The modern church struggles with Bible class. Many churches report that class attendance is way down. Others have dropped traditional Bible classes altogether in favor of small groups meeting in homes.
Personally, I favor a robust Bible class program. I think the reason churches struggle with their adult Bible classes is an accumulation of bad habits that are easily remedied.
Why are churches dropping Bible classes? Well, it’s largely the example of some mega-churches and the influence of books such as Thom Rainer’s and Eric Geiger’s Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples. Rainer and Geiger recommend a structure along the lines of a single weekly worship, a one-hour weekly small group, and a single weekly benevolence or other ministry project. Simple.
On the other hand, the Willowcreek Church in their Reveal study found that their disciplining efforts were inadequate for more mature members, and so they embarked on an effort to help members become better Bible students, encouraging members to study on their own.
I entirely agree with the Christianity Today editorial that questions both positions, noting,
But according to the apostle Paul, the church is where each one is given a gift “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12–13).
For Paul, solid spiritual growth cannot be found “beyond the church,” but only in its midst. The study rightly says, “Our people need to learn to feed themselves through personal spiritual practices.” Unfortunately, the study fails to hint that these spiritual disciplines are intrinsically grounded in the ongoing life of the church. This implicit dualism (between private and corporate spiritual growth) suggests something different from Paul’s view that it is in the body of Christ that we are joined together to “grow up into him who is the Head” (Eph. 4:15).
Now, I also agree that there’s much more to discipleship than Bible study. We often grow the most through works of service. But it’s not either-or. We need a deep, rich, ongoing study of God’s word — in community — along with a deep, rich participation in service to others in the name of Jesus — in community. And the church leadership has to strive for balance, while leaving members some room to decide what works best for them at their stage of maturity.
In short, I don’t believe small groups plus a sermon lesson is nearly enough to meet the instructional needs of the church. Small groups rarely have enough truly gifted teachers, and so the leadership tends to provide simplistic lesson materials — five questions based on this morning’s sermon or high school level questions about cliques and lust.
Meanwhile, a sermon must be targeted to the entire church and so cannot possibly meet the needs of both novices and the spiritually mature. And unless a church is willing to greatly lengthen the assembly time (which some do), there’s just not enough time to get much teaching done during the assembly. Worse yet, there’s no opportunity for questions and answers. Studies show that a straight lecture with no questions allowed is the least effective of all teaching methods.
The solution? Keep the Bible class.
Well, if Bible classes are all that great, why are our members no longer attending? Because we generally do a poor job with them. We design our classes more on tradition and habit than any desire to accomplish a particular set of goals. And the times they are a-changing.
[to be continued]