Lindsay Olesberg: a passion for Bible study

Lindsay Olesberg

Lindsay Olesberg didn’t grow up in a church. She felt stupid around her churched friends who knew all the Bible stories from Sunday school, so she started reading the Bible herself when she was only twelve. She got bogged down half-way through Exodus. It wasn’t until Lindsay got to college that she discovered that the Bible was alive and could change her life forever.

Lindsay has become both a student, a teacher and proponent of the Bible with college students. Her passion is leading students deeper into Bible study and a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. She has served as the Bible study manager for three Urbana student mission conventions, organizing 20,000 delegates in small-group Bible studies. Lindsay is also an area director with InterVarsity in eastern Iowa. Here is her story of how she discovered life in the Bible. How did you fall in love with the Bible?

Lindsay: I’m not from a church-going family, but I became a Christian when I was twelve. In high school, I felt really behind all the kids in youth group who knew all the Bible stories. I decided to figure out the Bible so as to not feel stupid, and so I set up a self-study program for an hour and a half a day, studying the Bible on my own and trying to catch up. During my freshman year in college, I went to a weekend Bible “Dig-In” and learned about manuscript study, which is a way of studying the Bible inductively. A light went on in my head and a passion for the Word just exploded!

Another reason I fell in love with the Bible is that I was around people on campus who were passionate about the scriptures. We had to figure out how to live it out as a community, and I watched a group of people truly transformed. You seem to connect Bible study with a passion and love for the Bible and a love for God. How do these things connect to each other? How does studying the Bible lead to loving God more?

Lindsay: A fabulous question. I think God wants us to experience him in a very concrete, real way — not just a fuzzy, amorphous, out-there, transcendent way. The Bible is God’s inspired word, and it’s told through real human history and human cultures. When we get into the Bible and its stories, we see how God has connected with real people, in real time and place. We are transformed as we watch the Lord connect with the people of Israel, or see Jesus connect with the people of Galilee. We, too, are able to have these direct encounters with him, and he’s able to speak into our current history and context and culture. The Bible is an expansion of God’s incarnational nature of revealing himself. The Bible and the incarnation of Jesus are deeply related to each other. God wants to connect to people through flesh and blood, and the story is powerful flesh and blood for us. Do you find that this helps you understand your life experiences day-to-day and see where God is at work?

Lindsay: Yes, I’m always teaching my students and staff to ask, “Where does the Biblical story find resonance with what’s happening in your life? Let the biblical story speak to you and shed light on your life.” For example, in my junior year of college I was leading a small-group Bible study in my dorm. It had about 10-12 people in it. At the end of the year I asked people how they had grown. Two or three people had incredible stories of how they had grown. And other people said, “Oh, not that much.” And other people said, “I actually don’t think I believe in God any more.” I was so heartbroken, and then I remembered we had studied the parable of the sower in the gospel of Mark. I saw that the parable of the sower described what I was experiencing — that people respond differently to the presence of God and the Word sown in them. I may not like it, but this is real — this is how it actually is. Also, there have been times in my life in the last five years where I connected with the story of Joseph. The Joseph story has helped me to see the bigger picture of God’s sovereignty and also the necessity of my staying faithful, using my gifts and having high character, whatever the circumstances, whether they feel unjust or not. How do you see Bible study as especially fitting for the university world?

Lindsay: Oh, it’s incredibly fitting for the university world. For one thing, inductive study takes the mind seriously. Also, it takes the learning process seriously. Inductive study fully engages students. The measure they give will be the measure they will get. They get to work hard at observing, asking good questions, working to find answers from the text and listening well to each other. And I love how manuscript study trains our minds in good reading and thinking. I found that students who give themselves to manuscript study become better students in other areas because they are better able to read texts and pull out central truths and figure out how to apply it. So this isn’t too different from what you would do to look at a piece of English literature or ancient literature, by asking “what is it saying, what does it mean?”

Lindsay: No, the only difference really is just the heart posture of “I am actively listening to hear God in this and I am expecting that I am going to change because of it.” And not everybody approaches their literature classes that way, though I think they should. Eugene Peterson talks about listening for God in everything you read. And I found myself doing that as I have been trained by that in the Word. But I think manuscript method is very culturally appropriate for the university setting because it also teaches people ways of interacting and a posture of coming towards truth. I think it is prophetic for the university world because the end result of Bible study is not just abstract information that is gained. What would you want to communicate to students about your vision for studying the scriptures together in small groups?

Lindsay: What I would most love to see is for witnessing communities on campuses to be built around the Word. Too often studying the Word is something we do just because “that’s what Christians are supposed to do.” But I hope students will really believe that it is the presence of God speaking and living in a profound way. Being together around God’s Word is part of the rhythm of life together and we can expect to hear from him and be shaped by him, individually and communally. This is the center of having a campus ministry that is spiritually alive. In your experience, how do students generally view the Bible? What do you see as obstacles to a good small-group experience?

Lindsay: I think there are two main obstacles. One is over-familiarity, or apathy, by some who think, I’ve been in Sunday school all my life, so I basically know what’s there. The challenge is to cultivate a fellowship that is very teachable towards the scriptures. Like in good cross-cultural work, you don’t come into a new country or culture assuming you know it all because you’ve read all about it before you got on the plane. Students who are teachable recognize that now that they are adults they are going to be able to ask different questions of the scriptures and see different things than they could when they were kids. I like to use the example of Noah’s ark. All Sunday school children think Noah’s ark is a warm and fuzzy story with all the animals. In reality it is a story about global holocaust — wiping out the world’s population. That’s pretty dramatic.

Lindsay: Yes! When I studied it as a college student and actually thought about it and then asked questions, it was incredibly profound. The ark of salvation — where is that today? It’s the witnessing community that is the ark of God in a culture full of death and judgment. So again, it’s a posture of teachability and willingness to come back to scripture and re-examine the gospel. We think we know all the stories, but we look at them now through adult eyes and ask deeper questions. Over-familiarity breeds apathy that resists deeper Bible study.

The second obstacle comes from under-familiarity, people who are intimidated by the scripture. Some students say, “I wasn’t raised in a church or family that did much with the Bible, so it’s confusing to me and I don’t like feeling stupid. There are other kids in my group that know more than I do about it.” That’s where I believe the inductive approach is so important. Bob Grahmann and I developed something called the communal discovery method, which applies some of the fundamentals of manuscript Bible study but makes it very appropriate for a dorm Bible study. It’s not quite as rigorous but makes the scriptures very approachable for those who don’t know much about the Bible.

There is also a third obstacle that comes from our fast-food culture. It’s the dilemma of wanting everything fast, including a word from God. “I should be able to just open the Bible — and boom! — I get the word or verse or promise for the day.” Some students may want their leader to come in and just say, “This means blah, blah, blah.” That’s different from doing the work and coming to see that learning how to do the work of Bible study will benefit them for their whole life. So for small-group leaders, it’s worth the work of preparation to be sure that Bible study is included in the small group.

Lindsay: Absolutely! It’s teaching your group that it’s worth taking the 45-60 minutes to actually study it together, rather than the 20 minutes of somebody just downloading “Here’s what I learned about this” and then just talking about our personal problems. Real community, healthy community, is built as you take the time to study together, rather than choosing a faster approach. Are there any particular books or sources that you would like to recommend?

Lindsay: Yes. For students wanting to learn how to do good small-group Bible study, get Transforming Bible Study by Bob Grahmann (IVP). If there is someone who is wanting to learn better how to study, I would suggest How to Read the Bible for all its Worth by Gordon Fee and Doug Stewart (Zondervan). InterVarsity in your area may also host local and regional opportunities to do more extensive inductive studies, such as a weekend Dig In or a week-long Mark manuscript study at one of our training camps. The best thing to do is plan to join a small-group Bible study on campus, one where the members love to investigate the biblical text. You just can’t beat that!