Most Monday evenings for the past two years, Naomi Ruth Jackson has ridden her 22-speed bike uphill or caught a bus after work to Westover Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas. She meets there with around 450 women for a Bible Study Fellowship class. The 30-year-old is not the lay-focused ministry’s typical participant, having majored in Bible and theology in college. Her own church offers only unstructured Bible study, and her job as a medical records clerk grants her few occasions to re-engage her skills in scriptural interpretation.
The class lasts two hours. It starts with a time of worship at 6:40 p.m., rolls into discussion and fellowship in small breakout groups, and ends with a 40-minute lecture. But rather than deterrents, the breadth and commitment to the 30-week program are draws for Jackson.
“I think about Scripture a lot, but there isn’t always an opportunity to have an audience or be around people who want to discuss that,” she said. “So for me, personally, it meets that need.”
After singing some hymns at a class on the Gospel of John earlier this year, Jackson and about 10 other women filtered into the church’s “cry room” and formed a cozy circle on rocking chairs and a stray pew. A group leader, in her mid-40s, encouraged everyone to share a few words based on questions relating to each chapter of the book.
Jackson had a lot on her mind. She was worried about her younger sister, who had been in a car accident.
“I was frustrated and angry and praying for her,” she said. “I thought to myself, I need to be an advocate for my sister,” as the group studied John 14 about the Holy Spirit’s role as advocate. “And just as that phrase came out, the Holy Spirit said to me, ‘No, Naomi, that’s my job.’ ” One thing about the Bible, she said, is that “it can be extremely relevant no matter what is going on in your life.”
Jackson is one of more than 400,000 women, men, girls, and boys participating in Bible Study Fellowship (BSF), which comprises 1,200 free classes hosted in church facilities across 40 countries. Attendees come from many denominations and a handful profess no faith at all. All classes follow a 10-year curriculum cycle that aims to cover the entire meta-narrative of the 66 books of the Bible.
Incorporated in 1959, BSF is nearing its 60th anniversary, and its board, staff, and volunteers are mobilizing to tackle a long-standing dilemma: passing on its in-depth Bible study approach to the next generation. Jackson’s under-40s demographic is the main target of BSF’s recent BRIDGE initiative, a five-year campaign focused on drawing in Bible-friendly millennials but also unengaged ones through social media, new class models, and more studies. While the organization has always wanted to draw from all age groups, it has recently pivoted harder to reach more young adults, a generation BSF leadership feels is growing detached from religion, is less exposed to church, and is increasingly antagonistic toward Christianity and the Bible.
“We’re in the same quandary as the evangelical church,” said Walter Kaiser Jr., a BSF board member, an Old Testament scholar, and former president of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. “The majority of evangelical churches have a great gap, and that gap is right in that age group.”