Allow me a moment to vent some frustration and to solicit your contributions to the problem I perceive.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was embarking on a project to revamp educational materials for my church. I was eager, in particular, to engage with the greater Story of the Bible as part of the process. My question, in essence, was How do we teach one another such that we identify ourselves as part of the Story? I wanted to find a way in which we could see our place in the narrative that begins with Adam and Eve, runs through Israel, the exile and return, climaxes in Jesus, continues through the Acts of the Apostles, proceeds through us to a final destination.
As part of that process, I’ve been reviewing a handful of study materials that are aimed at new believers. These are materials that other churches (faithful churches, I might add) have developed to introduce people to the faith. They are intended to help a new believer, in particular, get her bearings, as it were.
Yet, as I proceed through them, I find myself writing notes in the margins that all seem to circle the same theme. These study guides seem eager to launch into how Christians ought to live, how they ought to conduct their faith, without telling the story of which they are a part. In short, they are providing a systematic approach to a faith that the reader has experienced relationally.
This approach is best highlighted in two ways. First, the tables of contents often illustrate the approach. Week 1: Your New Life; Week 2: Your Identity in Christ; Week 3: Your Power through the Holy Spirit; etc. This is the table of contents to Calvin’s Institutes (not really), a handbook, a manual. But it is completely different than the way faith is experienced, the way people live and define themselves, and the book we claim as Scripture.
That leads the the next point, in how these study guides treat Scripture. We’ve all seen this kind of study guide – A title at the top of the page; maybe a subtitle; a paragraph about some aspect of the faith; a verse, written in another font or in bold to reinforce the previous paragraph; another paragraph about the topic; another verse taken from a different part of the Bible to back it up; a question for further contemplation. Is it any wonder new believers throw their hands up at trying to make sense of the Bible? Their introductions to the Book are select verses pulled out to prove various points – one verse from 1 Corinthians, another from Leviticus one thousand pages earlier, another from the Psalms. How is anyone supposed to know which verses apply to what when their reading on their own?
Lost in the mix is the Story. The journey that the Creator has traveled with the creation and the people of the earth – with its spectacular beginnings, deep struggles and frustrations, glorious redemption, and hope for a happy conclusion – is disregarded. Abandoned is the way in which all people orient themselves, that is, according to a larger story, of which they play a part.
So my struggle continues, to try to find or develop a way of acclimating new believers to the faith that provides them a greater context for their role in God’s story with the creation.