I am convinced that one of the primary responsibilities of the local assembly is the pro-active, ongoing equipping of all believers for individual bible study, and further that this responsibility is not being addressed throughout the evangelical church. Numerous conversations with other believers, both new and more mature, indicates that I am not alone in these conclusions and that church leadership and programs are seriously off the rails, out of touch and in denial on this issue.
I have briefly examined three approaches: deductive, inductive and supported enhanced reading. Let us summarize the discussion and take a stab at some conclusions.
Virtually all congregational activity is of necessity in the deductive mode. It can be and is used to good result in many cases to edify believers, assuming the presentation is Gospel and Christ centered and delivered with little embellishment (possibly a large assumption admittedly). In terms of equipping the Saints in their developing relationship with the Lord, however, this is insufficient, and this equipping should clearly be an overriding church priority.
Next we have Inductive Bible study. Much Bible study training in church related groups, bible schools and independent organizations such as Precepts, has centered upon various implementations of these methods, which are designed to support independence and to work directly from the text. Though somewhat involved in some formats they are historically quite effective in going directly to the text of Scripture and empowering the individual to divide the Word. If there would be a weakness in this approach it would only be in the volume of technique imposed and the possibility that this might stifle revelation in some learners. Nonetheless, this approach is a proven and widely supported.
The final approach considered was a modified form of simple bible reading. The suggestion here is that close reading of the text be supported through the use of quality background cultural, genre and contextual commentaries, and teamed if possible with subsequent group comparative analysis. This design supports pre-reading of Scriptural background documentation, close reading of the text with the work of the Spirit in mind, and subsequent sharing of thoughts within the group. The goal is too allow room for revelation while still compensating for time and cultural factors in an organized fashion.
So what is best (or worst)?
The worst approach would be to continue in the growing deductive-only, authoritative leadership model format. This does not effectively equip the members of the body for independent growth or challenges in or out of the church. Good intents notwithstanding, it encourages dependency upon the church as a ministerium, which will in the end weaken that same body. The deductive paradigm is perfect within the framework of doctrinal and theological teaching, and plain expository preaching, but not exclusively in the equipping of the individual to divide the word.
On a related note, the ubiquitous small group Bible study framework, as implemented in most churches, does not effectively address this issue. It is quite effective in providing demographic based fellowship, but is does address the present issue. In fact, it can mask the issue in allowing leadership to assume that it is being addressed. The reality is that it is not and denial will not change that.
A correct approach would appear to be the implementation of inductive or supported enhanced reading approaches. I do not think that either approach need be implemented exclusively, but they need to be put in place universally as a primary church priority. Variations of the two methods will suit different people and the availability of teachers for each method will effect delivery. In the initial stages when more people need to be brought on-board, availability of both approaches would be optimal.
Just as important as the availability of training is a buy-in to this need by church leadership. Simple acknowledge and consideration is not enough. In many cases this requires acknowledgment of a weakness and a challenging change in direction of vision. As such it may be the single largest hurdle faced by those who would benefit from it but have little real input to assembly direction. For the real equipping of the local body to study the
Word, that work must become a very high priority. This supported must be pro-actively on all fronts, particularly from the pulpit and secondarily with the budget.
So, what about any financial cost?
Compared to most program activities, implementation of this should be low in cost. Book and Bible costs are traditionally born by the participants. Instructors are either volunteer or of minimal cost on the organizational level. So cost is not a legitimate excuse. If the concept is accepted as a priority, then minimal program money is always available.
So there we have it. The need is real and pressing for all levels of people – adults, youth and even children. The people of God must be exhorted and supported in their ability to divide the Word for themselves as a first priority. This is the direct responsibility of the local church. Without this, the local church is implicitly denying the significance of having the Word freely in our hands and of the Reformation that allowed that to be the case. Local leadership must acknowledge this need and pro-actively address it.
Action, not just talk.
Contrary to what might be feared organizationally, developing a majority of individuals and groups who are able to divide the Word for themselves can only strengthen and build the local body for what is to undoubtedly come. This is the only type of relevance that matters.