Bible study is one of the cardinal practices of today’s churches. It happens at least once and often multiple times weekly in most Bible believing churches. It is so heavily featured that most pastors aspire to be great teachers of the Bible and work hard at honing their teaching skills as if there are no other significant activities to ministry. To be recognized as “knowledgeable” or “clever” is considered a great honor. Unfortunately, style and originality don’t vary that much between churches. If you’ve heard one you’ve heard most of the others as well.
And for the church member, attending these studies in addition to regular Sunday services is the gauge of their spiritual vibrancy. When they miss too many they are treated condescendingly at arms length as if they have contracted a communicable disease. Having this rule in place, of course, keeps people coming back even when the teaching is less than compelling. In many cases it is far less.
For me that is a problem. Regularly attending anything is no indicator of character in the rest of life, and life change is the point. In fact, it doesn’t even indicate the level at which a person is actually learning even on a mental level. If we are going to call it a study we should give it parameters that make it more credible.
To set those parameters we should ask several questions, the first one being “why are we having this study?” What is the goal? What qualification are we aiming for; what certification will we achieve once we finish the study?
For example, study as it is done in most cases is very clearly defined:
- It has a particular topic (major): accounting, psychology, medicine, engineering, etc.
- It has sub-topics: mathematics, social sciences, biology, physics and so on.
- It has definite content and time boundaries. You are required to master a clearly outlined curriculum within a specified amount of time (semester, year, course).
- It has verification controls. Attending class alone doesn’t qualify you to do anything. You must demonstrate a solid command of the subject through testing and the development of personal skills through research, writing and speaking.
- It is specialized. As more knowledge is accumulated for each field more divisions develop. Medicine is a good example. The American Board of Medical Specialties recognizes more than 130 specific areas of study. No one can know everything about anything.
- It includes practice. Every profession has a practice stage during which the student is involved hands-on in real life situations. Students in this stage are referred to variously as interns, apprentices, article clerks and so on. The more serious the profession the more regulated the practice stage.
- It has an end. No one ever stops learning entirely but there is a point at which a student becomes “not a student” but a practitioner and no longer, or vary rarely, attends class.
All of that, of course, suggests that “study” is a means to an end not the end. Done properly, studying will take you to a higher place of development and performance. It is a process to practical and useful changes.
“Bible study” as done in most churches today, however, is defined by none of these boundaries and usually has only vague goals such as keeping you safe from the world, as if Bible study is the only way of doing that, and there is little evidence to indicate it achieves that goal. Bible study looks something like the following:
- There is never an organized curriculum. There may sometimes be a topical series but in many cases the subject on any occasion is driven by the whim of the teacher and tagged as God’s idea, targeted, of course, to the unknown need of one or more attendees.
- There is no time limit. The way churches do Bible study would be like telling a class of 12th graders they did well to finish the first twelve years but they need to do it over again and again so they can go deeper.
- There is never any testing. The only test is “attendance.” If you are there you must be doing well. If you are absent your failing.
- There is no practical stage. Attendance and “repeat after me” are the only practical things you are encouraged to do. “Thinking” is not required, and is mostly disallowed, unless you have aspirations for ministry in which case you are shipped off to the only school doing it right and taught to corral as many as you can into aimless Bible studies for the rest of your life.
- No other opinions are allowed. Dissidence is burned at the stake as heresy. Nothing new there. It’s been that way for at least the last millennium. (NOTE: I’m NOT suggesting that truth changes. I AM saying that our understanding of it is always suspect and most of the divisions in Christianity were caused by an inflexible, non-negotiable approach to enforced ideas. You can read more about that here.
- It is organized for the already convinced. If medical schools were like Bible studies the classes would be filled with degreed physicians few of whom, if any, provided much in the way of treatment. The classes would develop around arguments over points of belief about truths that are rarely put into practice, i.e., they discuss untried and unused ideas.
All of this sounds more like cultic manipulation than a reasonable course of study.
Bible study should be aimed at making us better, more outward reaching people not everlasting cocoons. In fact, and this is the most important issue of all, every study should be aimed at a graduation level and a “do” point. “Study for the sake of study” produces nothing more than zombies, walking “Dead Seas”, filled with valuable minerals but uninviting and unappealing in every other way.
One clarification. Of all books, the Bible is without doubt the Prince. It has impacted more lives than any other. Everyone in modern society has been influence by this great book. Even the actions and attitudes of those who don’t believe are to some degree molded by its dominance in the world.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t study it. I am suggesting we shouldn’t treat study like a lucky charm.
What do you THINK!AboutIt?