Table Talk: A Community Approach to Bible Study

March 11th, 2013
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Shortly after I arrived at First United Methodist Church in Cary, North Carolina, Alice Kunka, our Pastor of Christian Formation, came into my office. “We have a problem,” she said, sounding like James Lovell in Apollo 13.

On cue, I responded, “Are we sending something into space?”

Alice answered, hesitantly, “Well, maybe.”

She began to tell me about a church program each Wednesday night from Labor Day to Memorial Day known as Fellowship Feast. On the surface, it wasn’t altogether different from what many churches do on Wednesday evenings: a mid-week meal including a brief program, along with music rehearsals. She went on to tell me that there was no programming for the children, that a recent study of the congregation revealed a large number of beginners in the faith who had limited biblical knowledge, and that attendance on Wednesdays was plummeting to 35-40 people a week in a congregation that worshiped 950+ on Sunday morning.

That’s when I asked the fateful question: “What would you like for me to do about it?”

Alice and I had been on staff together at another congregation, and she knew about my love of teaching. “Well,” she said, “you could teach a Bible study.”

That was the seed that germinated into Table Talk. Alice and I began to dream together. What kind of study could we offer that would introduce the Bible to people in a way they may not have experienced before? What would it look like, we imagined, if we could break the cycle of Wednesday nights as the place where church programming went to die?

We dreamed. We schemed. We came up with a plan. What if I made a list of Bible stories that I thought Christians would want to know? I could teach the stories, and people could discuss them at their tables. We could call it Table Talk.

It seemed like a good idea, but it was not yet fully grown. We took the idea to the rest of the program staff, at which point Hope Freshour, our Director of Children’s Ministry, asked, “What do you plan to do with the children while all their parents are learning the Bible stories?”

“I don’t know,” I responded. “What do you plan to do with the children while all their parents are learning the Bible stories?”

She paused, gulped, and said, “Teach them the same stories you’re teaching the parents, and call it Small Talk.

And so a movement was born.

Round tables were purchased, to promote sharing and discussion. Groups in the church were invited to sponsor meals as a fund raiser for their ministry. The Wednesday schedule was adjusted in a way that met everyone’s needs. And I chose the stories.

The first Wednesday night, we had 150 people present. The study grew. People met other members at the tables. Conversations were lively. Families reported that they talked on the way home about what they learned together at church that evening.

Families—parents, children, even grandparents—are studying Scripture together and talking about what it means and how it applies to their lives. People who have not been in a small group ministry before are finding themselves in one, even if it’s a different small group at a different table each week. Table Talk has begun to leaven other groups in the congregation—Sunday school classes, small groups, youth gatherings, ministry team meetings, worship teams, and on and on—as members take the skills they have learned at Table Talk in reflecting on the Word and apply those skills to other places in the life of the church. Wednesday nights are no longer a place where programs go to die, but a time and place for the exciting, enriching, and inspiring work of discipleship.

We didn’t send anything into space, but maybe we did build a launching pad.       

Three Guiding Principles

Table Talk is rooted in three fundamental principles.

The first principle is the primacy of the Bible.

That is to say, the Bible is the basic text for theological reflection and congregational life. Congregations not grounded in the biblical story are rootless and rudderless. Congregations that know and understand the basic stories of the Bible find themselves in continuity with the historic church. They find a source of vision and clarity for imagining a missional future. Table Talk works when the congregation wants a deeper engagement with the story as one avenue for a deeper engagement with God.

The second principle is that the pastor, as a student of the Word, is the primary theologian and teacher in the parish.

Historically, the Church has viewed the pastor as the primary teacher of the Word in the congregation. With so many things that call for a pastor’s attention during the course of a week, you may ask, Why add another brick to the load, especially when there are other people in the congregation capable of teaching and leading?

Congregations tend to value what their pastors value. If the pastor treats Bible study, particularly corporate Bible study, as a matter of priority and importance, there is a higher probability that the congregation will as well. Besides, church members will reason, the pastor is the one among us who has been to school and trained in this. Who else knows the Bible as well?

Third is the participation of everyone, including youth and children.

Based on our experience, we have found that the children benefit most from having their own sessions, so after the meal, the children and their leaders go to separate rooms for their own activities, which are based on the same Bible story as the adult activities.

You have several options with youth. One excellent option is for some or all of the youth to serve as leaders in the children’s sessions. Mentoring and teaching the Bible stories is often the best way to learn them. Another fine option is to set up separate tables for youth alongside the tables for adults; then, after the pastor has presented, the youth can hold their own Table Talk discussions. A third option, for churches that are eager to integrate youth into the church mainstream, is for youth to sit with the adults at their tables. Any or all of these options are valid and should be considered, whatever the size or makeup of your church.

Try It Yourself

Table Talk can easily be adapted to any church setting. Small churches will find it easy to adapt Table Talk into existing Bible study offerings. Mid-sized churches will find that the study connects groups as the congregation grows and expands. Large churches may discover that Table Talk becomes an introduction to small groups and a way for people to plug in.

Do you need to introduce Bible stories to a new generation of believers, people who have little or no background or Bible-study skills? Table Talk offers a way into the Bible by introducing some basic stories. For the most part, these sessions simply introduce the stories, setting the stage for deeper and more serious Bible study later. They provide an overview of the Bible. They are foundational narratives. Understanding these stories allows for more complete understanding of others.

Is your congregation in need of a program to draw people together at least once a week and form accountability relationships? Table Talk can become a springboard for a more focused and disciplined small group ministry later.

Does your congregation need to find ways to bridge generations? to bring parents, youth, and children into Bible study together? to facilitate family devotional life and learning?

Would it be helpful for your congregation to be focused weekly on the same Scriptures and thus gain focus on its mission and ministry? Table Talk provides that focus. It generates excitement and conversation through the week and throughout the life of the congregation. Pastors may even choose to develop sermon series on the Table Talk stories, unifying worship and study to nourish spiritual growth and renewal in the life of the congregation.

This article is adapted from the Introduction to Table Talk. Copyright© by Abingdon Press. Used with permission. Resources to implement Table Talk at your own church are now available in two volumes (Old and New Testament) and for each age level. See the Related Products.

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