My living room in southern Brazil was filled with medical students, although it was hard to see some of them through the cigarette smoke. They were seekers and it was an atmosphere in which they felt comfortable. They came every Saturday for Bible study. We ended the study in about an hour, but the discussion often continued two or three hours more! When we divided the too-large group into three groups to meet on different days, almost everyone came three times a week! At first, Maria Celia and I were the only believers. She was a second year medical student who lived with me. One evening, halfway through the study, a drunk girl came noisily into the room from a cocktail party, and fell onto the sofa. I concluded the study with a brief summary and went into the kitchen to bring out refreshments. Joao Olave, a sophisticated, self-controlled, self-righteous medical student, came into the kitchen and said, “How could you be so patient with her? She ruined the study. I would have kicked her out! That’s my problem–I have no patience. Then he asked, “Tell me, what does Jesus’ death 2000 years ago have to do with me today?” I thought to myself, “Joao Olavo, where have you been the last three weeks?” But as I just began to explain it again, tears flowed down his cheeks as he smiled from ear to ear. The gospel had just gotten through to him! Most seekers need to hear all the core truths of the gospel several times before it makes sense to them. Joao Olavo’s usually controlled temper had gotten him into great trouble that week and it made him ready to respond to Jesus Christ.
We refer to a evangelistic Bible study as an investigative study (and IBS) because the term is more acceptable for seekers. I found it extremely valuable in my 20-plus years of pioneering new IFES student movements in South America and Europe, and it is by far the best tool for any tentmaker. In Spain, Marisa had just found Jesus Christ in our group and soon became our first Spanish staff worker. She told her non-believing sister, “At first the studies may seem confusing, but then everything falls into place.”
An IBS does not consist of lectures, but question-oriented discussions of short Bible passages, usually narratives from the gospels. It is an inductive approach, which does not seek to prove theological assertions, but helps participants to gather data from the text and come to their own conclusions. You help them discover the meaning of the text. This approach is very effective with people who have little knowledge of the Bible, and who do not trust their peers as religious authorities.
A genuine IBS must be largely non-believers, so the discussion will be spontaneous, and not quashed by the pressure of a Christian majority. Two Christians are enough even for a group of ten or twelve–or twenty! (Smaller groups allow for freer discussion.) But isn’t there a danger that the non-believing majority will agree on a wrong interpretation? No, because you always begin with ground rules. You say, “Are we agreed that we are here not just to exchange religious opinions, but to see what Jesus is doing and saying in this passage?” Then, if you get wild comments, say, “Joe, I’m intrigued by your answer! But in which verse did you find it?” Joe admits this is his private version, everyone chuckles a bit, and you proceed with the text. (I keep notes on people’s comments, so I can talk with people between study days.)
I could fill a book on this subject! But what we have available is a GO Paper, The Tentmaker and Evangelistic Bible Studies complete with one sample IBS study guide.
You may also want to read our GO Paper on Inductive Bible Study–how to analyze and interpret a Bible passage and turn it into an effective Bible study discussion guide.
Also recommended, How to Start an Evangelistic Bible Study and Jesus, the Disciple Maker, a series of 8 evangelistic studies from the Gospel of John. Both are by Ada Lum, and are available from IVP.