Going Deep

In this morning’s rant on the media, in an attempt to suggest that more folks are are interested in substantive news than might be thought by the media, I shared an anecdote about teaching I received in seminary which suggested that deep study of scripture and tradition wouldn’t fly in the local church, and my own experience of many who were looking for the opportunity to “go deep.”

This one illustration seemed to spark the most interesting comments of the day, including the following commentary:

I agree with the overall tone of your post, and appreciate it; but the above comment caught my attention.  I recently shared with a DS friend of mine that he might be surprised at the number of people who might be interested in learning who God is–a triune God of holy love who is a verb–and who we are–fallen, in need of salvation–and the impact God can have on our lives.  I know I have spent years wandering around the church “in a fog” wondering what Christianity was all about.  I’ve ended up “doing it on my own” by delving into John Wesley and what true Methodism is about: the salvation of the person in the pew–something The UMC lost a long time ago.  If you were told that in seminary, no wonder we never get past the rock bottom basics and get to the point of living a life centered in God as seen in Christ Jesus.  After much reading and monitoring the state of the UMC, and my own experience, I can absolutely say that the gospel and its impact on a person’s life is the best kept secret.  I can easily name three people in the church who would like to “go deeper”–and I have a sneaking suspicion there are many, many more.

I absolutely believe that there are folks in every church who are looking for more than we offer in the average Sunday School lesson. I first learned this in my first appointment when I was tasked with teaching the mid-week, old ladies bible study and decided to pull out things like source theory, authorship, and textual analysis in talking about the scriptures. Living in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where more folks have been brought up with conservative evangelical teachings of sola scriptura and biblical inerrancy, I expected some resistance. Instead I found an entire group of women (all over the age of 60) who ate it up and wanted more. All their lives they had been spoon fed the Bible, and now as they approached the end of their lives they questions they were asking simply weren’t being answered by the same tired old platitudes.

I’ve experienced the desire for depth in every Disciple Bible Study group that I’ve facilitated. While there is occasional push back when I sometimes question folk’s Sunday School influenced assumptions about faith, there is an openness to being challenged and a willingness to hear another’s opinion even while they disagree.

But here is the difficulty from a practical point – the time commitment that comes with doing this type of study. From a student perspective I’ve often seen the desire for something deeper, but the non-retiree, working 50+ hours a week (if they are lucky) plus raising two kids mom or dad struggles to find the time to read and study at a deep level. Similarly, preparing to do this type of study requires a time investment from the pastor/teacher, time that often simply isn’t available in the midst church administration, preparing sermons, writing newsletter articles, planning programs, visiting the sick and infirm, and the myriad of tasks that come with all of our jobs – be they ministry or otherwise. More often than not I can find myself choosing the easy lesson simply because I don’t seem to be able to find the time (and sometimes the emotional energy) required to take folks to a deeper level. One of the advantages of having 7 years of theological training (I was a bible major in college, plus three years of seminary) is that there are many times when I can do things off the top of my head, drawing on what I learned in those days, but scholarship is always advancing and keeping up with the latest research and theory on the bible and Christian thought is something that I want to do, but often find slipping through my fingers – especially when the message I receive from the powers that be above me is that my learning focus should be on leadership and congregational dynamics.

It’s a bit of a cliché to draw on the project management triangle bemoaning the relationship between our ability to do things fast, do things cheap, and do things well, but in my experience the ability to offer “deep” study is directly related to those factors. I struggle going deep right now because I’m juggling too many balls, requiring to pull things together on a short time frame, usually with minimal external resources (due to budgetary constraints) which makes excellence very difficult at best. Going deep requires time, but more importantly it requires an investment of a community and individuals that this type of study is valued and worthy of expenditures of time and money. Pastor/teachers have to know that the energy they expend in preparation will be appreciated by student’s  participation and investment in learning (including their own preparation). Likewise, church hierarchies (SPRC’s, Church Councils, etc.) must recognize that research and study aren’t luxuries that interfere with the pastor/teacher’s “real work,” but is a key component of the mission of teaching.

And yet, in the end, those of us in church leadership may have little choice but to go deep in helping folks become better disciples of Jesus Christ. Certainly I’ve seen that when folks do go deep in things like Disciple Bible Study, there is a transformation that leads to more dedication and a greater motivation to live out Christ’s call to service. The failure to go deep is demonstrated again and again by a congregation that is apathetic, goes through the motions, and wants to be spoon fed a bowl of spiritual platitudes which sound good, but have little connection to transformation and faithfulness. If we fail to go deep, we end up with the congregations that we deserve.

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