Canterbury UMC challenges congregation to embrace Disciple Bible Study


Our realtor looked at me and asked, “What church do you plan on attending?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because that's where you'll need to find a home.”

My husband always tells me that I start in the middle of the story. You see, where I come from people do not ask strangers this type of question. I am from New Jersey, and my family comes from Montana (thank you Prairie Home Companion for helping the rest of the world understand Lutherans). In itself, that doesn’t make the questions right or wrong—it just is. And so began our life together in Birmingham, Alabama. Oh, and “I don’t know” is not an appropriate answer, either.

There is a whole lot of Bible study and "Biblespeak" that goes on in the South. Frankly, it is intimidating to anyone not brought up in this culture, and too often it is used as a weapon to browbeat people. Disciple Bible Study was a godsend to me almost 27 years ago. I appreciate the method, the small group environment, and the thoughtful open discussions. It introduces participants to a hands-on study, guided by respected leadership and scholarship, with the goal of making Disciples. It recognizes the unique spiritual giftedness in each person and the power of the Gospel in their lives. I am preaching to the choir, I am sure.

Fast forward to the fall of 2012. What if? What if we challenged our congregation to spend a year together reading and discussing the Bible? How might the work of the Holy Spirit be manifested? What would it look like if we yoked all the preaching and teaching, gathering our congregation together with one story, The Story? How could we leverage that time so that all points of view could be heard and honored? Suddenly, “What if?” became an invitation and a challenge. Cris Brown, our Director of Communications, came up with the tag line: “Reading through the Bible together in 2013, a New Year’s Resolution you can keep.”

Our first hurdle was finding the best material available. Do we use the plan that is laid out in the new Common English Bible? Do we use Disciple 1? Do we use the shortened Old and New Testament Disciple material? Do we write our own? What else is out there?

Here's what we decided.

1. We would challenge people, people like challenges. Look at the success of Pure Barre and Iron Tribe, not to mention community Bible studies. We would spend the spring in the Old Testament and come back in to the New Testament in the fall.

2. We chose Disciple 1 because there isn’t anything out there that combines scholarship with the depth of group participation and conversation, and because it is so grace focused.

3. Every Sunday the pastors would preach using the theme and primary scripture passages of the week. At a minimum the larger sweeping story would be infused into the lives of everyone who came to worship.

4. While Disciple One would be the primary means of study, groups could choose to do the 8 week versions. We challenged our small groups, our Sunday school classes (not an ideal time frame), and challenged our congregation to form new groups to participate.

a. To get over the “fear” of Disciple, (i.e. it is overwhelming, it is a lot of work, it is a college course, it is...) we would encourage participants to take away what they could from the process, not to get bogged down in the “should’s” of reading.

b. We would train our leaders to be a welcoming presence, prayerful, invitational, and prepared to facilitate discussion - not teach.

5. Our second level would be a daily email version. We would pare down the scripture reading and senior staff members would write a daily devotion to go along with the reading. Offering reflective questions and insights.

This fall, we invited anyone who would like to join an existing group the opportunity to join. We had 25 people choose to do this, one a group of young adults who moved their discussion to a pizza place. There is even a group at the Donaldson Correctional Facility.

Here is what we discovered. People not only rose to the challenge, they enjoyed the experience. As a whole, the congregation has embraced experiencing the Bible as a whole entity. They understand and appreciate our Methodist heritage of small groups, gathering to listen to the Spirit’s voice in scripture and study, and listening to learn from one another. They feel more confident. In the next few weeks, it is my prayer and hope that the insights and affirmation they receive from their fellow journeyers will give them insights as to how best serve as a disciple following Jesus and serving others.

It has been a wild year trying to discern, encourage, and keep everyone on task, but it has been very inspiring. Watching people open up their lives and hearts to one another, to share the Story, is quite amazing. Our mission is always to create an atmosphere where people feel welcome in the body of Christ. The realtor got it right. This is where you will want to find your home.

Anne Skinner
Director of Learning Ministries
Canterbury United Methodist Church

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