Gaining Expertise in Matters of Faith

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?

Using Curriculum in Youth Ministry: Is Curriculum Even Necessary?

Adapted from a presentation given on Sat, Sept 11, 2010 at a Metro DC Synod youth ministry workshop.  Four points guided the discussion. This blogpost focuses on the first point.

  1. To use, or not to use, curriculum?
  2. Are you ready to teach?
  3. How do you evaluate and select a curriculum?
  4. Some recommendations

First question: To use, or not to use, curriculum?

This is an important question.  Though I used to sell Sunday School curriculum for a living, I do not believe that every learning opportunity in the church requires the use of a published, purchased curriculum.  Teaching and learning requires planning, but we don’t always need a packaged curriculum.  So first ask yourself two questions: what do you want to achieve in a period of study?  And, do you need to go out and buy a curriculum do achieve that goal?

For example, if your goal is to read the Bible with your youth group, you can do this without purchasing a curriculum.  A very popular, simple, and down-to-earth Bible Study method is often referred to as The African Bible Study Method.  This method involves reading the text aloud three times and, after each reading, inviting each participant to share a word, phrase, or feeling that emanated from the hearing of the Scripture.  There is no discussion, no need for historical analysis or heady theology.  It is a shared time of reading and hearing the words of the Bible, and allowing its words and message to speak to our faith and life.  Visit the link for more information.

For an overview of several curriculum-less methods for reading the bible, enjoy this article written by Pastor Paul Lutz, formerly on staff at the churchwide headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and now serving at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Princeton Junction, NJ.  In it he writes about Bible reading methods that seek not only to inform, but to transform.

Simple methods of reading the Bible in community are easily memorized or noted on a folded sheet of paper tucked inside the front of your Bible.  If you, as a leader, want more background in a certain book of the Bible, you can access Study Bibles, commentaries or other Bible study material, without needing to buy materials for your whole group.  But before we reach for fancy (and expensive) materials perhaps we should simply open the Bible and use a method that allows the grace and truth of God's Word to speak to our faith.

A closing comment about reading the Bible in community.  I avoid the use of the term "Bible Study" when possible.  There are many ways to read the Bible in community that are not "studies" in an academic or heady sense.  We can and should read the Bible devotionally, as a faith-filled story that connects with our own stories of faith.  We shouldn't disregard the significant academic issues related to ancient texts, theology, and the traditions of the church.  But these things need not dominate or become roadblocks to the way we read the Bible in community, either.

Of course, going curriculum-free is not for everybody or for every situation.  Sometimes we just need to use a curriculum.  More on how to select and use curricula in future posts.

Next post: On being prepared to teach in the church.