Inductive Bible studies can give unsaved friends a personal introduction to the Author of life.

In recent decades, hundreds of men and women have been introduced to Jesus Christ through small group discussion Bible studies. It has been for many the appropriate means of evangelism to reach first their minds, then their hearts, and finally their wills.

But why do many Bible study groups intended for outreach fail to hold the people for whom they are begun? Just as it is frustrating to spend hours trying to fit together a jigsaw puzzle only to find that three or four pieces are missing, churches and individual Christians are frustrated when a Bible study group does not come together. To solve this, careful consideration should be given to each segment of the Bible study picture and methods adapted that fit the purpose and the goals of the group. Putting together the right pieces can complete the picture.

The Bible study picture has four major sections. The first one, which determines what happens in the rest of the picture, concerns the sensitivity of the person who starts a group. That individual’s attitude toward people and toward learning sets the stage for what will happen in the group. The second section deals with how to study the Bible. The third and fourth sections describe the dynamics of interaction within the group and the guidelines on which an effective group agrees.

No Experts

The most important factor in an effective Bible study group is the approach to it by Christians who hope to initiate a study with their friends and colleagues. The neighborhood, office, factory, school, tennis or bowling club—all these are places where a Christian can make a spiritual impact through a peer group discussion Bible study. The initiator of such a group should be aware that the average person in our society is probably as interested in joining “a Bible study” as most of us are in attending a discussion on nuclear physics. In inviting anyone for the first time to consider the idea of a Bible study, it is important to emphasize that it will not be for experts, but primarily for adults studying the Bible for the first time. The group will consist of people who think the Bible is worth studying and wish to discover for themselves what it says.

For any study group to succeed, the methods selected must be appropriate for the people in it. The methods used in a group Bible study signal a message to those with whom the Christian hopes to share the gospel: that “actions speak louder than words” is especially true when people are insecure because they are involved in a new activity. It is not so much what is said about the dynamics of a Bible study group, but it is what is practiced that communicates.

If the Christians in a group assume a role of monopolizers, the message they communicate to others is, “You are inept, incapable.” Too often the beginner in Bible study is treated as if he were unable to read and incapable of taking responsibility. Instead of being stimulated to careful reading and thoughtful discussion, these newcomers become passive and don’t participate. Their potential interest is dampened because they have heard the unspoken message that they are inferior, their input is not valued. When only those who already are experts in the Bible moderate the discussion, the chance for other members to learn is restricted.

Having the responsibility to lead the discussion is a great stimulus to careful study. But discussion leadership by each group member will never occur if the first person to lead the study sets a pattern the others cannot reproduce. He may ask questions from a study guide; but if he begins with a long prayer, then shares information gleaned from a commentary, goes on to point out a number of hidden facets of the chapter, and concludes with a beautiful poem summarizing the essence of the chapter, there will be dead silence in response to his enthusiastic, “Who would like to lead the discussion next week?” If leadership is to develop, if people are to grow, the moderator of the first discussion must consciously set a pattern that others can reproduce.

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A Bible study that is leader-centered tends to make the leader and not the Scripture the authority for the group. To enable a nonexpert to participate in effective discussion leadership it is necessary to use a study guide that stimulates every participant to make discoveries in the Bible text, but at the same time keeps the group on the main track. Care should be taken in selecting a study guide to avoid curriculum where the answers follow the questions; that makes the curriculum writer rather than the Scripture the authority.

It is true, of course, that someone who directs the discussion regularly derives the greatest benefit from the study. It is hard for such a leader to recognize that what he enjoys doing does not necessarily best help the other group members to learn. Everyone learns more when allowed to be responsible and involved. I recall a television program about educational excellence that showed a large sign one teacher hung in the back of her classroom:

All people learn more when they participate fully in their own education. A person becomes more familiar with a portion of Scripture when he directs the discussion than when another person leads. Since the Word of God is bring and powerful, what better way to have it work effectively is there than to encourage each person to take a turn directing the discussion and thereby to struggle with the process of discovery? A Christian confident in the Scripture and in the Holy Spirit’s power to help someone new to the Bible will not hesitate to allow another to be the “question asker” in a discussion Bible study.

How To Study

The second major section of the puzzle concerns how the Bible is handled. In studying any piece of literature, a student is expected to read the complete works of an author. He studies each book, from the first sentence to the last, to discover its unique message, before attempting to write on major themes in an author’s works. Following this principle, people approaching the Bible for the first time should start by studying whole books; they are the form in which God has given us his Word. This is an important factor in solving the Bible study puzzle. While topical Bible studies are not always inappropriate, a number of book studies should come first. Bible studies from the false cults are usually topical, and at a time when pseudo-Christian cults proliferate, Christians should exercise caution in the patterns of learning to which they introduce people.

To avoid exchanges over how everyone “feels about” the Bible passage, a group needs to be guided by inductive questions to observe the text. The inductive (investigative) approach is a key factor in handling the Bible web in a peer group discussion study. A group using the inductive approach begins just as a good detective would: by observing the clues. Then it moves to interpret the meaning of these clues, and finally to make applications to present-day life. In the case of a person new to Bible study, application at first will likely be in terms of a new understanding of Jesus, just as the disciples’ application early in the Gospels was to assimilate information about him.

About another type of Bible study, the deductive approach, Carl E. Armerding says, “Deductive Bible study begins with generalizations (or doctrines) and moves to the data (the Bible itself) to support those generalizations. Far too many Christians, haring been taught doctrine or tradition from early childhood (and it matters tittle whether they be liberal or conservative traditions), only go to the Bible to support ideas already firmly held.”

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In contrast, using the inductive approach with the aid of inductive study guides to examine, say, one of the historical books such as a Gospel, encourages everyone to discover who, what, when,where. On the basis of these discoveries, a group moves on to questions that help to interpret the meaning of the passage, and then to consider the application: “What difference does this make in my life?”

Study guides can hold the key to a good Bible study discussion. Incisive observation questions enable a group to make discoveries they would miss without the help of the guide. Interpretation and application questions in a good study guide build firmly on the facts discovered with the aid of the observation questions. An outreach group should avoid materials that assume everyone comes with an evangelical vocabulary and mind track, or materials that imply a passage says more than it actually does. Such materials should be labeled “a study guide for Christians.” People without Christian backgrounds will find these confusing, and feel the curriculum is trying to program their thinking. Inappropriate materials may cause people to drop out and thereafter be suspicious of all Bible study.

Study guides may ask in a variety of ways, “How does this apply?” The Holy Spirit will show each person how a Bible chapter applies to him or her.

Everyone should have a copy of the study guide, and may wish to prepare well before coming to the discussion by reading the Bible passage and using the questions in the guide. The flow of the discussion is enhanced when everyone has a copy of the guide, since people tend to be either ear-or eye-oriented. The eye-oriented person without a guide will disrupt the flow of the discussion by constantly asking for the question to be repeated.

The more preparation the better, but the discussion ought not to provide opportunity for deciding whose prepared answers are right or wrong. New thinking and new discoveries should take place. Significant insights may come from off-hand comments shared in the discussion—but only if the discussion is not tightly programmed by written answers.

In a society where most people are not familiar with the Bible’s contents, the inductive approach is mandatory. This is not unique to Bible study. It is the usual way people around the world read any book for the first time. Newcomers to the Bible are comfortable with groups that use the inductive process, chapter by chapter through a book, because they find it consistent with the way they normally study anything. The deductive approach to Bible study is best used only with those who are already committed to what is being “proved” in the study.

How To Interact

The third major section of the puzzle concerns group dynamics. What happens in a discussion will be affected by what members of the group think “leadership” involves. The group may rotate the leadership of the discussion, but if this happens in such a way that an observer would say the members take turns being “teacher,” that is a poor pattern. It is one where no one feels free to interject, “I don’t think I agree,” “Have we covered that, George?” or, “If we don’t speed up a bit, we won’t get finished with this chapter tonight.” A good group should not be a “class” but a team of researchers studying the Bible passage together. The pattern of the discussion should form an asterisk, rather than a fan in which all responses come back to the leader. As in any research group, it can be the beginner in a discussion Bible study who points out something that brings new understandings to the expert.

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As a group progresses, the Christians should not be “quick and powerful” in the discussion. They should allow the Word of God to challenge the thoughts of each person as the group discovers and shares together. In the Gospels, Jesus asked questions and allowed individuals to teach themselves by their own answers to his questions. In a healthy Bible study, people are encouraged to search the text for the answers, not to look to the Christian(s) for answers.

It is important to handle the problem of people new to the Bible being overwhelmed by the expertise of others in the group. This is minimized if a group starts with six who are beginners and two who have some knowledge and experience in Bible study, rather than a reverse ratio.

Since the size of a group determines what happens in a discussion, obeying the laws of group dynamics will solve many problems. The ideal size for a discussion group is eight people, but a group of six to ten can function well. A group of married couples could include as many as six or seven couples, but not more. There is a tendency when a group becomes too large to start side conversations rather than to join in the group discussion. People no longer have equal time to participate in a large group, because the extroverts monopolize the discussion. Since, in terms of learning, a person’s own voice is the most influential one he hears in a discussion, the group size is important. “Big” is not better in a discussion Bible study group. Because he does not feel needed, a person’s commitment to the group often diminishes as the size of a group increases beyond eight or ten people.

Ground Rules

The fourth major part of the Bible study puzzle involves setting basic guidelines to which the group agrees. This is essential for the smooth functioning of a peer group Bible study.

First, the discussion should remain within the group’s common frame of reference. A group discussing the Gospel of Mark (a good place to begin) should limit their discussion week by week to what they discover together. The first session is limited to what the group can discover in Mark 1. The next week, in chapter two, they may refer to what they learned in chapter one in addition to the new text. Eventually a group will have studied enough together to draw upon thoughts from several books.

If this guideline is violated by the Christians in the group—if they set a pattern by jumping around to different verses to “prove” a point—the others may use the same method to support a false doctrine. On the other hand, if references are kept within the group’s biblical framework, no one can successfully take verses out of context. Keeping to a pattern of studying in context will condition newcomers to this approach and it will protect them from the teaching of those who go door to door using verses out of context to communicate false doctrine.

The second guideline under which a good discussion group operates is to determine to accomplish the goal that has been set—the study of the chapter or section for the day. It is imperative, therefore, to avoid tangents that keep a group from finishing the discussion in the allotted time.

Two couples in Maryland started a Bible study in the Gospel of Mark with three couples who were new to the experience of Bible study. The first few times the group functioned well and everyone entered into the discussion with enthusiasm. During the fourth session, the two Christian men hotly debated the issue of predestination for 20 minutes! None of the three new couples came to the next study. When telephoned later to see if they had forgotten, they replied that they had not forgotten but felt they were not advanced enough for the group. They concluded they did not belong in the group because they were unable to follow the argument on predestination. It was only with difficulty that the group was reconstituted and the discussion rules were affirmed in practice.

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People who know the Bible well should be keenly aware of the dangers of tangential discussion and of flaunting information outside the group’s common frame of reference. Each member is responsible to call the group back to the chapter from any sidetrack or tangent. (Discussion of the personal application of the chapter should not be considered a tangent.)

A third guideline for an effective study is understanding that the Bible text under consideration is the authority. Any person trying to rewrite the Bible to fit his own opinions will be challenged by other members of the group: “Is that really what it says here?” or “I don’t see where you get that.” People new to Bible study may not be ready to make a commitment to the text, but they can be helped to deal with it forthrightly.

With so many things to keep in mind in discussion Bible study, one may be tempted to think that lecture would be better than discussion. But the discussion mode is important for outreach Bible study groups because it is the best atmosphere for change. Contemporary research indicates that factual information is obtained equally well from lecture or from discussion. If the goal of the study is not simply learning and remembering facts, however, but learning that results in change, the discussion mode is far more effective than lecture. The goal in a Bible study is not just to give the participants information, but to effect transformation, change in understanding by their commitment to Jesus Christ, and changes in lifestyle and life direction.

The same God that has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect did not intend us to forego their use.


A Bible study discussion provides the concerned Christian with an effective and appropriate means of communicating the gospel. A church that encourages inductive Bible study discussion groups grows in two ways: participating church members grow in knowledge and understanding and become more mature as Christians, and the church grows in numbers as new people come into it through involvement in an outreach Bible study.

The first Bible study discussion group in an area or a church can become the pilot group for other groups. A network of Bible studies can penetrate neighborhoods previously untouched with the gospel. When all the pieces of the puzzle are understood and properly put together, small group discussion Bible studies become effective in evangelism and in Christian nurture. The solution involves sensitivity to people’s interests and needs, an approach to the Bible that helps everyone discover its authentic message, awareness of the principles of good group dynamics that allow individual participation and achievement, and adherence to discussion guidelines that promote effective learning for each participant.

Hundreds of men and women unreached by other means have come to vital faith in Jesus Christ through such groups. These people are already established in a group where they can continue to grow as Christians. And with a little help, they are able to initiate other outreach groups for those within their spheres of influence.

The methods and the materials are available; the pattern is reproducible. Adults are transformed through Bible study groups. The real Bible study puzzle in the light of the needs of our society is why every Christian, every church, is not reaching the neighborhood with a peer group discussion Bible study.

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