I was looking today at the notes prepared by a church for their Bible study groups, and I had a minor epiphany. Really minor, but I thought worth sharing.
Comprehension, or stimulation?
The questions were simple and the answers were rather obvious. They could generally be answered easily just by reading the passage being studied. Then go on to the next question. Do not pass Go ….
And I thought about what might be better questions, ones that stimulated people to think and go deeper. Ones that gave people opportunity to wrestle with questions of doubt and alternative understandings.
And I wondered why the obvious questions were chosen. Was it simply that the study was prepared in a hurry? Did the writer just not think of the other questions?
And then I had my minor epiphany
The studies weren’t designed to stimulate, they were designed to indoctrinate. Not in a bad way, but the writer simply wanted to reinforce a particular view of scripture and doctrine. Keep everyone on a safe path, not rocking any boats. And certainly not mixing any metaphors!
In many ways, it is in a church’s interest to keep everyone together. No arguments, no difficult questions, just a faithful flock following their pastor. Arguments and division cause splits and dissatisfaction, and lead to smaller numbers, and nobody wants that.
Worse still, give the Bible study group too much freedom and they might get into heresy. Or, confronted with a difficult question, someone might even give up their faith.
Maturity – no pain, no gain?
Yet this isn’t the way to grow people towards maturity.
Educationalists and psychologists have learnt that people need to be actively engaged for them to learn and grow (see The crucial importance of discussion). They need to explore, discuss, get emotionally involved.
“Comprehension” type Bible studies tend to bore the pants off participants and leave them exactly where they were before they took part. Without challenge, without wrestling with alternative ideas and discussing questions that really bother them, they won’t develop much spiritual muscle.
It’s in the Bible too
Jesus challenged his hearers with enigmatic sayings and parables, which required people to engage and ponder if they wanted to get the meaning. So often he answered a question with a question in return. Both Jesus and Paul “dialogued” with their opponents, and Jesus came up with some clever ripostes: “Let the one without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7), “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (Mark 12:16) and “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:41)
Jeremiah prophesied (Jeremiah 31:34): “No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.”
That surely must be the aim of group Bible studies. Not that participants keep getting the offical line via comprehension questions, but that people are encouraged to mature through asking probing questions, exploring deep feelings and expressing doubts …. and finding answers, and growing and maturing in the process.
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