By Dwayne McCrary
In his book Fuel the Fire, Chuck Kelley notes that Sunday Schools began with a focus on nurturing believers more than reaching outsiders during the early 1920s.1 People living during that time endured the Spanish Flu with quarantines, mask mandates, and confusing news accounts. They also faced economic hardships as soldiers returned from World War I without a reentry plan and navigated through social unrest during the Red Summer of 1919. Believers had been away from each other and missed the support provided in a regular Bible study group. That support included a safe place to share and talk about what was going on in the world in light of Scripture. We can certainly understand how and why this shift took place.
However, Dr. Kelley also notes that some church leaders made an intentional decision to use their Bible study groups as a tool for reaching people who were far from God. These church leaders realized that all people wanted the support of a group where they could interact with others about substantial issues. These church leaders appear to have benefitted from three streams intersecting each other: desire for truth, desire for interaction with others, and a place where anyone was welcome. In short, they created open Bible study groups that were small enough for people to interact about the Bible and then created new groups as needed to keep the dynamic of the three streams present. These were churches that made a difference not only in the lives of believers but also in the lives of people who were far from God. By the end of the decade, they had become the standard for an effective church in the West.
One wonders if we are not at the same intersection today. We could certainly circle the wagons and focus on Bible study groups for believers. The people in our churches might applaud us and be very content. But doing so fails to make room for those who are far from God and ignores the opportunity being placed before us.
What does an ongoing Bible study group that is focused on reaching people far from God look like?
- They invite people who are not in a Bible study group. With the invitation, comes an offer to pick them up or meet them so they know where to go.
- They leave space for new people. That means empty chairs and additional study resources.
- They are smaller. By smaller, I mean a maximum group size of a dozen at the most. Discussion and interaction starts to decline once a group surpasses that number.
- They look to start new groups. This involves preparing people to lead those new groups and current leaders continually recognizing the importance of starting new groups.
- They look to the Bible as the authority. This is what gives the group value and distinction. The value proposition is studying the Bible with a group.
- They make sure everyone can participate. Questions are crafted so everyone can answer, and lessons stand on their own (not dependent upon the participants being present the previous week).
These actions will get our groups down the road to reclaiming the reaching element of Sunday School or ongoing Bible study groups. What steps do your groups need to take in reclaiming the reaching ministry of Sunday School?
Dwayne McCrary is a team leader for ongoing adult resources at Lifeway. He also serves as an adjunct at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, teaches an adult group and preschool group in his church, reads history books, and is a road bicyclist.
1. Charles S. Kelley Jr., Fuel the Fire: Lessons from the History of Southern Baptist Evangelism (Nashville, TN:B&H Academic, 2018).