The (Surprising) Benefits of the Inductive Approach

| By Fran Goodrich

When Pastor “Ted” and his wife, “Angie,” came to Q Place Coaching, they were eager to learn how to start small groups for people who haven’t yet accepted the message of the gospel. 

During our coaching sessions they watched models of Q Place Bible discussions, and Ted and Angie were amazed at how different this approach is from what they had expected. Instead of telling the gospel and truth from Scripture, group facilitators were asking questions and listening, letting group members make discoveries directly from Scripture itself.

This idea was counter intuitive for Ted and Angie—as it is for many Christians—but they were excited to pursue it.

New Testament scholar, author, and pastor William Barclay, in his book Daily Celebration, says, “It is only when truth is discovered that it is appropriated. When a man is simply told the truth, it remains external to him and he can quite easily forget it. When he is led to discover the truth himself it becomes an integral part of him and he never forgets.”

One of Q Place’s four core values is self-discovery, the idea that people grow and learn best when they discover truth for themselves through discussion and study. This value leads us to promote an inductive—rather than a deductive—approach to learning.

What Is the Inductive Approach to Learning?

First let’s look at the opposite—a deductive approach. The deductive approach to learning starts with an assertion and then seeks to prove it. It begins with generalizations and then moves to the data to support those generalizations. Questions can be used in a deductive approach, but they are often set up either to drive students to a predetermined conclusion or to test comprehension. 

A lawyer uses the deductive approach when defending his client in court. Participants in a debate use the deductive approach to prove a certain argument; they start with a conclusion and then build a case with evidence that supports that conclusion.

By contrast, an inductive approach to learning involves actively exploring an area of study in context, discovering, evaluating, and coming to conclusions through careful, thoughtful observation. Good questions are essential to this approach. 

A detective uses the inductive approach when gathering information at a crime scene by asking good questions about every aspect of the scene and recording all observations before evaluating the evidence and coming to conclusions.

When applied to Bible study or a discussion of spiritual issues, the inductive approach means that you start with a whole book, paragraph, or complete unit of thought and ask questions that help you explore, make discoveries, and process the information in context of the whole. The questions could be prepared by someone else, but they will help you notice, evaluate, and apply rather than prompt a pre-determined “right” answer.

What Are the Benefits of an Inductive Approach?

1. Vibrant discussions

In a group, an inductive approach sets the stage for lively, meaningful discussions. Participants all have something to offer as they explore a topic together. A deductive approach tends to have the opposite effect; a few people who feel confident in the subject talk a lot and everyone else tends to talk very little.

My husband once had a men’s Q Place group where one participant was a seminary grad and another, “Andy,” was a new Christian, just coming out of an “alternative” lifestyle. Andy had never in his life been in a discussion group with a bunch of men, let alone a group talking about the Bible! Yet, he faithfully showed up, did his lesson, and saw life from a completely different angle and experience from the other guys who had been in church for years. It was eye-opening and challenging for all, and especially for the seminary grad. And everyone in the group, no matter his Bible knowledge, could contribute.

2. Deeper learning

Studies have shown that people learn more and retain a deeper understanding of what they learn as they interact with it in a variety of ways. Inductive learning in a group involves actively wrestling with ideas and seeking answers, expressing thoughts out loud, and considering what others are noticing. People are relating to the subject matter in a variety of ways rather than just passively listening.

It always amazes me to wrestle through an issue or topic with a group of people who at first don’t agree, but as they listen to each other, come to consensus, which satisfies us all – even if that consensus is to “agree to disagree.” Most of us have never had a safe place to express our thoughts out loud, especially thoughts we know are different. I love to feel the safety of saying, “I’m not sure I agree with what I’m going to say, but here’s what I think….” There is a power in this kind of discussion that seems to be rarely experienced in our culture. 

3. Appeal for skeptics and seekers

When someone has doubts or major questions about the subject matter, a deductive approach seems to offer two options: accept the teaching or reject it. An inductive approach provides built-in opportunities to identify, clarify, explore, and evaluate beliefs. As a result, it’s a more effective approach to help people engage and wrestle with crucial issues.

When “Dan” first came to our Q Place group, he was like many people in the West who have dismissed the Bible as little more than ancient religious fairy tales, legends, metaphors or myths. Why would anyone choose to study, let alone think their lives could be transformed by such stories?

And yet, Dan, who questioned every little thing, highly valued our discussions which allowed him to think through what he believes. In fact, now he is a Christian! He calls the inductive method intuitive for skeptics and seekers like he was, and he doesn’t understand why more Christians don’t grasp its value.

4. Preparing the ground

Ironically, as a result of exploring a topic inductively, a person can become willing to engage with related content in a presentation—and to be a better learner there, too. The inductive experience prepares a person to be a more active listener, evaluating and interacting with the information, rather than passively hearing and absorbing parts of it.

Our pastor was preaching through a New Testament book at the same time several church Q Place groups were using our study guides to discuss the same book. We discovered that everyone in those groups eagerly came to the Sunday sermon to hear what the pastor had to say. Their understanding was deeper, and their engagement was sharpened and more discerning. This, of course, translated into God using his Word to penetrate their lives more profoundly.

5. Integrity in approaching Scripture

Using a deductive approach, a teacher can find and assemble isolated verses to prove ideas that aren’t supported from a careful reading of Scripture. In fact, this is how cults lead people to believe that the Bible supports what they teach.

Catherine Schell, one of the co-founders of Neighborhood Bible Studies (now the ministry of Q Place), used to say, “There isn’t another book in the world that’s been more misquoted, regardless of context or purpose or reference, than the Bible. That’s one reason inductive principles are so important.”

An inductive approach treats Scripture with integrity. It requires careful reading, examination, exploration of the context, and discovery of the original author’s purpose. A model of approaching Scripture inductively safeguards against careless or destructive teaching.

Rich’s story may be the most powerful one I have experienced related to the inductive approach. Rich came into one of our Q Place groups when our church secretary got him in touch with us. He came faithfully to the group with his discussion guide filled with responses, but for months in the group he just listened to everyone else discussing Scripture.

When Rich finally opened up one day, our group was stunned to find out his story. He had grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness, advanced to be a leader and a scholar, and was rejected and shunned after he raised questions about discrepancies between the original Greek and the Jehovah’s Witness translation of Scripture.

Our group—with inductive discussions of Scripture—was a place of healing for Rich. In our group he learned how to approach Scripture with integrity rather than taking snippets out of context. As a result, God brought Rich to a full understanding of the gospel, he put his faith in Jesus, and God set his whole life on a new course. 

The blog article What Safeguards Against Heresy in a Group fleshes out this benefit of an inductive approach, and near the end you can read more of Rich’s story! 

6. Communicating the authority and value of Scripture

The inductive method encourages people to immerse themselves in a passage of Scripture rather than to depend on a human expert. Those who facilitate an inductive approach encourage people in their group to see Scripture as the authority rather than themselves. They also help people to taste and see for themselves, so that they see the value of investing time in studying the Bible.

The Scriptures and the Holy Spirit have their own power to convince and convict! I’ve seen this over and over in group discussions. Of course, this only makes sense, since the Bible is the inspired word of God, and the Holy Spirit is part of the Godhead. 

7. Trust in the Holy Spirit

It takes faith not to circumvent the process of discovery. By letting go and allowing the Holy Spirit to use his Word as you discuss it together, you are trusting him to illuminate the truth of his Word in his timing. You are also leaving room for group members to discover truth without becoming dependent on you, or on another human teacher or leader.

We like to say that to effectively use the inductive method you must have a high view of the word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. You have to believe that God’s Holy Spirit can use Scripture to convince and convict. Otherwise, you are likely to circumvent others’ process of learning and take over, telling people what they need to believe.

This reminds me of “Joe’s” impatience and frustration with “Tony,” a seeker. Joe was a longtime Christian who couldn’t wait in our group discussions to tell Tony the answer to his questions, rather than letting Tony make discoveries for himself. Every time Tony expressed a question or doubt, Joe’s internal response (which showed on his face) was, “Why doesn’t he get that?! We’ve told him the answer to this many times already!”

Finally, Tony approached my husband and said he realized he was frustrating Joe with his questions and that maybe he (Tony) should drop out of the group. At that point, we realized Joe was probably never going to understand the value of inductive. So we gently suggested to Joe that we really had too many Christians in the group, and thankfully, he dropped out.

8. Respect

An inductive approach communicates that thinking adults are capable of understanding Scripture. (And as we just said in #7, as the Holy Spirit works in people, they can see and accept the Bible’s message for themselves.) When you approach the Bible inductively, discovering its message on an equal plane with your group members, you are communicating a message that understanding the Bible isn’t for an elite group. 

When my atheist neighbors attended my Q Place, it was an eye-opener for me to see how much they understood! I’ll never forget what “Jane” said after discussing several chapters in the book of Romans:

“Let me get this straight,” she posited. “If this stuff [in Romans] is not true, you two [pointing to me and the other Christian facilitator] haven’t lost anything. You’ve lived a good life, and it hasn’t hurt you. But if it is true, I’m in big trouble!”

My co-facilitator and I looked at each other and then responded by gently nodding our heads, affirming what Jane had said. 

Jane had heard the gospel before from “pushy Christians” and rejected it. They infuriated her and almost prevented her from attending our group because she didn’t want to have anything to do with Christians, whom she assumed were all pushy. 

Respecting Jane’s discovery process was crucial if she was going to take steps toward understanding what the Bible says and believing it.

8. Sharing joy in the journey of seeking God

People can learn inductively on their own, but the inductive method provides a rich context for groups to learn together. The insight of one person can spur on the thoughts of another, which in turn leads to new understanding for everyone. It is like a group of researchers who pool their gifts and abilities together to unearth new discoveries. Each person contributes a piece of the puzzle, and then all share in the satisfaction of completing it. The result for everyone involved is a sense of excitement and joy.

So yes, I am passionate about helping Christians start groups where people they know can gain all of the benefits of an inductive approach. Most of the time those group members won’t know that it is called “inductive.” They will just know that they like it.

Fran Goodrich
Q Place National Field Leader

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