Learning Why We Do: Bible Study and the Wisdom of Love

May 27th, 2014

Every congregation enjoys signature strengths. When I came to serve in Lake Forest, Illinois, eight years ago, I discovered a church that “gets it” about mission with profound, Christly generosity. They consistently give extraordinary aid to the causes of relief and development, education and evangelism. They roll up their sleeves serving at the soup kitchen and homeless shelter. They tutor underprivileged children in nearby communities and support a school for handicapped children in Tanzania. And they are known for their absurdly large rummage sale that recycles untold tons of used goods, brings strangers together in service, and that raises $150,000 annually for missions. That’s a lot of rummage!

Yet every congregation has its weaknesses, too. Our church’s commitment to “doing” had obscured the importance of ongoing learning. Even the chair of the adult education committee said, “Children need to learn the faith; I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen now.”

All that’s changing. Beginning with a yearlong series called “50 Stories We Can’t Live Without,” we opened new small group Bible studies, developed curriculum, and connected Sunday worship with the lessons for the week. The whole congregation was brought together in the sweep of scripture. Since then, we’ve followed up with numerous other series—some based on books of the Bible, like the Psalms; others topically oriented, like daily disciplines of faith.

What difference has it made? It’s enriched our congregation in so many ways! Through small group Bible study, we’ve deepened our fellowship with one another. We’ve learned to share our personal struggles—and now we humbly accept help from each other in prayerful and practical ways. We’ve discovered deep wisdom in other participants’ voices—and now we listen attentively not just to the “experts,” but to our own hearts. We’ve grown more familiar with the sweep of scripture—and now we listen for the “conversation” the Bible has with itself about law and grace, judgment and forgiveness. We’ve even grown more honest about our ignorance—and now we’ve added a “Bible 101” class so no one has to pretend we know more than we do.

Most of all, our focus on Bible study hasn’t reduced our commitment to mission. In fact, the opposite is true. More and more, we connect what we do in mission with the living word of God:

  • When we read that “he delivers the needy who cry out, the poor, and those who have no helper” (Ps 72:12 CEB), we hear the call of Christ to be attentive to the voice of those in need.
  • When we hear, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8 CEB), we remember that our task is not just to do charity, but also to seek justice.
  • When we listen to James’s warning: “Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, ‘Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.’ But to the poor person you say, ‘Stand over there’; or, ‘Here, sit at my feet.’ Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him?” (Jas 2:2-5 CEB)—we’re on the alert for ways the culture’s values can sneak in without us even noticing.
  • And when we’re reminded of Jesus’s words: “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matt 25:37-40 CEB)—we’re reassured that what we do matters, even when it seems like a drop in the bucket.

Every congregation has its strengths and weaknesses. In-depth Bible study connects our vitalities and frailties with the scripture’s witness to a saving God. Frankly, I don’t know any church that can’t use more of God’s word—a living word that brings us together and sends us out in service to the world.

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