In “The Crisis of Biblical Literacy” in Biola magazine (Spring 2014), Kenneth Berding explains:
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.
Our church realized we were contributing to this biblical illiteracy. Our small-group model recruited leaders by saying, “If you can push ‘Play’ on a DVD player, you can be a leader.” Many members left their Bibles at home; they watched the program and answered the basic questions found in the guide. If Scripture was mentioned, it 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 members become more familiar with God's Word. The new model, Life Groups, no longer relies on a DVD; 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 active as people share different perspectives. Everyone 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!
Changing How We Trained Leaders
To change our model, we had to change how we train leaders, to empower them to read and understand the Bible for themselves. Most jobs spend time training their employees, but for some reason in the church some think it's asking too much to require training for leaders.
We created an eight-week training program. The potential leaders form their own Life Group for those eight weeks, studying the Book of Acts. We cast vision for the ministry and discuss leadership responsibilities. Plus, each week we train on a topic: inductive Bible study, how to create questions, stages of group life, cultivation of group prayer, service opportunities, and more.
This format allows the leaders to learn in two key ways. First, they learn by being a Life Group—complete with discussion, prayer, and snacks. Second, they practice leadership techniques, especially beginning in Week Five, when the leaders take turns creating the questions, leading the group, and receiving peer feedback. This allows potential leaders to apply new leadership skills in a safe environment. In turn, they discover they can lead a Bible study. This realization empowers them. By the end of their training, leaders have grown not only in helping others engage the Bible, but also in their own Bible engagement.
Once the training is complete, the new leaders are encouraged to return to their existing groups and co-lead for a while, prior to starting their own group. In some cases, though, leaders launch a new group right away.
The Cost and the Results
This method of training raises the bar for leaders. It asks more of us as trainers, and it asks more of them. With our new model, because leaders study the passage and prepare questions ahead of time, they are equipped to keep the discussion aligned with God's truth. 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 members uncover God's truth for themselves. They can help group members find the passage or note how a passage correlates to other stories in the Bible. Whether someone is still searching for Jesus, new to faith, or a graduate from seminary, everyone feels welcome to participate. Because everyone is invited to study the Word, group members are not only bringing their Bibles, but also underlining passages and writing notes in the margins.
It’s been more than two years since we started this model. Introducing a model always brings some pushback. We weren’t sure if leaders would commit to the rigorous training, but our last two training groups were at capacity, and our next group is 75 percent full—six weeks before it starts. We have doubled the number of leaders trained and adults involved, and the number of active groups has increased by 44 percent. Perhaps even more exciting, we’re seeing leaders multiply leaders, and we now have second- and third-generation leaders. Even some leaders who were reluctant early on are saying, “I wish I would have started this method years ago.”
The people in our Life Groups continue to grow. Parents who felt uncomfortable praying with their children now take the prayer and study methods they learned in group back home to lead their kids in family devotions. For others, their group has become a safe place to ask questions they don’t feel comfortable asking anywhere else. Life Groups are breathing new life into our church.
—Brad Himes is the Involvement Director at Broadway Christian Church in Mattoon, Illinois.