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The multilateral communication involved in Bible study groups is a primary driver of the spiritual growth of attendees...


By Andrew Mackinnon


Unilateral communication involves the active participation of the preacher conveying his message but the passive participation of those in attendance listening to his message.  The following diagram illustrates the unilateral communication that occurs in the context of preaching:

Each of the arrows above representing the unilateral communication between a preacher and his listeners have only one arrowhead on one end.  This is obviously because preaching necessitates that those in attendance listen to the message being communicated by the preacher without conveying their thoughts about it verbally in return.


The communication that takes place between two people is bilateral communication.  The following diagram illustrates the bilateral communication that occurs in the context of two people involved in a conversation or discussion:

The arrow above representing the bilateral communication between two people involved in a conversation or discussion has two arrowheads, being one arrowhead on each end.  This is because a conversation or discussion between two people allows the two people participating to both listen to the message being communicated by the other and convey their thoughts verbally in return.  Therefore, the double-headed arrow in the above diagram illustrating bilateral communication actually represents two different things.

Firstly, it represents one of the people involved in the conversation or discussion, for example the person on the left, communicating a message verbally to the other person and the other person responding to this message by communicating a message of their own verbally to that person in return.

Secondly, it represents the other one of the people involved in the conversation or discussion, for example the person on the right, communicating a message verbally to the other person and the other person responding to this message by communicating a message of their own verbally to that person in return.


In contrast, the communication that takes place between members of a Bible study group is multilateral communication.  It involves the active participation of all those involved in the discussions that occur during the course of the Bible study.  The following diagram illustrates the multilateral communication that occurs in the context of a Bible study group:

Each of the arrows above representing the multilateral communication between the multiple people in a Bible study group have two arrowheads, being one arrowhead on each end.  This is because a Bible study group allows all of the members to both listen to the message being communicated by any one of the other members and also convey their thoughts verbally in return.


The format of the church service at the church I attended from 1991 to 1998 in Sydney, Australia was largely unilateral.  (I subsequently attended two other churches from 1999 to 2000 and 2000 to 2007 which both had a similar unilateral format for their church services.)  A minister or other trusted speaker stood up the front and preached and the people in the church sat in pews facing the speaker to receive the content that was being preached.  This is the same manner in which people watch television, watch a movie, are taught in a classroom or are taught in a lecture hall at a university.  Itís unilateral.  In hindsight I can see that the preaching in the church I attended was largely seeking to conduct a Bible study with the entire congregation sitting in rows listening to the preaching.  However the Bible study that this preaching constituted was entirely unilateral and not multilateral.  Personally, I donít believe that the primary purpose of preaching is to study the Bible, as important a part of preaching that is.  I believe that the primary purpose of preaching is to communicate the Holy Spirit of God living inside the preacher to those listening.

Preaching is a form of communication which does have disadvantages.  It doesnít allow for any ready and responsive feedback mechanism so that if the content that is being relayed deviates from truth, members can supply feedback in order to correct the content.  This feedback mechanism is important for the health of the church of Jesus Christ.

People donít want to just be spoken to and listen in silence.  They want to interact.  They want bilateral communication between two people and, better still, multilateral communication between multiple people.  Social media using the internet, such as Facebook (which I donít use because itís an intelligence gathering operation run by the National Security Agency of the United States of America, though probably the entire internet is that by now), has demonstrated clearly that people absolutely LOVE talking to each other.  And the reason is obvious.  God made us that way.  This is why the most successful vehicle for Christian growth is sitting in a circle on seats, so that everybody can see each other and so that everybody can involve themselves in a discussion on some aspect of following Jesus Christ, with their Bibles open on their laps (preferably the highly accurate King James Version and definitely not the deliberately inaccurate New International Version (NIV) for which Rupert Murdoch is responsible, since his News Corp owns HarperCollins Publishers, which owns Zondervan, which publishes the New International Version of the Bible).

This successful vehicle for Christian growth is readily identifiable as a ďBible study groupĒ, typically involving about fourteen people, seven males and seven females, including the male leader of the Bible study group and the female co-leader of the Bible study group.  Historically, Bible study groups have been held amongst members of churches during the week, such as every Wednesday evening or every second Wednesday evening.  The advantages of Bible study groups are as follows:

> They encourage growth in the relationships between people in the groups.

> They encourage people to relate to each other in spontaneous, unscripted ways, which mean that people are more likely to portray themselves as they really are, rather than hide themselves and any problems that they might have.

> They give people an opportunity to grapple with what the Bible is saying as they study it.


However, the disadvantages of the way in Bible study groups have traditionally been run in churches are as follows:

> They operate under severe time constraints and severe time pressure.  With many workers not leaving their place of employment until 17:15 or 17:30, it is difficult to see how these groups can start earlier than 19:30.  Even then, members are under frantic pressure to get to the group by this time and are typically exhausted from their day already, which may have begun as early as 5:00.  The group can really extend no later than 21:00, because members need to be home and in bed by 21:30 or 22:00 in preparation for the next day.  So that leaves just 1.5 hours.  While thatís enough time, the severe time pressure before and after the group makes the mid-week scheduling of Bible study groups far from ideal.

> The content of what has historically been discussed at these groups has historically been quite controlled, with members fearful of saying something which deviates from what has been promulgated in the church on Sunday during sermons as acceptable doctrine.  The problem with this is that there are several heresies which have crept into the church over the past two decades at least.  If members are reluctant to made statements in Bible study groups which counteract these heresies, then how are they every going to be corrected?

> Members who raise issues in their lives which reflect negatively on them have historically been viewed as weak and as people needing Ďhelpí, rather than the strong and mature people seeking to grow that they really are.

> Members who raise issues which donít immediately appear to be directly related to the Bible are viewed with suspicion, whereas there are any number of issues today that are negatively impacting our lives and negatively impacting the health of the church which need to be freely discussed amongst followers of Jesus Christ so that they can be properly addressed.  Personally, I am all for studying the Bible and understanding it better, but I have very little interest whatsoever in sitting down to a Bible study that it is conducted in a vacuum so that the discussion is detached from what is going on in the world today.





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