Bible Study Can Be a Wild Ride
In the last few years, reading the Bible has become trendy again. Popular and well-packaged curricula, like Covenant or The Story can help your church move through the entire Bible in the span of one year. Aside from curricula, there are many books available to pursue this endeavor solo or in a group, most notably Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road By Walking (Jericho Books, 2014).
Bible challenges are popping up all over the country in parishes and dioceses to read the whole Bible during the summer, in six months, or a year. All in all, getting Christians to read the Bible can only be a good thing—biblical literacy is shockingly low, even among regular churchgoing, mainline Protestants. But the truth is, unless one is firmly embedded in a supportive, consistent, and engaged small group, actually getting through the entirety of the Bible is really difficult. And too often, even if one manages to actually get through the Bible without a small group, interpreting the often troubling or confusing content can be problematic at best.
Not to mention getting lost in the wilderness—after the high of reading the drama in Genesis and the great escape out of slavery in Exodus, many people quit when they get to Numbers, because, well, it’s boring. And unlike the Israelites who were stuck wandering around for forty years, the reader has the prerogative to shut the book and get on with life, never knowing that it’s perfectly okay to skip a chapter (or a book) and keep on going.
Most people and groups who try to read the Bible take the advice the King gave to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” The trouble is, the Bible isn’t a normal book.
Not only is it not a normal book in structure, or in the vast time span between the composition of its different pieces, but also the Bible is Scripture. Not a textbook, not just history, not just fiction, not quite non-fiction, not just law or poetry or pithy sayings, not just primordial myths or piercing insights, not just life-changing parables and not just visions of the way the world can be if we let God change it, but the Bible is more than all of those pieces combined.
And we’re just going to hand over this beautiful, dangerous and complicated mess to a charted reading plan, some half-hearted discussion questions and a quick prayer? I think not.
Like a group of travelers in the wilderness, the group that travels through Scripture is in for a wild ride, and they need to be prepared with supplies and a map. There are some in your parish who are experienced wilderness guides, matured through years of study and life experience who can lead others.
These can read the entire Bible in a year, who know how to form cohesive groups of reflection and support, and who can shepherd a group into the promised land of biblical literacy and theological reflection. These experienced guides would flourish with a curriculum like Covenant, which teaches the Bible thematically, with appropriate background and helpful scholars via engaging video content.
But what if you don’t have guides, or parishioners who are convinced that a 32-week Bible series is good use of their limited time? My parish’s expedition into The Story lasted approximately until the book of Judges, after which it died a slow death of postponed classes and neglect. Don’t let that happen to you! In the next post, we’ll look at ways to hack the curricula to the general public.
Hacking Curriculum for Busy Parishioners
If your church is like my church, you’ve got a few years’ worth of discarded curricula hanging around in your Sunday School closet. And if your church is like my church, you’ve also got a population of harried, overworked adults, with or without kids, for whom clearing out a weekday evening every week for Bible study is simply out of the question.
So what is a modern Christian educator to do? Consider a “curriculum hack”: take good, but maybe old materials, and hack them into new formats. Here’s a short list of ways to take curricula you’ve already got, and make it work for you.
- Try a short-term approach
If folks won’t commit to 32 weeks (and who can blame them?), try classes in series as short as two or three, or for that matter, even one. Pick a small subset of scripture, such as Genesis, the Samuel/Saul/David/Solomon saga, or the story of Paul, and go for it. Draw your material from one or more of those dusty curricula on your shelf.
- Try a theme
Wondering what to do for Lent this year? Gather up the materials you already have, but focus on one topic. How about passion narratives in the four Gospels? Or reading through Mark, using different supplementary materials? Or taking a good look at the importance of the Passover narrative? You’ll find all of these topics covered a few times in different curricula—consider making your Lenten series a kaleidoscope of different approaches.
- Have a Bible Questions Ingathering
Wondering what your parishioners actually want to know about the Bible, but too afraid to ask? One Sunday, hand out paper and pens and invite parishioners to write down any question they’ve ever wanted to ask about the Bible but have been too embarrassed to ask. Pass around a collection plate to collect the questions anonymously.
Address a question per week in your newsletter, hold a Q&A Forum on a Sunday morning featuring the questions, or be exceptionally brave and answer the questions without preparation. The questions will be interesting and the answers entertaining no matter which format you choose.
You might also find a cluster of intense interest around a certain topic, which could serve as a jumping-off point for short series of thematic classes. You also might discover in-service educational opportunity.
- Pilot an online group
The stay-at-home dad with two toddlers might not be able to get out much, but he might be able to squeeze in a comment or two on a message board during nap time. Other folks may travel during the week for work. A Facebook group is a great way for a small group to stay connected and plugged in.
Be sure to have the group meet in person to set up the page, set ground rules, and establish a firm start and end date. This would be a great opportunity to dig deeper into a subset of Epistles, a Gospel, a group of lesser prophets, or anything that interests your group.
- Put an educational spin on foyer dinners this year
Pick one week in a dinner series and devote it to a biblical topic to get people talking and learning. This might be a great opportunity to use an online video resource, one that is fun and engaging.
- Slide Bible topics into other church groups
That parent support group for difficult teenagers might have a lot to say about David’s and Absalom’s relationship, or the Older and Wiser group might connect with Elizabeth and Zechariah—but you’ll never know unless you try. You’ve already got the background materials sitting around, so why not?
- Be responsive to local situations
Outside groups being particularly feisty lately? Try a one-session class about what Revelation really says. Promise to reveal who the Whore of Babylon actually is to entice people in the community to come. They’ll be disappointed to discover it’s actually a personification of second-century Rome, but they’ll learn a lot.
- Be responsive to world events
Conflicts in the Tigris and Euphrates river valley didn’t start in the 20th Century; they have been going on for millennia. Provide the back story of the rise and fall of empires in the Fertile Crescent to help parishioners understand what’s going on today in Iraq and Syria, or with the Israel/Palestine conflict. This would be a great opportunity to team-teach with a local imam or rabbi (if you have one) or someone who is up-to-date on current events.
- Try a “Bible Blitz”
Take a biblical topic—either a person, a place, a theme, an historic event—and boil it down to a five minute presentation that’s offered during coffee hour. Even the most mundane biblical topics can be interesting in this format. Start with the resources that are already on your shelves. Keep it to five minutes, offer five minutes of Q&A, and then send participants back out to coffee hour. If the presenter is engaging, you’ll have them begging for more.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2015, Vol. 27, No. 2, page 6-7 and Fall 2014, Vol. 27, No. 1, page 6