14. God’s Discipleship Community

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Cost of Discipleship the world was a very different place from what it is today. In the West, Christianity was generally either the dominant or the state religion. Particularly in Europe, there were state churches. Most congregations were small. Both in Europe and in the United States, the years before and around World War II marked the beginning of the end of an era of Christianity that began with the Roman Empire. The late 20thand early 21st centuries also marked the emergence of formerly colonial nations into freedom and increased economic opportunity. The West was no longer culturally and economically dominant. [1] By the end of the Second World War, Europe was well into its march towards secularism, while in America the march did not reach the same level of intensity until the 1960’s.

In Bonhoeffer’s day, the late modern phenomenon of mega-churches in large metropolitan areas and large secular populations was unknown. There was religious and cultural diversity, but that diversity was different and much smaller than today. Some parishes were large, but nothing like the large churches experienced in America. The so-called Mainline denominations: Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, American Baptist and the like were in broad decline by the close of the 20th Century, and evangelicalism had emerged as the most quickly growing segment. Nevertheless, by the end of the 20th Century even these churches had begun to gradually decline.

Called to Community

In the cultural situation of the early 20th Century, Christian community could almost be taken for granted. Life was simpler. Cities were smaller. More people lived in rural areas. Most Christian congregations were small, and community was a natural result of living and worshiping together. Today, things are very different, and we actually have to intentionally create Christian community.

God’s intention has always been and always will be to create a special people, his family, through which God blesses the entire world. God called Abraham for just this purpose (Genesis 12:1-4). In Genesis, God calls Abraham to bless not just himself, but his family, and even the entire world (Genesis 12:1-3). The history of Israel is the history of God’s dealings with this one family. [2] He wanted Israel to be a kind of prototype for what all families and all nations should be like.

Even once Israel became a nation, one of the most common images the Bible uses for them is “The Sons of Israel”—a family. God’s family, however, was called to be different than the other families around them. They were to be holy just as God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). The word “holy” means “separated” or “different.” The way in which God’s people were to be different is that they were to show forth the wisdom, goodness, and love of God in a special way, so that the entire world might come into fellowship with the God of Love.

For Christians, the Apostle Peter put it this way:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (I Peter 2:9-10).

Those of us who have been called to be disciples have become part of God’s family, and are called to be a special, set apart people, created by Christ through the Spirit to declare to the world the mercy and love of God. The church is God’s chosen vehicle to make disciples, drawing people into a deep, life-transforming relationship with God. The primary purpose of the church is to “go into the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16).

The New Testament Community

The book of Acts begins with Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples. The first discipleship group was disbanded when Jesus ascended into heaven. No longer would they be meeting together daily, physically in the presence of the Word Made Flesh. Instead, Jesus was going to be with the disciples as they shared the Good News throughout the world by the invisible, personal presence of the Holy Spirit. He asked his disciples to return to the city and await the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:8).  They went back into the city, met together in the Upper Room as a group, prayed together, and planned for the future until the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-25).

On the day of Pentecost, the promised Holy Spirit came upon the little band of Jesus followers, and the disciples were filled with the powerful presence of God (Acts 2:1-4). They began to share the Good News with all those gathered in Jerusalem that day, and by the end of the day, about 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2:5-41).

What did they do next? They met as a family! The apostles discipled a new group of believers in Jesus just as Jesus discipled them! Here is how Acts describes it:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

The early church was like a family, intimately sharing their life together. They shared meals. They kept a common purse for expenses of the group. They contributed to the needs of the group. They worshiped, learned, and prayed together. The experienced the power and presence of God together as a family. The surrounding society recognized that these people were different and, in the end, saw the beauty of their way of life. We are called to the same way of life.

God calls Christians to be a part of a set-apart community, not removed from the surrounding society, but a different sort of people showing a better way to live in the midst of every culture. This is hard in our society. We are so individualistic and driven that we have difficulty maintaining physical families, much less a church family. We are so busy that it is hard to find time to share our lives with others. We are so consumed emotionally by the needs of our biological family, career, social life, and the like, that making time for deep spiritually-based relationships is not natural or easy. Nevertheless, this is exactly what God has asked us to do. [3]  We won’t grow in Christ unless we devote ourselves to learning about God, fellowshipping with God’s people, praying with other Christians, and experiencing the power of God in our lives.

Often, as we have seen, contemporary people lack community, and tend to find an inadequate community in the workplaces and in political or avocational associations. One signal of the decay of our culture loss of where sometimes called “mediating institutions,” that provide meaning and purpose to life. [4] At the most basic level, the frequency of divorce in our society means that most people do not grow up in stable homes. The most basic unit of society is terribly unstable in our culture.

In the past, schools, preschools, swimming pools, and other public goods were often managed at the level of the neighborhood. Today, for most Americans these are managed at the level of a vast city. State and national governments are by their nature, distant. In larger metropolitan areas, the same things is true: governments are far removed from the day to day lives of people. Often leaders have little or no idea of the needs of local neighborhoods. The vast majority of people do not belong to churches and other institutions that give meaning and purpose to life at a basic level. The result is a pervasive loneliness and alienation.

Discipleship Groups

the Book of Acts provides us with a description of what a Spirit-filled community is like. We need to think about that description, because it tells us what contemporary churches are to be like in order to disciple people in ways that mirror the way Jesus discipled people. In the conditions of today’s Western society, and especially in America, this cannot be accomplished without intentionality. One way of accomplishing the goal of creating life transforming community is forming “Discipleship Groups.” A discipleship group is an intentional, personal, face-to-face, regular gathering of men and women who are committed to grow as disciples of Jesus Chris together in community. [5]

Each aspect of this definition is important considering the scriptural model given to us in Acts 2:42-47:

  • A discipleship group is Intentional: The early disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching.” The apostles and the new believers intentionally committed themselves to grow as disciples by listening to the apostles teach. We will not grow as disciples unless we are willing to be intentional about it.
  • A discipleship group is Personal: We are told “all the believers were together.” Personal, face-to-face fellowship is not an optional part of the Christian life. It is central. God desires us to become part of a community of believers who are sharing their lives and their faith together. God wants us to be in close relationship with others as we grow in faith.
  • A discipleship group is Regular: The early church met “daily.” A discipleship group meets once a week, every other week, twice a month, or on some other regular basis. Frankly, for most of us in our culture, a daily meeting is impossible, except perhaps in our family or with one or two other people we normally see in our daily lives. Groups that meet monthly are normally unable to produce lasting personal change. For most Christians, a weekly group is what is needed.
  • A discipleship group meets to be Taught: When they met, the first disciples listened “to the apostles teaching.” A discipleship group desires to grow in the knowledge of Christ and the Christian life. Discipling groups are not primarily social gatherings. Although the Christian faith is more than learning information, it is impossible to grow as a Christian disciple and be transformed into the image of Christ without learning truths about God and Christian living.
  • A discipleship group experiences Exciting Fellowship: When the early church met, “everyone was filled with awe.” Christian fellowship should be life-giving, exciting and life-changing. If people in our culture are to be filled with awe, then we must show the wisdom and love of God by the lives we lead and by the community of love we create. We must share the day-to-day miracles of life with one another and the world around us.
  • A discipleship group Intends to Grow: “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” The purpose of a discipleship group is to grow the kingdom of God by growing disciples. This means intentionally inviting new people into the group. Many small groups in our culture exist primarily for group members. A true discipleship group exists not only for current members but for future disciples of Christ. [6]

In contemporary Western society, Christians must intentionally create discipling communities like the fellowship of the early church. Any social institution emerges from a community of people whose purpose is the maintenance and transmission of the knowledge and skills the group was formed to advance. [7] One of the most important developments in modern philosophy of science is an increased understanding of the communal nature of science. Any scientist becomes and remains a scientist by becoming a part of the community of scientists. It probably begins early in life with a special teacher, who makes a deep impression on the student. Then, as the years go by the student goes on to take more classes, then begins specializing in the particular science in which he or she has an interest. During this period, the young scientist will have many mentors, teachers, role models, and will learn many skills. Over many years of apprenticeship and learning, the novice becomes an accomplished scientist his or her self. It does not happen easily or over-night. The church is God’s community of change.

Large worship services, media teachers, etc. cannot possibly form Christian character in the deep way discipleship groups can. Deep discipleship takes an intentional group of people led by experienced leaders, like the apostles, to take people from a secular-orientation and mold them into fully-equipped disciples as they model the life of Christ and share their own lives in a deep and meaningful way. There is no other way out of the crisis of discipleship in which our society finds itself

Spirit-Filled Community

Discipleship groups are more than a program. These groups, large or small, are a God-given opportunity for disciples to live the kind of life God intended for all human beings. Once we understand this, we understand human ingenuity is not sufficient for true discipling community. Only the Holy Spirit can create a community that models God’s wisdom and love in the midst of a fallen, broken, and diseased world. Only the Holy Spirit can help us live out lives of true agape love toward others. The Holy Spirit transmits to us the love of God in several ways:

  • Knowledge. It is the Holy Spirit that allows disciples to understand who God is and what God is like.
  • It is the Holy Spirit that draws disciples into fellowship with God by faith in Christ.
  • Church. It is the Holy Spirit who creates the church and draws disciples into relationship with others.
  • Worship, Witness, and Service. It is the Holy Spirit that sustains that relationship and empowers the Body of Christ for worship, community, growth and mission.

Over the years, the churches we have served have had many small discipleship groups. Frankly, some were life-changing and some were not. The difference was in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Years ago, a member of the congregation stopped me in the hall. His group was struggling. I asked him what they were doing in their meetings. It turned out that their group had become a dinner club. They met, had a glass of wine, ate dinner, and visited. There is nothing wrong with any of this—but it is not the characteristic of a discipleship group. There was no intentional attempt to grow in Christ. As a result of our conversation, they incorporated Bible Study, prayer, sharing, and service into the life of the group. They invited a few new people. Almost over-night, the group was providing a place for Christian growth for its members.

Discipleship Groups as a Means of Grace

In some Christian traditions, there’s much talk about the “ordinary means of grace.” Ordinarily, Bible study, prayer, and other activities are means by which God allows us to grow in grace. In contemporary society I would argue that participation in discipling groups, is one of the most important if not the most important means of grace. It has certainly been true in my own life and in the life of many people I know. Jesus said, “For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there with them” (Matthew 18:20). The spirit this is basically present in those small groups of Christians together in the name of Jesus.

In his little book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” [8]

No Christian and no Christian fellowship should underestimate the importance of intentional Christian community.

Leadership and Discipling Groups

Discipling groups do not occur automatically. Jesus had to call his disciples to come and be with him. Peter had to preach. The apostles had to reach out and form the small Christian discipling communities that constituted the early church. Over centuries, people have call other people into a relationship with Jesus. In contemporary society, this requires getting out of our comfort zone and asking people to gather with us to learn about Jesus and follow him.

This involves leadership. Someone must call the people into the group. Someone has to provide overall guidance for the group. Someone has to teach a small Bible study. Someone has to lead the prayers. Someone has to organize the refreshments, if any. Every discipleship group is a miniature church requiring as many of the spiritual gifts as possible to function. Discipleship Groups do not need a single leader, they need many leaders with as many different spiritual gifts as is possible.

Today, most larger churches have some kind of small group program. Most of the time these programs have three basic problems:

First, the groups tend to become ingrown and not want to multiply and grow. People get accustomed to the deep fellowship of the group and they don’t want to leave that the fellowship and grow the kingdom of God. This is a tremendous leadership challenge. It is important that the leadership of the groups constantly mention the Great Commission, so that people develop a heart to share their faith and invite their friends.

Second, often groups do not intentionally develop new leadership. Most of the time, the existing leaders lead the group until the group no longer exists. Sometimes existing leaders are so invested in leading that they resist turning over leadership to others. While this is normal and human, it’s not the best thing for the kingdom of God. In the early church, Antioch was a wonderful church with great teaching, preaching, prophesying, and worship. Paul and Barnabas were essential and important parts of that fellowship. In Acts, we read that they were sent out on what became the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). If they had not been willing to go, if the church of Antioch of been satisfied to be what it is where it was, we would not be here today. Instead they sent out their two best leaders and developed new leadership.

Third, there is the problem of equipping teachers to share the gospel without distortion. In a church that has a large number of small groups there is always the challenge of creating a teaching consistency faithful to the doctrine and morals of that particular church. This is an ongoing problem that senior leadership must take seriously. If a congregation has enough small groups, someday there will be at least one leader who in doctrine or morals betrays the confidence of leadership. This requires training and fellowship among the leaders of the groups and a structure of accountability.

This means that this discipleship group leaders must meet regularly with senior leadership in the church and be accountable to them. There must be times of sharing what is going on in the small groups, what the basic studies are going to be for the ongoing period of time, and some of the doctrinal challenges that may be faced as lay people talk about the passages and topics. It is also true that discipleship leaders must be mentored and monitored so that their teachings and life continue to grow in grace. [9] Finally, the fact is that some people will have to be removed from leadership. In my experience, this is rarely necessary, but it does happen.

Diversity and Unity in Discipleship Groups

There is not a “one size fits all” way of developing discipleship groups in a local congregation. Discipleship groups will be formed in different ways and for different purposes. People cannot be in ten different groups. It’s inevitable that people are going to attend groups that meet a particular spiritual need they have and the giftedness they sensed God has given them. This means that groups must have different foci, but some common features as they disciple people. [10]

Some groups will concentrate on studying the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that they should not be in mission sharing the gospel with others. Some groups will be involved in prayer, but this does not mean that they do not need to and base their prayers on the Bible and be in mission, sharing their faith with others. Some groups (such as a praise band) will be primarily involved in supporting the ministry and mission of the local church, but this does not mean that they don’t need to study the Bible and be prayerful in what they plan and do.

The key is to create a leadership team that is both focused and flexible. The focus needs to be upon making more and better disciples for Christ and the development of loving fellowship among believers. At the same time, the leadership needs to be flexible in allowing groups to accomplish this discipling task in a variety of different ways based upon the specific talents and vision of that group.

The Future of the Church

After forty years as a disciple of Jesus, and about the same number of years as a Christian leader, including twenty-eight years as a pastor, I’m convinced that the future of American Christianity lies in our ability to recover the ability to love people into the kingdom of God through personal relationships in life-changing community. Western civilization is in a period of decay. Much of the surrounding culture is not only non-Christian but hostile to the Christian faith. In such a cultural situation, we cannot rely upon a mass audience, mass worship, or mass ministry to do the job of sharing God’s love with others as we have experienced it because of our faith in Jesus Christ. This can only be accomplished by individual Christians joining together in small communities of faith within the larger body of Christ and sharing their faith day in and day out.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Although the United States emerged both victorious and economically intact from the Second World War, no other European nation did. As the 20th Century concluded, however, Western Europe, and especially Germany emerged from the devastation of the war. Japan was a major economic power having emerged from the post-war period as an economic powerhouse. China had also recovered from the war and from the economic setback of the cultural revolution. India emerged as an economic powerhouse. The economic dependence of the West on oil as a source of energy enriched and empowered the Muslim world of the Middle East and Asia. Culturally, the religions of the Far East were evident and attractive to many in the formerly Christian West. All of this meant that Western culture and values were no longer dominant. In America there were few major cities not characterized by a fair amount of religious diversity.

[2] One of the easy miss-readings of the Old Testament is a failure to understand that while we think of Israel as a kind of ancient version of the modern nation state, this notion is far from the reality. One of the most common names for the Jewish people and nation is “the sons of Israel.” Their identity was that of members of related tribes who came from a common ancestor and were therefore a family as much as a political body.

[3] This aspect of Bonhoeffer’s thought is often ignored. For example, “Everything the disciple does is a part of the common life of the church of which he is a member. That is why the law, which governs the life of the Body of Christ, is where one is the whole body is also. There is no department of life in which the member may withdraw from the Body, nor should he desire to so withdraw.” Cost of Discipleship, at 286.

[4] See, Path of Life, at 162.

[5] Individual congregations have many names for what I call discipleship groups. The term “small group” tells us only one characteristic of what we want these groups to be like. They should be small, but that is not the most important characteristic. They should disciple people. They are and can be called “Life Groups,” “Community Groups,” “Koinonia Groups,” “Circles” and any one of a number of names in different churches. What is important is to remember the purpose: to disciple people.

[6] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, A Leadership Training Guide for Discipling People: Discipleship Groups at Advent Presbyterian Church(Unpublished Manuscript, 2000), 6.

[7] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. 1958. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1962. I am reliant on Polanyi and Lesslie Newbigin’s analysis of his work and application to discipleship for this insight. See, Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995) and Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, previously cited, at 20.

[9] This regular accountability of small group leaders has always been hard to achieve. It requires both administrative and interpersonal ability. In the best example I have experienced, group leaders huddled with the person in charge of small group ministry and one of the pastoral staff several times a year. In addition, the person charged with administering small groups was constantly on the phone with group leaders. The Senior Pastor was an enthusiastic proponent of small groups. These “huddles” were an essential part of the success of the program.

[10] This was the intention of the A Leadership Training Guide for Discipling People, cited at note 6. While groups may differ in focus (Bible Study, Prayer, Ministries and Missions, etc.) there are common features that group leaders within a larger congregation need to understand and implement.

13. A Disciple Spends Time in the Word

A committed disciple is committed to spend time in the written Word of God so as to have the knowledge base required to grow in likeness to, and fellowship with, the Word Made Flesh. Christians should seek to know the truth, because the truth of God sets us free to be people God wants us to be. Time in the word of God is not alone enough to be a transformed disciple of Christ, but it is essential.

Each morning, I spend the first few minutes of the day reading the Bible and praying. I have been a Christian since 1977, and for most of that time, this practice has been my daily routine. This has been true as a layperson, as a pastor, and as a parent. After all these years, I do not feel right on the days I skip this sacred time and believe it makes a difference in who I am and how I behave. (I like to say, “I am not who I should be, but thank God I am not who was was!”)

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be centered in Scripture so that we can have a life-changing relationship with the One of whom Scripture speaks. A great deal of what we can know about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Christian life we learn by listening to the voice of God in Scripture. This “knowing about,” however, is of little use to us unless it results in our growing in a relationship with God in Christ and in our personal likeness to Christ. We have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. We must be doers and just hearers of the word (James 2:17).

In Acts, Paul leaves Thessalonica for Berea. The Thessalonians were resistant to the Good News and did not want to hear Paul’s message. In Berea, things were different. Luke records: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:11-12). Those who earnestly hear the gospel of Christ are almost always the most eager to study their Scriptures. We study Scripture to test the testimony and opinions of others and to grow in our understanding of God, God’s world, our fallenness, our constant need for mercy, and our unique place in God’s plan to redeem the world.

In perhaps his last letter, Paul underscores the importance of Scripture as he writes Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Here we see Scripture lifted up for what it is: the source of Godly wisdom, of a deeper understanding of the secret wisdom revealed in Christ, of the nature of faith, and of our hope in God through Christ. The Scripture was given to us by the Spirit of God to teach us, rebuke us of our sin, correct our errors, and train us in the ways of God. Notice that all this implies that Scripture was given to us so that we might change, grow, and reach out to a lost and broken world.

The Crisis of Biblical Knowledge

For a long time, pastors, scholars, and students have known that “Biblical literacy” is declining in our culture. There was a time when the Bible was found in almost every home in Europe and North America. There was a time, before radio, television, and other forms of media, when reading the Bible in family groups was common. There was a time when public schools and colleges taught the Bible and taught literature based upon the Bible. In such a culture, most people grew up with some basic understanding of the story the Bible is telling in the culture was formed by the story of the Bible.

This is no longer true. The story that the Bible tells us no longer at the center of our civilization. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Cost of Discipleship, Europe was no longer filled with Christians who were constantly renewing their life in Christ. The elites of most European countries no longer believed in historic Christian faith. However, educated people were still part of a culture in which their fundamental values were formed by the Christian story. Colleges and Universities were still formed by the Biblical story even of many people no longer believed.

Unfortunately, this is no longer true in the West. Instead, in Europe and America, as well as the other parts of the world formed by a post-Christian culture, political, educational, cultural, and artistic leaders are generally formed by a worldview that excludes a personal God, the miraculous, the notion of a personal communication from God, prayer, the idea that God speaks to certain people with a word for others, and other facets of historic Christian faith. People formed by such a worldview do not intuitively find Christian faith, values, or morals important or realistic.

The situation will not change any time soon, and the current crisis of discipleship will continue until a group of people are so deeply formed by the Christian story and Christian faith that their approach to life and its problems are undeniably changed and different than the approach of the surrounding culture. The formation and growth of such a people cannot be done by mass media, corporate education, or large, music or entertainment driven, worship services. [1] This kind of formation can only be done in small communities of people who are studying the Scriptures, praying, and living out the Christian life together. The situation in our society will not change until there is a completely different approach to discipleship, one that focuses on living the Bible as much or more than teaching or sharing its truths.

A Changed World View

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, knew that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world (with eyes of steadfast, self-giving love), and are transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our live to God and do the things that please God. Christians need to be transformed into bearers of God’s love and truth into their day-to-day world. This transformation will not occur until and unless we change the way we see the world, think about the world, and respond to the challenges of everyday life.

The Bible is a tool we should use in day-to-day life. All tools require skill to use them properly. Generally, the utility of a tool is only fully available to a craftsman trained and experienced in the proper use of the tool, so that its use is second nature. Mental tools are no different. The value of the Bible is not in the study of it, or even in the memorization of its teachings, but in internalizing and consciously and unconsciously learning to live out its truth over an extended period of time. [2]

As we study, memorize, and meditate on the Bible and the story of God and humanity that it tells, we learn to “indwell” the Biblical story and its principles. Only when the stories and teachings of the Bible are internalized, so they are available to us as part of our conscious and unconscious perception of the world, do they perform their most important use in guiding thought and action. [3]

The crisis of faith we face is largely due to a lack of understanding and internalizing the story of God’s love affair with all people, of every tribe and nation. The Good News of this love affair is contained in the Bible, and particularly in the stories of the life death and resurrection of Jesus, of his interaction with people, and of the response of those people to the Good News. Our civilization has lost its unconscious understanding of the nature of God’s love and of its power to guide us in everyday life and in the decisions of everyday life. If we want to be changed by this story and help the world see the difference it makes, we have to take time to be in the word of God and allow it to mold our character and actions.

Transformed by the Word

As Christians study Scripture and meditate upon the One revealed in its pages, we encounter God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Romans, “faith comes from hearing, and the message is revealed through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Later, in Colossians, Paul urges Christians to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). It is in hearing and internalizing the Word of God, so that the word becomes the way in which we understand the meaning of the world, that we are changed into the image of Christ. As we listen to others in a Bible Study or Sunday School Class, God’s word, the Word of Christ, enters and dwells within our hearts through the window of our minds. Slowly, but surely, we are transformed.

Having a Good Bible Study

There are many ways to grow as a disciple by meditating on Scripture. There was a time when there was a lack of good group Bible Study materials. This is no longer true. There are many good Bible Study guides ranging from Sunday School materials, guides to the study of books of the Bible, and topical study guides in areas such as prayer, marriage, finances, child raising, coming to Christ, etc. All these resources help a group center itself on Holy Scripture. Not only do resources exist in printed form, but there are many ways to use materials to be found on the internet or in electronic media. Some of this material is free. [4]

Discipleship groups are not the place for large, lecture-oriented study. The key to a good discipleship group Bible study is its personal character. So, a study should have these three basic characteristics.

  • Group Discussion. People remember about ten percent of what they hear and about eighty percent of what they Therefore, lecture is not the best method for Bible Study. The best method for life-transforming Bible study involves personal interaction among people. This means the leader must avoid lecturing too much.
  • Open-ended Questions. It is always best to ask questions that enable group members to answer correctly whatever they say. So, questions like, “What did this passage mean to you” are always better than questions like, “What does John Calvin say about this passage?”
  • Focus on Application. It is important to remember that God is more interested in what Christians put to work in their lives than in how much they abstract knowledge they possess. It is always a good idea to end the study of a passage with a discussion of the question, “How am I going to live differently today now that I have studied this passage?”

If it is true that God exists in relationship and wants to draw us into his Triune relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then it is not surprising that God wants us to hear his Word both in relationship to his own person (Christ) and in relationship to the Body of Christ. He wants us to hear this word in our own private Bible study, and corporately as we study the Bible in groups and hear the word of God proclaimed in worship.

A commitment to grow as a disciple is important. God does not want us to be mere hearers of his Word. He wants to transform our lives so that we live out that word in our day-to-day lives. This is why James says in his letter “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). While it is true that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:9), we are also saved for the good works we will do in response to what God has done for us in Christ (2:10). The purpose of our Bible study is not merely to improve our minds and understanding, it is to transform us mind, body, heart, and soul. This requires more than an objective study.

Basic Bible Study Rules

Becoming a good leader for people who want to know more about the Bible is not as hard as it might seem. Here are some helpful rules in developing Bible study skills:

  • Use the Bible. If you are studying the Bible privately, you need a Bible! If you are in a Bible study group, everyone needs a Bible or a copy of the text the group is studying. In some Bible study materials, the text will be reprinted. In others, people must have a Bible as well as the guide. It is also helpful if everyone is using the same version of the Bible.
  • Read the Bible. No matter how good a Bible study is, the purpose is to learn the Bible. Much of the Bible began as an orally transmitted message of faith. Therefore, it is always a good idea to begin by reading the selected passage aloud. This allows the modern hearer to experience something of the oral tradition from which Scripture emerged. Stick to the text at hand. Avoid cross-referencing other biblical texts unless it is absolutely necessary. Before reading the text tells the group where it can be found can be found.
  • Opening Question. If you are the lead teacher of a group, think out beforehand the first question you will ask. The first question is always the most important of all. It opens the discussion and often determines the character of the group’s interaction. This kind of question most often can take the form of, “What teaching of this verse made an impression on you?” or “What did you find most interesting about this passage?”
  • Reflective Questions. Whether studying alone or in a group, there is no Bible study unless we engage the text. In reading this passage of Scripture or book, here are some questions you may want to ask yourself about the text:
    • What immediate message do you hear?
    • What feelings are you having in reading this?
    • What was helpful?
    • How I am I going to act differently because I have read this text?
  • Let Questions Guide the Study. Ask questions which are clearly tied to the text and build logically upon one another. If a question is not understood, restate it in different words. Limit initial comments to key information and definition. Focus on the most important aspects of the passage. Try not to answer your own question. If a question does not gain response, move on to another After the first response to a question, ask if anyone has a different or additional response. Don’t exhaust a question before moving to the next verse or question. Let the group set the agenda. Above all, realize that most questions do not have a single answer. Affirm those who respond if at all possible.
  • Involve the Imagination. One of the most important techniques that a teacher or student can use is to the whole person: sight, sound, touch, thought in the study. For example, as the text is read aloud, visualize for yourself or have the group visualize the scene. Ask the group to imagine how they would have reacted if they had been present. This is especially useful when studying a story from the Bible or a parable from Jesus.
  • Share Personal Meaning. Ask yourself the question, “What does this passage mean to me?” In a group Bible study, the most important thing to know is what the text means to the people present. This does not mean ignoring commentaries or historical understanding. It just means that what changes a life is a personal experience of the power of the Word.
  • Don’t Be Afraid. One barrier to some people exercising gifts for leadership in Bible Study is a fear of not knowing the answer. “I really do not know” is always a good answer. If you do not know, offer to study the question and give an answer at the next meeting. Even pastors do not know all there is to know about the Bible. Therefore, you should not be afraid to say you don’t know.
  • Stay in One Passage. One common mistake is to play “Bible Hopscotch.” Most people do not have a ready familiarity with the Bible, and flipping pages makes them nervous. Sometimes to get a clear idea of what Scripture means, we need to study more than one passage. Much of the time, however, this is not necessary. Staying in a passage allows us to memorize and remember that passage and allow that passage to change our lives.
  • Use Various Methods. Any Bible Study style when overused gets old. Variety is the spice of life, and we should use a variety of teaching tools and methods.

The methods that can be used to study Scripture are numerous. Not every technique that works for one person works for another. People in different generations may prefer different forms of Bible study. For example, I am in my 60s. Frankly, I do not enjoy media driven Bible studies as much as younger people in our church. This doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with me or something wrong with the younger people. It means that different generations, with different life experiences, prefer different kinds of Bible studies.

Conclusion

Sometime in the Spring of 1977, I attended a little Bible study in Houston, Texas. It was led by a newly-graduated seminary student and a few laypeople. We sang a few songs, prayed, studied together, prayed, and sang a closing song. This particular Bible Study meant enough to me that our family has always been involved in small, intimate Bible Studies. If I look back on my life and ask the question, “When did I grow the most as a Christian in the least amount of time?” The answer is, “In the Friday Night Bible Study.”

Interestingly, we called our system of study, “Group Grope,” meaning that none of us understood the deepest meaning of most of what we studied. We were beginners. Nevertheless, we studied and allowed God’s word to change our lives. We grew in Christ. We started businesses, families, and shared in the struggles of young adulthood. Almost all the members of the Friday Night Bible study are still Christians are Christian leaders in their churches and communities. At least three of us are pastors.

We did not know it, but we were involved in a transformational Bible study. We were not as interested in becoming Biblical scholars as in becoming better Christians. The crisis of discipleship we face in America will not be overcome primarily by scholarly, critical, information-centered studies. It will be overcome by transformational studies led by thousands and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people allowing the Word of God to change them. [5]

More importantly, people in our society will not be changed by words alone. One of the principal elements of postmodernism is a rejection of truth claims. In other words, postmodernism does not necessarily believe that there is anything called “truth” to be found. In such a society, people must see the gospel lived out in an attractive way before they will ever accept the truth of the gospel and live it out in their own lives. The truth Christians proclaim is not a bid for power over other people. It is an invitation to enter a relationship with the God of infinite love and wisdom who desires to draw the entire human race into one family filled with the joy of the presence of infinite love and infinite wisdom.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I hesitated to use the phrase, “large music or entertainment driven churches,” for fear that the phrase would be taken pejoratively. Recent years have seen the emergence of large congregations that rely upon sophisticated media and popular music in worship. There is nothing wrong with this approach.  I have been the pastor of such congregations. However, as powerful as the worship experience may be in these congregations, discipleship formation cannot be done in worship alone, however powerful. Many of these congregations recognize this fact and are deeply committed to developing discipling ministries in their congregation.

[2] See, Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 198, 1962), 58-59.

[3] See, Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983). See also the work of Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1989) for a theological and missional adaptation of Polanyi’s notion of indwelling.

[4] When downloading materials from the internet it is important to remember that not all the materials found on the internet are sound. Many individuals put up materials that does not reflect either the spirit or the words of Christ or the experience of the Church over the centuries.

[5] I make this point with trepidation. It is a fact that transformational Bible studies should form the core of any discipleship program. However, longer and deeper, more theological Bible studies do have a place in the church. In both my congregations, the Disciple Bible Study Series of year-long encounters with the word of God played a big role in the development of leaders and of disciples.