Let's not reinvent the wheel here. Twenty years ago, Ken Hemphill and Bill Taylor published a "ten best practices". I was skimming back through it and realized that it's still great. This book is only available used, so let me summarize and comment on their main points with respect to Bible study.
At the risk of being misleading, I'm not going to share their ten best practices. Maybe another time. Instead, I'm going to share their nine best purposes, and we will then use these as a springboard for developing how we can do Sunday School and Bible study better.
(1) The Bible Is God's Word and Our Primary "Textbook".
An effective Bible study leader "affirms the Bible as God's Word and as the textbook for understanding truth and for fully integrating truth into life" (see 2 Tim 3:15-17).
This is so foundational. I know that in our church, every one of our leaders believes that the Bible is God's Word. So, why is this important to reaffirm? Because if we're not careful, we can spend our group time discussing a lot of things except what the Bible has to say about a topic. Yes, we need to share prayer requests. Yes, we need to share our thoughts and ideas about topics. But if we don't leave our Bible study having learned what the Bible says about our world, we've missed the point. So, focus on the Bible.
(2) All Bible Study Must Encourage the Great Commission.
An effective Bible study leader "accepts the Great Commission as the mission mandate to God's people and becomes a way of fulfilling that mission as people are led to obey Christ's commandments" (see Matt 28:16-20).
In other words, we have to understand that the Bible tells one giant story -- God's plan to redeem the nations in Christ Jesus. If we ever teach the Bible without recognizing that passage's connection with God's purpose for giving us the Bible in the first place (how to be made right with God), then we have missed the point. Again. So, make sure that your application isn't just a "self-help" feel but a "change your world" mandate.
(3) God Is Actively Working to Bring People to Salvation.
An effective Bible study leader "recognizes God's active purpose of reconciling a spiritually lost world to Himself and provides a way for people to join Him in the work of intentional evangelism" (see John 3:16, Rom 1:16-17, 2 Pet 3:9).
This is actually just intended to be encouraging. God is at work around us and within us. But we have to remember that the purpose of His work is human salvation. So, when we lead a Bible study, we need to make sure that the good news of Jesus Christ is always a part of it -- God may be working in the life of someone in your group right then!
(4) The Family Is the Primary Institution of Christian Instruction.
An effective Bible study leader "affirms the Christian family as the primary institution for biblical instruction" (see Deut 6:4-9).
This means a few things to a Bible study leader. First, to teachers of kids, this is a reminder that the parent must be the primary teacher; do what you can to affirm and augment the parent's role (and be prepared to help them parent). Second, to teachers of parents, this is a reminder that we are not simply to assume that the people in our group intuitively understand how to apply these truths in their families. As we help give applications to others, we should focus on the family, so to speak -- what does this truth mean to us as parents, as grandparents, and so on.
(5) Growing Christians Must Be Involved in Ministry.
An effective Bible study leader "engages people in spiritually transforming ministry opportunities through Bible study groups that lead people to love, trust, and obey God" (see Rom 12:1-2).
In other words, your class is not a self-help group, nor is it a church. A person does not get in shape by watching other people do aerobics. Neither does a Christian grow spiritually without actually doing ministry for other people. Every Bible study should work to engage people in ministry. For a Sunday School class in a church, that means connecting them with the ministries of the church. It also means doing ministry within and through the group. Take care of one another. Work together to meet a need. Those things grow relationships which helps us grow further spiritually.
(6) Christians Should Serve Through Their Gifts and Abilities.
An effective Bible study leader "enables believers to be servant-leaders and offers them opportunities to discover, develop, and use their spiritual gifts and abilities in service to Christ and His people" (see 1 Cor 12-13, Rom 12:1-8, Eph 4:12).
At FBC, we use the SHAPE model (which you can learn about on our website). But the person who is best positioned to help individual church members understand and use their gifts and abilities (which are the "S" and "A" of SHAPE) is the person who talks about the Bible with them on a weekly basis. As a church, we want to provide resources to everyone, but you're the best person to make sure that our church members are actually attempting to engage in ministry.
(7) All Christians Should Be Ministers.
An effective Bible study leader "provides a structure that enables the largest number of God's people to do the work assigned the church" (see Eph 4:1-6, 1 Cor 12:12-27).
This logically follows the previous points. If every Christian should serve in Jesus' name, and every church member should be a part of an ongoing small group Bible study, then that Bible study is the best way to mobilize the most church members. We need to make sure that our teaching points group members to specific ways they can use their unique SHAPE to apply what they've learned in a ministry setting.
(8) We Should Be Equipping Future Leaders.
An effective Bible study leader "requires leaders who are willing to be held accountable for calling forth and equipping new leaders" (see Matt 25:14-30, 2 Tim 2:1-2).
In context, that phrase isn't that clunky. All it means is that if we're going to accomplish our long-term purpose of reaching the generations with the good news of Jesus, we must always be looking for and training up the next generation of Bible study leaders. Find someone in your group who might one day lead; talk to them about what you do. Give them opportunities to "practice" by leading your group periodically.
(9) Spiritual Transformation Is from the Holy Spirit.
An effective Bible study leader "leads people to be involved in Bible study that facilitates the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in a person's life" (see 2 Cor 3:18, 2 Tim 3:16-17).
As above, this is meant to be encouraging. The Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, and only the Holy Spirit can bring about true transformation. However, we can get in the way if we're not careful. We must remember to pray for and trust in the work of the Spirit. We must remember that it is God's Word and not ours that brings about transformation. We must remember that our role is to invest and assist, not to "do".
So, there you go. In the weeks to come, we will look at what that means for specific strategies, actions, and intentions.
God is going to use our time in Bible study to change lives, including ours. Let's not get in the way!