Why Are So Many Churches Empty? The Importance of In-Depth Bible Study for a Congregation

April 29th, 2014

An article in a church growth magazine asked, “Why are so many churches empty?” The writer answered the question with the typical responses, including the need for good parking, nursery quality, signage, and creative bulletin covers. The article was well written, but I don’t believe it answered the deeper question.

One reason so many churches are empty­ may have little to do with the tools and mechanisms employed for numerical growth, and more to do with how they are empty in deeper places. As one pastor said, “Our church has substituted ritual for relationship.” Indeed!

To practice real faith—not just belonging to a church’s membership rolls—requires deepening relationships set within the community of God.

We live among shifting cultural concerns related to the church. People are skeptical of institutions. Religion means little to the next generation past an actual face or friendship that gives it context. And our culture seeks real meaning, not merely mission statements. People don’t attend churches because of nice slogans, artful worship, and outstanding facilities. They are looking for something more.

Again, many churches are empty in numbers because they are empty at a deeper place.

I remember the first time I taught Disciple Bible Study. Our first class of eight individuals wasn’t much of a “revolution.” But, within the first two years, four dozen people had attended a Disciple Bible Study series. Within the next three years, the number expanded exponentially. People in Disciple shared a common biblical and emotional language, and they possessed a depth of understanding regular Sunday school couldn’t provide.

It wasn’t only their knowledge of scripture that set them apart; they learned how to apply it in the context of daily living. From these first Disciple students came many of our congregation’s servant leaders, teachers, and volunteers. Within the first five years of our church’s life, these leaders started six Sunday school classes, two ongoing inter­national mission projects, and a neighbor­hood community center.

After reviewing where most of our new members arrived from, many, if not most, were invited by those who had attended one of our in-depth Bible study series.

It may oversimplify to say that in-depth Bible study grows churches. But, it is not too simple to say that in-depth Bible study potentially transforms a congregation at a deep, personal level. When we focus on things about which God cares, we learn to care about them, as well.

In-depth Bible study has two powerful effects on a congregation.

First, in-depth Bible study provides a means to know and love God beyond the Sunday morning sermon or daily devotional. Some lessons in scripture teach us directly about the person, ­purpose, and plan of God, and some teach us about God’s work through creation, covenant, and community. In the process, in-depth Bible study utilizes scripture to recalibrate a congregation’s view of God and God’s people.

Second, in-depth Bible study provides examples of what it means to love like God. From the beginning of scripture, a narrative of God’s tension between righteousness and love unfolds. Deuteronomy 9 reminds us that just across the line from God’s justice is God’s great love for God’s people. By the end of the biblical story, we discover what it means to form a life around our faith in God—particularly through the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, in my experience, scripture draws us not only to God but to each other, as well.

I have participated at all levels of in-depth Bible study over twenty years of ministry—as a student, teacher, writer, editor, and host. And, in my recent work with Covenant Bible Study, God worked something significant within me. Certainly the study of the scriptures informed me, but the conversations and interactions with the scholars from each episode meant even more. The stories told from each book of the Bible engaged my interest, but it was the incredible talent and design of the professionals charged with developing the videos and materials by which to study those books that provided actual context.

I learned by the process of creating the Covenant Bible Study series that we were also building a form of biblical community. We didn’t always agree on the meaning or even the purpose of the scripture—but we experienced community as the scripture found context and nurtured relationship within each of us. And even in that professional endeavor, engaging the scriptures transformed strangers into friends.

The congregation that commits itself to in-depth study of the scriptures—faithfully, consistently, deeply—is never empty, no matter the number present. Amen.

comments powered by Disqus