In "The Crisis of Biblical Literacy," Kenneth Berding explains the severity of our lack of knowledge and understanding of the Bible:
Christians used to be known as "people of one book." Sure, they read, studied and shared other books. But the book they cared about more than all others combined was the Bible. They memorized it, meditated on it, talked about it and taught it to others. We don't do that anymore, and in a very real sense we're starving ourselves to death.
This is a reality we face in our churches today, especially as small-group pastors and point people. Sadly, our church realized we were contributing to the sad state of biblical illiteracy. Our small-group model recruited leaders by saying, "If you can push play on a DVD player, you can be a leader." The bar was set low for leaders, and our group members followed suit. As time went on, many members left their Bibles at home as they turned their focus to watching the "program" and answering the basic questions found in the guide. If Scripture was mentioned in small groups, it only flashed on the video for a few seconds or took up a few lines in the leader's guide.
In response, we decided to change our small-group model to help our members become more familiar with God's Word. The new model, which we call Life Groups, no longer relies on a DVD; rather, it relies on the Bible. With God's Word as the focal point of the meeting, people are bringing their Bibles, finding their way around Scripture, and reading God's Word out loud.
Groups spend time reading and discussing passages in the Bible. Leaders ask questions that honor the truth of the passage. Group members realize that the Word of God is alive and moving as people share different perspectives. Everyone participates and engages the Bible, and they realize it's not as intimidating as they once thought. After all, the Bible was written for all of us!
A Discipleship Problem
In order to change our model, though, we had to take a look at how we were recruiting and training leaders. It was apparent that our current methods weren't reaching our goals of making disciples through small group. We knew that if we wanted to see discipleship happening, we'd have to invest in and equip our leaders with tools to make it happen—and a big piece of that is empowering them to read and understand the Bible for themselves.
So we changed how we train our leaders. We ask a lot more of our leaders now, but we also empower them with the tools they need to lead. Most jobs spend time training their employees, but for some reason in the church we think it's asking too much to spend time training leaders. When we look at Scripture, though, we see Jesus spending valuable time teaching and training his disciples. Why wouldn't we do the same?
To invest in our leaders, we've created a two-part training program. Part One training usually takes place on Sunday mornings over the course of four weeks. Recently, however, we've started offering a "boot camp style" of this training on a single Saturday morning for people who are involved in other ministries and are unable to attend on Sunday mornings. We cast a vision for the ministry and discuss leadership responsibilities and expectations. During the final meeting, we do a study on Acts 1:1-11. By doing the study together, potential leaders get to see how the small-group discussion should flow. We choose this particular passage because it leads well into Part Two of training. In the passage, the disciples are looking up in the sky, and two men in white appear and tell them to get on with their mission. After we've studied the passage, we ask potential leaders if they're ready to get on with their mission.
With the vision cast and expectations set, Part Two of the training takes off for eight weeks. The leaders become their own Life Group for those eight weeks, picking up their study of Acts where they left off in Part One. We also take time each week to discuss specific training topics. This format allows the leaders to learn in two key ways. First, they learn by being a real Life Group—complete with discussion, prayer, and even snacks. This helps them understand what Life Groups are all about by experiencing it firsthand. Second, they practice important leadership techniques. This especially happens beginning in week five when the leaders take turns creating the questions, leading the group, and receiving peer feedback. This allows the potential leaders to apply new leadership skills in a safe environment.
Over the eight weeks, we cover a variety of topics including basic inductive Bible study, how to create questions, stages of group life, cultivation of group prayer, service opportunities, and more. We also provide three resources to help leaders facilitate their future small-group discussions: IVP New Testament Bible Background Commentary, New Testament Lesson Maker, and Serendipity Bible. Once the training is complete, the new leaders are encouraged to return to their existing groups and co-lead for a little while prior to starting their own group. In some cases, though, leaders will launch a new group right away.
There is no question that this method of training raises the bar and expectations placed on the leaders, but the impact on the group is much higher as well. With our new model, groups are experiencing an increase in Bible engagement. Because leaders study the passage and prepare questions ahead of time, they are equipped to keep the discussion aligned with God's truth.
And although leaders study the passage ahead of time, the goal of the small-group meeting is not for the leader to share what he or she learned. Instead, leaders are trained to use their study of the passage to help the group walk through and uncover God's truth for themselves. Whether someone is still searching for Jesus, brand new to his or her faith, or a graduate from seminary, everyone feels welcome to participate in the discussion.
Because everyone is invited to study the Word through the discussion, group members are not only bringing their Bibles, but also underlining key passages and writing notes in the margins.
Now that leaders are more familiar with the Bible themselves, they can help group members navigate the Bible by helping them find a book in the Bible, noting how a passage correlates to other stories in the Bible, and even encouraging people to use the tools in their Bibles.
Introducing a new model always brings some push back. I'm often asked how our model is working, and I've found there are two misconceptions that I regularly have to clear up.
The most common misconception I run across is the idea that requiring leaders to complete a training program raises the bar too high and discourages potential leaders. In actuality, we've found that leaders appreciate the training. Based on our anonymous feedback from the leaders who completed the training, all of them said the content and length were appropriate. In fact, some actually said they would have liked for the training to be longer.
Another common misconception is that by having small groups read and study the Bible together, we're discouraging seekers and new believers from attending. Many believe that engaging in a Bible study during a small group is just too intimidating for new people. But we believe that God's Word was written for all of us, not just scholars. Leaders are trained to lower barriers for new people by forming questions that anyone can answer and focusing on being hospitable to newcomers. With this model, there's no reason a new person can't participate in the discussion on the first night.
In light of the sad state of biblical literacy and biblical community I encourage you to evaluate your small-group model. What results is your model producing? If you're like us, you may find that your model is perfectly suited to produce results you never intended. But you can turn things around by equipping God's people to study the Bible. Pour into your leaders and train them to read and understand Scripture so they can help their group members do the same.
—Brad Himes is the Involvement Director at Broadway Christian Church in Mattoon, Illinois.