Practical Steps for Individual Bible Study
1) Pray. Reading the Bible is hard. Very hard. Let's just be honest about that. So we need help, and who better to help us that the One who inspired those words in the first place? Engaging Scripture is a communal practice for Christians, but that process starts with us as individuals reading the Bible in the company of the Spirit whose help we pray to receive.
2) Be willing to obey what you read. This step is one of disposition or spiritual posture. We will be more likely to hear God's voice in the text if we are eager to honor what He will say!
3) Fight. Since Bible study is so hard, and since it is a practice the world of our workaday lives makes no room for, we will have to fight to actually do it. We cannot wait until opportunities arise. They will rarely come. We must forcefully create time in our day to read, study, and pray.
4) Pick a Time and a Place. As I mentioned in the sermon, many of us are quite devoted to certain media influences. Those influences often involve a time and a place. We go to the Gala at 7:45 to see an 8:00 film. We make our away into the living room to watch the scheduled TV show. So choose a time and place for the media influence of Scripture. It might be a good idea to make sure before bed that the "place" (a desk, chair, etc.) is ready to use as soon as we wake up (if the "time" is early in the morning). If I find debris on a desk or clutter crowding the study space, I might delay or find myself engrossed in cleaning or sorting!
5) Choose a Manageable Reading Plan. We are more likely to read if we have some sort of vision as to what it is we are reading. And a hunk of our reading time might well get swallowed up flipping pages wondering where we should start. Since our church will be working through a sermon series on 1 John soon, why not start with the "Johannine Literature": The Gospel of John, and 1, 2 and 3 John (sometimes Revelation gets looped in with these as well, but that would really extend the reading plan). And the word "manageable" above is very intentional. Do not set unreasonable goals—constantly "failing" in spiritual disciplines takes us on a sure path to fatigue and apathy.
6) Read both Widely and Narrowly. What I mean is that we should read both wide swaths of text plus take time to focus in on just a small passage or two. For instance, if I were going to assign myself a reading plan for John's Gospel, I would want to read thru as much of the Gospel as possible in one sitting. Again, be reasonable with the time frame. But reading long spans help us to see the big picture of a biblical text. Don't worry if you come across something you do not understand. Take note of it, but keep reading. After reading long spans of a book or letter, you can narrow in on briefer portions. This might include re-reading the entire text, but much more slowly, or just spending focused time on a handful of passages that seem important or stood out to you in the first reading(s).
7) Mind the Literary Features. As written text, the Bible has literary qualities. So look for stylistic features like repeated words/phrases, the use of irony, recurring themes, etc. It is also extremely important to think about the literary genre of what you are reading. A "Gospel" should be read differently than an "Epistle" or an "Apocalypse (like Revelation) or a "sayings collection" (like Proverbs). In our own day, we read newspaper articles differently than we would read a novel or a blog post. Genre affects how we read and understand a text.
8) Make Notes. I write all throughout my Bible. Just be careful that when you are underlining or circling you are not just highlighting the bits that conveniently suit you! Try to pay attention to what the Spirit is nudging you to notice; also, try to observe what the biblical authors are emphasizing.
9) Try new technologies. I do not use an e-reader or e-tablet to read Scripture. I just use the book-form. But there are some excellent applications out there that might help your Bible Reading. It might be worth checking some out.
10) Use Good Tools. The best "tool" I would recommend is a good study Bible. Most of us do not need an unwieldy commentary set for our Bible reading. But all of us could use some solid background notes that help us understand the names, places, and historical goings-on in which the biblical writings are framed.
11) Learn from the Church. God is not calling us all to be biblical scholars. But He has assigned competent Bible readers to lead our church. So take advantage of the opportunities provided by Kings. There are occasional workshops and the School of Theology, but don't forget that every sermon should not only be an instance of good Bible reading, but also a model for how we can engage the Bible responsibly.
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