By Diane Stortz
Wondering what your small group should study next, or how to help group members truly connect? Looking for material to inspire the small group leaders at your church? Rather than choosing a study based on the Bible, how about reading through the Bible itself?
On the first Monday night of 2000, I sat with 16 other women in the living room of Beth Neuenschwander, coleader of a newly forming group at LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. “We’re here to get to know God by reading through the Bible in a year,” Beth said. “We’ll read about three chapters a day and meet each week to discuss what we’ve read.”
I took a deep breath and silently thanked God for getting me to Beth’s house safely, despite a raging thunderstorm that almost kept me home. I had been a Christian a long time, but knew I was supposed to be right where I was.
The group formed that night eight years ago still meets. It has spun off two ongoing women’s groups and inspired a lively men’s breakfast group as well. Nearly 100 women and men have participated, most for two or more years. Along with me, they gladly testify to the benefits and life-changing power of getting to know God through reading and discussing his Word—all his Word—together.
Reading to Know God
The groups focus their reading on the question, “What does this tell us about God?”
In the Old Testament, we’ve discovered his love, mercy, and grace alongside his justice, holiness, and power. We’ve seen how he blesses obedience and watched him unfold his amazing plan for the world. In the New Testament, we’ve trailed Jesus as he taught and demonstrated the power, purity, love, compassion, righteousness, and wisdom of God. We’ve read the writings of the apostles and encountered the passionate Holy Spirit who wants to strengthen and transform us to be like Christ.
Daily reading becomes a habit pursued by choice, not out of guilt. Jan, who joined the group with me in 2000, always began her day with the morning news. “It was difficult in the beginning to read first and then turn on the TV,” she says, “particularly if I woke up late and was going to miss the news. But I try really hard to read first thing. I like the quiet time I spend with him.”
“We stress the benefits of daily reading,” says Beth, “not guilt over not keeping up.” Reading daily allows more time to ponder, rather than trying to absorb the week’s reading in one or two sittings. But participants move beyond that practicality, says Dixie, Beth’s coleader since 2000. “They discover they can choose to connect with God every day just by setting aside time to do so.”
Until I began to read through the Bible, I struggled to have daily time with God. Sometimes I still do, but reading his Word is a conversation now, as I think, react, write in the margins, and listen for what God wants to tell me today.
Reading to Gain Wisdom
The more we seek to know God through his Word, the more we discover that questions and struggles are welcome. “It’s OK to say ‘What do you think?’ or ‘I don’t know,’” says Beth.
“What stood out for you this week?” gets discussion rolling. Someone asks a question, someone else shares a new insight. Discussion bounces around the room as group members hip-hop on each other’s comments. Off-topic tangents are rare—perhaps, says Beth, because participants read and really have something to share. “Some tangents are problems members are dealing with,” she adds, “so we do want to talk about those.” Asking “How does this relate to what we’re reading?” is a good question for bringing discussion back on track.
“I wish I’d done this 20 years ago,” says Jan. “It has given me a better understanding of myself. It is very typical of me to skip reading the instructions until all else fails! The answers to everything are right here in the Bible, but you have to read it to get it.”
With wisdom, decisions can be made in the light. “It’s a lot easier to claim the promises when you know where they are,” says Dixie. Wisdom also brings discernment. “On my journey of parenthood,” says Liz, “it’s critical to be able to distinguish God’s truth from the false teachings rampant in the world.”
Especially satisfying for me has been the way discussion deepens each year as our understanding matures. We’ve learned to look at all the Bible says about a subject as we seek the wisdom God has for us in his Word.
Reading to Build Community
In read-through-the-Bible groups, building community is not the primary goal—yet community happens. Many come to a group hoping to find meaningful friendships. “I joined the Bible study last year because I wanted to read through the Bible in a year and I really needed Christian female fellowship,” says Jeanette. “I found both.”
Conversation focused on discovering God in his Word seems to naturally build meaningful, caring connections and bridge differences in race, age, and marital status. So does keeping the focus off a need for anyone to have all the answers. “The best part is learning about God through others’ perspectives and experiences,” Jeanette adds.
We have opted so far for separate groups for men and women. Openness and personal sharing are deeper in same-sex groups, and men and women often respond differently to the same Bible texts. (Beth and her husband, Tim, sometimes compare notes and find that their group’s discussions covered totally different topics.)
Before I began to read through the Bible with my group, people described me as reserved, or private. In reality, I was unsure of myself and had trouble relating to others. But connecting with God through his Word led to acknowledging my need to connect with others; I’ve formed lasting friendships with the women in my group.
Reading for Transformation
When we open our lives to hear and act upon God’s truth, it transforms us.
Truth transforms how we think, giving us confidence. “I have found an assurance that I am in Christ at all times,” says Tim. “I feel more grounded and focused. The truths I uncover help me in my daily walk.”
“The peace and sense of security in knowing the truth and daily drawing near to him to hear his voice, these have changed my perspective on life,” says Donna. “Now he can reach me so much more easily. Now I can give cause for what I believe. Now I can have greater faith in what is truly his will.”
Changed thinking affects who we are and what we do. “I know I am a more godly wife and mother now,” says Liz. “I’ve learned how to treat my husband and raise my children to know God’s truth. I’ve learned to serve others more.”
“I’ve learned not to be so independent,” says Jeanette. “I’ve learned the value of sharing my experiences with others, of prayer, of being prayed for, of being part of a group that does not judge.”
And me? I’ve discovered that salvation doesn’t stop with forgiveness, that God offers growth and healing too. I’ve learned where to look to understand how to do life and found that the more I obey, the better life gets.
• Check these Web sites for a variety of reading plans: www.heartlight.com; www.bibleplan.org; www.navpress.com; www.biblegateway.com; www.oneyearbibleblog.com. Alternating Old and New Testament books proves best for the first year of reading through.
• Nearly everyone sometimes falls behind. Simply jumping back in at the current day’s reading keeps momentum going.
• Let participants choose their own translations. Try to include at least one modern version in the group. Avoid paraphrases, however, to keep the focus on hearing from God directly.
• Be comfortable with occasional silence. Almost always, someone is prompted to share another point that stood out for him or her. In this way, the Holy Spirit guides us as we interact with each other and with the Word.
• Praying together also builds community, as does serving as a group when opportunities arise. Some groups eat together before beginning their discussion each week.
• Expect first-timers to puzzle over many Old Testament events—anything that seems unfair of God according to human standards. Someone reading through for the second time is sure to offer encouragement, saying, “Just wait! Wait until we get a little further. Wait until you come back to this again next year! You’ll be amazed at how much more you’ll understand!”
Diane Stortz is a freelance editor and author and cofounder of the National Network of Parents of Missionaries, www.pomnet.org. Her book Parents of Missionaries, co-written with Cheryl Savageau, will be published by Authentic Publishing later this year.