I’ve recently been a part of discussions on taking a new approach toward inviting people to and engaging them in our church—Bible study as outreach.
As strategies go, it’s so obvious it’s a little embarrassing that we are just now seizing on the idea. It reminds me of the time I heard the legendary preacher Dr. Fred Craddock speak at chapel at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. When an earnest young seminarian asked him at the conclusion of his talk what devotional resources he might recommend, he said with his trademark deliberateness and a wink of irony, “I find reading the Bible to be quite helpful.”
Yes, the Bible. As Baptists we proclaim ourselves to be “people of The Book,” so why don’t we use the study of “The Book” as a way to reach out beyond our walls? Here are a few considerations, both challenging and affirming, that have arisen in this undertaking:
Who? Baptists are famous for their “every member is a minister” idea, so an educated and trained clergy are not required for meaningful engagement with scripture. Selecting the right facilitator is crucial. Remember, this is a study, not a sermon. If the facilitator doesn’t provide opportunities for discussion, attendance may drop off quickly. You also need to decide who your audience is. Will this be an evangelistic Bible study, a series aimed at new believers or an in-depth look at difficult passages for mature Christians? It also helps to know if you are making this gender specific or if it’s all inclusive. Last month’s post took an in-depth look at that issue. Answering the “who” question determines many of the other decisions.
What? Format and structure depends on how you answered the “who” question above. Selecting the right curriculum is a function of your audience. Which one you select depends on your audience (unchurched vs. knowledgeable, mature Christians) and your church’s approach to scripture. Many in-home Bible studies have video components followed by discussion, though the cost can sometimes be prohibitive. The advantage of video studies is that you don’t have to be the expert. The disadvantage is that your expert may offer interpretations of the Bible that generate conflict.
When? We couldn’t settle on a time that met everyone’s needs, so my church is offering two sessions, one during the day for those who are not working outside of the home or who are retired and one at night who may be working or for whom the evenings are better. Again, this is largely about who the study is for, but it also may be related to available venues.
Where? Regarding venues, there is no one setting that works best. We had intended to make this an in-home study but opted to use the church facilities for our launch. It’s a lot of work for hosts, and not everyone has the space to have the group in their home. Because Baptists have been studying the Bible on Sunday mornings for a long time and called it “Sunday school.” And long before that, believers met in each others’ homes. In this post-pandemic season of declining church attendance, there seems to be some hope that people will engage in study of the Bible that takes place outside of the church building. The setting seems to matter, and we will be paying close attention to attendance patterns for our new studies based on this important variable.
Why? We are looking to reach people who would like our church if they only knew about it. This is an outreach. Spiritual growth and Biblical understanding are certainly important, but we want to reach out to new people. Members are encouraged to invite people rather than just focus on studying for themselves. Again, Sunday school exists for a reason, so understanding the purpose of your study will help you stay on track as it progresses.
How? One of my favorite podcasts asks the question repeatedly, “What is the Bible and what do we do with it?” I encourage you to prayerfully consider the role of the Bible in the life of your church before embarking on something this involved. Too many churches have encountered schism because of a Bible study gone awry.
Bible study is one of my favorite parts of being a part of a congregation, and having grown up in church, I enjoy fresh discoveries and new revelations that come with thoughtful engagement with the text. I welcome your input on how such studies have been received in your churches, even if your experience was less than positive.
May you be blessed as you seek to know God better.