Henry (not his real name) tried really hard. He wanted to become a regular Bible study writer, so he sent me a rather impressive résumé of his theological training and experience. I happened to need a writer at that moment, so I gave him a trial assignment.
What I got back showed a good grasp of the subject matter and Bible text that it was based on. He obviously knew what he was talking about. In fact, he knew more than the average Bible-study member would be able to decipher. He wrote in theological language that you needed a PhD to understand. He also had no idea how to put the subject matter into a form to discuss. He was a teacher and was used to imparting information, not creating conversation.
That experience with Henry sums up why it is so difficult to find a really good Bible study. Everyone wants the study to increase their knowledge, but they also want it to create a lively group experience that's applicable. Finding all those things in one study can be tricky. So look for a study that includes each of the following:
Increase Your Knowledge
Nothing is worse than an overly simplistic Bible study. What makes us want to study the Bible in the first place is its complexity. That does not mean that it's impossible to understand, but it does mean that it should get us beyond surface level. For example, a study on the Ten Commandments should include more than a simple recitation of all ten commandments. If we are studying those commandments, we want to understand what they are truly saying and how they apply to our lives today. Otherwise we could just list them and be done with it.
But many Bible studies today do the equivalent of just that. They direct us to a Bible text and then ask us to parrot back the exact words written there. This can be useful to set the context, but it can never move us beyond a simple observation to understanding the meaning and applying it to our lives. And it's an absolute discussion killer. All the person can do is answer the question and move onto the next one. There are no opinions expressed or deeper meanings gleaned.
Then again, we don't want to fall into Henry's problem of making the text so complicated that we have no idea what it is saying. So the answer? Look for a study that is theologically sound but not difficult to understand. Try to find a study that includes solid passages of Scripture. If the study just throws in a verse here and there to support a point, you won't be getting into the meat of the Word. Instead look for studies that put longer passages of Scripture into context. If someone just uses a snippet, they may be trying to bend the Scripture to prove their point, rather than the other way around. So if the study is talking about forgiveness, it should use a section of Scripture where forgiveness is the main idea being discussed, not a random verse where something is mentioned in passing.
Also look for a study that is not afraid to admit that there are things we aren't sure about. It should let readers know that, for some issues, there is no definitive opinion and that the best of Christians disagree.
Create a Lively Group Experience
Most Bible studies are written for a group experience. And if it's going to be a good group experience, it should include great open-ended questions that require thoughtful answers. Avoid Bible studies that include only yes or no questions, or ones that simply parrot back the information in the text. Instead, the questions should require a thoughtful answer.