Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On the death of the midweek Bible study

Doesn't every church look like this?
A couple of people I know on Facebook have posted a link to an article in the Christian Century from an Episcopal priest in Minnesota who finally threw in the towel and stopped offering midweek Bible studies and programs and worship. I was totally with her up until the point where she diagnoses the issue.

First she writes,
When I ask why people don’t come, the answer almost always is time. They have good intentions, but their lives are so full. So they tend to use their precious free time only for things that they really care about, which tend to be things that offer immediate good feelings. They flock to tutor at the local elementary school, to work for civil rights for LGBT people, to serve free meals for the hungry. And they love to eat with friends—the church’s social calendar is filled with dinners, dances and parties. The congregation is also growing, and quickly. 
But the idea of having leisurely conversations about Jesus is just, well, too slow. The only adult formation things that have been in any way successful are sermon podcasts and daily e-mailed bits of wisdom, prayer or scripture. 
Ummm...excuse me, but didn't, you know, Jesus eat with friends? Didn't his followers generally "do things they really care about"? Does, perhaps, healing people offer "immediate good feelings"? Does she notice who, in the gospels, spent all of their time in "leisurely conversations" about the Scriptures?

And what's this about "good intentions," as if the things these folks are doing do not measure up? Does she really think that working for civil rights for LGBT people offers "immediate good feelings"? Is it really a problem that they use their "precious free time" to tutor rather than attend another church service? Can she not see that if they are tutoring children, working for justice, or feeding the hungry, they are living the gospel? Why is she so concerned that they're not coming to mid-week Bible study when it seems they have clearly absorbed what the Bible teaches and what Jesus calls us to do?

She writes that she is working hard "to give up the picture I have in my head about what a church is supposed to look like: people sitting around on couches in the parish hall, Bibles open." Where does this picture come from? It doesn't match any actual experience of church I've ever had, and I grew up Evangelical with an expectation of Daily Quiet Times.

But then it hit me: This is her dream and the picture in her head because THIS IS WHAT SHE LIKES AND WANTS TO DO! And that, I think, is the core problem many of us in the church have. The people who enjoy these types of programs and midweek services are, you know, pastors. That's why we went to seminary. That's what feeds our souls (and, I dare say, offers us "immediate good feelings"). Most people are not pastors and we keep thinking that if we just offer them THIS, they'll suddenly get how wonderful it is. THEY'RE NOT GOING TO! These programs and services and Bible studies feed the people in our parish who are like us, who are pastors. I believe there's something in that Bible we study about how "not all are called to be pastors." Maybe we should pay attention.


Pragmatic Mystic said...

Excellent. I think that may be why lots of communities have ecumenical Bible Study/sermon prep for pastors.

On the other hand, the church I grew up in had seasonal liturgy planning groups that planned the services. As part of the planning they read the lessons together. Then the preacher had some insight as to what the texts raised with folks. The next week, before planning the service, the group would talk about the previous week's sermon -- what spoke to them and what didn't.

Josh Hunt said...

People have time to do what they want to do, what they like to do.

LKT said...

Exactly! And pastors like Bible study. The problem I see is that there seems to be a moral hierarchy of activities. I'm unconvinced that Bible study is better than service activities or fellowship, if all of them serve the same purpose of increasing love of God and neighbor.

In the comments on the original article itself, I wrote, "What would it be like if the church hierarchy decided that what was most important to the spiritual life was a vital social calendar. How many of us introverted pastors would find ourselves on the receiving end of spiritual concern as we slunk away from the latest social event to read?"

Would we find time for parties if we were told we HAD to attend them for the sake of our souls? Would that make them of value?

Please note, I'm not denying the value of Bible study or of educational offerings. I'm just not convinced that they are necessarily imperative for everyone as part of our Christian formation. They are, after all, fairly recent phenomena, taken all in all.

OK, I've gone on way too long.