Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Sunday School - Bible Study

This is the second of a multi-part series. For previous post, see On Sunday School.

It was November 2005, a Sunday. It was a Sunday I had been looking forward to for several weeks. It was the Sunday we began our new Sunday School class. We had been birthed from what was, at the time, one of the largest classes in the church, and I was excited about the prospect of several of the couples in that class joining me for a new adventure. I'd already confirmed that two couples and another woman would be joining us. I was excited to see who else would do so.

My excitement was tempered by reality that morning. No one else decided to join us, and one of the couples who would be a part of us, could not be there that Sunday. So including Crystal and I, there were five of us. It let the air out of my balloon just a little bit, to be honest. But looking back on it, I believe it was exactly what should have happened. More on that later.

I tell this story to tell you what I told those four who joined me that Sunday.  We were few in number, and our church had been in a state of plateau/decline for several years, so there was no real guarantee that we would ever grow. For all I knew, it would be us seven and no more until they finally shut us down. But I had made a commitment then, and I told it to them on this day.

Here's what I said, (paraphrased): "We're going to be committed to studying the Bible. I believe it is our only hope and our only chance. The things we read here are the most important things in the world, and we will study them. If we never grow larger than we are right now, that's fine. We are going to grow spiritually, if not numerically, because studying the Word will do that."

I'm actually certain I wasn't nearly so eloquent at the time. But that was what I believed then, and it's what I believe, even more so now, because I've really seen it in action over the last five years. I have seen people grow spiritually, and God has also grown our class numerically, exponentially even. Let me be clear; I take no credit for that (well, in my lesser moments I might). But I believe the commitment to study the Bible, deeply and systematically and in an expository way, has been blessed by God.

Looking back five years, I see now how ignorant of what I was saying that I actually was. I had spent a fair amount of time in Bible study classes that were that in name only. In other words, though they (usually) opened their Bibles, the lesson and the conversation often veered off into personal feelings and opinions, and psychology instead of theology. I had been in one class that I thought had really been serious about studying the Word, and I had watched that class shrink, rather than grow, because people thought it was "too hard." So my experience had been that classes that grew were classes that were light on the Bible. I was convinced that it could be otherwise, and even if it wasn't, that I must try anyway.

So that was my commitment. I was very fortunate to have fellow members who were in agreement with me, and who wanted to study the Bible with real depth, and ask real questions about meaning and theology and how that applied to their lives. We didn't know what would happen, but we all wanted to find out.

So our first commitment was to study the Bible, every Sunday. We weren't going to take weeks off to do testimony time, or read books on marriage, or do Bible trivia games. (Let me be clear; I'd not only done these in classes before, but recommended and supporting doing them. But not this time.) The Bible was going to be our guide.

Here's what I've learned though, since that time. It's not enough to say you're going to study the Bible. There are right ways and wrong ways to do it. Over the last 5 years, I've learned a lot. Here are some of the things that we have tried to do as we study, every single week. Admittedly, I do better some weeks than others, and many of these things, I have learned over the years.

1 - We study the Bible systematically. I'm not one to skip around the Bible a lot from week to week. My preference is to go through the Word, book by book, one at a time. But I've actually found in recent years that using the Lifeway literature (as a loose guide) has helped a lot. Whether we are studying a particular book, or a particular topic, I'm able to help people keep common themes and thoughts in the minds of my class over a several week period.

2 - We study expositionally. I'm no Biblical scholar, and I have no degrees in theology. But I do believe the best way to study scripture is to study it verse-by-verse, with the goal of trying to figure out what the passages mean. All too often, we decide on a topic we want to teach on, and then try to throw all the verses together that support what we already think. There is no growth in this. There is growth in looking at themes, and interconnections between verse and passages. In short, when you study expositionally, you study in context, with the goal of finding what God is saying.

3 - We explore the tensions. In every passage you can study, there are going to be phrases and words and sentences that, at least on their face, don't seem to make sense. Maybe they don't seem to fit with the rest of the passage. Maybe they seem to contradict something else that we know, or think we know, about God and about the Word. Whatever they are, we don't ignore them. We embrace and we explore. And in doing that, we grow, because we find more meaning and deeper nuances and connections that we didn't previously realize existed.

4 - We look for Jesus. I have come to realize over the years, that Jesus is the main character in every story and every passage that we study. He's not always standing center stage, but he can always be found, if you search hard enough. And this searching is always fruitful. The finding is even better. I try to make Jesus appear in every single lesson, sometimes from the beginning, sometimes riding in on his white horse to save the day, sometimes bubbling up from the surface over the course of the class. But he is always there, and he is always the main character.

5 - We center on the Gospel - I wish I'd realized this sooner than I did. I guess I always knew it, but I'm not sure I always really "got it." If we don't look at every part of the Bible through the lens of God's redemptive plan to save his people through Jesus' death on the Cross, then we will fall into empty moralism and legalism. We will tell people what they must do, without helping them understand where they find the strength and ability to do it. This is what too much of our Bible study and preaching has become. And it does no good. Even if it does manage to change some actions, it never changes hearts. Only the Gospel of Jesus, which rips out hearts of stone, and replaces them with new hearts that love God, can cause us to be the kinds of people we must be.

So these are my goals, every Sunday. To reach them, I spend hours in Bible study every week. It's a long, difficult, but incredibly rewarding process. I'm certainly imperfect, and have to admit my imperfections, and confess my lack of knowledge often. But we ask the questions together, and grow through the process.

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