White Smoke and 7 Applications to Group Bible Study

I experienced one of those truly unforgettable moments on Wednesday night, March 13. My wife Vickie and I were in Italy to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. We had arrived in Rome the night before and hurried with a small group to witness the black smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel signaling that the Catholic cardinals in solemn conference there had not elected a new Pope. On Wednesday afternoon, our tour brought us to Vatican City. After visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, we decided to join the throng of umbrellas for the chance at witnessing history. A couple of hours later on an unusually cold and rainy evening, the white smoke rose from the simple pipe on the chapel’s roof, triggering a joyous celebration.  Then came the announcement that the new pope would be the first to use the name Francis. You can only imagine the fun my colleagues at LifeWay have had with that!

White smoke and American flag

White smoking signaling the selection of a new Pope

What does that have to do with group Bible study? I thought of at least seven. Why was I thinking about that at all? Because great group Bible study is the passion of my life!  It may sound weird, but I process a lot of experiences through the lens of their implications for groups. Here are a few observations from this one.

1. People need a small group, even in a crowd. The thousands gathered in the square were not just a lot of individuals. They were typically a crowd of smaller groups. Next to us in the crowd was a group of 30-something priests. Behind us was a group of theology students from the University of Dallas, a Catholic school in Irving, TX.  Almost everyone was there as a group. Bible Studies for Life will strengthen existing groups. More importantly, it will help churches start new groups.

2. People long to connect. I cannot describe the joy of the young college students when they discovered progressively that we (a) spoke English, (b) were Texans, (c) had lived in the Dallas area, and (d) cared what they had to say. People want to connect. And they like to talk! Bible Studies for Life will help churches connect the unconnected.

3. Questions stimulate conversation. There is amazing power in a great question. Especially if that question invites a response.  It’s even more powerful if the questioner is sincerely interested in the response. Jesus was a master of the question. Perhaps (;-)) He knew that questions are one of two learning methods appropriate for every age group and every learning style. Questions were the key to the delightful conversations we had in Vatican square with the groups of folks around us. Bible Studies for Life emphasizes  great questions that get people talking.

4. Stories connect people to each other and to Scripture. Jesus was also the master of the second universal learning method—stories. He used stories to connect people to the truths of the Bible. He also showed interest  in people’s stories. The first question in every adult Bible Studies for Life session is designed to let people tell a little bit of their story, while also serving as a bridge to Bible study. The question is always safe for people at any level of spiritual maturity. Questions lead to stories which lead to community. We heard—or overheard—a lot of stories while waiting to see white smoke.  In a strange way, we felt connected to the Catholic faithful around us. 

5. Visual stimulation enhances learning and community. A sea of multi-colored umbrellas. Elegant architecture. White smoke. Bands playing. The Swiss Guard marching in. A dark balcony suddenly filled with light. Words—printed or spoken—are great. Yet many people are visual learners, a fact often ignored by group leaders. Bible Studies for Life makes deliberate efforts to provide powerful visuals. The image that accompanies the ice-breaker question in student and adult versions is selected for its emotional impact and relationship to the question. The realism of the teaching pictures in the Kids materials is stunning. Visuals like posters and maps in the Leader Packs are large and impactful. Optional videos are available to enhance the group experience. That Wednesday evening at the Vatican would have been memorable even had we been blind. Yet the drama and images burned those memories in our brains.

6. People want a leader. There was a stunning silence when the announcement was made that Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had been elected as the new pope. It was as if the crowd was collectively asking the same silent question: Who is he? But the silence soon gave way to cheers for “Papa Francesco.”  Francis quickly won the crowd over with his grace and humility. The next day he carried his own bags down from his hotel room, paid his own bill, and took the Metro train back to the Vatican. One of the goals of Bible Studies for Life is to help new leaders be successful from the very start. The dream is that thousands of new groups with thousands of new leaders will find the materials to be exactly the tool they need to reach new people and introduce them to how the Bible speaks to life in the three spheres it is experienced: Christ, community, culture.

7. The Bible must be central. The starting point for Bible Studies for Life is, well, life! Yet every session makes a beeline to “What Does the Bible Say?” about the life issue. The sad part of our experience that damp night—as well as many of the rainy days across Italy—were the monuments and relics to a movement that has added so much to the prescribed faith walk of its adherents. I felt a love for and kinship with the throng surrounding us. Many loved Christ. They longed for community. They want to engage the culture. Yet there was so much in addition to the Bible. A Bible study group needs to keep the study of the Bible central to its purpose. That’s our goal with Bible Studies for Life. Let us know how we’re doing!


  1. […] it’s graduation weekend or not, there is amazing power in a great question. You’ll find in each session of Bible Studies for Life an icebreaker question for group members […]

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