Bible reading with ready ears and an open heart is engaging and fruitful. There’s something fresh about letting God speak for himself, especially when you search the Bible yourself, making the effort to hear.
But why do it alone? Pray, listen to the voice of God, and help your friends and neighbours eavesdrop as they read God’s word for themselves. They may hear him speak too.
I know lots of great approaches to Bible reading—but let me give you some ideas from my personal experiences in using the Swedish Method for Bible reading. 1
Here are some tips to get started.
Just say: “I would like to invite you to read the Bible with me”. Speak with the confidence of your convictions—you would like them to read the Bible with you, wouldn’t you? Don’t start with the ‘lame duck’ question “Would you like to read the Bible?” In some cases people may, but the status quo is more likely to prevail, and it’s far safer for people to say no, because they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into or where it might end up, and people are often wary of getting caught up with religious weirdos.
There is no need to describe the get together as a Bible study; many people won’t know what that means, or they may assume it is a lecture of some sort.
When you meet to read the Bible, do it. Read a passage—that’s what you said you would do. There’s no need to give complex instructions about what you are going to do, and how you are going to do it. Get on with things and read it.
Then try the question “What impacts you from this passage?” and sit back and hear what God has been saying to them! You may be surprised at the light bulbs that come on.
Then it’s your turn to say what impacts you; for example: “Something that impacts me from this passage is that the author said such-and-such.” If they’re shy, you could give your thoughts first, but keep them simple and short: tell them what impacts you (read the phrase or verse), and why it impacts you. The other person will see you as setting the norm for what this is all about. If there’s just two of you then you can repeat the question—once, twice, even three times—whatever fits your available time.
But what if there is something they don’t understand? Something that they’re curious about? What if they ask for an explanation?
Whether to answer a question or leave it in the air is one of the most disputed points about the Swedish Method. Most Christians want to answer the question, and most newcomers want their questions answered… but don’t rush in. We want to build confidence in Scripture, and we want to train people in how to read it by allowing it to speak for itself, and by modelling and gently pushing people along in their Bible reading skills. Allow what you do to demonstrate what you believe. We believe that God speaks in Scripture as a coherent whole, so what we need to do is keep reading and looking for his answers to our questions.
Once you start answering questions, it’s hard to reverse that dynamic. If you start modelling by answering questions, your Bible reading friend will probably do exactly the same when they start reading the Bible with someone else—so don’t complain if you hear down the track that they are simply sharing their own ideas more than the Bible.
Christians are often so quick to jump in with answers (usually to explain hard passages) that we can create all sorts of problems for ourselves. We teach people to look to human authorities for the answers. We model Bible reading as dependent on experts. We shut people down and don’t listen to them, out of misplaced enthusiasm and a desire for them to see what we have already discovered. There’s plenty of room for encouraging the most delicate flower to discover the delights of God’s word for themselves, and in the process learn how to.
There’s another risk in jumping in to answer questions, and this is a serious one. We run the risk of simply explaining things from the depth of our own misinformed ignorance, however correct we believe ourselves to be. There’s plenty of room for healthy humility in Bible reading. People see that and appreciate it. I’ll never forget Paul Barnett presenting the gospel clearly to a group of our university friends at an evangelistic dialogue meeting at UNSW, and then listening gently for a whole evening to a bunch of non-Christians. We could have answered most of the questions that he gently side-stepped or protested his limited knowledge about. After he’d left at the end of the evening, our friends told us how wonderful the evening had been, and how helpful, and how they felt they could open up and talk without fear of being ‘pounced on’ by Christians who always seem to have all the answers.
Let’s let God speak, rather than feeling we need to explain him or justify him all the time!
I think that, when meeting one-to-one, answering questions is not wholly unproductive, but it is far more motivating for the new reader if they discover that, with a bit of searching using the right tools, they can actually find the answers for themselves. Don’t be put off by the fact that they may need to read some more of the Bible, and do a bit more homework—isn’t that what we’d like to see? I remember John Chapman saying that you can read the whole New Testament on a wet Sunday afternoon!
When the Swedish method is used in groups (perhaps your friend is so excited by what they’re learning that they want to invite someone else to join you to read the Bible), it is very important not to jump in to answer questions, especially if you want them to learn how to conduct this Bible reading approach in turn with their friends later on. We’ll only ever reach the whole world with the gospel if we multiply our outreach efforts, and one of the strengths of this method is that it is easily repeatable and reproducible. So please, don’t answer questions during the ‘formal’ meeting—unless they are obvious things, or the answer is somewhere previous in the passage or book under consideration. And even then, help motivate your reader to search for the answer, just like you, or any other commentator, could have done.
Application is crucial. We’re not spectators when we read God’s word. As believers, we’re praying for ourselves and our Christian and non-Christian friends as we come to read. We are expecting God to speak to us. The application may not always be something I have to do—it may be taking on board a particular Bible truth—however it will likely be something that helps us mature in our relationship with our Heavenly Father under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
We haven’t put a whole lot of effort into ‘interpretation’ of the Bible yet. That can wait until our observation skills have been honed through using the Swedish Method, and until we’ve learned inductive Bible reading skills inductively, through the observation, question, and application process. However, it is important that we don’t end up with an intellectual exercise alone: that is not hearing God speaking to us.
“An application expressed in first-person singular” is a bit of a mouthful, but we can simply say: “From what I’ve read today, I’d like to put into practice in my life what I read in verse XYZ, that I live in such and such a manner. What would you like to put into practice?” This approach to application helps us avoid pointing the finger at others, and letting ourselves off the hook. We can’t just throw around third-person arrows, such as blaming Christians for being hypocrites; we need to face up to what Scripture (God speaking) says to us.
Again, we want our actions to be consistent with what we believe. We haven’t just read ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’. We are reading God’s words to us, so what is he telling us today? What difference does that make? I’ve heard of groups from other religions reading the Bible and asking “What should we do about this?” That is a respectful approach to hearing God speak. We are to act according to what webelieve. Of course, a group of non-Christians asking the question could almost be described as church planting before the people are converted! But with individuals we are modelling seriousness in hearing God speak.
“Who could I tell?” This is a great question, and is not part of the original Swedish Bible Method. I learnt it from an Indian man (in Cambodia) who was previously involved in the Peace and Reconciliation movement in India that followed the burning of Graham Staines and his two sons in their car by Hindu extremists. He told me of the huge impact that this question has had in church planting in northern India.2
The first time I used this questions was at a conference, with a group of overseas students. The Japanese girls in the group, who were out telling their friends what they had discovered from the first day, became Christians by the end of the week. Imagine their concept of the normal Christian life: it has to do with telling people about what they were reading in the Bible. If we all were doing that, we would hardly need to train anyone in personal evangelism or disciple-making: we would all be doing it!
It’s so simple: tell someone what we’ve learned or discovered from our Bible reading. Once we get into the hang of it, we’ll find it easier. We’ll find more creative ways, and a wider range of people to talk to, simply through practice. Natural, conversational evangelism and discipleship—straight from God’s word.
Some people like to draw and doodle. I find that that the habit of drawing a light bulb, question mark, arrow, and speech bubble provide a repeatable, predictable structure, as well as somewhere to add personal notes. Making notes also increases the opportunity for accountability, as we report back in subsequent meetings how the Lord has answered our prayers in applying his Word to our lives. It also means that we have a record of the questions, so new discoveries can be tied back to previous questions. It all motivates and helps link the ideas together over time.
Some people prefer to talk rather than draw. My observation is that this usually reflects the preferences and, sometimes, insecurities of the person leading. I encourage you to draw and write, rather than just talk; there is something that engages and commits people in the process. Writing things down helps people to own their understanding, and means it’s not so easy to just merge with someone else’s opinion. You can actually ask them what they have written. Even when people are impacted by the same phrase or verse from Scripture, their reasons as to why it impacted them are often personal and distinct.
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne have helped us see that making disciples is actually about making disciple-makers. Let’s do the same with Bible reading. Through what we do in our Bible readings, we are modelling to and equipping other Bible readers to read with others, who then go out and do the same.
A keen missionary I know simply has the goal of inviting every woman she comes across to read the Bible with her. When I started in student work, my instructions were to go around the residential colleges, knocking on doors and inviting students to read the Bible with me. That’s basically been the shape of my ministry since.
Let’s do it: motivated, reproducing, applied Bible reading.
You can try reading the Bible together using the Swedish Method and WhatsApp. Terry Blowes describes how her group used the Swedish Method for their first meeting, and what happened. And if you’d like to learn from someone else’s mistakes, then Carl Matthei would love you to avoid his problems! Penny Morrison explains how her group adapted the Method to suit their study group, while we have a translation explaining where it originated. There is also an explanation and review on John Piper's site Desiring God.
Want? an easy overview that you can print to take along with you to your meetings to keep you on track? Here you are: Swedish Method PDF handout.
Here is a video of Isobel, Garbo and Melissa demonstrating how to use the Swedish Method:
1. To the best of my knowledge, the Swedish Method of Bible reading is so named in recognition of the anonymous pastor in a rural congregation who developed it in the locality of Vasteras, Sweden. It was later used by the IFES-affiliated Swedish student movement Credo, and popularised by Intervarsity/IFES staff worker Ada Lum.↩
2. The current format has been developed in Latin America, with the addition of the speech bubble, following a conversation with Rev Raju Bhagwat about church planting experiences in Northern India (Raju is currently serving the Lord in Cambodia).↩
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