This summer, churches everywhere are weighing which Bible studies to offer in the fall. With all the busyness typical of our lives, churches face the question: What gets people to commit to faithful participation in a weekly Bible study? Though many may start, few of them finish.

The first time a publisher showed interest in my Bible studies, they told me I would need to shorten them from 11 weeks to 6. Women wouldn’t commit that long, I was told. Nor would they do homework unless it was kept simple.

I knew this was not the case. Every week I watched women turn out in large numbers to the study I led. I was not a big-name Bible teacher. My approach was neither clever nor adorable; we were just doing line-by-line study.

During weeks when my teaching was below average, I wondered myself why women kept coming. But after almost 20 years of leading studies, I realized that we need not lower the bar to draw participants. Actually, the opposite is true: People commit better to studies that ask more of them than simply showing up.

Amid a push for catchy themes and culturally relevant approaches to teaching the Bible, the timeless elements that actually cultivate sustainable Bible studies seem so unimaginative that they often get overlooked: structure, accountability, and predictability.

These elements foster commitment more effectively than the factors we assume are most critical for success: exceptional teaching and solid content. I’ve seen groups meet consistently for years to discuss average or poor content simply because these other three elements were in place. But when they undergird a capable teacher and good content, they create spaces where people are willing to commit, and where mature discipleship can occur.

1. Structure

Discipleship happens best when a clear objective is established by the leader. Unstructured gatherings run the risk of devolving into an endless swap meet of opinions or prayer requests, eroding attendance as “sharing fatigue” sets in. Well-structured studies use a schedule to guard time for teaching, discussion, worship, and prayer. They employ a curriculum that follows a formula, allowing people to learn study skills. Learners gain confidence that their investment will have long-term value.

2. Accountability

Discipleship happens best when a clear expectation is met by the participant. When we raise the bar for our students, we must also put in place accountability mechanisms to help them meet that higher standard. We are not schoolmasters who motivate with grades or demerits. We do not do workbook checks or forbid participation if homework is not done. But our discussion and teaching assumes our students come prepared. We encourage them to stick with the homework, and we reach out if they are absent. Perceived anonymity promotes apathy. Participants who feel seen and heard are more likely to complete homework and attend regularly.

3. Predictability

Discipleship happens best when a clear expectation is met by the leader. We build trust with our students when we hold up our end of the bargain. Simple consistency in calendaring for the same date ranges each year, starting and ending on time each week, and making sure the time is used as planned removes uncertainty for participants and allows them to stay committed. Consistent teaching grounded in solid preparation earns their trust as well. By doing what we said we would do, when and how we said we would do it, we build long-term ministry credibility.

“Organic” and “grassroots” ministry sounds appealing—and may work well in some ministry contexts—but those terms also imply a sense of uncertainty that makes it hard to establish sustainable learning environments. Structure, accountability, and predictability raise the bar of learning, increasing buy-in.

Everyone else who is vying successfully for our discretionary time offers these three factors. The personal trainer, the Little League coach, the PTA, and even the local farmer’s market use them to earn buy-in and sustain commitment across significant time spans.

By employing these elements faithfully, churches communicate that we, too, will honor the time our people commit, and we lay the foundation for a culture of meaningful learning.

Jen Wilkin is a wife, mom, and Bible teacher. She is the author of Women of the Word and None Like Him.

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Beginning of Wisdom
The Beginning of Wisdom offers a Bible teacher's perspective on spiritual growth and scriptural study in our churches, small groups, and families.
Jen Wilkin
Jen Wilkin is a wife, mom, and Bible teacher. She is the author of Women of the Word and None Like Him. She tweets @jenniferwilkin.
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