The Strange Case of the Unpopular Bible Study

In my long tenure as Pastor and Teacher at Old South, Bible study groups have never been especially well-attended.  Over the years, I’ve led short-term as well as long-term groups, on a range of topics.  I’ve offered studies that have met in the evening and during the day, and, occasionally, I’ve tried a seasonal approach to try to lure people into a group.

I’ve never had more than a small handful of Old South folk attend any study.

For a long time, I heard a wide array of excuses from those who did not attend.  These excuses mostly had something to do with a conflict with another group or meeting, or, as in the case of several choir members, they already spent (before the pandemic) a considerable amount of time each week engaged in church-related activity.

Still, it’s always been one of those places that has caused me concern.  How can so many who seem so committed to a church community display such a sustained lack of interest in exploring our holy book outside of the small bit that we do during Sunday worship?  What is a church where the great majority of parishioners does not engage in conversation with each other about sacred stories, wrestling with meaning and questions?

With our ongoing “stay at home” order in Maine, I’ve been curious about what our new reality might reveal about the health and well-being of Old South’s connection to matters of faith, like Bible study.

There’s no way around it:  I’m concerned.

While it’s true that at least some members of Old South are still working, although very differently than they did, many have shared that they aren’t doing a lot. After all, a large percentage of the congregation is made up of retirees.  They may be active retirees, but our current situation has forced major changes to community life.  And, at Old South, choir and choir rehearsals, like so many gatherings that can’t easily be transferred to online platforms, are on hiatus.

Bible study, though, remains as unpopular as ever.

For the last several weeks, the topic of our weekly virtual Bible study has simply been the scripture passage from the previous Sunday—Let’s talk about the sermon!  Ask your questions!  Tell me you think I’m completely wrong or that my sermon didn’t make any sense!  Anything!

With the small group that assembles on Zoom, we have had lively and interesting conversations.  This week, we discussed some of the words in last Sunday’s scripture, John 10:1-10, where Jesus talks about sheep, gates and abundance.  Is “gate” really the best way to translate that Greek word that actually means “door” and what does “gate” or “door” mean to us?  What’s the difference between a gate and a door, relative to the image of sheep in the passage?  And, what about the word “abundance” at the end?  Are we living our lives abundantly at the moment?

We had a good chat.

The four of us.

I find myself wondering:  What does this mean?

Various situations, issues, and conversations over the years, have led me to worry about Old South’s health and well-being not simply as a church, but as a Christian church that is part of a tradition where Bible study has, historically, been an important element of church life.  There’s really no question that Old South is a church nearing the end of its life.  Before the pandemic, though, I would have said that, while we are dwindling, we still had spots of vibrancy—mission and music at the top of the list.

But, now I find myself dwelling in a place of much greater concern.  Am I leading a Christian church or what is essentially a social club?  It’s clear enough that the people who gather for Sunday worship genuinely like and care for each other.  They check in with each other, making phone calls and sending email.  They are especially attentive to those who are grieving and dealing with very difficult aspects of life.

Is that enough, though, to be “the church”?

I’m not sure.  And, so I wonder and I worry.   And I pray for the wisdom to understand the clues and the lessons, the gifts and opportunity of this strange journey into pandemic crisis.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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