My daughters, ages 7 and 4, are taking piano lessons for the first time in their lives. Tali, our oldest, has taken quickly to the piano, and really enjoys spending time practicing at our new electronic keyboard. There's one song she plays over and over and over again – Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. It is a simple song that requires just three fingers on either hand, using only the black keys. As soon as she learned this song she was so proud that she doesn't stop playing it. She sings along as she plays, too! And so every morning and every evening, in the afternoon after school and at just about any other time, we're likely to hear Jolly Old Saint Nicholas emenating from our living room. Tali has gained a certain expertise at piano – at least, at this one song on the piano – and that brings her great joy.
Can our churches be places where people gain expertise in prayer and in reading the Bible, as my daughter has gained expertise in playing the piano?
How often in our churches do we hear people say, "I can't go to Bible Study – I'm not smart enough!" Surely these people are smart enough! Such a cry is a lament – they don't feel expert in the Bible. They likely feel expert in almost any other aspect of their lives – at their profession, at parenting, at cooking, at hosting parties, at talking about sports or television shows … but not at the Bible. Attending church or Bible Study might be the only time during the week that an otherwise accomplished and successful person feels like an idiot, and that's a tragedy.
Of course, we might be tempted to question the person who says such words, saying if you were to go to Bible Study you would learn more. But on the other hand, many of our Bible Study groups are dominated by people who have some knowledge of the Bible and enjoy the intellectual back-and-forth of a group – a group which may have been meeting for years and is likely very hard for a newcomer to enter into. As a former Augsburg Fortress sales representative who visited congregations up and down the Northeast US, I heard this time and again from pastors and Christian Educators. Such a setting that might work well for some people, but is probably intimidating to others. "I'm no Bible expert like them," and "I feel stupid in that group," are phrases that are said all too often by people who are quite intelligent in reference to a congregation's Bible Study group.
This is why, for example, Augsburg Fortress came out with No Experience Necessary a few years ago, a very engaging Bible Study curriculum that was less concerned with academic study and more with responding to the questions, "What is God saying to me, to us, to the world through this text?" When I was an Augsburg Fortress sales representative, I sold tons of No Experience Necessary. The appeal, I think, was that this curriculum kept Bible conversation in real life, and didn't try to take discussion to a cerebral level. Yet, simultaneously, the materials provoked insightful and faithful conversation and, in the process, gave participants – who previously avoided or felt uncomfortable in traditional Bible Study groups – a level of comfort and expertise in reading the Bible. "Oh, I can read the Bible!"
No longer intimidated by some sense that one needed a Masters degree to read the Bible correctly, people began to read the Bible as a Book of Faith (before there even was a Book of Faith initiative!). People learned that they can pick up the Bible and ask three questions – What is God saying to me, to us, and to the world? – and do so faithfully with sisters and brothers in Christ without any prerequisite of prior Bible study or experience.
Whatever method or curriculum we use I hope that we can increasingly engage Scripture – in groups and in the pulpit – in ways that keep us and the faith to which we cling rooted in real life. (In addition to the No Experience Necessary curriculu, the so-called African Bible Study method – no curriculum necessary! – is great for this.) For the Word became flesh and lived among us, in real life. Shouldn't our reading of the Bible stay in real life, too?