Monday, October 03, 2005

Bible Study Group Attendance

Fortified by rather decent North Indian food at Heritage,

some Bible study leaders were sitting around, catching up and discussing DG (discipleship group, bible study group) attendance.

A few were discouraged by the low/sporadic attendance by their members and their tiredness ran rings around their eyes. Others were encouraged by the regularly high numbers in their groups and their spirits were buoyed; they laughed confidently and their eyes shone.

What're your secrets? asked the discouraged leaders. More socials, came the highly-spirited answer. More prayer time. More fun activities. More "clicking". More ownership of the group.

Increasing/stabilising attendance at a meeting is the problem of any social club: ruggers would be most put out discouraged if they go to the School of Physical Education for a game only to find a straggly few milling about. A political campaign would be a failure if only a handful of old fogies drive up to the campaigner in their motorised wheelchairs (and only because they mistook the campaign for a free karoke session). A Weight Watchers' convention would be most discouraging if a large number of the conventioneers happened to have entered and never left a cheap buffet on the way to the convention.

Is the success of a Bible study group to be measured by numbers as well?

That depends on the objective of Bible studies.

Objective of Bible Studies

Going for weekly Bible study isn't a specific command in the Bible. Yet attending weekly Bible study is one of the widely-acknowledged ways in which professed Christians grow in their Christian lives for it is a meeting of God's people under God's word.

What is to be achieved in a meeting of God's people under God's word then? Paul's letter to the Colossians is instructive. We see Paul encouraging the Colossian Christians who, he seems certain, have already received Christ (2:6).

"Therefore," says Paul,"just as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving." (2:6-7)

The growth of the Colossian church was not to be group-centred or church-centred but Christ-centred. So Colin Marshall suggests in Growth Groups that the goal of a Christian group is:
  • to receive Christ as Lord; and
  • to live with Christ as Lord.
Col explains further:
Receive Christ as Lord
When the Colossians received the gospel of Christ, and put their trust in it, they received Christ Jesus himself. They were once slaves in dominion of darkness (1:13), but now they are in Christ (see 2:6,7,10,11); now they have all the fullness of God that was in the Son. We cannot drive a wedge between Christ and the gospel of Christ – as if we become Christians through hearing the gospel but then get to know Christ personally later on. We only know Christ as he comes to us in the gospel, offering us redemption and reconciliation with God. This is why Paul can describe his whole ministry as proclaiming Christ:"We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ" (1:28).

Thus, imparting right knowledge and understanding is central to Christian groups. Receiving Christ means being taught something; it is about learning and understanding and wisdom and knowledge. Salvation and godly living depend on these things, and they are only to be found in Christ. In our groups, we therefore aim to:
  • understand God's grace in all its truth (1:6);
  • be filled with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding (1:9);
  • have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that we may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:2-3).
The Scriptures teach us many things about Christ. As we learn these things, take them to heart and put our trust in them, we grow in our personal knowledge of Christ. He reveals himself as he speaks through the Bible, and we get to know him as a person, as we learn and embrace all that he is and all that he has done for us.

In knowing Christ, we are rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into his kingdom of light. This is what faith is – it is personally knowing Christ; it is understanding who he is and what he has done for us in such a way that we put all our trust and reliance in him.
"he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister."(1:22-23)
Receiving Christ is never an academic or merely intellectual exercise. It is a relationship of personal knowledge; it is a relationship of trust based on what we have learnt. Our [Christian groups] must stimulate people to receive Christ in this way, and to continue strong and steadfast in the face of many alternatives.

Live with Christ as Lord
The knowledge of Christ as Lord and Saviour entails living with Christ as Lord.

This means:
Remaining faithful – rejecting other lords and their religions
In the salvation of Christ we are full and complete, needing no supplementary religious knowledge or duty. Our faith must be in Christ alone.
"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits[a] of the world, and not according to Christ. 9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority."(2:8-10)
The prohibitions on religion are repeated throughout: we ought not be deceived by fine sounding arguments (2:4); we are not judged by what we eat and drink (2:16); we ought to avoid false humility and the worship of angels (2:18); we must not be puffed up, lest we lose connection with the Head (2:19).

In contrast, we are twice exhorted to continue: continue in our faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel (1:22-23); and continue to live in him (2:6). Epaphras' prayer is also our group prayer:"that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured" (4:12).

Submitting to Christ in every sphere of life
"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him"(3:17). The source of this new life is not immediately apparent to the world, for it is a life "now hidden with Christ in God". Christ is our life, but this will only be revealed when Christ appear (3:3-4).

Other verbs in Colossians highlight the totally transformed life of the Christian:
  • live a life worthy of the Lord (1:10);
  • please the Lord in every way (1:10);
  • bearing fruit in every good work (1:10);
  • strengthened with all power according to his glorious might (1:11);
  • strengthened in the faith (2:7);
  • have endurance and patience (1:11);
  • giving thanks to the Father, joyfully (1:12);
  • giving thanks to God the Father through Christ (3:17);
  • be thankful (3:15);
  • overflowing with thankfulness (2:7);
  • set your hearts on things above (3:1);
  • set your minds on things above, not earthly things (3:2);
  • put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature (3:5);
  • rid yourself of all such things as these (3:8);
  • put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (3:10);
  • put on love (3:14);…
Therefore, the goals of a Christian group should be:
Christian Growth
  • to receive Christ as Lord, which means personally knowing and trusting Christ:
    • all that he is, and
    • all that he has done;
  • to live with Christ as Lord, which means:
    • remaining faithful – rejecting other lords and their religions, and
    • submitting to Christ in every sphere of life.
Gospel Growth
Paul also rejoices in the growth and fruitfulness of the gospel (1:6). His commission is to proclaim Christ to everyone, including the Gentiles (1:24-29) and he can say that the gospel "has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven" (1:23). He calls for prayer for his world-wide mission and exhorts the Colossians to be wise in winning outsiders (4:2-6).

Christian groups are to be committed to the spread of the gospel. They are created by hearing the word of truth (1:5), so they naturally share in the gospel enterprise.

Therefore, we must vigilantly remind ourselves and fellow leaders that our role is not to have overflowing bible study groups; groups so big that we have to resort to bible study, lecture style. If numbers are not our objective, then the success of a bible study group cannot be measured by the attendance of bible study group members.

To evaluate our DG group, we should ask:
  • are our DG members receiving Christ as Lord?
  • are they living with Christ as Lord?
  • is the gospel reaching more people through our group?
Dangers of Bible Study Group as Community
What of community and the sense of belonging that the encouraged leaders previously suggested for boosting numbers? How essential or legitimate is community in a Bible study group?

Col notes:
God himself is three eternal persons in relationship of love and unity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

God created man and woman for relationship; people are social beings by God's design. Mankind's rebellion towards God and his created order is exposed in the breakdown of relationships we experience in this world. The biblical story of the Fall is the pattern of all human experience – ever-widening circles of evil from deep within the heart of man, posing a permanent threat to the possibility of community.

Onto this scene comes the gospel. The gospel is God's work of reconciliation, a work of restoring the community of God and humanity. This most profound healing power is found in the cross, where the curse of sin is broken. On the cross, the Father forsook the Son, breaking an eternal communion for the sake of the restored communion of God and man.

Christians are thus bound together in a new society of those who belong to Christ, and we are being transformed by him. The distinguishing mark of Christian disciples is love, as we share in genuine community with honesty, unity, forgiveness and good deeds. We wait for heaven, the perfect community where all enemies of loving relationship are crushed under the feet of the risen Lord.If relationships are fundamental to Christianity, what dangers can there be in stressing community in [Christian] groups?
  • the purpose of [Christian] groups can easily focus on the development of human relationships. A successful group is seen to be characterized by intimacy, vulnerability, openness, forgiveness and so on. This emphasis on human relationship is often at the expense of knowing God and the salvation of Christ. JI Packer observes that there has been a shift in the purpose of [Christian] groups in the last 25 years:"It is not so much thought of as a way of seeking God as much as seeking Christian friends. The vertical axis is not emphasized as much as the horizontal axis." It is not that prayer and Bible study are absent, but they are seen as tools to create community.
  • the formation of community is often not rooted in the gospel of Jesus' death for sinners. Small groups can draw together on a multitude of bases: personal needs, political agenda, stage of life, interests and so on. But groups of Christians are built on one distinct and unique foundation, being children of God through faith in his Son. If the gospel is not at the heart of the group, it may be a group of Christians but it is not a Christian group.

  • groups preoccupied with community tend to become problem-centred. They become highly introverted, focusing on their own needs. If community is the aim, the ideal group is open, accepting and affirming – a haven for broken alienated lives. It is very attractive, because we all have times of hurt, grief and disappointment living in this sinful world. A group that will put its collective arm around us and give a reassuring hug is not a bad idea. But such a group becomes problem-centred. The energy of the group is directed toward those with problems, and we all have problems all the time!
Christian groups are not primarily about helping people with their problems. You probably can't believe you just read that! It sounds positively unchristian! But it is true. The focus of Christian groups is [Christian growth and gospel growth], not problems.

If community is the goal, the [Christian] group has become the end rather than the means. Instead of meeting to hear and respond to God in his Word, the functioning of the group is central. True Christian ministry will see small groups as a means to an end, in the best sense of the phrase. In relationship with each other, we teach the gospel and pray and spur each other on toward godliness of mind and action.

Our primary reason for joining a Christian group must not be to get closer to each other, but to grow in Christ.
Danger of Good Experiences in Bible Study Groups
For some, the intimacy of a Christian group becomes everything to them, especially in a society that is more conducive to isolation and privacy. To them, the reality of God or of their Christian life is found primarily in the experience of being close to others in a small group and finding "healing" of emotions and hurts through this closeness.

In doing so, our own Christian group becomes a god who is welcoming and affirming. A false idol.

Is attendance at our Christian meetings increasing/regularly high? We should not rejoice too soon for we should examine why it is that people keep coming: is it for friendship and companionship, for an Aunt Agony session and free group therapy, or is it to grow as Christians and to learn about God?

Is attendance at our Christian meetings decreasing/sporadic?
We should not despair too soon for as stewards of God's most precious word, our primary responsibility as servants of God is to be found trustworthy (1 Corinthians 4:1-2), rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

So we must be diligent and faithful in preparation, earnest in prayer and labour for the flock, so to understand God's word clearly and completely so that we might teach it to others.

There is no doubt that God's word is always successful: "…my word…that goes out from my mouth…it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. "(Isaiah 55:11).

But it is not success as the world views it in terms of numbers or power, but God's will and purpose.

I have often wondered how many followers Jesus really had. He certainly alienated a whole lot of his own disciples with his teaching (see eg. John 6:66 [haha "666"]). The most perfect teacher in the whole of human history might have had only a handful of disciples (whom, it must be added, despite the ministry of God incarnate himself, still didn't quite understand half of what was going on then). Yet, Paul (and perhaps even Billy Graham), mere humans, probably saw more converts than Jesus did in his life on earth.

God's specific will and purpose in the teaching of his word is unknown to us. When taught faithfully by some, multitudes might repent and believe. When just as faithfully by others, few or none might understand. For we know that God's word sifts the saved from the condemned. And Jesus gives us this promise:"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (John 10:27). Those that have been taught but do not believe reject his words because they are not part of his flock (John 10:26).

God's job requirement for teachers is to preach the gospel faithfully, and so lead a Christian group to focus not on themselves but on God, with the aim of achieving Christian growth and gospel growth.

If we should stray from this God-appointed aim and goal to focus our attention on attendance, numbers or even the experience of closeness of community, we allow wolves to enter the sheep-pen when our backs are turned. Or worse, we will be the ones who lead the flock to the hungry wolves, who will ravage and tear into them without mercy.



At October 04, 2005 2:38 pm , Anonymous shoyru said...

haiz shadow!!!! how are you? dis is a good article! im gg 2 fwd 2 my cg leader

At October 05, 2005 12:29 pm , Blogger loren said...

Hello Shadow,

I think the key to building a group is to always focus on Jesus in our lessons. If you do this, you are cooperating with the Holy Spirit's own ministry, and He will draw the people He wants to be there. God is pleased with the result -- and that is the true measure of success. Numbers and social acitvities are too artificial for this.

At October 05, 2005 4:05 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your article on Socials, Structures and Loving Others looks at a different aspect of this.


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