Discovery Bible Study: Learning to Listen
The method is simple; people are complicated. (Joe, DBS practitioner)
Discovery Bible Studies can be used as a disciple-making practice, especially as our language listening skills grow. DBS has been passed around quite a bit and I was most recently re-introduced to it through its use among refugees in a large Eurasian city by my friend, Joe. (So, Joe, you get the credit for this version of the model.)
By learning to ask a few simple questions when studying a Bible passage with groups of new believers and seekers, DBS is a great way to develop responsive listening skills. Joe usually starts by asking, “What does the passage say?” This helps people talk about the passage thoughtfully, in their own words. Then he may ask, “What do we learn about God?” This is usually followed by, “What do we learn about people?” To encourage and instruct people to apply the word of God in faith to their lives he may ask, “What do we need to obey?” This encourages accountability and setting goals. Finally, he may ask, “Now what do I need to teach others?” This encourages people to immediately reproduce what they are learning.
DBS is an elegant and reproducible model that plunges us into high-risk interpersonal communication situations. The questions are simple, but the responses will usually be complicated, because people are complicated. And we need to understand their responses. What I mean is, we as facilitators need to be able to understand more than just the questions we ask or the answers we anticipate. We need to understand the varied responses people give, responses we may not anticipate.
I asked Joe at what point he felt he could do this. Joe shared this endearing story with me. He was teaching some disciples in his new language to put on the character of Christ, and to love their wives. He could not understand why some of the married men still beat their wives after teaching them that this was sinful and not Christ-like. Their response helped him see that the problem was not in their disobedience to the teaching, rather in their inability to understand this teaching in their cultural context.
So when he gathered with them again, Joe circled back to the teaching and invited them to talk more about it. Once they were able to really address the issue from Scripture as a group, together with Joe, they began to really work through the importance of not beating one’s wife in light of God’s word. For many of these men this was a hard teaching to work through, but once they understood God’s word they were able to begin to walk in obedience.
Our task is more complex than just telling people what the Bible says, or just telling them what to do based on our understanding of the Bible. There are so many layers we need to understand: the nuances, the culture, the worldview, the sin, the assumptions about acceptable behavior, beliefs about what is right and wrong. Perhaps a better way to approach the task would be to ask, “Do you understand what the Bible is telling you to do?” Or perhaps even, “How do you understand what the Bible is telling you to do?”
With these questions, we enter into discussions that lead us to better understand typical responses we are likely to encounter. We, as much as possible, need to understand the process of discovery our neighbors and disciples experience as they encounter God’s word. This may differ from culture to culture and language to language. God is at work in their minds and hearts, as he as at work in ours. And he’s using us to teach people in and through this process, as they hear the gospel, repent, obey, and develop Christian character. Joe described this as reaching a point where he understood and appreciated their cultural themes, what they thought about, what they felt. He began to understand DBS responses better as he was able to more and more engage them in heart-level conversations. Joe summed it up well, “I remember the first time I heard an Arab laugh and actually understood why he laughed.”
DBS has been instrumental in helping Joe and many others facilitate discipleship and start churches all over the world. But it’s endearing to hear Joe say that it also helped him get to know these guys at a deeper level, to understand them when they shared things beneath the surface of shallow conversation.
Inviting neighbors and disciples to respond to our questions, core to the DBS setting, means that we need to be fluent in our responsive listening. This is significantly more challenging than mastering our speaking ability. It requires an ability to make sense of and follow-up on what people are saying to us in the discussion about the gospel and how it applies to their lives. We can never assume that what we are saying and teaching is being understood the way we intend. And the only way to confirm this is to invite response, understand that response, and meaningfully attend to that response.
What a great opportunity for us to practice listening! The efficacy of the DBS approach largely depends upon our ability to understand what people are saying, and upon our ability to interact with them in meaningful, clear, and helpful ways to facilitate their understanding of the Bible. Whenever we engage our neighbors as seekers or new believers using DBS in our new language, we are stretched to understand their responses within their cultural contexts. In other words, as teachers or facilitators we need to understand how our neighbors and disciples respond to that which we investigate together from God’s Word. The more we listen, understand, and meaningfully respond to our precious neighbors as we work through the DBS process together, the more they can begin to understand how the gospel applies to their lives, how to search it out, and how to pursue God in his word, every day.