church planting: 3-column studies

This is the third post in a series leading us to a         strategy for mission in Geita, Tanzania.  Previous posts are here:

In the last post, we looked at the parable of the sower and the soils, and I suggested that until we are good soil, there can be no successful strategy for mission in our churches.  Good soil hears the word, understands it, and is obedient to it.  And today we’ll explore a method of Bible study that promotes and encourages these very things.

I should be clear that most of the following ideas are not original with me. Several individuals and groups have influenced me to adopt what is often referred to as inductive Bible study, obedience-based Bible study, or 3-column Bible study — David Watson, John King, and Missions Resource Network, to name a few.  Because there exist differences in formats of the studies above, I’ll simply explain the way in which I use this method — and why.

We want to, in our mission to the people of Geita, cultivate, as best we can, the soil into which the gospel is being sown.  Therefore, this 3-column Bible study method focuses on hearing the word of God, understanding the word of God, and being obedient to the word of God.


Select a passage for study. It’s important that you choose a text which contains an entire thought — a paragraph (or group of) for instance.  This method works best with 4-12 verse sections.

Start with prayer, that the Spirit will guide you to an understanding of the words you read, that he will help you apply it to your own life, AND that he will empower you to be obedient to God’s words for you.  [You may want to pray even before selecting a text.]

Divide a piece of paper into three columns — horizontally, vertically, hot dog, hamburger, whatever you like.

In the first column, write out the text word for word. I know it seems silly, but it’s important.

In the second column, you should rewrite the passage in your own words — as if you were explaining it to someone else.  Don’t dwell on other texts and familiar verses as you study.  Instead, try to understand the words of this particular passage, in its own context, in the simplest way possible.

In the third column, write what you’ve learned about God, his church, etc.  AND (this is important) write what you should do in response to what you’ve understood.  Write these responses as “I will…” statements, and be specific — not “I will be more generous this week,” but “I will cheerfully give to each and every person who asks me for help this week, whether it be my money or my time.”

Share what you’ve learned about God and life with someone else, and share with them the commitments you’ve made in response.  Ask them to hold you accountable to be obedient to God’s word in these areas, and to pray for you as you seek to become who God wants you to be.

I have read the word,
understood it,
set specific and attainable goals in obedience,
and shared these goals with another individual.

Why this method?

In my mind, the biggest difference in this Bible study method and others is column three — obedience.  I’m committing to be obedient to the word of God, and I’ve even named specific ways to do so.  Too often in modern Christianity, Bible study is only about gaining knowledge.  Yet we know knowledge alone is not pleasing to God.  At the end of each 3-column Bible study, I have read the word, understood it, set specific and attainable goals in obedience, and shared these goals with another individual. Many people call this an obedience-based study method, and I like that.  So would Jesus… “If you love me, you will obey what I command,” John 14.

It may seem like a waste of time to write the text word for word, but in doing so, you are actually reading it a number of times.  And this goes a long way in understanding the text.  Also, later on, you’ll appreciate having all three columns together in your study notebook / word document.

In column two, as I rewrite the passage in my own words, I’m accomplishing two things:  1) I’m understanding the passage.  Until I can explain something simply and in my own words, I do not understand it. Period.  Some of us, Bible teachers included, have allowed our Bibles to be obstacles to understanding, rather than the useful tools God intended.  2)  Also, in summarizing a passage in my own words, I’m actually preparing to tell someone else what I’ve learned.  How selfish is it to understand truths from God and not share them with others?

Group Study

This method of Bible study is incredibly useful in group settings.  There are numerous benefits.  It removes the “teacher” from among us for a time being, and allows the word of God alone to be our authority.  This involves the community in interpretation (which I believe was God’s intention). And God’s word is more firm in our hearts when we’ve come to understand it through personal struggle and thought, and even learned to express it in our own words.  Additionally, we are more intelligent as a group than as individuals.  We’re also sharing our ideas, so that we can hold one other accountable to the text, and also to our “I will” statements.  And who doesn’t want more discussion and less just sitting in Bible class?

In a group setting, we usually read the text together aloud once before each of us begins our writing.  Then we leave about 20-30 minutes or so (depending on the length of the text) for individuals to work on their three columns.  The second half of our time together is then spent sharing our understanding of the passage, what God has spoken to us, and how we intend to be obedient to it.  It’s useful, too, if in your next meeting you discuss how you did in your “I will” statements, and with whom you shared what you learned the week before.  [I’m not sure how beneficial it is in these group studies to spend your time looking at other verses that help to explain what you’ve read — I might suggest the group assign that as “homework,” so you don’t spend so much time gaining knowledge that it might prevent you from creating or sharing “I will” statements.  Maybe you could start your next meeting by discussing in brief some of those other texts?]

Oral Cultures

For those of us who are ministering in oral cultures, we can easily modify the 3-column approach.  Rather than writing the passage word for word, we simply read it aloud several times, as the group listens and takes in the spoken word of God.  Column two, then, becomes a collective retelling of the text by all members of the group — and in this retelling it becomes evident that a communal memory is better than an individual one.  Column three still has the same function, as we share with one another what we’ve learned about God, and what his Spirit is prompting us to do in order to be obedient to him.

Just a sidenote:  The Geita mission team has repeatedly practiced these obedience-based, 3-column studies in oral form, in order to prepare for the types of studies we’ll be doing in rural Tanzania.  While useful to understand how an oral study will function, this does NOT seem to be a very good method for western minds.  So if you’re getting the idea that you’ll do this whole thing orally (probably so the group doesn’t have to sit in silence while writing the passage word for word), I’d suggest that you’ll benefit less from study in that fashion.


At one of David Watson’s Church Planting Movements seminars, he suggested we make a fourth column for our study: “What does this text tell us about our ministry and/or mission?” In this way, we may even be able to make “I will” statements for our ministries, small groups, or churches as wholes.  This can be quite useful.  I, myself, have actually added a couple of columns.  Personally, I separate what I learned about God, his mission, and his church from my own personal “I will” statements — but that’s mostly just because I’m a little bit anal and like to organize things to death…  But I also have added a permanent column for our mission in Geita.  So each time I study a text, I consider what it might say about the way we as a team are to be Christ in our community.  I didn’t want to include these comments in “how to do a 3-column study,” because they seem to go beyond the simple “hear, understand, and be obedient” approach.  But all the same, they have proven useful to me.

Two upcoming posts:



Filed under church planting, how to study the bible, how to...

26 responses to “church planting: 3-column studies

  1. Jerrod

    Brett, I think this is a wonderful approach to learning more about God and how we should be living him into those around us. Do you have any recomendations for scriptures to study this way?


  2. What’s up cuz? I myself generally do one of two things:

    1) Choose a book and read through it, about a chapter a day — and then when I come to anything that seems to resonate with me or pull at me (or the Holy Spirit is pushing me towards it…), I set that text aside for the next day’s 3-column study. So I end up not doing a 3-column study every day, but maybe every other or every third. Which is nice, because if you end up with three or four “I will” statements every day of the week, it can be overwhelming. I don’t think God expects us to change all in one week — it’s more about direction.

    2) Sometimes I choose some topic in particular I’d like to study. And I spend the first day of that study finding several texts and passages in the Bible that address that topic (anywhere from 3-10 or so). Then every day I do one passage and its 3-column study. These studies tend to overlap quite a bit, so I don’t end up with a whole lot of “I will” statements every day, but rather reinforce some of those I’ve already made. The last study I did this way was on “giving and generosity,” because there are lots of beggars here, and I wanted to know how to address this in a Godly way.

    David Watson has organized a few series for 3-column study and has them available for free download here. He even supplies the 3-column pages for you. If you decided to go that route, I think I’d look at the leadership study.

  3. Jerrod

    Not doing a whole lot of anything, working at nights, so I have plenty of time to study. Thank you for the recomendations.

  4. Brett,

    Yesterday when you commented on my blog, you asked me about typing the text, as compared to hand writing it. I replied there, but want to re-visit that idea here. For me, typing is not as valuable as hand writing the text. But when I shared that discussion with a group of young adults, one said, “That may not be true of all generations.” My first thought was to reject his comment, out of hand, but then I reconsidered.

    Two of us in that group are in our 50s. We were both taught typing in a formal class in high school. For our generation, typists were trained to be machines and not read what we were typing so we could type faster with fewer errors. That may not be true of your generation and younger. Computers have been so much more a part of your lives. You have grown up composing articles and papers at the computer. So I want to say that you will need to evaluate this for yourself.

    As I re-read your article, it is obvious you have multiple columns for different purposes. Keeping up with that on paper will be difficult, if not impossible. Do what works best for you.

    Obviously, when you go into a village you will need to do this with handwriting so it is reproducible to the people there. I know you know that, but I am reiterating it for your other readers, though.

    Blessings bro!

    • thanks for the thoughts. it’s a really interesting take on possible differences in typing techniques from generation to generation. i honestly don’t know how i feel about it. most of my 3-columns have been handwritten. but like you said, i often have more than three columns, so recently i’ve started typing things out. that way, too, i have better records for future use. i also find myself going back and rewriting the 2nd column pretty often. i think i am still understanding the passages well, though i don’t know if it’s because i process it while i type, or just because i look at it so very many times. anyway, i think my system is working well for me. but i’m mostly curious about when i teach this method to others. i’ve not yet been asked, but i can only assume young generations will want to use computers rather than paper.

      i think in most of the villages, though, it’s going to need to be orally. which, by the way, is really hard for me. our team has practiced oral studies, but we’re not very good at them. i’m anxious to see how well i can help those in the village facilitate oral studies, without being good at them myself.

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  7. You will learn to do the DBSs well in an oral format once those studies really get going. You just do not have enough experience, yet. The other thing that will help is you will not be leading them, one of the group will be very quickly and you will learn from them. It is pretty amazing how quickly you realize that these people “get it” when they are handling the Word for themselves. No, they won’t get everything, but like you said, you keep re-writing the second column. They will keep re-telling it till they get much of it and the Spirit will keep reminding, convicting, transforming them and they will hear from God. I am excited to hear some studies have started. I am praying for them to go viral quickly.

  8. actually, after just one week of the oral format with people from an oral culture, i’m more comfortable with it. i don’t know that experience was necessarily even needed. just to see it work with people who think through things that way — and are better at listening than reading.

    which has been a shock to me. i live here, and talk with tanzanians every day, and i expected for studies out in the villages to have many illiterate people… but i just wasn’t prepared for quite what i found here in town. there were only a few who were actually illiterate, but i was able to read swahili better than most. it’s something about sounding out the words, and just not knowing what they’re supposed to look like. this is my first time to ever really experience that.

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  14. I loved this one, it is good. We are seeds upon the earth, growing and being watered.. During life, we are preparing for our experience in the world to come (Olam HaBa). Our proper actions are the remembering of all the parts (sparks) of the Torah (letters, so to speak) that exist and permeate all creation. We gather all the sparks of all realms of the worlds, returning light. Just as the soul surrenders its body at death in being brought forth as Abarham, Isaac and Jacob and David was the declare decree..(Ps. 51:7,8,9)of Psalm 2:7 after the Spirit of G-D made us ready at the quarry here below,(1 King 6:7) we are purified, we cast off our earthly ego in exchange for its living eternal body, or spirit. The returning light is strong, and the cord is not jet cut, the Spirit of G-D will nor return with her children that have been lifted up untill the last one is brought forth from her womb, in the earth. For our G-D is the G-D of Heaven and Earth, the G-D of All Mankind, the Living G-D. Immortality is the outcome of our thought, speech, and action and lives on in the soul as its garment after the body is buried. Genesis 27:27 Set G-D As A Seal Upon Your Hearts, the names of G-D call upon them as David, it is truth and wisdom, to enter in the hidden part (Ps.51:6) In Genesis 22:14 it is written…. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide, (the hidden part) And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided

    Is it not written iorn sharpens iorn?

    The serpent, this time will be us, we will take down the rider and make them fall backwards, we will undercover what has been covered, the lie and deceit that has seeded down in the earth, keeping mankind from G-D of Heaven and Earth. We will give no breath to sin, it will die….we will not let it in to live. We will sing a new song. Psalm 31:2 Turn Your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. Since You are my rock and my fourtress, for the sake of Your name lead and guide me.

    A son of G-D male or female re-turned is G-D’S name sake. “This is what the LORD says Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty : Iam the First and Iam the Last; apart from ME there is no G-D.” Isaiah 44:6 One G-D and children that re-turned and became full, fully made in the mirror image we were first created in, for we are like the that is rested upon G-D’S holy children, the first shall be the last, and the last shall be the first–Man–male and female—a son of G-D–re-turned.

  15. Forgive my english, it is not good and it is a long day for me. You have children, you know. My mother was the youngest of 17 children. And my father the oldest of 8 children. I had five in our family one brother and four sisters. Our sons are all gone and we have four grandchildren. But there no work, the work of my uncle is what takes my time these days, Uncle John…he is one of a kind. 88 years now and never a pill. Thank you, for your truth in seeking, the G-D of creation, we unturn, the durt that covers us so not to see —a little each day –G-D draws closer to us, and us closer to Him.

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