Survey, observe, interpret, apply
For several summers growing up, I made a weeklong excursion to Boy Scout camp. Few of my memories from those summers are etched in my mind more than my experiences with the small boat sailing merit badge. To be quite honest, I’m not even sure how I actually earned that badge. Trust me, you would not want to small boat sail with me today. If we got in a boat, we might suffer the same misfortunes of Santiago from Old Man and the Sea. Nevertheless, I remember our tutelage by a fellow amateur sailor scout on a scorching hot dock at the lake. We learned a few knots, memorized the various constituents of our tiny vessel, strapped on our PFDs, and set sail for the wild blue yonder.
Given that there was no wind, we pushed ourselves off the dock to get in the open water. We turned our sails this way and that to no avail. We fumbled with our knots that we barely practiced and took turns rattling the rudder back and forth in hopes that we would “paddle” our way back to shore. We stepped in the boat vastly unprepared, overconfident, inept at small boat problem solving, and with clueless smiles on our faces. We simply weren’t trained to navigate the waters. My fear is that we might be unknowingly playing the part of the overconfident amateur small boat sailing scout by sending kids into the Christian life with no clue about how to read, study, and apply the Bible.
Could it be that our curriculum and programming has gotten so “relevance” driven that we have dismissed the foundation of our ministry? Is it possible that we are losing many students because we are not equipping kids with tools that help them to immerse themselves in Scripture? Perhaps we aren’t really sure ourselves how to navigate the Bible, so teaching the next generation how to do it is a hopeless cause. I think we can turn the ship around. I think that people in kids and family ministry care deeply about God’s Word. I think that with the right philosophy of mind, a hefty overhaul in our approach, and a little bit of teacher and parent training, we can see biblical faithfulness in the hearts and minds of our kids. We can catch the wind in our sails and steer the next generation into the sunset of God’s Word.
I’m huge on philosophical foundations. If you’ve ever read anything of mine or sat under me in a workshop, you will see clearly that I want to set the stage for an argument before I even make it. I think it’s profoundly important that we always understand, recognize, and clarify the “why” before we get into the “how.” The “why” of this story begins with the nature of God’s Word. What do we believe about it? Why does that matter? Below are ten non-negotiables about the Holy Scripture. These propositions are uniquely important, because when you believe them, they drive the way you think and speak when you train people with God’s Word. When you firmly believe these things, the kids and parents with whom you minister will “see it and believe it”, too.
- The Bible is an inerrant book. The original manuscripts, which we have strict certainty that our English translations are immensely close to, are perfectly pure. If God inspired it and nothing God states can be false, then we are left with a perfect work.
- The Bible is a cohesive book. It lines up at every portion. It never truly contradicts itself, even when it may seem to on the surface. It has a continual theme of redemption and unravels the story of Christ from Genesis to Revelation.
- The Bible is an inspired book. Though it was written through the agency of men, it is breathed down from God. It has a dual nature, much in the way of Jesus. The Bible is perfectly human and divine.
- The Bible is an authoritative book. More attention has been drawn to God’s Word than any other book in history. It shows men their sin, calls them to repentance, and begs for the hearts of all of humanity. It is living, active, sharp, and piercing. When you speak it, mountains move.
- The Bible is a prophetic book. God knows the future. When we recognize that God has predicted the future, we can trust in His sovereignty over our future. Fulfilled prophecy leads to great faith.
- The Bible is a revelatory book. God has revealed a little bit of Himself through the Scriptures. It makes sense when you read John 1 and see Jesus as the Word in the flesh who came to explain the Father (John 1:1, 14). The Bible is a summation of Jesus.
- The Bible is a structured book. Scripture follows a path. Not that our English order is inspired, but that through time, God has been leading His people on a journey of creation, fall, redemption, reconciliation, and ultimate consummation. The Bible chronicles that in an orderly way.
- The Bible is a practical book. It provides real world solutions to our problems, passionate encouragement when we are pleasing the Lord, and impassioned fuel for worship and prayer. It speaks to every human need or struggle.
- The Bible is a beautiful book. God’s Word employs prose, drama, action, poetry, comedy, logic, biography, letters, parables, sermons, and song. There is no literary equal. To teach it with dryness is to reject its glory.
- The Bible is a challenging book. Capable of softening the hardest of hearts, it encourages us toward love and good deeds. It tries our faith and molds us to become what we can never become on our own.
It is not a book of fables. It is not the product of one man or a collective religious group. It is not a list of prescriptive commands. It is not an allegory. It is not simply one of many inspired religious works. When each of these facts infiltrate your mind, you will see them also infiltrate your speech, your teaching, your communication, your exhortation and your leadership. These principles are the wind in your sails.
Now that the foundation is set, how do we get children to understand and interpret the Scriptures in a way that proves faithful to the Lord? I would suggest teaching the use of the inductive study method. I’m not sure who pioneered this strategy, so I take no innovative credit here. The inductive method, as opposed to “deductive”, is open-ended and moves the one studying from the specific to the general, meaning that you learn as much about the details of the passage before you move to apply the passage to life. Get God’s meaning first, then make application. It can be summed up in these four steps: survey, observe, interpret, and apply.
The key question here is, “What is going on?” When you survey, you attempt to understand the overarching picture behind a passage. Read the whole book first. Find out as much on your own as you can about the author, setting, audience, time period, historical data, cultural data, major players, and circumstances. You will need some good study tools after you dig as far as you can go. Things like study Bibles, concordances, Bible dictionaries, and cursory commentaries are helpful here.
When you observe, you are trying to answer the question, “What do I see?” You aren’t trying to get to meaning yet. Think of Sergeant Joe Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Look for repeated words, emphasis, action words, long words that need definition, lists, the style of writing, opposites and similarities, major themes, places, and conclusive terms (therefore, because of, for this reason, so that).
I’m reminded of a story about a young seminarian who wanted to learn directly from his revered professor how to get the most out of the Bible. This professor met with him in his office one afternoon and told him to study the goldfish on his bookshelf, making a note of everything he observed. For an entire week, the young student did just as the professor instructed. Finally, on Friday, the student asked his mentor when they were going to get instruction about studying the Bible. The professor looked at him and said, “Study that fish until you have made every observation possible, then we’ll study God’s Word the same way.”
Now that you have garnered all the facts, you can begin answering the question, “What does it mean?” Do not mistake this for “What does it mean to me?” for that is such a relativistic question never to be asked of the Scriptures. Understand clearly here that the Scripture has one interpretation and many applications. It cannot mean two very different things and it can never mean something different from the original author’s intent. Helpful strategies include finding other Scriptures that enlighten your understanding, getting to the most literal proposition, contemplating what is said before and after, and seeking the help of much more learned people than yourself who have studied extensively and written on the passage.
You may try to discern what commands are being made. You may read it out loud. You may paraphrase the passage in your own words. However, one of the most integral steps to this process is discerning what that passage says about Jesus. Sometimes, this can be as plain as the “suffering servant” passage in Isaiah 53 or as discreet as Nehemiah as a “type” of the true Christ to come who will rebuild the walls of His people through his victorious death and resurrection. This, then, is one of the chief goals in understanding Scripture, that is, recognizing Christ as the end of its parts and its whole.
Now that you understand the meaning of the passage, you can be free to apply it to your life and the lives of those who listen to you. The question of most importance in this step is, “What is to be done and how?” In our drive-through society, we can so quickly breeze through or skip the other steps in order to “do something.” When we allow this, or lead kids to do this, we forsake the richness of chewing on the meat of the Word. It is akin to forcing a child to enjoy a 2-foot kiddy pool at a beach house when the vast adventurous ocean lies 50 yards from your backyard.
Application takes a special measure of guidance of the Holy Spirit. A prayer that recognizes the facts of the passage, confesses sin, and asks for personal transparency is in order at this point. Why not stop in the middle of your children’s sermon to pray before you get to the application? Application seeks to expose areas of one’s Christian life that need change or that are displeasing to the Lord. Application can also encourage one, helping him to see where he has been right or honoring the Lord. Proper application should lead to obedience and encourage the changing party to share his insight with others.
These principles are tried and tested, not just by me, but by many faithful people before me. I know that our children’s ministries will be much better off with them in place. We can never fail our children when we provide them with God’s Word. It is the beaten path that leads to the most fruitful ministry. In that spirit, let me leave you with the prophetic and powerful words of Paul to young Timothy:
“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).