Discovery Bible Study and 'Lectio Divina': Combining Old and New Approaches to Scripture (Part 1)

ThinkstockPhotos-531229203And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Matt. 13:52

Although it may come as a surprise to Christians in the United States and Western Europe, Christianity is growing faster than it has at any point in its history. The rapid, even explosive, growth of the church is largely invisible to us because it is happening primarily in the global south: Africa, the Middle East, south and east Asia, and South America.

While there are many reasons for this growth, which Jerry Trousdale and I outline in our forthcoming book, “The Kingdom Unleashed,” here I would like to focus on one tool that is being used in many of the regions that are seeing the greatest growth: Discovery Bible Studies (DBS).

Discovery Bible Study

DBS is a method of Bible study that can be used for both evangelism and discipleship training, generally though not always in small groups. The study uses a template with four columns.

The first column is for the biblical text. In literate cultures where Bibles are available, this may simply be the reference; in oral cultures, the text is read or recited and the people in the group try to repeat it without missing any details. In some cases, it is dictated and written out.

The group then discusses the text and collectively decide how to restate it in their own words. This is the second column in the study and once again may be done either orally or in writing.

The third column moves to the question, if this text is God’s word, what do I have to do beginning today? They each make one or more statements beginning with “I will”; in literate cultures, these are usually written down. In some parts of Indonesia, they emphasize the 48 hour rule: Experience has taught them that if you do not take action on your “I will” statements within 48 hours, you will forget them and lose the insights you gained from the passage.

The last column is for the names of people who need to hear what they have learned from the passage; they also state when the group member will talk to those people about the text. When possible, this will be written down as well.

When the group meets the next week, they begin by asking if anyone has anything they are thankful for, then if anyone is facing any challenges. They pray about those things, then ask how they did with their “I will” statements from the previous week. Did they do them? What was the result? Finally, they ask if they shared the insights with the people on their list, and if so, how they responded. Then the group moves on to the next passage and repeats the process.

Why DBS Works

DBS may seem simple, but it is a remarkably sophisticated approach to Scripture, particularly in an evangelistic or church planting context.

  • The process is built around discovery. People who discover the meaning and application of Scripture for themselves are more likely both to remember and to obey it. This is why personal study of Scripture is so essential for the Christian life: if you do not engage the Bible directly but only hear about it, it is far less likely to have any transforming power in your life.
  • In inductive Bible studies, the facilitator asks three kinds of questions: observation (what does the passage say?); interpretation (what does the passage mean?); and application (what should I do in light of the text?). These are progressive. You must determine what the text says in order to determine what it means, and only after you know what it means can you determine how to apply it appropriately to your life. These types of questions correspond directly to the first three columns of the DBS.
  • DBS develops indigenous expressions of Christianity, rather than imitating models for Christian life and practice that come from missionaries from other cultures. The Gospel gets translated directly into the group’s cultural context. This is true not just cross-culturally but also with niche groups in the U.S.
  • DBS teaches people from the very beginning that Scripture is to be obeyed. In the Great Commission, Jesus tells us to make disciples, a word that means students or apprentices. This raises the question of what they are to learn. Jesus tells us: We are to teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20). So the biblical pattern for discipleship focuses on obedience rather than knowledge, even knowledge of the Bible.
  • DBS also teaches people that they are to share what they learn. Evangelism is thus part of the DNA of the disciples that come from DBS.
  • DBS builds accountability in the small groups.

DBS and Evangelism

In many places where the Gospel is advancing the fastest, DBS is a standard tool used for evangelism (understood in the Matthew 28 sense of disciple-making). Specific Scripture sets customized for the group are used to bring them step by step to Christ, with obedience and sharing what they learned built in from day one.

The idea of doing evangelism through discipleship seems counter-intuitive to us: We use a model based largely on the book of Acts that focuses on conversion followed by discipling. But while that model does occur sometimes in Jesus’ ministry, His standard approach was to disciple people to conversion rather than to convert them and then disciple them. Consider, for example, the Apostles: Jesus lived with them, taught them, gave them assignments, and discipled them for over two years before He asked them for a profession of faith.

This approach to disciple-making has had a dramatic impact in many parts of the world, and it avoids the problem of nominal professions of faith, lack of growth in obedience, superficial faith that has no impact on people’s lives and lifestyles, and other problems that plague American evangelicalism.

DBS and Personal Devotions

DBS was designed for small groups but it is also useful for personal devotions. Many people have used it to revitalize their devotional lives.

At the same time, using DBS in devotions can raise a number of challenges. In small groups, the passages chosen for DBS are frequently planned out ahead of time to teach specific things and elicit items for obedience; not all personal devotions are that well planned out, particularly if you are simply working through a book of the Bible. Identifying obedience items can be difficult for many passages, either because there is no obvious application or because the passage isn’t relevant for the stage of life of the reader.

For example, when I was in high school I was reading through 1 Corinthians during a class break, and I was on the passage dealing with marriage. One of my classmates noticed I was reading the New Testament and asked me if I could apply what I was reading. Thinking of the fact that I was not going to get married anytime soon, I told her no; she just smiled and said “I thought so.” I wanted to protest that the text didn’t apply to me at that point in my life but it would later, but the break ended and I couldn’t continue the conversation. Had this been a DBS, the same problem would have occurred: There was no immediate application of the text at that point in my life.

Further, our actions and our obedience must ultimately flow from our identity. Who we are determines what we do. Ultimately, a significant part of learning to obey all that Jesus commanded is to internalize who the Bible tells us we are in Christ. DBS is not the best tool for that.

So while DBS is a very valuable new approach to Bible study, especially in small groups, it has some weaknesses for personal use. Fortunately, there is an ancient practice in the Christian tradition that complements DBS very nicely and that can be integrated with DBS simply and directly. That practice is lectio divina, or divine reading, and will be the subject of my next article.

Image courtesy of Brainsil at Thinkstock by Getty Images.



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