My husband, Brad, was a pastor for 27 years when he resigned his pastorate to train pastors in third-world countries who would otherwise receive little or no training. He mostly goes to areas of Africa that are away from the major cities. In these small villages, a church often is started when someone has a conversion experience and realizes his or her village needs a church. What that means is the person leading the church has zero experience. And most likely the only book these pastors own is a Bible. They read their Bibles, pray for inspiration while they work their other jobs, and preach the message on Sunday.
Those my husband trains vary in their education. Some have only a grade-school education, while others have been through college. What he has discovered, however, is that even if they have been through college, few have owned or even read books in school. Their education has consisted almost entirely of rote memorization using a blackboard, since that is the only method available in a poor rural area where income is often insufficient for even the most basic daily needs.
So Brad teaches them, through a method called Pathways, what it means to read a book carefully and to consider what it meant to the original reader and particularly what context means. He offers to train a group of twelve pastors nine times, examining nine different types of literature in the Bible, such as historical, narrative, poetic, wisdom, gospel, epistle, and prophetic.
He always comes home astounded at how much they cherish this training. Some struggle greatly to understand and others pick it up immediately. He pairs the strong ones with those who struggle and commissions them to train another pastor what he has just taught them. If they train someone else, he will come back for the next session.
Brad also trains U.S. pastors to do the same thing he does (train pastors overseas), walking them through the same process as the African pastors. What surprises him is that the U.S. pastors, who have all had seminary training, also love studying the Scriptures using the simple Pathways method. Time and again, they remark how they never study and discuss the Bible with other pastors, and it feeds their soul and delights them in a way that all the motivational conferences they have been to have failed to do.
They also mention that they have become so focused on finding an application for a sermon that they forget to read a verse in context and lose the true meaning of the text. By slowing down and doing a simple observation, interpretation, and application method, they have rediscovered what the Scripture is truly saying and feel that their preaching and teaching has greatly improved as a result.
It has also ignited in these pastors a desire to teach the people in their own church how to do Bible study. They’ve realized that they often create a dependent congregation that looks only to them for biblical answers. After going through the Pathways training, they realize they can teach their people methods to study Scripture on their own. Of course, not everyone in their congregation will be interested in studying, but a great chunk of them are extremely interested.
This has had a ripple effect in the Bible study I lead. I’ve realized that I often spend a great deal of time and effort trying to find a study that will be challenging and unique, when all along what I and my group have really needed is to get back to the basics.
So we began studying the Scriptures simply. So far we’ve studied Philippians and the Psalms. We are currently on the Gospel of Mark. I’ve been astounded at how much I am getting out of these books that I am so familiar with that I can recite great chunks of them by heart. But what I’m learning is that I’ve never slowed down enough to truly get at the core of what the big message is from these books.
Keep the Method Simple
The method we are using in my Bible study is a basic observation, interpretation, application format. We each read the chapter we are studying that week and write down all the observations we can find. I ask the group to use dictionaries and cross-references, but to refrain from reading commentaries until they are finished observing the chapter we are studying. Then, if they want to, they can read a commentary, but I strongly advise them to consider the commentary to be just another opinion, since no commentary is the final word on an interpretation. The other problem with commentaries is that they often concentrate on minutiae, causing us to miss the true purpose of the text.
Interpret the Passage Together
When we meet, we begin discussing the observations we’ve found, and then we hash out what we think the interpretations of the different passages in the chapter are. In essence, we interpret the passage together, rather than trying to do it on our own. I’ve been surprised that I sometimes change my interpretation after discussing it with the group. I realized I missed the trajectory of the passage because of my own biases and background, which is why it is such a valuable method. By interpreting together, I have to face my own “blindness” to Scripture.
Finally, we discuss any applications we are convicted to apply. For years, I thought of application as something I had to do. I’d read a parable in the gospels and think that I had to do whatever it said. For example, when I read the parable of the sower in Mark 4, I thought I had to be the one who produced great fruit. As a result, the gospels and Scripture in general became hard to read because I was always convicted of what I wasn’t doing.
As we studied that passage together, I realized that wasn’t the point of the parable at all. Jesus was describing his kingdom. He is the sower and he produces the fruit. All the guilt I felt when I usually read that passage lifted and instead I found courage and joy.
Over the course of the last two years of using this method in my Bible study, I realized that application is rarely an action. Most often it is a change in the way we think or in what we love. This has been tremendously freeing to me and made me love Jesus and the Bible anew.
So as you consider what’s next for those under your care, perhaps the best idea is to simply get back to basics.
JoHannah Reardon has been leading Bible studies for over 40 years, but she has never enjoyed a study more than the one she is currently leading. Find her family devotional, Proverbs for Kids, and her many novels at JohannahReardon.com.