Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

4 thoughts on “Are You Hungry for Bible Study?”

  1. AMEN!!!! You are soooooo right. Too many are comfortable with the 50s, and don’t want those little gray cells working anymore than necessary. Of course, ask them about politics and, well…. I remember back around 1988 going to a Christian camp to teach on the subject of science and the Bible. They handed me material from the early 1950s. I couldn’t believe it. Not only was it out of date but it wasn’t even what these kids were dealing with. Talk about being out of touch. There is so much good stuff out there, some of it online, that gives us a better understanding of Bible culture and words, and history and geography, and so on.

    There is also a fear that if one learns more, one may find out that he might have been wrong on something, and as such, in our legalistic view, cannot happen. Ignorance becomes bliss. I attend a class that a young brother teaches. We have read the same material and can privately talk about it. However in class when he tries to open up the minds of others, the traditions just come in hard and fast. Frustrating.

    Good post Paul! Praying for you.

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    1. Once again, thanks so much for the kind words, George! Your anecdote about the 1950’s cutting edge science in the 1980’s really made me chuckle. It is that sort of person who wrings their hands today and says, “Why are all the kids leaving – I know, let’s start up a praise band for worship!” Meanwhile, community churches are actually getting kids in the door by allowing tough questions to be asked and at least attempting to answer them (don’t know the retention rate – churches all across the board are losing members).

      I appreciate the story in your second paragraph. One, I appreciate you being able to discuss the material with the teacher – at least one on one. I’m sure that gives him the courage that his efforts are not totally wasted. Two, I assume you are referring to an outside book, but even if it is just the text, I appreciate his effort to expand the thinking of his class. That can be so frustrating, and it is what drives many qualified but inexperienced teachers away from teaching. In the congregation where I was just (mercifully, it is turning out) dismissed, I had one member scoff at the idea that the younger and less mature Christians needed their own class where they could discuss issues pertinent to them. To this member, “one size class” fit everyone, and if younger Christians needed a different setting or different material, they should just grow up. Well, they will harvest a rich return on that kind of thinking.

      Once again – your comments are a delight, and I thank you for taking the time to *talk* with me through my blog. Blessings on your work!

      Paul

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      1. Just to let you know that my young teacher friend has often mentioned and used “outsiders” books on various subjects. He is not afraid to mention or use them. Some he has mentioned I have gotten and read. It’s been a lot of fun and nice to talk with someone who has a broader view.

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