American Christianity is in crisis, and our Bible study groups are a key to stopping it.
Barna / American Bible Society released its tenth "State of the Bible" survey last week, and its findings are very concerning. Basically, Bible engagement has dropped during the lockdown at rates unprecedented in the history of the survey. (And considering that Bible engagement has been dropping every year, that's saying something.)
Between 2011 and 2019, roughly 14% of Americans said they read their Bible daily. In June of 2020, that number was 8.5%. The lowest in the history of the survey.
ABS considers "Bible engaged" to mean that a person lets the Bible impact choices and relationships. I like that definition; we all need to be at least Bible engaged. In January 2020, 28% of Americans considered themselves Bible engaged. In June 2020, that number had dropped to 22.6%. If you know statistics, you know that is a catastrophic change.
The survey indicates that this season has been harder on women than men. One reason given is that children's school schedules have made it harder for moms (who have borne the brunt of their kids' changing schedules) to juggle their responsibilities, and Bible reading was an early casualty.
[Here is a short video covering some of the information in this article. It also goes into some more data related to faith, why people don't read the Bible, and general attitudes towards the Bible.]
But the experts talked about the role of church and small group Bible study:
The church plays a significant role in benefitting people’s wellbeing and Scripture engagement. To increase Scripture engagement, we must increase relational connections with one another through the church. The pandemic—and now this survey—have shown that when relational church engagement goes up, so does Scripture engagement, but when it goes down, Scripture engagement drops with it.
Donald Whitney said it best:
You can't download a hug.
He went on the say that when Christians don't have regular small group meetings, it can "diminish our engagement in the spiritual disciplines because when we’re together, we’re encouraged to stay faithful to the things of God."
Basically, God created a weekly cycle for humans. Once a week, we gather with His people to study His Word, be encouraged and edified by one another, and be equipped to face the next week. Baptists added a Wednesday "midweek" version (we call it Re:Connect) for an extra jolt of that cycle. It's a good routine. It helps keep us accountable.
But that routine has been shattered.
And the increased stress associated with the pandemic has resulted in less-than-desirable reactions and behaviors (see my comments on this week's study in Proverbs).
Your Sunday School class members (and their families) need those groups now more than ever, and yet they have less access to those groups now more than ever. It's a vicious cycle, one that we all need to help break.
The Reasons Why Your Class Members Are Not Coming to Campus
They're nervous in crowds.
They don't like wearing masks.
Someone in their family is sick or vulnerable.
We don't have an active group for every family member (soon fixed!).
The Reasons Why Your Class Members Are Not "Zoom"ing
They don't like technology.
They don't have good internet service.
They like to sleep in.
What You Can Do to Help
Obviously, you don't have control over all of those reasons given above. You can't do anything about some of them. So we have to work around them.
Let's start by remembering the purpose of Sunday School: to use Bible study to bring people to faith and to turn them into disciples of Jesus. We need to focus on Bible study as our tool. So, how can we engage our small groups in the Bible when we might not see them face-to-face? We have to get creative.
Donald Whitney recommends getting back to the basics of Bible engagement. He calls it
Read big, meditate small.
In other words, read a large passage (anything from a paragraph to a chapter) but then spend a few minutes thinking about just one verse. I call it the "bite-sized" approach.
Now, how can you help your small groups do that regularly? Here are some idea.
Several of our classed already have a Facebook group created, and they make regular posts with either an inspirational thought, and a challenging question. That's a great way to at least attempt to keep your group engaged.
If you're looking for ideas on what to post in a Facebook group, based on what Donald Whitney said above, I would recommend something like:
At the beginning of the week, announce the passage you will be studying that upcoming Sunday.
Once or twice during the week, copy-and-paste a key verse from the passage. Encourage your group to memorize the verse and ask for thoughts on how they see it affecting their day.
Once or twice during the week, share a prayer request or simply encourage your group to pray for one another.
Once or twice during the week, post something fun and ask for responses (mainly to keep your group engaged with one another on a social level).
Don't give up on Zoom (or whatever "virtual meeting" tool you want to use). I strongly encourage you to set up a Zoom meeting for your class members who are not yet comfortable (or able) to physically come to campus. They want to be engaged with you.
Bring a laptop and point it at the class leader.
Have someone get out their phone and point it at the class leader (phone tripods are available at Walmart for $7).
If you need help, I'm available.
If we have so many classes doing this that the internet slows down, fantastic! We can figure that out if it ever happens.
If you have class members who just aren't going to try to use those tools, don't give up. There are still other things you can do:
Outside. Meet at someone's home where you can spread out in the yard or in a garage. That might be a more comfortable setting for someone who is concerned about recycled air in enclosed rooms.
Email. Instead of doing Facebook posts, send out a regular email or text message. Keep it short -- a few sentences at most -- but you can still ask for engagement and make simple suggestions for reading a Bible passage.
Phone. Make a phone call. This is the most time consuming option, but it's probably the best. The teacher can't make all of the calls, so create a "phone tree" for class members to follow.
Card. Send a card. This is also pretty time consuming, but you can absolutely send a card with some personal encouragement and a Bible verse. Again, divide the list of cards among multiple class members so it's not overwhelming.
School teachers ran the gambit of ideas last spring when all the kids got sent home. Here are some of the things they did (that we can do):
Record and post a funny/feel-good video/greeting. I'm going to make a short video in which I say largely what I'm saying here. I have no doubt that more people will watch the video than read this article. You can record a video on your phone and post it directly to your Facebook group. Put a smile on your group's faces!
Share some Christian music/videos that have encouraged you. Music and video are always important during stressful times. Find that song or video on Youtube and then share the link with your group. Share it directly to Facebook, or copy and paste the link into an email.
Send out projects/activities/challenges. We do this with the kids, but let's also do it with adults. Come up with a challenge and put your group members on it. Maybe it's church-related, like who can create the nicest card for a shut-in, or maybe it's fun, like who can create the most fun eating experience in quarantine, or maybe it's inspirational, like reading a book or taking on an exercise program.
We need to engage one another. We need to be engaged.
Hebrews 10 comes to mind:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus 21 and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, 25 not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.
As far as I'm concerned, this verse perfectly explains our predicament. God knows that we need one another (1) to be encouraged, and (2) to be held accountable. According to this passage, what happens when we stop meeting together?
We get discouraged.
We stop doing the good works we're supposed to be doing.
Isn't that exactly what's happening now?
I implore all of our Sunday School class members in all of our churches to take one step forward this week, and then another step forward next week. If we all put in our effort, we can make a big difference.
If you want to read the full 110-page report, please do. I'll be mining other important data in the weeks and months to come as they continue to release their findings from this survey. You can request the ebook at https://sotb.research.bible/