Faith and Life: Taking Bible Study to the Community

February 20th, 2017

The Bible is at the heart of faith. This library of witnesses invites us into the struggles of faithful people who, during conflicts, sought to love God and neighbors and share visions for living. Bible study confirms God’s love, builds communities, and clarifies ministries.

While church members regularly say Bible study is a number one priority, we know that they often skip Bible studies. Why? I am convinced that they are afraid—studying the Bible seems difficult. Moreover, they are not sure that it will make a difference in their living. They ask: How can I understand a time so far away? Will it speak to my life today? Will it help me purchase a home, raise my children, make friends, or succeed at work?

The simple answer to their questions is yes. Bible study enriches both our faith and our living. This essay is a plea for small-group Bible study that brings the tools of Bible study to our lives. Bible study does make a difference.

Of course, we need help to bridge the past with the present. Bible study is difficult! The Bible is made up of many kinds of writing (poems, stories, prayers, letters) composed over a long period. The witnesses who wrote and edited these books were often simply struggling to survive the oppression of empires, like Babylon or Rome. But they focused on God’s faithfulness, offering hope in risky situations. Let’s look at some examples of how we focus on faith and living.

Bible study communicates the heart of faith. God calls us to faithfulness, yet we know we fail. As we read the Bible, we learn that the great witnesses of faith falter too. We learn that God is the faithful one. As God’s children, God loves us and continues to call us to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Our covenant between a gracious and expectant God is at the heart of the best Bible studies.

Bible study skills can be taught. Yes, the Bible was collected in a world historically distant from ours. Yet we can learn the events that affected its writers. For example, each of the authors of New Testament books lived in the shadow of the Roman Empire. In Acts, we see how the early church sought to provide life for those who had so little. To learn this background, a congregation I know offers a four-week study each year to help people learn the skills to read the scriptures and know its world.

Bible study builds community. Some churches schedule weekly small groups to study the scriptures that will be used in Sunday worship (lectionary studies). A surprising result occurs in these groups. Not only do the members enhance biblical study skills and participate in worship with more intensity but they learn that group members care. When life issues confront them, they have a regular community of friends who will sit with them and hold them up.

Bible study enhances our communities. Another congregation holds a small group Bible study in a local library. The library has been known for its book groups about mysteries, great classics, or biographies. And now Bible study. While acknowledging that some who attend are believers and others are not, the group deepens biblical skills, builds friendships, and discusses how the Bible (along with other sources) is a key part of our culture. The group struggles with how biblical stories and precepts shape public life and how popular culture can be enriched.

Bible study crosses boundaries and offers hope. Partnering with a synagogue and a mosque, another church offers an interfaith Bible study. We know that our traditions share stories and heroes. Monthly, a small group studies passages from each other’s sacred books. As they study, differences become apparent, but they also learn common commitments. Hopes for their neighborhoods are shared. Together, they have planned mutual work projects and advocated for local issues.

Bible study matters! Bible study makes a difference in how we know our faith and live our lives. Frankly, it does help us raise our children, build friendships, and make work-related decisions. For Christians, we learn better to follow the way of Jesus. For our wider communities, we learn to build our lives together.

Jack L. Seymour is professor emeritus of religious education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and author of Teaching the Way of Jesus (Abingdon Press, 2014) and Teaching Biblical Faith (Abingdon Press, 2015).

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