It is now clear that large numbers of people have become Christians through peer-group discussions of the Bible. And when unchurched participants become serious about the Christian faith, they normally begin attending church, often the church of their group's initiator.
Whole churches have been built using this method, and the gospel has penetrated neighborhoods and workplaces that likely would not have opened up to other evangelistic strategies.
What are the keys that make these groups succeed, causing the local church to grow? Here are six:
Instead of being asked to "join" a Bible study, people are invited to a home to hear about an idea: a discussion Bible study group for adults who aren't experts. After dessert and coffee, the host or hostess explains how the group will function, using the method of inductive (investigative) study. A twenty-minute sampler—one incident from the Gospel of Mark—gives a taste of what's ahead. Those interested set a time and place to start studying.
The same thing can happen on the job. Any group that meets on neutral territory is less threatening for newcomers than meeting in a church. Lunch-hour groups meet every week among Wall Street businesspeople, research scientists at a pharmaceutical corporation, and executives and clerical workers at a chemical firm; there's also an after-work study among garage mechanics with their Christian employer, and breakfast studies (weekday or Saturday) among small-town tradesmen and professionals. Workers who know one another through their jobs but meet in homes range from lobstermen on an island off the Maine coast to astronauts and their spouses in Houston.
An ideal ratio is six to eight people studying the Bible for the first time with only one or two firm Christians. Groups with too many "experts" do not appeal to raw beginners.
A group of six to ten is large enough to stimulate interaction and new ideas but small enough to let everyone speak and respond to the comments of others. If a group is twelve or larger, discussion tends to split into two or three competing conversations. The moderator has to exert strong control and may be tempted to lecture. The quiet people and those who know the least sit back. Sometimes they stop coming.
But when everyone has a fair chance, each participant is greatly influenced by what she discovers and shares in the group. What she hears herself saying about Jesus' claims will be remembered long after she forgets what someone else tells her. We recall only 20 percent of what we hear but 70 percent of what we say. That's why discussion Bible studies are powerful agents of change.
Whole Book Bites
Newcomers to the Bible need to lay a foundation before they can handle studies that skip around. Using selected verses here and there to present the gospel message confuses the person who cannot set them into a meaningful context. They also put the person at risk when approached by a cult using a thematic presentation. If methods are similar, the biblically untaught person has a hard time distinguishing between what is authentic and what is counterfeit.
Those new to Bible study should start with Mark; it's clear, concise, full of action, and does not require familiarity with the Old Testament. No wonder missionary translators usually begin with Mark.
Groups function best with questions that help them observe, interpret, and apply what they find in the Bible text. The questions should be forthright enough to allow each person to take a turn as moderator, moving the group paragraph by paragraph through a chapter. The material must not assume that everyone understands Christian jargon or can easily comprehend a religious mind-set.