We all learn content differently. Some of us are naturally wired to reading and writing as our primary method of learning, while others rely on a more hands-on approach. 

For many cultures oral learning is dominant, with information, history and life skills passed down through word of mouth for generations. As we teach the Bible, and plan Bible studies, how do we take these different learning styles into account and help people from all cultures grow in their understanding of God’s word?

Amanda Mason encourages churches to consider a method of studying Scripture similar to Bible storytelling, rather than solely relying on methods designed for highly literate groups. Working with the department of Evangelism and New Churches, her role is to help parishes find ways to connect to other cultures – specifically those with a South East Asian Buddhist background. 

“People from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar – their strength is in oral formats of learning, such as memorising stories, music and art,” Mason says. 

“When I first came to church as an Aussie teenager, I had been primed for Bible study styles which rely on literacy because of my experiences in school. My Thai mum doesn’t share the experience of Western education. Mum has only ever engaged with God’s word in an oral Bible study, in a group of Thai people she felt she could relate to and connected with. This [storytelling] Bible study method engages more with people like this.

“An academic Bible study requires cultural elements that someone from a Buddhist background needs to become familiar with. [The storytelling type of study] has had good take-up in Sydney among people from South East Asian or Muslim backgrounds, and also with Islander groups and Aboriginal communities. These are all cultures with strengths in orality rather than literacy.”


Oral-based Bible studies

One method Mason recommends is simple but effective, and reduces the barrier of English literacy required to meet God through his word. It’s a style she has used in numerous Thai women’s Bible studies called the Five Questions Method. 

The focus is on listening well to the word as it is read aloud several times. The group then attempts to retell the passage from memory before discussing it. “It engages and helps us to listen and concentrate,” she says. 


After the group has retold the passage from memory, they run through five questions:

  • What did you like?
  • What might people not like?
  • What do you learn about God?
  • What do you learn about people?
  • If this is true, how will it affect your life? 

The simplicity of the questions promotes discussion and encourages people of all language abilities and cultural backgrounds to participate. “We do read shorter chunks of Scripture, we meditate more, but when you do this with a group who don’t speak good English, it’s got to be shorter because you can’t teach everything,” she says. “Short is digestible, and people who aren’t used to reading the Bible can digest a short passage.” 


How does this work in a church?

When Grace City Church in Waterloo restarted in-person Bible study groups in November, the leadership decided to trial this new approach alongside their sermon series on Revelation.  

“I was looking for something a bit different and a bit fresh as we came out of lockdown,” says the Rev Matt Varcoe, the church’s maturity and mission director. “I [also] want people to grow in confidence that if they have each other and the Holy Spirit and God’s word, they can understand and apply it.”

He also found this approach helped personal Bible reading. “People in church have said, ‘I’ve been reading the Bible and using these five questions,’” he says. “It gives people a framework.” 

With a background in primary education, Mr Varcoe understands the importance of adapting to different learning styles. He says this method of Bible study is another great tool to have in the toolbox. 

“Just like as a school teacher, you do different lessons with different styles of learning to cater for all the learning styles in your classroom,” he says. “I think, over the year, if you’re doing a few different styles of study that will be helpful to engage everyone.” 

There have been a number of good responses from Grace City growth groups. “All our groups are saying that people who don’t contribute and are quieter have all felt comfortable to contribute,” Mr Varcoe says. “The overall feedback after the first week or two was very positive. It was something new and a fresh way to do it. But there was also an underlying, ‘If we do this every week will it get repetitive and old?’ I’ve been trying to help leaders each week think about what is working and not working well, and modify as they go.”

For churches thinking of introducing a more oral-based style of Bible study, he recommends considering how your leaders can manage group dynamics. Depending on the group, a deliberate effort may need to be made to facilitate group discussion, rather than individual opinions shared with no follow-up questions or interaction encouraged. 

He also feels it is important to keep the study content in line with the Sunday preaching passages, to help build consistency in teaching across community groups and congregations. 

“It’s a confidence-building thing. Anyone can do this. You don’t have to have any deep level knowledge of the Bible – you can do it on your own or with anyone else. I can’t think of why you wouldn’t try it.”