I remember sitting at the large folding tables covered with papers and writing implements. It was hot, I'm sure, though I don't remember it. I was in the midst of training for my first summer as a camp counselor, not yet fully aware of the joy, exhaustion, and hilarity I had signed myself up for. We were preparing for the Bible studies we would lead with several weeks worth of campers. We did these OIAs (observation-interpretation-application) for hours, punctuated by breaks and meals and team building exercises - and, eventually, sleep. We were learning to mine the depths of Scripture. And I was learning to do inductive Bible study.
What is an Inductive Bible Study?
Inductive Bible Study is a Bible study tool that uses three steps, Observation, Interpretation, and Application, to study a Scripture passage. Special attention is paid to observing the basic facts of the passage, noting and exploring questions you might have, and paying careful attention to what the passage teaches in context. These observation and interpretation points bring you to an application that springs from the passage.
This process can be used for personal Bible study or as a method for small group Bible study. It can also be used, as we did at camp, as the method of background research to construct a more traditional Bible study or Bible lesson.
Why is it helpful?
The inductive Bible study format guards against several potential Bible study ills.
- Keeps the conversation first on Scripture, not just on “what it means to me”
- Prevents peripheral and derailing topics or applications and keeps the application grounded in the passage itself
- Guards against leader-driven small group Bible studies, in which only one person teaches and answers questions
- Invites the group to dive deep into Scripture rather than remain at a cursory level
- Allows the entire group to participate, regardless of knowledge or experience
- Invites questions of things individuals might not understand
- Provides a context to learn from each other and hear unique insights and perspectives
- It uses a Scripture study model that can be used for group and personal Bible study.
How do I do it?
Inductive Bible studies are run through a series of questions. If you’re leading one with a small group, you can choose questions—or add your own—based on what seems relevant to the passage.
Resist the urge to only use leading questions to drive people to what your point from the study is. If possible, use questions that could have multiple answers or that will invite the other participants to go back to the passage. Open-ended questions become even more important during the Interpretation and Application stages.
Before you lead a group through an inductive Bible study, I recommend going through the process on your own. If there are any more challenging questions that arise that require more research, seek out possible answers to have on hand if that same question comes up in the group.
Observation - What does it say?
Read the passage out loud at least once. Don't get ahead of yourself (or let the group get ahead). Stick with these very basic observation questions. It's really easy to slip into interpretation. Resist this urge.
- What are your initial observations? What stands out at you from a first read through?
- What questions are you left with?
Then move to questions such as…
- What is the situation and atmosphere?
- Who is here? What happened? When? Where?
- What are the relationships between characters?
- What literary form is used? (Narrative, Poetry, Prophecy, etc.)
- Who is the author? Where is he? Who is he writing to?
- What are key words or repeated words and phrases?
- What symbols, comparisons, and imagery is used?
Interpretation - What does it mean?
Read the passage again out loud. Then answer the questions that arose from your Observation time. As much as possible, have the group answer their own questions through looking at the text and comparing to other parts of Scripture. A Bible dictionary could be handy. Only as a last resort, offer your thoughts on more challenging questions you unearthed during your preparations.
Then move to questions such as…
- How does this passage fit in with what came before and what comes after (in the chapter, the book, the entire Bible)?
- What other Scriptures relate?
- What is the main purpose of this passage?
- What central truth is this passage teaching?
- What would the original hearers have understood? What is he saying to them?
Application - How does it apply?
Stay focused on application points that actually arise from your passage. It's always tempting to jump directly to application, but you must first make sure you've completed the Observation and Interpretation steps thoroughly. Your answers and discussion from them should guide the answers to your application questions.
- What is one way this passage applies to my life?
- What will I do differently because of what I’ve learned?
Have you ever used the inductive Bible study method? What was your experience like?