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Students at commencement

Biblical Fluency

St. Paul Lutheran Church

Location: Neenah, Wis.
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
Size: 698 baptized members; 250 average worship attendance

 Download St. Paul Lutheran's VCP report or see report contents below:

Ministry context
We are located in the downtown area. We are situated in a unique spot right next to a YMCA and we have poor neighborhoods and wealthy neighborhoods within walking distance and our membership reflects this economic diversity. We are preparing to celebrate our 100-year anniversary in 2012. With this type of history there is an interesting combination of long-time families and ‘newcomers’ in membership.
Pre-existing practices

1. Conversations on Scripture Bible Study

We host informal weekly Bible study that uses the lectio divina style of study. This has been in practice for over 2 years now. It started as a meeting in different people’s homes and now we meet at the YMCA which is right next door to our church. This study currently engages about 25 different people over the course of a month.

2. Pastor-led Lecture-style Studies

Pastor Harms has hosted several of these studies which have varied by subject (ex., The Bible’s Big Story; Bible study basics; The Christmas Story; etc.). These studies typically are held for 4 to 6-week sessions. They are very well-received and have engaged several people that are not attending the Conversations on Scripture studies. Overall these studies have engaged approximately 30 different people.

3. Bible Highlighting for 3rd Graders 

Adults in the congregation are recruited to highlight the Bibles our 3rd grade students will receive. They highlight their 10 favorite verses and write a letter of encouragement to the student.

Bibles are given to the 3rd graders on Reformation Sunday. We arrange for the highlighters to meet the students and they promise to pray for them for the coming year (beginnings of a mentoring relationship that is fostered through 8th grade). We also give slips of paper to the congregation and ask them to list their favorite verses on them and give them to the 3rd grade teacher who uses 2 or 3 every week for the class to practice looking things up in their Bibles. This is a great event that lifts up the importance of scripture education each year for our entire congregation.

Discoveries from listening process

1. Members are Reading the Bible

More people are reading the Bible daily than we realized. This is important because it made us recognize the various ways people are already engaging individually:

  • Portals of Prayer and Christ in Our Home devotionals;
  • published lectionary daily readings;
  • devotional books purchased at Christian bookstores or through 12-step programs;
  • utilizing unstructured approaches like simply opening the Bible and reading wherever the finger lands;
  • online daily devotional resources such as God Pause, published by Luther Seminary.

2. Pew Bibles Are not Being Used

There is a perception (and a reality) that corporate engagement with the Bible is low. This matters because even though it is valued that the Bibles are present in the pews (as claimed in the interviews) there is a lack of engagement in using them. It would be good to know the true underlying cause(s) of this.

Some that have been suggested include:

  • People claim they hear better when they are not reading along.
  • There is an embarrassment factor over using the Bible publicly if one is not sure where to turn, in spite of page numbers being provided, etc.
  • It is difficult to break the inertia of habit.

3. Disconnect between Bible and Daily Life

There is a perceived disconnect between Bible reading and application to daily life/living. This important because:

  • A majority of our current Bible studies spend little time on the concepts of “how does this affect my daily living?”; “how will this change my relationships?”; “how does this affect what I make as a priority in my life?”
  • This also has implications from the pulpit. We currently do not publish a “take-home” supplement to our sermons.
  • We may be assuming connections are being made in our writings and teachings, and it sounds like we would be wrong!
Opportunities for growth

1. Work through the Bible Together

Congregational journey through the Bible (or significant portions of it) coordinated between experiences in worship and related Bible study/discussion groups.

2. Connect Bible and Daily Life

How can we help people to make the connection between the Biblical narrative and life?

3. Get Comfortable with Explaining Scripture

How can we help people overcome their discomfort in explaining scripture?

Experiments undertaken

1. Getting Ourselves into God’s Story

  • During Epiphany and Lent, 2012, we will walk the congregation through a lectio continua reading of the Gospel of Mark in worship. This will be supported by a congregational challenge for people to read through the Gospel of Mark on their own. The Gospel of Mark will also be studied in the Conversations on Scripture Groups and the Pastor’s 4-6 week Bible Study. Thus, the congregation will communally engage the story of Jesus’ life in the time frame from Christmas to Easter.
  • Over summer and into fall of 2012 we hope to do a similar congregational reading through the Old Testament so that they might see again the sweep of Salvation History – likely using stories listed in E-100.
  • We will have a goal of public ‘sign-up’ for committing to participating in these readings.
  • This same Salvation History will be studied in the Conversations on Scripture Groups and the Pastor’s Bible Study.
  • We want to provide take-home sheets for all age-groups for these Bible stories.
  • Weekly video-blog by Pastor Harms introducing ‘This Week’s Stories’ – put on our website.

We are pursuing this approach to overcome an episodic understanding of scripture and to give the congregation a shared experience of biblical exploration.

We hope this will yield a deeper understanding of scripture and a sense of communal sharing in God’s story as well as an individual sense of fitting into God’s story.

We will know this is leading our congregation in the right direction if people speak positively about it, if it generates energy and enthusiasm for church life and mission; if there is a deepening and strengthening in our sense of belonging to and caring for each other AND the community/world around us.

We will measure fruitfulness by a sense of increase in energy of the congregation, an increase in serving on ministry teams, and an increase in worship and Bible study attendance. A possible by-product might be a minimization of negative undercurrents like triangulating complaints, concern about the state of our building over the state of our missions, etc.

2. Connecting the Bible to Life 

Here’s what this path might look like:

  • Knowledge, Faith, Action Sheets – a template for approaching scripture that will be in the pews for people to use.
  • Pastors will provide take-home sheets for sermons.
  • Fluency team will have conversations with individuals about what ways the disconnects are happening
    Members of the fluency team will be doing some ‘field studies’ in other churches in the area to see how they make the Bible – Life connection.
  • Retreat opportunities for the congregation to celebrate milestones or explore subjects like ‘discernment’, etc.
  • Make more of an effort to bring the Bible into congregational meetings, pastoral care situations & other crisis situations (e.g., our senior pastor recently had the congregation take the Bible out during a funeral service and read together the promises found in scripture).

We are pursuing this approach to help the professional staff let go of the ‘husbanding’ of scripture to the rest of the congregation. We hope this will yield a deeper understanding of scripture and a sense of communal sharing in God’s story as well as an individual sense of fitting into God’s story.

We will know this is leading our congregation in the right direction and we might measure its fruitfulness when we see ministers training others to minister and when we see ministries being multiplied by training others.

3. Overcoming Discomfort in Explaining Scripture 

Occasionally, we plan to do a Conversations on Scripture style study up front during sermon time. We may also try worship in the fellowship hall with round tables and use part of sermon time for scripture discussions.

Other ideas include:

  • Take-home sheets for family discussions.
  • Bible study resources on our website.
  • Practice using Bible study resources.
We are pursuing this so people will become more comfortable reading, thinking about and discussing scripture on their own. We hope it will yield an increase in people bringing their own Bibles to church and studies, an increase in participation in scripture discussion groups, and an increase in ministry to others within the congregation and in the community/world around us.
Discoveries from experiments (July 2014)

Filed July 2014 by Clarence Harms and Jill Beverlin

1. Congregational Bible Reading Initiatives

Since our engagement in the Biblical Fluency Project we have hosted 3 different initiatives: Read through the Gospel of Mark; Old Testament History of Salvation; The Essential Jesus.

We utilized public sign-ups; went off lectionary and changed daily readings to match our initiative; pastors preached on the readings on Sundays; study groups focused on these readings; we ended with a celebration and opportunity for people to share learnings in different ways (including a public sharing in worship for the Essential Jesus which was very moving and meaningful!). We hope to do a special Bible reading initiative once a year with the congregation.

2. Family Bible Study

Every 5 weeks we have Family Sunday School which includes a 10-15 minute family Bible study led by the pastor. It also includes activities and crafts and a take-home piece to keep the conversation going.

This is very well received and many parents have given feedback about how much they are learning and that they appreciate the “help” in teaching their children about faith!

3. Taking Faith Home

We have started including a Taking Faith Home sheet in our bulletins.

When we are doing a special initiative we create our own sheet; when we are on lectionary we use the sheets from Vibrant Faith Ministries.

4. Youth Bible Study

Our youth ministry intern hosts a study once a week on Sunday morning.

Attendance has grown over the summer! This is led by our youth ministry summer intern.

5. Covenant Groups

Small groups of 8-12 meeting once a month to grow in discipleship practices and share their journey of faith together. They focus on Scripture, service and exploring other types of worship in addition to sharing how they see God moving in their lives. They will meet for a year. At the end we will celebrate and after a period of rest start new covenant groups if people want to continue.

We have almost 40 people involved in this initiative! The young families group is especially strong and growing. We provide free babysitting for this group.

6. Young Moms Online Bible Study

This is a group of about 12 moms who have started a summer Bible study on the Psalms. They meet on Facebook and work through a chapter a week. This seems to be going well!

Other Good Fruit:

  • We are currently in a long-range planning process. The focus of this group is to be purposeful about our conversation with God (Scripture and prayer), with one another (hosting listening/sharing opportunities with our members) and with those around us (having purposeful conversations with community leaders and our neighbors) to see how God is calling us to serve into the future.
  • We have had an increase in non-staff lead mission initiatives since our engagement in Biblical fluency.
  • We have begun focusing on our relationships with our neighbors in our community and have several regular/weekly projects we do together (with the YMCA; a local coffee shop; a local hair salon; a retirement community across the street; and an Episcopal church up the street!)
  • When unhealthy personalities try to gain traction, it seems they cannot find footing for their negative intentions!
  • We have seen an increase in visitors and bringing in new members!

 

Video: Doing Bible Study in a Public Setting