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Students at commencement

Biblical Fluency

Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Location: Minneapolis, Minn.
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
Size: 3,500 members; worship attendance averages 1,600

 Download Bethlehem's VCP report or see report contents below:

Ministry context

Bethlehem is a large, traditional ELCA congregation in Minneapolis that was founded in 1894. While not an inner city church, it is located in the center city and draws members from around the metropolitan area. In the last 15 years, the number of people worshiping has doubled.

Bethlehem is known for its vibrant worship and outreach in the community. The median age of our members is 34, with the largest demographic being age 0-10. Yet, our membership spans all ages, and we have members on the other end of the age continuum, as well. Bethlehem has a long history of planting churches, most recently Spirit Garage and Jacob’s Well. Our ministry is summarized in our vision statement: “Connecting people with God, each other and their mission in the world.”

Our members generally have a traditional Lutheran perspective on the Bible, with 56% percent of those surveyed viewing the Bible as, “the inspired Word of God…trustworthy in matters of faith and life.” Another 31% consider it a “human word about the divine word, which is useful for spiritual insight,” so our community leans neither toward a conservative or liberal stance on the Bible.

Pre-existing practices

1. Narrative Lectionary

From January to June 2011, we used the Narrative Lectionary as the focus for worship; this is a new, experimental lectionary designed by two Luther Seminary professors to help congregations gain an appreciation and understanding of the overarching biblical narrative. From January through Easter, we focused on the Gospel of John, and from Easter to Pentecost, we read Acts. (Because the narrative texts were fairly lengthy, only one lesson was used.) Four-to-six-week sermon series were shaped around the texts. The in depth study of John was referenced repeatedly in our survey results as a positive example of making the Bible come alive. This fall, we departed from the prescribed Narrative Lectionary texts (but not its intent) and have spent two months reading the book of Exodus. We will use the Narrative Lectionary again beginning in January 2012 when we focus on the Gospel of Mark.

2. Text of the Day Study

The 9:00 hour on Sunday mornings finds an animated group of 50 people discussing the Scripture texts for the day’s worship. This study is led by a Pastor Emeritus who is also a retired religion professor. The study has a loyal following and the largest participation of our Bible study offerings. The texts are read, contextual background is offered, and then the group launches into lively discussion about the meaning of the texts.

3. Online Sermon-related Offerings

Each Sunday’s sermon is posted on our website and is accessible in written and audio formats. In addition, we post a video blog on our website each Tuesday in which one of the pastors provides a preview of and perspectives on the text for the coming Sunday. The video blog appears both on the front page of our website and is also accessible via the LiveWire online news-post emailed to members on Tuesdays. Currently, the sermons are accessed by about 40 people each week, and the video blog is viewed by 70 people.

Discoveries from listening process

1. Sermon is Key

Eighty-six percent of our survey participants reported that their most significant engagement with the Bible comes through sermons. This identifies for us the primary delivery channel to which people tune in. It also suggests there is significant work to do to help people develop habits of reading Scripture on their own.

2. Bible Not a Priority

Our people value the Bible and know there are opportunities to engage more deeply in Bible study through church, but they generally don’t make it a priority. This tells us that more programming is not necessarily the answer.

3. Internet Resources Important

When it comes to education, our people rely on books, Internet research, periodicals and classes. Especially notable is the use of Internet research. This gives us insight into the alternative channels through which to engage people.

Opportunities for growth

1. Make Life Connections to Scripture

How do we facilitate people’s ability to make life connections with the Scripture/sermon?

2. Foster Curiosity

How do we foster curiosity and hunger to go deeper?

3. Offer Approachable Resources

How do we make resources approachable and digestible enough so that people actually use them?

Experiments undertaken

1. Connect Scripture and Daily Life

Our use of the Narrative Lectionary is still quite new so the biblical fluency team will track and evaluate the impact of this approach on the congregation’s biblical fluency.

The Narrative Lectionary seeks to equip people with a deeper understanding of God’s story – to find themselves in God’s story and to find in that story the love of God in Christ. As noted above, we implemented the Narrative Lectionary during Lent 2011 and have extended it to our Fall and Winter Sermon Series. We are now aligning our Sunday and mid-week Adult Bible Studies, Sunday School curriculum and Children’s sermon with the Narrative Lectionary in order to have the congregation focus on one “big idea.”  

When we surveyed and interviewed the congregation last spring, we received positive feedback about the Narrative Lectionary focus on the Gospel of John. We will know that this approach is working if:

  • there are more conversations about the current Scripture/series (e.g., between children and parents/grandparents) because there is a common/shared base of information;
  • more questions are being asked about the Scripture involved;
  • more stories are shared about how people see the Word at work in the world around them.

In addition to attuned observation, we intend to monitor the effectiveness of this approach through survey monkey, intentional conversations, and online feedback.

The staff have devoted a portion of their weekly staff meeting to focusing on and discussing the text for the week. The pastoral staff have noticed a difference in how they engage with the text. There is a desire to “preach and teach” every week (versus rotating or sharing this responsibility) because it has prompted the passion to “go deeper.”

2. Foster Curiosity and Hunger to Go Deeper in the Word

This path will have a two-pronged approach:

  1. We will identify and/or develop resources that help people to understand “why” spending time with scripture is important. This will involve testimonials, video(s) and/or other tools that involve people sharing provocative stories and insights with the aim of clarifying convictions and increasing engagement.
  2. We will develop a “just-in-time” devotional tool that piggy backs off the Narrative Lectionary and helps create Bible study habits. Initially this will be targeted to our 3rd graders who just received their Bibles. Over time, we hope to extend this to other groups (e.g., adults).

We believe that getting people to devote time to scripture involves adaptive change, which starts with an understanding of “why” the Bible is important. We also believe it involves accountability which would be aided by easy-to-use tools and by leveraging the eagerness of third grade Bible recipients.  We will know that this path is leading our congregation in the right direction if parents ask for similar tools for children in other age groups and/or for themselves. We would also expect to see increased use of Bibles by our third graders (as recognized by Sunday School teachers) and increased recollection of prior lessons (e.g., last week’s “Take Home Point”). We intend to measure use of this just-in-time devotional tool via a cohort study (e.g., we’ll provide the tool to all third graders and ask half of their parents to ensure it is used during the week, but make no request to the other half of parents; at the end of the study we will solicit feedback from all students and their parents on the frequency of use and helpfulness of the tool’s content).

Our congregants shared via the recent survey that we have strong and plentiful programs, yet participation is limited. Our aim is to identify and address the underlying motivators to engagement (i.e., if we affirmatively ask people to use a tool we have provided, will their sense of responsibility/accountability increase the likelihood it is used).

3. Approachable and Digestible Resources

In cooperation with staff who are already doing so, we intend to augment our online resources and tools (features, links, phone apps, etc.) and create corresponding opportunities for online dialogue (e.g., affinity groups) and Bible study. We will also add a recently developed guide on how to select a Bible to our website. We will track “hits” to monitor usage and invite online feedback to evaluate effectiveness.

Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents told us that they turn to the Internet as a primary source of information. Since two-thirds of our respondents were age 40-70, we anticipate that use of the Internet by our core audience (median age of 34) is even higher. Our hope is that these tools will be an effective alternative for people who choose not to use on-site Bible study programs.

Comments:

  • This approach will be based off the competency model around which other programs and offerings will be structured (e.g., Bible study). The premise of this model is that at the conclusion of a “program” people are equipped to do something they were previously not able to do.
  • We anticipate that this path is a multiple year initiative that will involve ongoing evaluation and refinement.
  • We hope that online communities will develop. We can imagine facilitating periodic face-to-face participation to deepen dialogue and relationships.
Discoveries from experiments (July 2014)

Filed July 2014 by Kris Tostengard Michel

At the conclusion of the Biblical Fluency project in October 2012, we noted several things:

  • The initial survey revealed that motivation is a significant barrier to biblical fluency for our people. They have simply not chosen to engage in individual or group study of the Bible.
  • The most significant engagement most of our people have with the Bible is through the sermon.
  • People are skeptical of the Old Testament.
  • Biblical engagement is heightened when all ages focus on the same text or theme.
  • Our primary experiment in the biblical fluency study was to use the Narrative Lectionary.

We have been using the Narrative Lectionary since January 2011, and that continues to go well. (However, we diverge a bit for part of the summer, and in the fall, we tend to cover a major character in depth, rather than doing a sweep of the Old Testament narrative.) We have been committed to having people of all ages focus on the same texts or themes each week in both worship and education. This means we write or adapt curriculum for multiple age levels every week. That was a challenge this past year when we had several staff transitions in process. We continue to be committed to this practice, however; we have found that narrowing the focus as a congregation has been helpful to families as they engage in faith conversations with one another. It is also easier to make an impression when we are not communicating many different messages.

Since October 2012, we have experimented with three new approaches to Bible study:

  1. We experimented with a narrative-focused Bible study similar to “Community Bible Experience” that uses The Books of the Bible by Biblica. This involved reproducing a book of the Bible without chapter or verse numbers and inviting people to read portions of the book each week with an eye toward these questions:
       (a) What did you notice? What were the details?
       (b) Where were the gaps?
       (c) What questions do you have?
    We did this for three different books of the Bible. Those who participated enjoyed the approach and commented on the fresh perspective that it offered them; removing chapter and verse numbers makes a big difference. They came ready to discuss each week. Again, numbers were limited to the usual 15-20 people who come to such studies. We might well use this approach again in the future.
  2. We created ‘Story of the Month,’ an online weekly Bible study that looked at one text in four different ways throughout the course of a month. Each week, a blog post would be prepared that pointed to existing resources on the internet. The first week, we’d approach the text from a historical or literary perspective. The next week, we might seek an emotional encounter and approach it through poetry or video. Another week, we would look at a broader theme or context of the reading. The final week, we would probe the questions, “So what? What does it have to do with me?” We experimented with this format for 5-6 months, and although the writer of the blog and some of the readers were very engaged, we needed to reallocate energy and resources due to staff departures. We were optimistic that people would choose to engage with an online study since it was accessible anytime and anywhere; yet we didn’t build numbers in the short time we offered it. A question is whether we might be able to build numbers over a longer period of time. Or was it not the right kind of online resource (too formal perhaps)?
  3. This spring, we used ‘Animate: Bible’ curriculum, and the 15-20 people who participated enjoyed it very much. We will encourage small groups to use this curriculum when they’re looking for resources.

We also have two active groups who engage with the Bible -- a Sunday morning group of 50-60 seniors who discuss the text(s) of the day under the leadership of a retired college religion professor, and a Monday evening group of 30-50 women who use Beth Moore studies.

Questions that we’re asking now include:

  • What does faith formation look like in a post-programmatic age?
  • Is it possible to create a path for people to grow in faith and then motivate them to move forward?
  • How do we create learning experiences that are about transformation rather than transfer of information?
  • How might we integrate the study of vocation and biblical fluency?
  • How do we engage people who are more and more connected through social media and less and less connected to the people physically near them?

Video: How Stories Shape Us