What are the essentials to good Bible study materials? And what makes a small-group Bible study work well? Are we going to take prayer requests? Will there be homework? What makes the difference between good questions in curriculum and questions that frustrate the group?
These are the kinds of questions I asked Lydia Brownback, who has just embarked on creating a new series of resources called the Flourish Bible Study, for which she plans to create three studies a year for 10 years. We talked about the importance of defining terms, studying a book of the Bible in the larger context of the Bible’s story and message, and the best way to go about making personal application. Because Brownback is a senior editor at Crossway, I also asked her about the advice she gives when people ask her about how they can get a book published. Her bottom line? It’s really hard.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Lydia Brownback: Let’s face it, Nancy. I think our biggest goal is that women who do our studies would fall in love with studying God’s word and get a taste for it, where when they…the discovery. It’s leading them to make their own discoveries. It’s not you doing all the discovery for them. It’s helping them figure out how to do that for themselves. And so when they come away from the study and then they go back and read the Bible the next day, or the next week, or the next month, whatever text they’re in, they’re gonna be equipped to make those discoveries on their own.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of the Gospel Coalition, sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracks. Learn more at crossway.org. I am in Wheaton, Wheaton, Illinois today, and I’m getting to hang out with one of my best buddies, Lydia Brownback. Lydia, thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
Brownback: I am so excited to be on your podcast, Nancy. This is a great time.
Guthrie: Usually, Lydia and I are doing other things. We are either… Lydia has been my editor on a number of books that I have done, so sometimes we’re working through those. Other times, we’re walking in the park or on a girls’ trip or out to dinner…
Brownback: Or driving in a convertible or dancing at a wedding.
Brownback: We’ve done all that.
Guthrie: We’ve done all those things together.
Guthrie: But one thing we really share in our friendship is a love for God’s Word and a desire to produce materials that will really serve most particularly in our case, women’s Bible study. And I’m so excited about this new Bible study series that you’ve started. I got to read the first…what would you call it? The first volume in a brand new Bible study series for women that you’ve started called… Tell me if I get this right, the “Flourish” Bible study series.
Brownback: Yes, exactly.
Guthrie: Is that how you’re calling it?
Brownback: It is. Exactly. And it’s gonna be 30 volumes altogether. That’s the plan.
Guthrie: Okay. Yeah. So this is what blows my mind. So you have committed for the next 10 years, you’re gonna be dedicating your life. You’re gonna write three of these every year. That’s pretty amazing.
Brownback: Yeah. Yeah, and you know what? This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m so looking forward to it. And we have “Esther” as the first volume. It releases this summer in June. And then starting next year in 2021, that’s when we’ll have three a year. And we’re gonna alternate Old Testament, New Testament, Old Testament, New Testament. Each is a 128-page workbook. And we’ll take readers through an entire book of the Bible, and hopefully, they’ll come out of this study knowing thoroughly that book of the Bible and how it points to our great Savior. And it sets that particular book of the Bible in the overarching storyline of Scripture. And so that’s the goal with each one of these volumes. I wanna do books too, books of the Bible that you don’t see in every Bible study series. So, we’re gonna have Judges. We’re gonna do Deuteronomy. We’re gonna do Job. So we’re gonna mix it up. We’re gonna have some of the tried-and-trues like Philippians, and James, and all the epistles, but we wanna do a little more unusual ones as well.
Guthrie: Well, there are lots of things I love about this series. I mean, one thing just that I hear, you know, the many books of the Bible you’re going to be doing… I know, you know, even at my own church, it is constantly rolling around that there is a new semester, and the question comes up, what are we gonna do in Bible study this spring? And what are we gonna do in Bible study this fall or this summer? And I just find… Like, I remember even running into the Bible study leaders from my church at the Christian bookstore last time around, and we just stood there looking through Bible study materials. And, yes, there are a lot. I do think, however, that most of them that are targeted toward women tend to be either overly rigorous. I can think of something that I think just demands so much that many women would look at it and go, “I’m not being part of that Bible study because I’m not working that hard.”
Brownback: Right. Yeah.
Guthrie: Or they are so felt-need driven or emotion-driven. Immediately, the questions about, you know, “How do you feel? Have you ever done this?” And as you look at them, you think immediately that it seems to be more about ourselves than about the text of the Bible.
Brownback: Exactly. We do see that all the time. And I know from my insider’s view from working at a publishing company that one of the requests we get all the time are, “What Women studies would you recommend?” And, you know, there’s a handful. And what happens when they’ve gone through all that handful? Then I think, you know, so many… “We’ve done all of Nancy Guthrie’s ‘Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament,’ and we’ve done Kathleen Nielson, and we’ve done…” you know, they list the ones that they really find to sound. And there’s room for more.
Brownback: We need sound women’s Bible study materials.
Guthrie: Absolutely. All right, there’s so much I wanna talk to you about. Before we talk more about the “Flourish” Bible study series, I wanna talk about you personally a little bit.
Brownback: : Oh, okay.
Guthrie: You’re up for that?
Brownback: I think so. I might come right back at you, though.
Guthrie: All right. So you are not someone who grew up as a Christian, correct?
Brownback: I became a Christian as a teenager when my family went through a very hard time. My father left our family. And as a result of that, my mother was invited to an evangelistic Bible study and became a believer the first time she went.
Brownback: Yes. And the woman who took her never returned to Bible study after that, but my mother never stopped going. So…
Guthrie: That makes us want to invite someone to Bible study, doesn’t it?
Brownback: Yeah, yes.
Guthrie: To expect that the Word will do its work in someone’s life, the Holy Spirit will speak to them and draw them to himself.
Brownback: Yeah. It was a study on the Gospel of Mark. And so as a result of that, my mom became a believer, and then she shared her faith, and she lived her faith. And it attracted me to the gospel and I became a believer too. The problem was no one really followed my mother up after the study and we moved away, and she was never taught that… We moved and she never knew that she needed to be in a good church at the time.
So we went to an area where there really wasn’t one and so we got involved in…just it wasn’t a sound church. It wasn’t a biblical church. And my mom thought, “Well, let’s stay and make a difference.” And it wasn’t healthy. So, you know, it was fine for the time but I didn’t really have fellowship apart from my mother until I went off to college and then I got into a Christian group on-campus, and I started to grow up in my faith. And I remember thinking…the things I discovered, that’s when I learned that you can’t do the Christian life alone. We aren’t meant to do the Christian life alone. Whether it’s studying God’s Word, it’s doing life with other believers to challenge each other about our sins, and about our struggles, and about our understanding of the Lord, and my mother eventually…a good church did come into the area and she got involved in that, and saw the same thing. But it took a long time. When you come to faith in a Bible study that’s not really connected to a church, that’s one of the dangers.
Guthrie: So what did you go to college to study?
Brownback: : I studied communications.
Brownback: And written communications, primarily.
Guthrie: And then when you finished school, then what?
Brownback: Then I ended up… A few years later, I was working in Philadelphia, and after that, I went to seminary, Westminster Seminary. And it was the first time I was around like-minded believers where… You know, when they were teaching this stuff, and for the first time I heard the term Reformed theology and I realized there’s a name for what I’ve always believed. And I felt like I’d come home. By God’s grace, always understood the scriptures that way, but I never knew that there was a name for it, that I never knew that it was a thing. And that was coming home for me.
Guthrie: So, like, who were some of your teachers?
Brownback: Boy, that was back in the day. Sinclair Ferguson, Richard Gaffin, and…let’s see. Who else did I have then? Bill Edgar.
Guthrie: Was Ed Clowney still alive when you were there?
Brownback: Yes, he was. Al Groves, Ray Dillard, Vern Poythress [inaudible 00:08:35], and Dan McCartney, a lot of the old guard.
Guthrie: Yeah. And were there very many women students?
Brownback: No, there were not. And…
Guthrie: So were you the only woman in some of your classes?
Brownback: No, no, I had someone who was a very dear friend until she passed away a couple of years ago, was sort of my buddy there. And the two of us were… I mean, there were a handful of women but not nearly… You know, I will say that the teachers there were so kind to… They invested as much in the women as they did in the men. And I mean, they didn’t have to, and here they’re training men for pulpit ministry, and they took the time to… They cared about our minds, our growth in theology in a compassionate, caring way. It wasn’t an afterthought. They didn’t treat us like an afterthought at all. We were cared for. And it was two of the best years of my life.
Guthrie: Oh, you got your degree in two years?
Brownback: Yeah. Well, I went full time.
Brownback: Yeah. I didn’t have to work. It was a great blessing.
Guthrie: What did you think you were going to do after that?
Brownback: I had no idea. I just really wanted to do this.
Guthrie: You just wanted to know the Bible.
Brownback: Yeah. So, you know, afterward, I did end up working for my pastor in Philadelphia, James Boice. And I worked for him in various capacities until he died in 2000. I taught in his high school. I worked at his church. I produced his radio program and his daily devotional magazine, and that was a lot of fun. And through that, I got to know a lot of the other theologians and pastors who worked with him, Mike Horton in “White Horse Inn” gang.
Guthrie: You helped produce that show, right?
Brownback: Yes, I did. I did that for a couple of years.
Guthrie: Somewhere along the way, you ended up working with Alistair Begg.
Guthrie: Did you move to Cleveland?
Brownback: Yes, I did for a short time. And this was sort of… I worked there in Cleveland for a year and then I worked on and off with him for another year living in upstate New York, doing a lot of moving in a course of a decade. And then after that, I ended up working at Crossway. And my previous books had been published at P&R, and when I came to Crossway and I thought, “Well, it seems like etiquette would be say, ‘Are you interested in publishing?'” And they were, and then they became, and they have been my publisher ever since. So it’s a great relationship to be able to sort of have my two hats on here. I have my author hat and I have my editor hat, and they’re both on, on a given day at different points during the day. And it does make life very easy. It’s not complicated. It’s a great blessing.
Guthrie: You know, I’ve worked in publishing for a lot of years and been in a lot of publishing houses, it’s always interesting for me to visit a publishing house because they all have their own culture and feel.
Brownback: I’d love to get your take on the differences. That would be a podcast right there, a whole episode.
Guthrie: I do love it when I visit Crossway. For one thing, just the quality of the people working here, in every aspect of the company, there’s just such a genuine love for the scriptures and commitment to what’s happening here, a commitment to quality, beginning with what you publish. And then in design and marketing, it’s done so well. And with people, I love to get to see and love to work with. Yeah, it’s probably not perfect here, though, right?
Brownback: Well, what place is? But I will say the turnover here is so low and that’s part of why the people who own Crossway treat everybody like family. And people come here, and they stay, and they stay, and they stay. So, you know, you think there are so many Christian organizations where you think they should operate beautifully, but they’re so dysfunctional. And this one is so not like that. This runs like a business and a ministry. And it’s the best place I’ve ever worked.
Guthrie: So how many years have you been an editor here?
Guthrie: That’s a long time.
Brownback: I know, right?
Guthrie: All right. So if you can name two or three favorite projects, and I’ll exempt you from saying any of my books, because I don’t wanna put you on the spot, if you could name two or three projects you’ve worked on here at Crossway that you think, “Okay, when my publishing career is done, I’m gonna look back at those and say, ‘Wow, that was an honor to get to work on that,'” what are some that come to mind?
Brownback: Wow, that’s a good question. I would say it’s not just about the book. It’s about working with the author too. I can’t really separate that. So many of the books, I mean, you know, they’re all great and they’re all different. So it’s hard to pick one. And if I had to pick, say, in the last couple of years, one I enjoyed so much was Rosaria Butterfield and doing “The Gospel Comes with a House Key.” She and I are both morning people, so we would text each other at 5:00 in the morning. We’re praying for each other and she and I have discovered we have a lot in common, like life in Syracuse and we’re able to share that. And we became really good friends in the process of that. You know, and then the book itself, you get so pulled into her writing and the stories, and that one was one of my favorites. I think right now I’m working on a John Piper volume, his book on providence, and his heart is so wed to this project. It’s sort of his magnum opus, and it’s a huge book on…
Guthrie: Oh, I can’t wait. I didn’t know about that.
Brownback: Yes. It’s going to be dynamic. And it’s sort of everything Piperesque, done beautifully, and it’s summed up in one volume, his passion for the Lord and all that he’s done and… I mean, he can’t really sum it up in one volume, but he’s really put so much of himself into this, and it shows. And I love working on projects like that as well. Even though I’m not working directly with John on the book, I work with his team. You know, we wanna handle this so beautifully because he’s put his heart into it. So it’s a privilege to get to work on those.
Guthrie: I know that you travel and speak. You just got back from Ireland where you spoke. And I imagine, especially when they learn that you’re not only an author, you work at a publishing company, that you then have plenty of people asking you…they say to you, “Well, you know, I have this… I’d really like to write, can you tell me how to get published?” I’d like to know how you answer that question.
Brownback: You know, that is great. And I do get asked that, not as frequently as you might think because it’s really clear when I’m out traveling and speaking that I’m there with my author hat on. When I get asked that question I say that, “If you wanna publish, you know, don’t wait to have time in your life before you write. You gotta make that happen. But even then there’s no guarantee you’re going to get published.” And most people will not get published at a mainstream publisher. And that’s just the way it is.
You can have the best book in the world, but if you don’t have an entry point into that publisher, it’s not gonna happen. God has to open the door. Quite honestly, that’s how it works. You walk away from good quality material because there isn’t room in your program to add it in because you’re already slated with other things of a similar topic. So it’s not a reflection on someone’s writing that they don’t get published. It’s one of those right time, right place, who you know, kind of things. You know, there’s just no guarantee and it’s very difficult to get published at a mainstream publisher.
Guthrie: I often say to people, and I wonder…I think you will agree with me, that after you’ve been around publishing for a while, you realize there are lots of not very good books that get published and maybe even sell a truckload.
Guthrie: And there are a lot of really good books that don’t get published or if they do, don’t sell very many. And, you know, a great idea, a great book, a great person doesn’t always equal getting published or publishing success.
Brownback: Right. Exactly. There’s a whole bunch of factors that go into that. And it’s, you know, how well known are you? They call it a platform. And I know some people are saying, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.” It means a lot. And what is the name recognition you have? And publishers look at that. So sort of over the years, I’ve told people, if you wanna publish, get out there and start publishing online. Get a blog. Get a website. Do something. Be on social media. Do Instagram. Do something where then you can point to and say, “I have this many followers. See, they’re interested in reading my stuff,” then a publisher might be willing to invest in an unknown. When I say unknown, I mean someone unpublished. But it takes that kind of thing for a publisher to invest their dollars in an unknown writer.
Guthrie: All right, let’s move to talking about Bible study, except that I wanna hear a little bit more of your personal experience, specifically in women’s Bible study.
Guthrie: All right. So as you’re thinking about how you’re putting together these Bible studies, I imagine that you’re thinking a lot about the various groups you’ve been in and experience you’ve had, which has probably been varied, varied in terms of was it just discussion? Was somebody upfront teaching? Were we using materials? Were we just opening up the Bible? So tell me, maybe a little bit about some of your maybe good and bad women’s Bible study, small group Bible study experiences, and maybe how those have played a part in how you’re developing the “Flourish” series?
Brownback: That’s a great question because it has factored in a lot to what I would wanna do and what I’d want to avoid. I think my all-time favorite study was the one I had going on when I was living in upstate New York a few years ago. And this one met in the public library. They let us have this big room. And there were upwards of 40 people there every week on any given week because there were 80 on the roster, but on any given week, there were 40-plus people there. And they were coming from a variety of churches and backgrounds. And it was very done very simply.
So, we would walk through books of the Bible. And the week before, I would send them, “Here is the chapter we’re discussing. Here’s the points we’re gonna cover. Read through the chapter. Read back over the chapters we’ve already covered.” So we’re building on, you know, we’re going through it book-by-book, you know, chapter-by-chapter. And then I would sort of take them through it and I’d ask questions or they would ask questions, and we would discuss it, but it was very informally done. They’d have this one printout. “Here, we’re just gonna walk through it and we’re gonna talk it through together.”
And this went on…for the whole four years I was there, we did this and they kept coming, and there were some unbelievers there. There were people from… We had seven people from the local Catholic Church coming. And I’ll never forget one time a woman was weeping during the study and we were talking about God’s grace. And at the end, I sort of went over and said, “Are you all right? You know, what’s troubling you?” And she said, “Nothing. I’ve just never heard this before.” And we were talking about the grace of God and it just gripped my heart so much. She’s weeping over discovering that grace. It was her discovery of grace.
I loved that study. And I think the reason I loved it was that it was done simply, and that drew people. And they didn’t have tons and tons of homework that was so… You know, I said, “Read through this. If you don’t get to it, that’s okay, just come anyway. But here’s your handout, print it out. You might wanna answer these questions if you can,” and they’re just discussion points. They’re really not intense homework. And sometimes people want that homework, but this one, we didn’t do it and it worked well because we had young believers in this group and they just really wanted someone to sort of talk them through, take them through a book of the Bible.
Guthrie: How long were your times together?
Brownback: An hour-and-a-half.
Guthrie: And how much of that time were you upfront teaching or leading your discussion?
Brownback: Pretty much the whole time. But, like, I would say, “Let’s go through these verses here,” and we’d discuss the verses. And then I’d throw a few questions out or ask for thoughts, you know, and, like, try to sort of say, “How does this tie in with what we saw in the last chapter or…?”
Guthrie: So they didn’t have to do homework…
Guthrie: …to show up?
Brownback: No, because otherwise I would have [crosstalk 00:20:28].
Guthrie: The homework no homework is a big question, right, for a lot of people.
Brownback: Yeah. And some people want it, some people don’t. It depends on the nature of the study. And that’s why I think it’s nice to have a variety of studies out there, where, you know, you think about the Bible Study Fellowship. And for years, there are people who go to that because they love spending days preparing a week’s lesson.
Guthrie: And the accountability that everybody else has too.
Brownback: Yes. And others are intimidated by that or they don’t have time for that, but they wanna grow in God’s Word. But if they feel like they miss a day of the homework, they just give up in discouragement because they haven’t been able to get to the whole thing. So it’s nice to have some studies out there that are just… I’m not saying… They’re not Christianity lite by any means, but they just don’t have all the branching off and the exploration that you… You can go nuts with all that. You can just go in-depth so much or you can still accomplish your purpose by doing more what I did in that study in New York, where you’re going through verse by verse, a book of the Bible, but you don’t have to do all this preparation to come to the study.
Guthrie: So how did that shape what you’re doing with your “Flourish” studies?
Brownback: I was very… And this is where you asked me about a bad Bible study. I think the most difficult one is where you’re working through a workbook a teacher has created, and you get to a question and you say, “What does this author want from me? I can’t figure out…”
Guthrie: That’s frustrating, isn’t it?
Brownback: It’s so hard because you feel like you have to get inside the author’s head to answer the question because you can’t just look in the Bible text and pull the answer out, which I think you should be able to do. And instead, it’s like, you can tell, “Well, the author’s trying to lead me somewhere and I have to try to figure out where we’re going here,” but you can’t get where you’re going from the Bible text. You have to second-guess the author. Those are so frustrating, I think. And authors don’t realize when they’re writing them that they’re doing that because it makes sense to them.
Guthrie: Well, let me push back on that a little bit.
Brownback: Okay. All right.
Guthrie: Because we do wanna get people thinking…
Brownback: Yes. Oh, yeah. We don’t wanna be light. We don’t wanna say, “Fill in the blank.” Right. Right.
Guthrie: And so we want them to think about implications to be able to be putting two and two together to get somewhere, and implications of something. But I hear what you’re saying. It’s just challenging to know sometimes even when you’re writing a curriculum, isn’t it, because you are so immersed in it.
Guthrie: Am I expecting them to be…? Do they have to be following my whole train of thought that’s not obvious from the text to answer this question?
Brownback: Right. And to your point, you don’t wanna go so far the other way that it’s so obvious…
Guthrie: That it’s so simple, just facts.
Brownback: Right. It’s just facts. It’s not having to engage the text with your mind and to really make connections. And that’s the big thing. It’s making the connections, book to book, verse to verse, chapter to chapter, and sort of, you know, all the way back to the meta-narrative, the big picture. You wanna be able to get them to think about those things.
Guthrie: When we go and we’re looking at all the various Bible study materials available, I think one key issue, especially for women looking at a women’s Bible study is they have to ask and answer the question, “So is the book we’re choosing, is that gonna provide everything or am I looking for something that’s supplemental to someone who’s actually going to stand up and teach?”
Brownback: Right. That’s a good point.
Guthrie: Right? Is the book primarily just focusing on the text and providing a mechanism so that I don’t have to write a bunch of questions to get my people into the text? Or is it providing that and a lot of teaching? So how did you determine what you would do in the “Flourish” series in that regard?
Brownback: I tried to shape it like my study in New York. So there’s a lot of commentary threaded throughout. And one of these I felt was… I want new believers to be able to pick up this series and be able to do it themselves…
Guthrie: By themselves.
Brownback: If they want to do it individually, yes. I’m hoping groups will do it. That’s the big goal. But if individuals, I want them to feel that they can do it. And so, for example, if I use a theological term, I’m gonna define that term. You know, I’m not gonna use lingo that’s, you know…
Guthrie: Give me an example.
Brownback: Oh, like, even if I use the word sanctification, I’m gonna not assume that they know what that word means, or any sort of theological, or doctrinal term that we just take for granted. Even the gospel, I wanna be sure to explain what is that? What if a brand new believer picks this study up and wants to know the Book of Esther and why it matters. I guess the best way to summarize that is to say, “Don’t assume anything about your reader.” Go in there and maybe just say, “This person has been a believer for two weeks. How would you phrase this?” And how can you pull them in to get interested in God’s word and get excited about it, and to feel encouraged that they can learn? And so giving them the tools they need to do that, I thought was important here.
So it’s threaded through with commentary. And then I’ll pause in the middle of the commentary and ask them questions not to go back and engage my commentary, but to direct them to the next set of verses and how it ties into the ones we’ve just covered. And then we’ll kind of go on from there. So it’s sort of this… You’re moving through the whole book where I’m taking them through some of it and then pausing to sort of have them engage that, address that part of the text, and then to lead naturally into the next part. So it’s both. It’s giving them information and teaching, not through a video, not through a separate guide, but just through the study itself and then having them engage the text.
Guthrie: So do you expect…? If I’ve got a group and I use a Flourish study, am I going to ask everyone to work through a particular chapter on their own? And then when we get together as a group, what are we gonna do?
Brownback: Yes, that’s a great question. So they’ll do it, then they get together and they talk it through. And at the end, there’s discussion questions based on that week’s text. But I’m hoping that they’ll also go through and discuss the questions they answered as they were working through the chapter. On the website, there’s a website… On my website, we have tips and tricks for each one each week where there’s focus on this and maybe bring out this key point. So for a leader, the leader can go or anyone can go and really download this and sort of figure out how to focus on…what are the especially important points to bring out about that week’s lesson?
Guthrie: Let’s move to talking about what you see as essential things for a Bible study. You have edited a lot of Bible study, you’ve been in a lot of Bible study, and now you’re focused on creating these. And I just imagine as you were, you know, doing this first, especially this first one on “Esther,” you’re kind of setting the pace and setting the format and you had to make some basic decisions about what you think is really needed in Bible study materials.
Brownback: Yeah. Yeah. And I’ve learned that from, you know, a lot of the editing I’ve done and from people I admire and look up to from other…your studies, Kathleen’s and, you know, people who are passionate about God’s word, Jen Wilkin and others. I think some of the key things that over the years I’ve become passionate about too are studying the Bible in its context. So you take a book of the Bible and what does the book of the Bible say? What is the original audience? Who was it written to? What type of literature is it? Is it narrative? Is it poetry? Was it an epistle? And…
Guthrie: Let me stop you because I’m thinking some people might hear what you’re saying, and they start to go, [vocalization]. They think all that is sounding like…
Brownback: Going to seminary.
Guthrie: Going to school or if they’re thinking about, “Okay, if I’m gonna present this to my women, that my women, you know, are just so anxious to experience, you know, ahas and be moved, and they just wanna love Jesus.” And so what do you say to them about why you think that’s essential?
Brownback: Okay, well, and that’s… I don’t ever say in my study, “This is narrative. This is this.” You know, I mean, this is our conversation here, so it’s not in the study. So what I do is I talk about context and I say, “Who is this written to and what was the setting? So, you know, is this taking place…? You know, what’s going on in the culture then?” So I explain or I help them to go look it up. But either way, it’s setting the context for the original audience. How would the original audience have received this or what were they living through? Because in order for us… I think so many studies today just jump right to application and how does this apply to me?
Guthrie: Isn’t that the most…? I mean, when I think about most of the Bible studies I’ve been in most of my life, what you’re talking about is exactly what’s been missing. Because I feel like I was just essentially trained to look at it and immediately ask the question, “How do I apply this to me today?” And skipping that step, really skipping two steps, skipping the, “What did it mean for the original audience?” But then this other very important step, which I’m sure you take your readers on, which is, “What difference does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus make?” and all of that before I apply it and ask, “So what are its implications for me?”
Brownback: Well, exactly. And that’s why at the very end of each week, you know, in my study, we get to those…the application at the very end, not until. Because the main thing is you have to see we cannot make application accurately if we don’t know the context. It’s too easy to sort of… It’s not just about “What does it say to me?” It’s not that at all. It’s “What does it say about God? How does this point us to Jesus Christ because every book of the Bible does point to Jesus Christ?”
And one of the things I want them to understand that I think every Bible study needs to do is to be able to say, “This is part of a much bigger picture. This book of the Bible is set in with 66 books of the Bible. And they all together are taking us from the beginning of creation to when man fell into sin and to how God provided this remedy in His Son through the crucifixion, and the resurrection, and the ascension of His Son, Jesus, to then the final consummation, when Jesus will return to take his people, his perfected, glorified people home when he takes them home.
That is what every book in the Bible is pointing toward, or either pointing toward or showing that it’s happened or that it’s somewhere along that trajectory. And so that has to come out because it’s in every book of the Bible. It’s what it says about the Lord and then of the character of our great God, you know, about who is Jesus? And how is he shown here? How is he pointed to? And who is God? You know, who is our Heavenly Father? And what is His character? What does this teach us about our Triune God? And only after we have set all this up, can we then hope to make application for ourselves to really deepen our faith and our walk with God.
Guthrie: All right, so number one essential, present it in context?
Guthrie: The second essential you say is you’re asking the question, “Does this study present the overarching storyline of the Bible?”
Guthrie: Maybe a way for you to talk about this a little bit is to talk with us about how you did that with this first volume that’s coming out with Esther. Because, you know, Esther is a great story. I mean, in some ways, you know, I’ve heard the Book of Esther taught and it’s a little bit, you know, “Be courageous like Esther.” So how does presenting Esther in context of the larger storyline of the Bible, how does that shape how we study and understand that book?
Brownback: See and this is a great example because Esther is often presented as, you know, this woman who got to be in a harem these…like, going to a spa and all these beauty treatments, and people get really stuck on that. Or that she’s a hero, she was courageous. And the story really isn’t about Esther. It’s about God. Even though He’s not mentioned in the book, it’s all about God because he is… We learn so much about Him from the very fact that he’s not mentioned, which shows that even when He’s not acknowledged by the people in society and around, He’s just as powerful and is at work.
So what this story does is points to the fact that we need a better King, a better deliverer, a better everything that was presented in the book of Esther, from the kingdom that we see there to a deliverer like Esther and Mordecai, and to the bad King who’s running the show in Persia then. It all points to the need for something so much more. And Esther, really, and the characters in the story are the backdrop to the main character, the main person, which is our great God, and how all the needs that are portrayed in this book point to our need for Jesus Christ. So that is so huge.
So you see, how does this tie in with Scripture? How does Esther do that? Well, one of the ways is you think there was the bad evil guy in the story, Haman, was from a group called the Amalekites. And from way back in Genesis, they were enemies of God’s people, and God put a curse on them, and said, “You will not destroy My people. Instead, I will destroy you.” And, you know, God’s promises often take so long… He takes his time fulfilling them. His timeframe is different from ours.
So what we see is that story going forward in the book of Esther. And the enemy, Haman, being one of these people, was setting out to destroy God’s people in Esther. But it all turns around and it’s like the fulfillment of God’s promise way back in Genesis to say, “No, that enemy will not triumph over my people, I will triumph over them.” And there’s other threads of that happening throughout the Old Testament but it happens hugely there in Esther.
And so that’s one story that you can sort of see, “Hey, there’s connecting points here to God’s big picture of promises of deliverance of His people from their enemies.” Then you say, “How does that go to Jesus?” Well, our ultimate enemy is our sin. We need to be saved from our sin, from the world of flesh and the devil, right? So we need deliverance and we need victory over that and that’s only found in Jesus Christ. So then you can sort of say… So when you see at the end of Esther, how Mordecai and Esther are then raised up and celebrated, well, that points to the deliverance of Jesus and the resurrection, and how we are delivered in him. So Esther, in an exciting way, does point us… It shows us the storyline of the Bible. It’s threaded into the storyline of the Bible, and it points directly to Jesus Christ.
Guthrie: The third thing you say is essential for Bible study is you ask the question, “Do the study questions seek answers from the scripture text, or do you have to get inside the author’s head?” And we talked about that a little bit. In other words, does the author seek to lead you to follow her path or let you find the path scripture takes you along? So as you’ve been working on this, how do you figure out when you look at a question, and you’re trying to examine, you know, “Am I expecting too much of them?” How do you do that?
Brownback: You know, this is where, I don’t think… I think it’s too subjective to do. I gave my study to a group and said, “Would you mind doing this?” And I also found out later that my very kind editor at Crossway had done it with her study, and didn’t wanna tell me until they were done, because she didn’t want me to get nervous about it. So through two different groups I got some great feedback. Questions where both groups had said, “Hey, this was, you know, not maybe what you thought, this question,” I would change it. And actually, any question they… If there was any question, I would alter the wording or go back and eliminate the question and replace it. So I think testing our studies, if we’re authors of Bible studies, how do we know? It makes perfect sense to us. Yeah, they have to be tested.
Guthrie: Then you ask, “Can the study benefit both baby believers and seasoned saints?” That’s really important especially as I think about the study you were talking about that you were in because you had both, right?
Brownback: Yeah. Yeah. You know, and I think we talked about avoiding the tribal language, you know, the reformed tribe or the…whatever the tribe of the day happens to be. And they all have their own culture and their own lingo. And if a new believer is coming in, not gonna understand, you know, what does Reformed even mean? Why do we even have to use that word? We don’t. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people and it doesn’t matter to most people. Can’t we just say biblical? You know, can’t we just point them to the words that scripture uses? And even then, when the ones are…if they’re not well known, explain them.
Guthrie: Well, I think about this as… Even, you know, as someone who has written Bible studies, I appreciate clear definitions of important terms because maybe I kind of get it, but I don’t know how to explain it to someone else or maybe I haven’t gotten super solid on it.
Brownback: It’s a good point. Yeah.
Guthrie: And so, you know, like, even if something is basic, I’m always looking for the way people define the word “gospel” because it’s defined in many different ways. I wanna get it right. I wanna be refining how I articulate these things.
Brownback: So how do you do that in a study?
Guthrie: So definition of terms, I think, is not solely for Bible newbies, I think it can be for that seasoned saint who is…. I hope all of us are trying to get better at our ability to articulate these things, terms that maybe we take for granted that need to be clear. I guess one I’m thinking about like something I’m working on right now and that I’m gonna be recording tomorrow. I’m gonna talk about repentance.
Brownback: So what are you gonna do with…? Like, how would you go about doing that in the Bible study?
Guthrie: Well, in what I was doing, certainly, I’m gonna have them look up some texts that use it and demonstrate it because I want the answer to come from the text. But it also just really… You know, I just read a number of different people that I respect, looking up what’s their definition of repentance? And then to try to put that into something succinct, I think…
Brownback: That’s a great idea.
Guthrie: I mean, it helps me get clearer on it, and I think it would help readers.
Guthrie: All right, in your final number 5, you said, “Keep your gathering focused on Bible study.” Now, I wanna hear what you mean by that. What do you mean by that?
Brownback: You know, I think I think Bible studies flourish when it’s predictable. So when you can go there and know that you’re gonna begin at 7:00…
Guthrie: On time.
Brownback: …and you’re gonna end by 8:30, when I think about the evening studies for moms who have to get home to their kids or people who have to go to work the next day, if it’s gonna go over and over and over, they’re gonna not come if it’s gonna keep running late.
Guthrie: Or if you don’t get started.
Guthrie: That’s so frustrating. Why would anybody show up on time if you’re not gonna get started on time?
Brownback: Oh, I know. So that to me is a really important aspect of Bible study. And, you know, even if people haven’t prepared fully, just we invite them to come in, sit down and jump in when you can. And so I don’t also wanna make it about following the rules, you know what I mean? I don’t want people to feel as if…if they haven’t finished the study, I don’t want them to feel put on the spot or, like, they can’t show up that week. So that’s an important thing too, I think just making them feel welcome. But then once we get in there, let’s begin on time, and let’s end on time. And so prayer is an aspect, I think for women’s Bible studies can be a factor. So, I know in the big one I was doing in New York, if we went around and shared prayer requests, and then prayed for all those prayer requests…
Guthrie: That would take up the whole time, right?
Brownback: Right, or when we go to 2:00 in the afternoon. So there’s just no way. So what we would do is, of course, if there was a crisis, if someone came in with a crisis, we would stop everything right then and just pray. But for the most part, during the study, we would pass an envelope around and everybody would put in their prayer requests that week. And then we had a designated person who would go home and write them all up, and send an email to everyone, and we prayed for each other all through the week.
And then we would touch base with each other offline, you know, just to keep up and it worked. With a group that size, that’s how we had to do it. I think it can be a problem too when you… Women’s studies who…where you go around and everyone shares what’s on their heart, their prayer requests, and then it’s like the prayer protocol. So then you have to say, “Okay, well, you pray for this one, you pray for that one, but you can’t pray for yourself, you gotta pray for that person across the table. Let’s pray to the person to the left and the person to the right.” And you sort of repeat what the other person just said. So you’re hearing everything twice. God heard it the first time and then we’re to pray about it, and then the study can go for 45 minutes over.
Guthrie: I think also those times, not only can they turn into long storytelling times, but then long advice-giving time, right?
Brownback: Oh, it’s like a counseling session. I know. I know. And then sometimes it also can trivialize and take you away. Even if we’re praying for Aunt Bessie’s big toe, I mean, it’s like…I mean, it’s fine to…
Guthrie: How many people give really personal prayer requests, right? I mean, most prayer requests are, you know, for travel or for someone’s sickness. I mean, how often do you have a group member who says, “Okay, so I did the study this week, and I am incredibly convicted about my gossip. And so, I need you guys to pray for me that God will save me and sanctify me, and that this is a sin I’ll put the death in my life.” I mean, how many times in our lives have we ever heard a prayer request like that? And yet, wouldn’t that be the most obvious thing that we should be praying about if the study that week was about that?
Brownback: You know, and I have to say I’m in one like that right now, where we are at the end of it saying, “You know what? I want a prayer for my sin in this.” But I’ve said it’s a small study and…
Guthrie: Trusted people.
Brownback: You know, yes. And there’s eight or nine of us. And there’s a safety in that. We all go to the same church. And so it’s sort of this built-in sort of sisterhood thing. But you’re right. I mean, that’s not… I mean, but someone has to go first. And I think it can be the leader then. And if you’re leading the study, you initiate how the prayer goes. Take the lead with the kind of requests you’re going to do and what you’re going to pray for. One of the things we talk about is are there prayers in this, you know, that are naturally built into the text we’ve studied? Can we pray that for each other?
Brownback: And, you know, we think about one of the studies, we did sort of a…we broke away from the books of the Bible one time in my study in New York and we decided to do several weeks on the prayers of Paul. And at the end of that, we said, “How can we pray this for each other this week? Can we make this our prayer? Are we passionate about praying for these things for the people we love?” And do we pray biblical prayers or is it about our travel and all the usual stuff? And, again, we are called to pray for all those things. But if it derails the Bible study, I think that takes us away from the primary thing we’re supposed to be doing when we gather. So is it a prayer group? Then get together for a prayer group. But if it’s a Bible study, really, I think it should really stay focused on that.
Guthrie: So I’ve always been totally with you on that. You know, it’s a pet peeve in terms of studies that are really about something else other than Bible study. But I must say, recently, I have a friend who just moved to town and she’s just recently joined our church. So she’s visited two studies at our church, and one of them would go by this. You know, just first week, it’s, you know, “We’re gonna be in the text and we’re gonna study the text,” and she was just like, “You know what? I just wanna get to know some people. Having just moved to town, she’s very lonely. And so that’s really made me think about this whole idea because she’s ended up at another group where I’m not sure if they call it a Bible study or not. I think they do. Oh, I know what she said. She said, “You know, basically, it’s some older women leading it. They give a short devotional and then there’s a lot more just conversation and fellowship.”
Brownback: Well, then that’s the nature of the group.
Guthrie: But it’s just… Yeah, I guess the bottom line is let’s define what we’re doing carefully.
Brownback: Yeah, well said.
Guthrie: Really, at the first meeting, a leader has to be prepared to really be clear about how the time is gonna be used and what the priorities are. And I suppose then, women have a choice as to whether or not that’s the kind of study they want to be in.
Brownback: Exactly. There’s room for many.
Guthrie: But some women just feel like, “Hey, I’ve got only this time, I really need to be in the Word. Don’t waste my time with a bunch of other stuff.” And other people are like, “Yeah, you know, I want to be in the Word, but I also have some other needs I’m hoping to get met at this time meeting with my sisters.”
Brownback: Well, and one of the things we would do in every study I’ve been in is we…we’re gonna start the study at this time, but come 15 minutes early, grab a cup of coffee and let’s talk, or the other end of it. If you wanna stay 15 minutes after and chat, coffee will be brewed.” But the study time is set apart. That’s what it’s gonna be. And then people are free to leave and they can count on being able to leave at the time they were told they could leave. If other people wanna linger, great. So that’s the way to kind of accomplish both. Make it available, just not during this… Make the study time just what you say it’s gonna be.
Guthrie: All right, so you’ve finished the first volume on Esther. Are you working on the next one?”
Brownback: Second one’s ready to go.
Guthrie: What is it?
Brownback: It’s 1st and 2nd Peter.
Guthrie: Okay. When does Esther come out?
Guthrie: June of this…?
Brownback: Of 2020.
Guthrie: And you said 1st and 2nd…
Guthrie: …Peter. And when does that come out?
Guthrie: So January of 2021.
Brownback: 2021. And then after that is Luke, which will come out in June. Three a year, so every four months, that’ll be Judges and then Philippians, and then Habakkuk, and then we go from there.
Guthrie: I have to say one thing I love about the studies, I hate to be so lightweight, maybe, but they’re beautiful.
Brownback: Oh, you know what? Crossway does such a great job.
Guthrie: I know.
Brownback: And you know from all your covers.
Guthrie: Just the design is very… I think quite often about what it must be like for women who are the women’s ministry leaders at their church. A new season is coming up of Bible study, and they’ve got a table or something, you know, set up in the foyer. And they’ve got copies of the books that maybe the different groups in their church are going to be doing. And I’ve just become so much more aware of the look of a study and what it says…
Brownback: I’ll bet. I’ll bet, yeah.
Guthrie: …that women look, and depending on where they are, you know, some of them are like, “I want something serious. You know, I’m gonna have to do a lot of work.” And so they gravitate toward one thing. Others, maybe they want something that just feels a little more friendly that doesn’t seem as academic. I think they judge it by the cover sometimes. And I would have to say about my studies, I mean, just because some of them have very different covers. The covers aren’t fully reliable about what’s inside. But I am just aware of that for women’s ministry leaders. In a sense, they have to make a sale. They have to make a sale, right, to their women to get them to sign up and get engaged.
Brownback: Yeah. That’s just reality.
Guthrie: Yeah, and a lot of it has to do with looking at it, how thick is it? How big is the type? How many weeks is it? And just am I personally attracted to it? Then I think, “Okay, I wanna invest the next 10 weeks of my life being a part of this study.”
Brownback: I think you’re exactly right. And all this is going on in their mind without consciously saying those things, but yes. And so the visuals matter.
Guthrie: They do, especially in our Instagram page, right?
Brownback: I know. Yes. Yes.
Guthrie: Visuals matter. We don’t want visuals about women’s ministry. We don’t want to be only visual, like there’s no substance behind the visual but the visual does matter.
Brownback: Well, let’s face it, Nancy. I think our biggest goal is that women who do our studies would fall in love with studying God’s Word and get a taste for it, where when they…the discovery. It’s leading them to make their own discoveries. It’s not you doing all the discovery for them. It’s helping them figure out how to do that for themselves. And so when they come away from the study and then they go back and read the Bible the next day, or the next week, or the next month, whatever text they’re in, they’re gonna be equipped to make those discoveries on their own. And that’s what I think gets us both so excited.
Guthrie: Well, why don’t we in this way, Lydia. Esther hasn’t come out yet. It’ll come out in a few months, and then you’ll start hearing from people who have used it. What will thrill your heart to hear from people who begin using the “Flourish” Bible studies? What do you hope to hear from people who use them?
Brownback: I hope they say, “Wow, I never would have realized that we could find Jesus in this book.” That is what I wanna hear.
Guthrie: For them to see and savor him as John Piper would say, right?
Brownback: Yes, to see and savor Jesus Christ from the book of Esther, and to be able to say, “This is where and this is how,” and then they want to get back at, “Since then, I was reading in Nehemiah and I could see…oh, I could see now. This is where you can find the storyline of Scripture and how this points forward to Jesus Christ and God’s plan for redemption.” And so they’re equipped more than to just the discovery again. So, that’s my hope.
Guthrie: Well, may it be so.
Brownback: Thank you so much, Nancy.
Guthrie: May it cause many, many women to flourish in their understanding of the Scriptures and their love for Jesus Christ, and their longing for his return.
Brownback: Thank you. That’s my prayer.
Guthrie: Yeah. You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of the Gospel Coalition, sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks, including the new “Flourish” Bible study series by Lydia Brownback. Learn more about their gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.