DBS and 3-Column Studies

Yesterday I enjoyed an hour-long phone conversation with a brother who is returning to Benin for a short-term mission trip among some Aja believers. He had served as a cross-cultural missionary among these people for several years before moving back to the States. Now he goes back periodically to encourage them and do some teaching, coaching and mentoring.

He told me that he had introduced the Discovery Bible Study approach to these people a couple of years ago. He was wanting my feedback on what he was planning to do on this upcoming trip. In the course of our discussion he exclaimed, “I did not understand that. I have probably caused a lot of frustration among these people!”

What had he just understood? What light had come on for my friend?

Discovery Bible Studies and 3-Column Studies are not identical. They overlap. They dove-tail well when they are used among people who are functional literates, but even then they are not the same.

A 3-Column Study is primarily an individualistic inductive study. An individual writes out a short section of Scripture, copying it into the left-hand column in a word-for-word style. Then he/she paraphrases the same passage in her/his own words in the middle column. In the third column the person itemizes what he/she will do to obey–put into practice–this passage.

This is an inductive study because all the meaning comes directly from the text. In re-writing the passage you include who is speaking and to whom. You include what the author/speaker wants the audience to understand from the events that transpire. If the time frame is significant, then “When?” is a question that is answered in the re-telling. Where these events take place is also revealed. Why these events are significant is declared. How the desired outcome takes place is also revealed. Basic reading comprehension is reported in the middle column.

In the third column the student records what she/he hears from the text that should be applied to his/her life. Ownership is taken by using the format of starting each line with the words “I Will…” (I once had a friend tell me that someone in one of my classes said he never did the 3rd column because if he wrote these using the “I will…” start he would feel like he had to obey them.)

Completing this process can be very valuable for any student of God’s Word who is functionally literate. It can be richly rewarding because it slows you down and has you “handle” Scriptures. (Have you ever considered that in Jesus’ day there was a group of spiritual leaders who were formed by the practice of writing Scripture–the Scribes? Their shortcoming was their refusal to obey what they learned by copying God’s Word.) It is valuable because it prepares you to tell someone else what you hear God saying through a specific text. It also serves as a historical document describing what you realize you need to do to submit to God’s teaching from a particular passage.

But 3-Column Studies are not going to work with functionally illiterate people. They will not work with those who do not know how to read and write. They will not work with oral learners. These people either are unable to read and write, or they strongly prefer not to do so. But we must remember that Scriptures were primarily written to be heard. “Hear, oh Israel…” “Let him who has ears to hear…”

People who will never read or write can orally do the equivalent of a 3-Column Study. The format we recommend for that to happen is a Discovery Bible Study. Here the process is done through speaking and listening. Here the text is read or told well. If it is read, it is probably best if it is read well twice. At the appropriate time it should first be read from a trade language translation. Follow that with a heart language translation if that is available.

Whenever a group gathers, to do a discovery study (whether they have previously done a 3-column study or not), there is a very valuable format for them to follow. It actually entails discipling them (primarily by modelling and by you coaching an insider who will facilitate the process in his/her household) to ask and answer eight questions during their gathering:

  • What has gone well lately that gave you joy?
  • What has caused you, or someone you know, stress lately?
  • How did the efforts to help with the stressor we picked last time go?

[Have the passage read twice/told. Have someone  re-tell the passage. Ask others to fill in any significant details that were omitted when the passage was re-told.]

  • What do you learn about God from this passage?
  • What do you learn about humanity from this passage?
  • What would obedience to this passage look like in our lives?
  • Who do you know who needs to hear what we have learned today?
  • Which of the stressful things that were mentioned earlier can we help to overcome?

By following this format groups discover many things. They discover something about God’s nature and work. They discover that they can help each other with stressful situations. They discover the value of being thankful. They discover the benefits that come from hearing, understanding and practicing God’s Word as a group. They discover how obedience to a passage is transformational. They discover how to minster to others. They discover the importance of sharing what they are learning with others.

Everything in the Discovery Bible Study is done orally. It can be done by people who love to read and write. It can be done by those who hate to read or write. It can be done by those who are unable to read and write. It involves people in a very reproducible process of coming to Scripture and submitting to what it is teaching.

My friend had been trying to get people who are oral learners to use a literate process. I can relate; I have attempted the same thing. I know I have frustrated many, too.

Don’t get me wrong–writing out 3-Column Studies is extremely valuable for anyone who will consistently do them! These written studies become a great testimony to how God has been transforming your life over a period of time. But there is great value in doing Discovery Bible Studies. Those who only do 3-Column Studies will miss much richness that comes only from being part of a community that is opening itself to God’s Word.

Since you are reading this blog, I know you can benefit from using both formats. Doing a 3-Column Study would be a great way to prepare to facilitate a Discovery Bible Study. Pass it on to any who read and write, but invest your primary energies into getting others to do Discovery Bible Studies. Make sure they know they can open themselves to God whether they like to read or write or not!


  1. Thanks John. I am currently doing a study of 1 and 2 Samuel. It is actually a Kay Arthur study, but she is really big on inductive bible study. It is a really meaningful way to study. Of course, I still do a lot of writing, because I like to, and because I will retain it better. I am thinking about starting a new small group at my house. I am interested in hearing more and picking your brain about how to go about this so that it is most helpful to everyone involved.


    1. Diane, these pre-packaged studies are expensive thus they cannot be duplicated in the areas where the majority of unreached people live (imagine a family of six who live on less than two dollars a day trying to buy one of these workbooks). Asking and answering basic questions allows rich and poor alike to hear God’s Word and grasp its meaning for their lives. Let’s schedule a time to dialogue on your group idea!


  2. thanks john
    i am going to pass this on to my kids youngest is 19 three of them are trying to teach classes to their friends.
    they have baptized 20 or more of them that i know of
    thanks again
    by the way i am the rich from j.m.h. blog
    blessings to you


    1. Rich, you are welcome. Yes, I recognize your name from my good friend’s blog. John Mark and I were in Bible college together and then I took some graduate courses under him while earning my first Masters degree. I pray the 3-column studies and Discovery Bible Study approaches will be useful for your children. Sounds like they are already doing good work. These approaches are valuable because they are so easily replicated. People start doing them and teach others how to do them, often before they come to faith themselves! It is pretty incredible when that happens. But hearing from God through Scriptures and putting it into practice is transformational! Thanks for stopping by the blog. Blessings!


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