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Students at commencement

Biblical Fluency

St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church

Location: White Bear Lake, Minn.
Denomination: Episcopal Church USA
Size: 600 households; average worship attendance, 270

 Download St. John Episcopal's VCP report or see report contents below:

Ministry context

St. John’s is a historic congregation founded in 1860 in White Bear Lake. It was the first church in then-rural White Bear Lake, and as the suburbs grew to encompass the area it grew into a larger suburban congregation. We draw members from much of the Twin Cities area and are experiencing gradual but steady growth. Our worship style honors our traditional roots but encompasses contemporary music and biblical preaching. Our vision statement is “We seek, with God’s help, to provide a spiritual home for children, youth and adults as they travel on their journey of faith through the wilderness of human experience,” with our short working motto “All Are Welcome.”

Strong biblical knowledge is not the usual attribute of Episcopal churches, even though our Book of Common Prayer worship contains many biblical phrases, and we encompass four readings in our regular Sunday worship. A number of our members are from other traditions which did not include Bible study, and found that their knowledge was limited.

We have offered adult formation on both Sundays and Wednesdays for some years but often found that participation was spotty. We began to focus on the mandate from the Baptismal Covenant, reminding ourselves that we promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” as baptized Christians (Book of Common Prayer).

Pre-existing practices

1. Basic Biblical Knowledge

Before our opportunity to begin this project, we had already embarked on a plan to increase knowledge of the Bible by making books available to all, both in the pews and by offering free Bibles to anyone who wished to take one home. We also offer paperback New Testaments in our Welcome Bags to first-time visitors.

Along with this, we engaged the community in “The 90-Day Bible Challenge” led by the Rector, who offered to lead all members in a quick read of each book of the Bible in three months, accompanied by a weekly large-group session to help make sense of context and questions about the readings. Sixty-six people took on the challenge, and most participated every week. The change in the knowledge and the hunger for more was remarkable, with at least a third of those same people attending more specific Wednesday evening Bible study classes in the following months.

2. Multiple Offerings

In addition to the Wednesday evening Bible study led by the Rector, we saw a need to offer other Bible studies in order to make access easier for different schedules and learning styles. In planning our Fall 2011 Adult Formation schedule, we focused on only Bible-based offerings so that we could reinforce the use of Scripture in all of our Formation classes, both for youth and adults.

Our Sunday offerings are “Route 66,” a basic Bible survey class for youth and adults, which offers a large group class plus age-appropriate small group time. We also offer an adult-level “Introduction to Christian Ethics” which is a school-year long program based on biblical readings, along with presentations by members about ethics in their careers and life experiences. We also offer a Sunday afternoon lay-led small group program focused on the Book of Acts.

Our Wednesday offerings include a new weekly group at Noon based on “E100” which has brought in some who are looking for fellowship as well as an opportunity to dwell in the Word. Wednesday evenings include a study of Thessalonians, and a group working on “LifeKeys,” a biblically-based curriculum for discovering one’s own spiritual gifts.

Attendance at all classes so far has been gratifying, and we continue to attract new participants.

Discoveries from listening process

1. Navigational Difficulties

Many of our participants have little or no idea as to how to find readings in the Bible.

2. Missing Links between Old and New Testaments

Most of our members have little to no understanding of the grand scheme of salvation, or of the link between the Old Testament and New Testament.

3. Misperceptions of God

Most people have a gross misunderstanding of the God of the Old Testament as a different Being than the God of the New Testament.

Opportunities for growth

1. How Can We Help People Develop a Working Knowledge of the Bible? 

Given that we use up to four readings at each Sunday worship, we have discontinued printing the readings in the Sunday worship bulletin, but inserted the page number in the pew Bible, and encourage each worshipper to open the book and read along.

2. How Do We Help People Understand Scripture as a Whole Story of Salvation?

Offer accessible, basic Bible overview options to encourage all to participate on whatever level they are most comfortable. We have begun to offer multiple ways of engaging Scripture, all of which are open to all at any time.

Experiments undertaken

1. Working Knowledge of the Bible

Our goal is to encourage all members, all ages, to have and read the Bible in their daily lives, and to approach it first as non-threatening literature.

Why? Helping people get beyond the fear of not knowing or understanding Scripture is the first step to encourage biblical literacy. Our goal is simply to encourage people to open the bible and read, so that they may be more comfortable with referring to it on a daily basis.

2. Offer Accessible, Basic Bible Overview Options to Foster a Deeper Knowledge of the Overarching Themes of Scripture

For most people the study of any topic, including Scripture, does not happen without a commitment to it. We have begun a number of both basic and more in-depth study options at various times to make more opportunities for members to join one or more groups. Both large and small group options are available, encouraging engagement at all levels and learning in various ways.

3. Overcoming Preconceived Notions and Worldviews

We believe that any reading of the Bible is preferable to no reading, and we encourage all to begin anywhere but to begin intentionally. Our mission is not to provide the answers or the perspective, but simply to allow the text to speak for itself.