Study based on the liturgical readings in a small weekly or other regularly meeting small faith group setting. By hearing together the readings from the upcoming Sunday liturgy, gaining an appreciation of their biblical context, and sharing their insights with their brothers and sisters, it is hoped that Catholics may enter more fully into the Word of God as it read in the Christian community. The emphasis of this format is not in-depth or scholarly study, or (conversely) a free-wheeling “Bible sharing” class, but rather one that emphasizes growing in familiarity with Sacred Scripture guidance in understanding it in the mind of the Catholic Church (from which, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Sacred Scripture sprang), and as an opportunity to gather for Christian fellowship in order grow in their faith and to share their faith with one another.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Setting and practical considerations
A Sunday Scripture Study group can either be parish or home based. If meeting in a parish setting, you will need to obtain the permission of either the parish priest or the director of religious education. You should be prepared to offer them the details and samples of your proposed study: materials used; frequency, day/hour, and format of meetings; type of resources (including meeting place) requested, etc. In a parish setting, I personally prefer to have a classroom, conference room, or other stand-alone room free of distractions. I also prefer tables and chairs rather than chairs alone since it should always be convenient for participants to take notes, as well as have a place for other handouts and resources. Balancing a Bible on one’s lap with all these other things becomes too much of a distraction.
For various reasons (space, resources, other pastoral reasons), sometimes it is not possible to get approval to conduct a small group study on the parish campus. In that case, the study can be conducted in participant’s homes. (Other outside facilities can also be considered. For example, many public libraries have small conference rooms that can either be reserved or are available on a first come, first served basis.)
For some home-based Scripture study groups, meetings are held at the same house every week (or whatever frequency is agreed on). This has the advantage of participants not having to look for a new address every week. Participants can take turns bringing refreshments and other resources (such as printed materials). The disadvantage of this arrangement is that it sometimes puts a strain of the host. Alternatively, then, locations (and refreshments/resources) can be rotated among group members. It is important to have a sign-up sheet for each of these things so confusion and misunderstandings do not arise over where to meet and who brings what.
As in the parish setting, a large table in an area away from interruptions and distractions (television, video games, music, other conversation, etc) is preferable, but any comfortable place with room for everyone to have a place to sit is acceptable. Out of consideration for all participants, always start (and end) at the agreed upon time.
In either of these settings, resources required at each meeting are minimal. Each participant should have their own copy of the Bible to use. The translation used is a decision to be used by the group, as long as it is an approved Catholic translation. I tend to use the New American Bible in small groups since it is the version used in the liturgy and the one that most Catholics likely already possess. Each participant should have a copy of that week’s Sunday Scripture Study, and there should be at least one copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on hand for reference during the study. Pencils/pens and notepads are also recommended.
FORMAT OF SMALL GROUP MEETINGS
Using the Sunday Scripture Study
Optional opening: Consider opening your time together by singing a brief song/hymn or two together. This is a great way to open up by joyfully praising God, and helps to bring warmth to the gathering. This can be as simple a putting together an informal printout of a few songs, or as elaborate as investing in small songbooks to be passed around and then collected at each gathering. My wife used her scrapbooking skills to put together some nice little song books for my men’s group. The important thing is that the songs are ones that are suitable for the gathering, easy to sing, and that most people already know well.
Opening Prayer: Always open your study time of the Sacred Scriptures with a brief prayer for God’s guidance. It could be an extemporaneous (spontaneous) or a set prayer, like the traditional prayer to the Holy Spirit. I’ve found that the Alternative Opening Prayer for that Sunday’s liturgy (found in most missalettes) is often beautiful and profound and keyed to the theme of the Readings for that Sunday.
Reading the Scriptures: Since the Sunday Scripture Study is primarily focused on the Gospel Reading, I suggest that the First and Second Readings be read first. Ask for a volunteer from the group to read each reading in turn (if no one volunteers, the leader/facilitator may have to “volunteer” someone. As much as possible, it is better that all group members be encouraged to participate in at least a small way, and not just be “observers.”). Unless there is confusion about the wording or language of these readings, hold off on any discussion of them for now.
(Note: the Psalm for that Sunday can also be read; however, keep in mind that the Psalm chosen for the liturgy is almost always “cut up” to adapt it to the theme of the liturgy (usually related to the first reading). Thus, if it is to be read as part of the Scriptures in the group meetings, it should probably be read out of a missalette or other pre-printed form. The same may be true for other Readings that are shortened or edited for Mass to provide a similar focus. It is a good idea, then, for the leader/facilitator to review that weeks Readings in advance to make arrangements so that confusion will be minimized at the time of the gathering).
Overview of the Gospel: Before proclaiming the Gospel reading, have someone read aloud the “Overview of the Gospel” section of the Sunday Scripture Study. Again, this is not a time for discussion: it is a preparation to give context and background for the Gospel you are about to hear.
Proclaiming the Gospel: Ask for a volunteer to proclaim the Gospel reading out loud. An option, if the study is being hosted in someone’s home, is to have the host do this. Another option is to have group members stand for the Gospel reading.
Questions: After the Gospel reading and brief moment of meditation, discussion may begin on the Readings, especially the Gospel. Go through the questions one by one, giving everyone a chance to give their input. Don’t feel pressured to get to every question, but don’t spend time on fruitless debate or speculation of a particular question. When a question has been thoroughly explored, gently but firmly go on to the next question. Of course, other questions that participants may have about the readings may arise at this point, but I recommend that the questions provided be explored first, as participants often get frustrated by not being able to get to all of the questions on the study sheet.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: As time permits, have a member of the group read aloud one or more of the recommended references from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The sections provided are keyed primarily to the Gospel readings and often provide additional illumination and profound spiritual insights, as well as helping us be conformed to the mind of the Church as our Mother and Teacher.
Closing Prayer: As in the opening prayer, a traditional or extemporaneous prayer giving thanks to God for his blessings of Word and fellowship be offered to close the gathering. This is also a time that some groups, time permitting, may wish to lift up petitions to God for personal, family or community intentions.
Some general tips and considerations:
Try to avoid letting any one person dominate the conversation. Everyone should have a chance to give their input. Some quieter persons can be encouraged (not pressured or forced) to contribute, but everyone should at least have an opportunity to speak.
Nothing is more frustrating to group members than when a Bible study group degenerates into a chat room. Avoid letting the group go off on tangents or “rabbit trails” that are not related to what is being discussed. When this occurs, try to gently bring the group back on focus.
Group members should be encouraged to make a commitment to be on time, to participate regularly, invite and welcome newcomers, and to do their share to make the time of gathering a positive and spiritually fruitful experience for all.
Avoid placing the burden on a single individual (including you!) to always be the one to take care of all of the details of organizing and leading a long term study. This is how good people get burned out in ministry. Share the load!
As the group evolves, consider ways to facilitate growth and a welcoming atmosphere. Place invitations or notifications in the parish bulletin or the free-ad section of the diocesan paper. Members can pool resources to help provide printouts, create or purchase song books, purchase inexpensive Bibles as “loaners” or for visitors, etc.
Engage in adequate long term planning. Create a calendar (for at least the next three months) showing the dates, times and location of each meeting, as well as dates when the group will not be meeting for holidays, vacation time, or a periodic hiatus.
Be as organized as possible, but at the same time prepare to be flexible as the need requires. Group members can be frustrated by either disorganization OR over-rigidity in format or scheduling.
Always keep in mind the ultimate purpose for the Scripture study: To gather together in charity and joy with our brothers and sisters in the Faith and share God’s Word together so that, as “no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19), we may, as the old catechism says: “Know, love and serve God in this world, so that we will be happy forever with him in the next."