Baltimore Presbytery’s journey through Scripture started with four Presbyterian pastors sharing these very challenges we heard from our members. Two of the four of us had already worked together leading our congregations through a study on the 12th chapter of Romans, based on Marva Dawn’s book, “Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to Be the Church.” Our congregations enjoyed it so much that when the challenge of biblical literacy arose, we decided to lead all of our congregations through a 31-chapter study of a condensed Bible, putting the whole story in chronological order using “The Story” series from Max Lucado and Randy Frazee.
Before starting, we discussed the pros and cons thoroughly. For example, large parts of Scripture were left out of this study. We were certain our congregations wouldn’t miss Leviticus and Numbers, but what about parts of the prophets and the letters? On the other hand, we wouldn’t have to explain the chronology and timeline because it was all built into the program. Children and youth programs were included, which allowed for all ages to study the same topics. After weighing the pluses and minuses, we decided to step out in faith and try.
If our goal was to help our congregations be more comfortable sharing the word of God and their faith stories with other people, and their chief complaint was not feeling confident with the story of Scripture, we could do something about that.
My session set some goals for the project:
- Involve at least five new people from the community. We wanted to encourage more people to read their Bibles regularly.
- Increase worship attendance.
- Have at least a third of those attending worship involved in a small group study.
Each member of the session committed to participate, with three of them serving as small group study leaders. We ordered materials, hoping each household would take a book and that parents would want books for their children. In an early good sign, we had to order more books at least once or twice for each participating church! The congregations were excited, and they were passing books along to family members and friends, hoping they would catch the energy too. While sharing our individual faith stories was challenging, sharing something exciting our congregation was doing seemed a bit easier.
In order to prepare for preaching, we four pastors worked together, studying two chapters every two weeks. We trained our small group leaders, and in my church, we had more than half of those attending worship sign up for small groups. We decided to share worship liturgy duties, connecting our churches by using the same liturgy in worship services each week. Each of us wrote the liturgy for one chapter out of every four. The shared workload and the regular study time brought us closer together and made the experience much richer than if we had each been doing this on our own.
Partway through, I invited members of the congregation I serve to write testimonials for Lenten devotionals about their experience in this journey through Scripture. Here are excerpts from what they said:
“It wasn’t until our church started reading this book (both in our weekly sermons and small group sessions), that I found myself going back to the Bible and my daily readings.”
“I have always wanted to read the Bible, but have not been able to get through it. Reading this book together has helped me to interpret passages and the sequence of events that I didn‘t know or understand. I appreciate the group I am with so much because I am getting to know these wonderful people on a more personal level – what is going on in their own lives and learn more about their spiritual life and journey. I also believe reading this book has helped me in my spiritual growth because I am praying more and reading the Bible more.”
“The old saying of ‘history repeats itself’ comes to mind when I think of this book. The more that I read and the more that we discuss the stories from long, long ago, the more it applies to my life, and those that I know, today. The stories contain angst, rebellion, non-believing, and anger, all aimed at God. … I am hoping and at the same time trying, to learn from history and be a better Christian.”
“From Exodus to the story of Daniel, I have come to appreciate God’s patience and love for the human race. God has not given up on us, and I wonder why. I think about the human race before the great flood. Are we any better now than they were? The words love and patience do not even come close to defining how God feels about us. God has been and still is dedicated to us. That is more than I can say about my dedication to God – up, down, in, out, hot, cold.”
“This study has brought me to the resounding theme of opening one‘s heart to God‘s intent in our lives. Repeatedly those who listened, believed and followed reaped the rewards of God‘s grace, mercy and unending rewards.”
“Reading about Elisha’s pilgrimage to the mountain of God, it occurred to me that even a great prophet who was so in touch with God had his moments of doubt and uncertainty in his walk with God. The more I thought about it all the prophets and apostles had their own troubles in the walks. What the prophets and the apostles also show us is their faith and hope in their God of mercy, grace and love.”
Each of the other pastors reported hearing similar things from their congregation’s members as well.
As a pastor, one of the greatest blessings has been to witness the ways in which my people have been changed by this journey. They bring me harder questions now. They engage in scriptural discussion outside of the normal places. They are making connections they wouldn’t have made before, from both inside the Bible and outside of Scripture into their lives. People who were once intimidated by the prospect of 31 weeks of study are now complaining that their small groups are over. What a great “problem” to have!
The journey is not over. Our congregations are asking for more, and we are inspired by what has transpired this year. We have designed a follow-up year to emphasize “Living the story, sharing the story.”
We are working to equip our people to better understand and share their faith stories with others. We’ll be spending a lot of time on how we mentor and pass the faith along to our children and grandchildren. We’re combining worship, small group, book studies, Scripture studies and activities to inspire more transformational growth. I think all of us would say that God’s Spirit is among us. It’s easy to give the time and effort to facilitate this process when we can feel the energy and the passion it is generating in our churches.
Biblical literacy is something we all need in our lives and in our congregations. What we hoped for and dreamed of has come true: becoming more biblically literate has brought life, joy, health, community and transformation to our congregations, and it has helped us realize that our journey is far from over. We follow like the Israelites did, sometimes obedient, sometimes whiny, sometimes joyful, sometimes deep in selfishness and sin, but always serving a compassionate, forgiving, patient God who loves us more than we’ll ever know.
Kimberly Secrist Ashby is the pastor of Fallston Presbyterian Church outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and a mother of two who loves to cook, travel and read in her spare time. She considers Spain to be her second home, and she and her daughters are trying to visit a site from each president (they’re up to 17 so far!).