Leadership: Revitalizing Bible Class, Part 1

bible-studyThe 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]

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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15 Responses to Leadership: Revitalizing Bible Class, Part 1

  1. David Himes says:

    Last summer, I began leading a class during the Bible class time, which has no fixed topic. It’s a discussion class, in which the topics for discussion are instigated by those attending the class each Sunday morning.

    It’s an opportunity for participants to bring up any topic or question that is on their mind. Some of the topics have been very textually oriented, some very “news” oriented, some almost “off the wall.” But all of the topics have come from the class.

    This is certainly not an approach for the faint of heart, because it’s impossible to know what may come up. But at the same time, it’s an opportunity to talk about matters that many have never had a chance to talk about before.

    Overall, it’s mostly about how we actually apply what we believe to life. But it’s also about learning how to think about what we believe.

    It’s about helping people along their journey to and thru their faith.

    We often have conflicting views. And rarely do we have definitive answers.

    As facilitator of the class, one of my primary objectives is to engage as many as possible in the discussion.

    Admittedly, even the idea of the class is uncomfortable for some. But for those who attend and participate, it’s been very engaging.

    One woman (who clearly qualifies as a “senior” citizen) told my wife, she loves the class. Even though she has never spoken up in the class, she loves hearing what other people have to say and is fascinated by the diversity of views and understanding that is evident in the class.

    This class isn’t for everyone. And it’s certainly not a solution for anything, on it’s own. But I think it’s a good option and a potential component of “reinvigorating” Bible class time.

  2. Mark says:

    First, there has to be a decision on who teaches/leads the class. Church leaders? Clergy? Women? Lay people? The need for a good teacher/leader is often put aside by church polity and litmus tests. I think one fear is that the topics will cause the roof to fall down. Not everyone holds the same opinion and a lot of Bible classes fall apart when they are just lectures or fill in the words in the book. Though many disagree, you frequently need to bring in extra-Biblical material because the Bible does not say what years Isaiah lived and the world events occuring at the time. Historians recorded some of the events and later scholars figured out the years with some accuracy.

    I only saw one cofC minister who could get away from teaching the older people’s class and with the guts to lead a Bible class of graduate and law students. He learned from us and we from him. There was always a discussion time with some debates that would make some people faint. A lot of us were in the hard sciences and so situational ethics frequently came up. The law students never missed out on a chance to join in. Had this cofC not been in a flagship state university town, this would likely not have occurred. People were permitted to speak freely and did.This was a rare situation.

  3. David Himes says:

    I’m in the Washington DC area, where the education-levels, on average, are among the highest in the country.

    But all of your comments are relevant. And there have been some concerns expressed about the unpredictability of the class. Personally, I’m probably invigorated by the unpredictability, and the challenge of moderating the class.

    In my view, these are all reasons why this type of class is valuable and useful.

    People have the questions, so, do we ignore the questions? Or do we try to address them in a positive, encouraging context?

    I choose the later.

  4. Jim H says:

    I agree with you Jay. One of our classes, which is well attended, gets a lot of “my opinion” answers to questions but they are very rarely back up with scripture, which tends to put my teeth on edge. I started taking classes from a local theological school where I get greater biblical stimulating insight.

  5. James says:

    Most Bible classes are poorly attended because there is no or little perceived value. To make things worse, most leaderships don’t bother to ask members what needs or wants should be covered. Result–classes are doing things the same old way, and getting the same lack of results.

  6. Dwight says:

    The church and body doesn’t define the assembly or a class, but rather the people in the assembly and/or class. The church is the people. So “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). whether people meet in groups of 3 or groups of 30 they are building each other up in Christ.
    So small groups are not “beyond the church”, but are the church.
    The benefit of small groups is that it is often more personal and many more people will usually respond and are not usually afraid of giving a wrong answer. In regards to a lack of a pool from which to draw teachers, what I see in most large classes are the same teachers and many smaller classes encourage many teachers who would not otherwise get a chance. And then there is the warmth and level of family of being in a home.
    When I teach I do not give a sermon or lecture, which kills class participation and I ask, ask, ask as much if not more than I teach. I believe that I may not any more qualified, maybe more willing, to teach others and so I encourage teaching each other by getting people to talk.

  7. Frustrated says:

    Small groups are far superior to your out of date bible class structure. People are actually learning how to live with God in their lives rather than having a patted answer.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Frustrated,

    I’ve got nothing against small groups. It’s not either-or. For me, it’s both-and. In either case, the quality of the leadership is key. You can get pat answers in either setting and you can learn to live with God in either setting. But both can do things that the other cannot.

    My church has small groups, and I pushed hard to have them. I have no regrets on that score. I’m thrilled that we have small groups. They do a lot of good.

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    David,

    Excellent comment. Has me thinking …

    Thanks.

  10. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    David,

    Again, thanks. Don’t know if you’re an elder, but either way, you have an understanding and courageous eldership — and I’m sure your church is thriving because of it.

  11. Monty says:

    Sometimes discussion in Bible Class is a lot like herding cats. While you are chasing one who goes astray the others eyes glaze over, but if you can keep them hemmed up(just a little) it often makes for a much more stimulating class. You really do have to be a Master of Ceremonies, the more people are invited to roam. Asking really good and well defined questions is the key.

  12. Dwight says:

    In many congregations I believe there is a innate fear of small meetings or classes in homes in that it is not under the direct supervision of the elders and/or preacher. This might not be true of yours Jay, but most congregations while seeing the good, don’t encourage more of it, even when they agree with them. Even getting the preacher to utter the words “worship at home” is like pulling teeth.
    I think having any bible study is good no matter where, but I think “free range” bible studies that aren’t programized or dictated makes for better Christians who think and act on their own in Christ. Body building doesn’t happen just at the church building, but when ever we are in contact with other saints.

  13. Monty says:

    Probably a lot of leadership see it as a control issue. And most elderships are all about controlling the sheep. For years small groups were seen as an offshoot(by many) of the Boston Movement.

  14. Dwight says:

    On the conservative side, small assemblies in homes are often seen as either in apostasy or moving towards apostasy. Ironically while the preacher mentions that the saints should teach others, the push and money spent is to get the lost into the assembly, where the saints are. There is no equipping or encouragement of the saints towards them being free roving agents for Christ. The work and worship is mostly pointed inwards.
    We know how to preach about things, but applying is what we often fail to push for or fail to train for. We need to train and not just teach.
    This is not a criticism of all congregations, but of most that fall into the conservative category that I have been around. There was a book out years ago called “Fishers of Men” and it was a very good book on personal evangelism and it was used for class material, but it wasn’t used for training purposes. Most everyone, at that time, thought that evangelism was being done and to be done by the church by program, thus people didn’t do it themselves. This was in the 70s and it doesn’t look like things have changed much in the Kingdom.

  15. Monty says:

    You’re right Dwight, people don’t see themselves as agents of change(towards the lost). The good news isn’t worth sharing anymore for the church. We’ve abdicated that to a few specialized individuals.

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