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On Reading the Bible Together in Small Groups

By Helen W. White

As a follow-up and as a companion to the “Bible Challenge”, it is good to read books of the Bible together in small groups. Reading the texts together with opportunities to ask questions can help to form a strong community. Imagine the energy in the congregation when many groups are scheduled at different times to read the books together.

It is good to provide continuing opportunities for parishioners to encounter the Scriptures.  Well educated and resourceful in other disciplines, they may often feel inadequate because of the lack of experience with the texts. Congregations are exposed to various Scripture passages on Sunday morning. And though the Lectionary readings are rich and pertinent, a passive listener can lose the moment because of lack of context. It’s a lot to listen to. Our ears and our eyes may blur.  And clergy, in the effort to link the passages, can be scolded if the sermon to explicate these readings is too long.

Interesting that we live in a time of rapid “text messaging” What to do?

There is a proven way that begins with reading the Gospels in a small group. It is an honored approach that has offered a dynamic and transformative experience for more than a hundred years. At St. Thomas Church, the mission statement serves this principle to perfection:  “To know Jesus and to make him known!”  How wonderful to read with others all four of the Gospels as these texts have been preserved for two thousand years.

In this manner, the readings begin where the Gospel of Mark begins and continue to unfold in comparison to Matthew and Luke. These three Gospels are often referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels” because they can be read with the same (syno) eye (optic). It is in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke that the journey of Jesus is followed from his baptism in the Jordan to his Crucifixion and Resurrection in Jerusalem, the city which dominates the world view today!

How to form a group to read the Gospels is by invitation to the congregation. The approach is text centered, and by design there is no homework.  All the work is done in class.  Quickly, a newly formed group discovers that it is possible to read and compare the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke at the same time, in parallel form. Immediately the level of interest rises. A set of principles guide this approach, and when applied by the group the simplicity of these principles provides an atmosphere of trust and respect.  Community forms in each group, and the congregation is strengthened.

In the classes distinction is made between teaching and leading. There is also recognition that the terms student or teacher are inadequate. All are seekers.  Each enriches the other.  A truly effective “teacher” knows the difference between ‘leading’ and ‘teaching’!   A truly effective” leader” also knows the difference. Leading, not lecturing, is the teaching style.  It does not take a long training period for an effective leader to form a group.

Reading together we discover how Jesus led his disciples that very first small group. Always evocative, Jesus the teacher answered questions with a question. And In the presence of his critics, he told parables.  “What do you think?”, he would ask.

In the Gospels, Jesus comes walking to us right out of the Hebrew Scriptures, and he continues walking into our lives in the 21st century. When reading the texts, references to the Hebrew Scriptures are many, and time is taken to read them.  Jesus knew the Hebrew Scriptures! He taught what he knew, and lived.

It is helpful to note that throughout the experience of the small group, questions, and answers, emerge which will not be the same for everyone, not even for the same person at different times. A balanced process takes place: on the one hand, participants come to see a variety of insights which the texts evoke; and then on the other, come to genuine respect for many points of view which are legitimately and honestly seen.

It is recommended that the book, Records Of The Life Of Jesus , by Henry B. Sharman, be used as the basic parallel text of the Gospels, along with Approaching The Gospels Together by Mary Morrison. This book holds time honored, thought-provoking questions keyed to the parallel texts. Of course the Bible is primary, and it is good to have a variety of editions of the Bible on the table.

Inevitably, after reading all four gospels, groups do not want to stop and they ask of each other, “What shall we do next?”  Answering out of rising interests, they choose to go on to other books of the Bible.………… and the Bible Challenge continues.  Imagine a congregation filled with many such groups.

Mary Morrison who led this approach at Trinity Church, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania for more than forty years said it well:  “What we are working for is to encourage the Word to speak to us; the Word so profound in meaning, that it grows in our hearts and gives direction to our lives.

Finally, important commentaries and books about the Bible abound today, but are more helpful after the Gospel texts, with Hebrew references, have been explored. Reading with fresh eyes makes it possible to engage the text fully before being influenced by other authors.  Engaging scholarly study after reading the texts raises the level of interest dramatically.  There is a wealth of books available, and authors continue to write about the Bible today, creating what can truly be called, “the great conversation”.

How wonderful to have read the texts ourselves.  How better to engage the conversation!

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