In the South, our beverage vocabulary can be confusing to those from other regions. When we offer you a Coke, we are asking if you’d like a soda of any kind. And when we offer you tea, we do not mean Earl Gray in a mug. We will assume that you understand this implicitly. As a Southerner with Northern relatives, I can affirm that many a family gathering could have been saved from such confusion by a simple clarification of terms.
Using a term too generally can cause greater misunderstanding than simply serving someone the wrong drink. Take, for example, the term “Bible study” as it is often used in the local church. On the typical church website, it’s not uncommon to find classes on marriage, finances, parenting, prayer, and books of the Bible all listed as “Bible studies.”
In these gatherings, good things happen. People connect to one another in community. They share needs, confess sins, and explore topics through the lens of Scripture. But not all of these classes are Bible studies.
Over time, “Bible study” has become a catchall to describe all kinds of gatherings. In the words of the esteemed linguist Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
As we have expanded our use of the term, we have decreased the number of actual Bible studies we offer. Churches have gradually shifted away from offering basic Bible study in favor of studies that are topical or devotional, adopting formats that more closely resemble a book club discussion than a class that teaches Scripture.
The evidence of this trend is everywhere, from church websites to the bestseller section in the Christian bookstore. Not many Christians are clamoring for the release of a line-by-line study of Deuteronomy, but a book on how the Bible addresses body image or another hot topic flies off the shelves.
Topical studies, devotional groups, and book discussions are beneficial, but not foundational. The church serves its members well by offering learning environments dedicated to opening the Bible and exploring it one passage at a time, one book at a time. Such classes build the Bible literacy today’s Christians so desperately need by passing down the skills to observe, interpret, and apply the text.
And the church needs to announce the presence and purpose of these classes with clarity.
Churches must distinguish clearly between what is Bible study and what is something else because the average churchgoer may not be able to on her own. Knowing they should study the Bible, earnest Christians sign up for what we have labeled a Bible study, assuming that it is.
Yet, biblical illiteracy pervades our churches, unintentionally aided by our labeling. Too often, I’m told at the end of a basic, line-by-line study, “I’ve done Bible studies for years, and I’ve never studied the Bible like this.”
The late Howard Hendricks challenged aspiring Bible teachers with this principle: Never do for your students what they can do for themselves. If it’s called a “Bible study,” it should be a place where the disciple is learning to do the good work, where he learns how to be “a worker unashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
So, what’s the solution? At my own church, we’ve taken care to be precise in our terminology. We still offer classes on topics and books, but we don’t call these gatherings Bible studies, nor do they dominate our offerings. We commit significant budget and calendar space to providing basic, literacy-building Bible study environments. We speak precisely and unapologetically about their purpose and value, and we set a clear expectation for what they entail.