Cross-Cultural Bible Studies: A Simple Guide
Leading a Bible study across cultures, especially when multiple nationalities and languages are interacting, can be a challenge. That’s why we have created this guide to leading a cross-cultural Bible study, which will help you in any multicultural mission setting but will specifically address international student outreach and evangelism.
We will give you tips for preparing, leading and following up cross-cultural Bible studies with international students. We will also recommend some of our favourite Bible study resources to aid you in your cross-cultural outreach on university campuses.
Studying the Bible with someone, or in a group, changes the dynamic from you telling them what the truth is to the Bible speaking to all of you, critiquing both your culture and theirs impartially. As Tim Keller has said: “…the biblical message is for every culture and challenges every culture.”
Remember, you don’t need to have tons of experience or a special gift of evangelism to do a Bible study. Hebrews 4:12 assures us that the Word of God is living and active – it will be at work as our friends engage with it.
Choosing What to Study
There’s no one right answer. Popular choices include:
- The Gospels – because Jesus’ identity, mission and call are at the centre of the Christian faith. Mark is the shortest gospel, so reading it in its entirety isn’t too daunting. John is often a helpful starting point for Muslims, Buddhists and Indians.
- Encounters with Jesus – taken from different gospels but showing Jesus’ character, relationships, values and teaching. Personal encounters are easy to engage with, even for those who have no prior knowledge of the Bible. People are drawn to Jesus as they discover him for themselves.
- A Bible overview – It can be a helpful introduction to start with Genesis (creation, fall and Israel’s role), centre on Jesus and end in Revelation (history’s end point). Different cultures have such different assumptions about foundational concepts like God, the universe, humanity, sin, etc. Therefore, a Bible overview provides crucial information and is a powerful challenge and attraction.
- Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – Many cultures value wisdom and these books can be a winsome introduction to the Bible.
Writing your own studies allows you to cater specifically for the international student/s you are meeting with. Alternatively, a manuscript study encourages students to bring their own questions to the text, which overcomes cultural blind spots on your part. You could also use a method like the Discovery Bible Study, which uses the same (very open) questions each week on different Bible passages.
If you’ve never led a Bible study before and writing your own study seems too daunting, it’s fine to use a seeker Bible study guide, we reccomend:
Just be flexible with the set questions, omitting or supplementing them as you see the need. Remember to leave time for students to ask their own questions as they read the passage.
Whatever you choose to study, try to stick to one passage rather than zip from passage to passage through the Bible. Aim to help students discover truths from the Bible for themselves and grow in confidence that they can understand much of it for themselves.
Preparing a Cross-Cultural Bible Study
Firstly, study the passage for yourself. Seek to understand it well. What is God saying to you through it? Work through it carefully and prayerfully. What is the main idea of the passage?
Next, consider who you will study the passage with – their level of English, hopes and fears, worldview, misconceptions about the gospel, etc. Ask yourself what they might misunderstand and what are the potential bridges to overcome them. For example, I would recommend the following:
- Identify tricky words in the passage and think about how to explain them or how to help students infer their meaning from the passage.
- Try reading the passage through the lens of someone for whom shame and honour, fear and power, or defilement and purity are important drivers (learn about these worldviews).
- Read the passage through the lens of someone who places a high value on relationships, harmony, reciprocity, duty to parents, etc.
- Think of questions that will draw attention to these aspects of the text.
You will need to look at your questions (from the set guide and/or ones you have prepared), and ask yourself: are they clear and do they invite engagement? Do any need re-phrasing or the support of sub-questions? A good basic guide to writing inductive bible studies can be found on the website Look at the Fields.
A great tip is for you to think of one or two ways that the passage confronts or has confronted you and your culture. Sharing this will show what it means when Christians say that the Bible has authority.
Finally, Pray. Because changing hearts is God’s work.
Inviting International Students to Study the Bible With You
This can seem daunting, especially if you’ve never done it before, but asking an international student if they’d like to study the Bible really is the easiest thing! Just pray and go for it; they can only say “no”.
If you can’t think what to say, how about this:
“Have you ever read any of the biographies of Jesus’s life that are found in the Bible? They were written 2,000 years ago so it’d be reading the source material. Maybe you could read it bit by bit and we can meet to discuss what you read, and I can try to answer your questions.”
Or you could start a regular event and invite others to join:
“I’m starting a Bible “book club” for international students. We’re meeting every Thu evening for 1½ hours to read a passage from the Bible and then discuss it. You don’t need to know anything about the Bible or Christianity to join; it’s for people who want to learn more. Would you be interested?”
Another suggestion is to give them a gospel resource like Uncover and offer to discuss the studies with them.
Leading a Cross-Cultural Bible Study
Before you even begin, you need to consider if the venue is suitable for everyone. It may seem basic, but some cultures would never want to meet in a pub or bar.
Also, think about what you might need: Bibles, print outs of the passage, the passage in other languages or in simple English. Being well prepared is vital.
Be aware that this could be the first Bible study they’ve ever been to. Briefly explain some key expectations – I suggest you:
- Encourage everyone to talk and try to answer questions so it’s livelier.
- Tell participants not to be afraid to ask any question.
- Mention that there’s no pressure to do anything they don’t want to.
- Clearly establish that we’re seeking to understand what each passage says.
It is important that you remember to speak slowly and avoid jargon, especially with students for whom English is a second or third language.
Don’t be concerned if no one answers immediately – long pauses are normal in some cultures, plus, it takes longer to respond in a second language. In a mixed group (different cultures and language abilities), it’s helpful to explain this to everyone.
Some students are more used to situations where the teacher teaches and the rest of the group listens and takes notes. Giving your opinion and disagreeing with others can feel uncomfortable, especially initially. Invite quiet students to contribute to discussions (“Fiona, would you like to add anything?”), but give them face-saving ways to listen quietly too. Discussing some questions in pairs or smaller groups can be helpful.
Asian students tend to want to oblige their host/teacher/friend. Beware of pressurising them and don’t assume assent is necessarily conviction.
Listen well and be positive about any contribution. If you don’t understand what they are saying, encourage them to expand.
Be tactful, but don’t shy away from indicating that an answer is wrong if it clearly is. Otherwise, this can lead to confusion. Try asking “Where do you see this in the passage?” and/or “What do others think?”
Hints and Tips When Leading
If someone asks an unexpected or difficult question or poses a challenge:
- Be slow to answer – ask them to expand a bit more until you understand better what they’re really asking and if there’s a question behind their question. It sometimes helps to ask what the others in the group think.
- Don’t hesitate to say you don’t know the answer if you don’t know the answer. Say you’ll find out for them. (Not all questions have answers.)
- Try to model that authority comes from the Bible, and that we all sit equally under it. It’s not a case of our culture being right and other cultures wrong, or your personal opinion vs. other people’s.
- If the question is on a tangent and doesn’t seem important to others in the group, say you’ll talk through the issue 1-1 with the person after the study.
Remember, it’s really easy to end up doing all the talking, so try to speak no more than 30% of the time and avoid long monologues. Focus on asking good questions to get the students to discover the answers themselves.
Finally, you should aim to end on time. Even if everyone is up for staying late that week, it may affect attendance in future weeks. Encourage people to read more of the Bible on their own when they go home, writing down their questions.
Students come to group Bible studies for a variety of reasons. These might include: to improve their English, to be with their friends, to understand British/Western culture better, as well as for more spiritual reasons. Also, their motivations may well change as they keep studying the Bible.
For some students, the 1 or 2 hours they spend together in group Bible study is quite enough for them. Yet, you might also notice that some students would appreciate reading the Bible 1-1 with you, or another mature Christian, so they can learn more. These students are often the ones who have prepared ahead of time, come armed with questions, or linger to ask more after the study ends.
Even for the students who aren’t yet so keen spiritually, you can be looking out for ways to encourage them in their journey. For the students with various apologetic objections that they tend to default to, whether it is science or philosophy or the argument that all religions are the same, you could lend them a relevant book or recommend a video. Inviting everyone to a Christian conference (e.g., Word Alive in the UK) or weekend away together can prove a turning point for some international students, as they see and experience Christian community and hear more of the Bible taught.
Useful Links and Resources
Here are some of the best places to find resources for a cross-cultural Bible study:
Here are some books that go deeper into studying the Bible across cultures:
What Are You Waiting For?
Thankfully, it’s not all down to us. God’s Spirit is at work as our international friends study the Bible for themselves. Our job is simply to be faithful in introducing them to the Word, praying for them, and sharing with them what we know, even if we don’t feel we know a whole lot. Thankfully, God still uses us.
Studying the Bible with someone from a different culture is an adventure. We are enriched by looking at the Bible with fresh eyes, re-discovering the wonder and the scandal of the Gospel as students from all over the world hear and understand it for the first time.
Now you know how to prepare and lead and cross-cultural Bible study… what are you waiting for?