Your Home and Evangelistic Bible Studies
By Joseph C. Aldrich, Th.D.,
Lined up two or three deep around the bar, the noisy crowd’s laughter and boisterous behavior drowned out the TV as it droned on and on about nothing. A gray-haired, distinguished- looking man elbowed his way through the teeming crowd until he reached the counter. Pounding on it with his fists he quieted the crowd. Attention gained, he blurted out, “Let’s talk about Jesus Christ!” Somehow nobody wanted to talk. Sophisticated conversationalists who only moments before couldn’t get a word in edgewise were hard put to get a word out. All talk ceased when Christ’s name was introduced into the conversation. Tongues got tied, palms got sweaty, hearts palpitated, and faces turned crimson.
In a Sunday morning sermon I challenged the congregation to walk up to a group of strangers and invite them to talk about Jesus Christ. My friend, a bold and courageous new Christian, accepted the challenge and proved a point. The song is right: “there’s just something about that name.” No other name creates that universal response. It is highly unlikely that anyone would feel that sense of unrest, threat, or embarrassment if the conversation focused upon Mohammed, Buddha, or Joseph Smith.
Non-Christians are not the only ones who feel embarrassed talking about Jesus Christ. Christians do, too! Our English word “embarrassment” comes from the same root as barrier and barricade. It literally means “to place a bar (an obstruction) in.” An embarrassed person has literally had a monkey wrench thrown into his emotional gears. Besides wanting to vanish, run, or hide, embarrassed people are often unable to act appropriately. They often can’t think logically or act rationally. Embarrassment usually comes when events or circumstances reveal inadequacy or inappropriate behavior.
Embarrassment stops some believers from sharing because they don’t yet feel perfect. Fearing that the non-Christian will spot some “flaws,” they keep their distance so as not to be “hypocritical. “ (For some this is a legitimate concern… they are hypocritical.) Regardless of our laborious attempts to appear otherwise, the world knows we are not perfect. If we would allow them, they might be surprised to see that we are at least making progress in a positive, wholesome direction instead of “advancing progressively backwards” (T.S. Eliot) with the rest of society.
The topic of this chapter could well be described as “How to Perform Heart Surgery Without the Patient Knowing It!” Perhaps this chapter will be a challenge to some of our “embarrassed brethren.” Believe it or not, your home could be the scene of divine surgery in which the cutting power of God’s Word is used to penetrate spiritual scar tissue, laying bare men’s hearts to the demands of a Holy God. We will talk about evangelistic Bible studies. My wife and I have had the privilege of being involved in numerous evangelistic studies under every conceivable circumstance. Dozens of people have discovered Christ as they interacted with others around God’s principles found in Scripture. And we have found certain musts for the evangelistic effectiveness of these studies.
Let me first warn you, though, that there is a big difference between an evangelistic home Bible study and a home Bible study. The two do not mix. I am sure you know of Bible Studies where an overzealous Auntie Maude and Brother Jim plus a few other super charged saints showed up ready to do battle. It was not long until the discussion turned from the simple “ABC’s of the faith” to the eschatological implication of the ten horns of the beast of Daniel chapter seven. What started out to be an evangelistic Bible study turned into a society for protecting, preserving, and propagating pet theological hobby horses.
For your home to be a successful context for evangelism, you must adopt and implement a distinctive philosophy which will encourage the likes of Auntie Maude and Brother Jim to join another group capable of appreciating their precise theological insights. In the long run, this will profit your purposes of evangelism, as well as steer Maude and Jim to the right group.
A PROPER VIEW OF SEPARATION
In order to work with unsaved people, one must have a healthy understanding of separation. Separation is not maintaining a “radical difference” and avoiding “radical identification.” A position between radical difference and identification must be maintained as a system of checks and balances. Biblical separation is not simply avoiding a negative (sin). The believer is to be separated from sin and separated unto God. Separation is not isolation from unredeemed mankind; rather it is separation from acts of personal sin and separation unto God.
Some churches today are similar to a department store where all the employees arrive at the prescribed time, lock the doors, and then sell merchandise to each other all day. To do any good, salt has to not only get out of the shaker, but it must come into contact with the food. Otherwise, it’s useless.
A TRUST IN GOD’S WORD
An effective evangelistic strategy must place confident trust in the power and authority of God’s Word. When people interact with its truths things happen…often unexpected things. Unbelievers find themselves at the foot of the cross and wonder how they got there.
God is not dependent upon our tactics and devices. Consequently we can leave behind our religious twang, our furrowed brow, our pointed finger, and our spiritual 4 x 4’s (not to mention our string ties and Herbert Hoover collars).
How freeing and refreshing it is to bring people under the healthy teaching of the Word and leave the results to God. If we trust the convicting power of God’s Spirit, our strategy can be “low pressure, long range.”
A WHOLESOME ATMOSPHERE
The effective study must have a carefully cultivated atmosphere. This provides the context in which the gospel content has its greatest impact. In the first three or four sessions, atmosphere is probably more important than content. In a nutshell, we’re talking about beauty again.
Create an atmosphere where the non-Christian feels at home. The evangelistic study is for nonbelievers, not believers. If believers are in the majority and insensitive to the group dynamics, they will soon drive the non-Christian away. The non-Christian needs to feel it is his group because he senses other people like him are present. I watched a group of thirty-five non-Christians diminish to practically zero because of the rudeness and insensitivity of some uninvited Christians who “crashed” the study. The only Christians who should be present are those who are bringing their non-Christian friends.
Even under these circumstances, it is best to set down some ground rules
for Christians’ attendance. Here are a few. First, the purpose of the study is evangelism. Second, the non-Christian must feel comfortable and welcome. Third, most of the discussion should involve non-Christians. As a general rule, the Christian should avoid active participation in discussion. Fourth, religious clichés should be avoided. Fifth, discussion of various churches and denominations should be avoided. Sixth, Christians should resist the temptation to “straighten out” doctrinal views of the participants which are not central to the issue of salvation. The issue is Jesus Christ, not infant baptism, total immersion, the inspiration of Scripture, pretribulationalism, or Post Toasties. Seventh, the Christian should refrain from bringing up all kinds of parallel passages. As a general rule the study should confine itself to one pas sage. Anyone can make significant observations on five or six verses. However, once the “resident experts” start spouting off other passages, the non-Christian realizes he is outgunned and out of place. Eighth, as a general rule, the Christian participants should avoid giving advice or sharing pious platitudes and spiritual bandaids. If they share, it should focus on their personal experience of the truth, not an untested list from some seminar or text book. Ninth, the Christian must avoid the temptation to press for premature decisions. Tenth, the Christians should avoid the social “holy huddle” syndrome. Some of your best friends may be there, but your mission is to reach out in love to the non-Christian. He must be made to feel special. He is!
Create an atmosphere in which the nonbeliever feels free to participate. One way to encourage participation is to build the entire study around three to four key questions. For example, when I teach on the story of the woman at the well, I generally ask four questions. Normally I divide the group into two or three smaller groups, appoint leaders (usually non-Christians), and let them wrestle with the questions. What a thrill it is to see them interact with God’s powerful Word. After twenty minutes or so, I call the groups back together and let each group share its finding. We have lots of fun in the process. You want to know what the questions are? O.K., here they are!
1) Describe the physical appearance of the woman at the well. What did she look like?
2) Describe the emotional condition of this woman (rejected by five men and living with a sixth).
3) What did Jesus offer as a solution to her problem?
4) Does His solution have any relevance to the needy people in our world? If so, how does it become operational in our experience?
The questions about her appearance spark lots of humorous discussion. To have six men, she must have been pretty attractive. On the other hand, having put up with six men…
Imagine the emotional state of one who sought love, security, and affection from five husbands and struck out. A woman’s number one fear is to be used and abandoned. Five times she realized her worst fear. Believe me, there will be some identification going on. The Samaritan woman has legions of contemporary brothers and sisters still trying to ease eternal heartaches with temporal bicarbonates. What an exciting time it is to hear them discuss the contemporary relevance of Christ’s ancient offer of thirst- quenching water. Sometimes they almost literally lead themselves to the Lord!
Another way to encourage the participation of the non- Christian is to compliment him for his observations. We often don’t know what to get excited about. It may be a vanilla, model T Ford-truth he discovers…one we’ve known since church camp days. But if it’s brand new to him, GET EXCITED! Count on it, when the zest goes, the rest goes! It’s a sin to bore people with God’s Word. Watch the participation profile. Don’t let one or two answer all the questions. Let them know you are not afraid of silence. Some people get real nervous when no one responds and feel they must talk even if they have nothing to say. If someone persists in dominating, talk to him after the session about this unfortunate pattern. Try to keep from becoming an “answer man.” Often it’s good to throw the question back to the group by asking, “What do some of you think?”
Another way to encourage participation is to write down key observations made by the group members and write their names beside their observations. When you summarize the group’s conclusions at the end of the meetings, mention both the observation and the person who made it. “Susan shared the key observation about Christ’s sensitivity to the woman’s need for something which would satisfy her desire for security.”
Participation is encouraged by an open, free, unthreatened leader. Group members may be hostile. Some are present under duress. Others may delight in asking “sticky questions.” If you don’t know the answer, admit it. “Hey Jim, that’s a great question. Let me think about it. I’m not prepared to answer it right now. I’ll bounce it off my pastor and get back with you next week.”
Participation is encouraged by variety. The worst method is the same method. Discussions, tapes, films, role playing, skits, and questions and answers are but a few possible methods. Be creative! People love it.
Create an atmosphere in which the nonbeliever feels loved and accepted. Much of the previous discussion is pertinent to assuring an atmosphere of love and acceptance. In addition to the previous discussion, let me underscore some additional factors. The expectation of most non-Christians who dare to venture into anything with a “religious” label is to be judged and condemned. They often feel awkward, guilty, and ill at ease. “The unchurched person often has a built-in expectation of being rebuffed. He thinks we can smell his sin in his clothes.”
Unfortunately, their expectations are often not unfounded. The sensitive, caring, loving Christian should therefore go out of his way to make sure the non-Christian feels welcomed and loved. If he does, he’ll never recover. Group love and acceptance seems to be a basic need of the human heart. “Apparently we are driven irresistibly to come into such close relationships with groups that we become important to them and they to us.”
Somehow we must overcome the natural instinct to protect and hide, and demonstrate by our attitudes and actions that our friendship offers fulfillment and blessing for the non-Christian. As they feel accepted, they have “a built-in inclination to accept the group’s religious beliefs even before they know them. It becomes an easy step to graduate from the social functions to the religious activities.”
A congenial, accepting emotional atmosphere eases communication and increases the impact of truth. The host and hostess are often the critical key to the success of the group.
(1) They should have the gift of hospitality, i.e., the ability to make people feel welcome and secure.
(2) They should understand the purpose and philosophy of the evangelistic study.
(3) The effective host has significant non-Christian friends.
(4) Effective hosts do not demand regenerate behavior from unregenerate people.
(5) Effective hosts learn the names of the group members. There is no sweeter music than one’s own name!
(6) Effective hosts are skilled at drawing people into conversation. The effective host realizes the importance of tying people together into webs of friendships.
(7) Effective hosts are sensitive to the needs of people at the study. Such routine things as temperature, ventilation, lighting, ash trays, and extra Bibles are on the host’s mental checklist.
Exposure, Exposure, Exposure
A final ingredient of effectiveness for evangelism in these studies comes as you continue to spend time with the group. Put in three words, it is exposure, exposure, and exposure. Christians in the study should make their home circle an open circle. During the course of the study, social engagements can be scheduled. The Christians need to take the initiative in setting up dinner engagements, recreational outings, and other group activities which will allow the non-Christian the opportunity to hear some of the music of the gospel. He needs to know that Christians can laugh, play, and have fun.
We have found that a potluck about four or five weeks into a study was a great way to strengthen relationships and build bridges. The group members thoroughly enjoyed setting aside an evening just for food and fellowship. Some of God’s most significant work takes place around a dinner table.
Group activities build esprit de corps and tie people together. We found that a weekend retreat can be extremely effective in opening people to the gospel. There is nothing which can compare to getting away for a couple days with a mixture of sensitive Christians and searching non-Christians. It’s dynamite. A word of caution: Focus on fun and fellowship. Resist the temptation to dump the whole load on your “captive audience.” The key: balance, common sense, and a yieldedness to the Spirit’s direction.
Suggestions For The Format
An evangelistic study need not be rigidly formatted. But there are some general suggestions for the planning of such a gathering. Some types of refreshments need to be planned. The informal chatting which goes on around the refreshment table performs a valuable function. It helps break down barriers. The refreshment time also provides a sounding board for personal reactions to the Bible study. Likewise, it offers an excellent opportunity to initiate conversation concerning spiritual things. Refreshments should be served at the beginning of the class time. Besides establishing a congenial atmosphere, it allows a “latecomer” to arrive fifteen minutes “late” and still be on time for the study itself. For example, if refreshments are served at 7:30 sharp, and the study starts right at 7:45, a couple can arrive at 7:40, enjoy a quick cup of coffee and not be late for the study. Most of the people will arrive around 7:30 so they can enjoy the time of fellowship and fun. Furthermore, refreshments are still available at the conclusion of the study for those who desire to stay longer. The hostess must resist the temptation of personally supplying the refreshments each week. Let other women volunteer. Sign them up ahead of time. It helps assure their continued presence at the study (at least the night they bring the goodies). Furthermore, it helps build the sense of it being “their group.”
Utilize the phone. “You have not because you phone not” should be your motto. Personal contact goes a long way towards assuring the continued participation of group members in the study.
Make every effort to begin and end on schedule. If the study is to go until 9:00 p.m., stop at 9:00 no matter how exciting the discussion may be. It’s better to leave them “longing than loathing.” A good group leader knows how important it is to stop at a “high point” rather than trying to get extra “mileage” out of it.
Normally I close a study something like this. “Well, gang, its 9 o’clock; time to quit. Some of you have baby sitters and need to get home right away. However, some of you may want to stay and continue our discussion. Let’s take a five minute break. Grab a cup of coffee, and if any of you want to continue our discussion or have further questions, I’ll be happy to stay and be of help.” Often half the group will hang around and continue to talk through the implications of the study. These dialogues sometimes last several hours. Sometimes the most significant spiritual advances are made during these unstructured, informal bull sessions. Be especially sensitive to those who hang around and “straighten up the chairs.” Often such a person wants to talk about spiritual things and doesn’t know how to begin. But remember, it is important that you keep your word and end the “formal study” right on time.
Have extra Bibles available. Many never take their Bibles to church, much less to a “Bible study.” They might be embarrassed to be seen with one! Suggest that next week they “dust off their Bible, wrap it in a plain brown wrapper—and bring it.” They will. Once you get to know some of the non-Christians, invite different ones to read the passage under consideration.
Feel free to use humor; in fact, encourage it. Many non-Christians are delighted to discover that Christians can laugh and have a good time. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. By the way, use personal illustrations when they are appropriate. Don’t, how ever, limit them to your “successes.” Sometimes your failure experiences have much more educational impact. Whatever you do, don’t take yourself too seriously! Relax.
Pray for each class member daily! Make a list and encourage each participating Christian to do the same. This is the real level of conflict, and, to succeed, the study must be under girded with prayer. Normally, however, I do not begin or end the actual study with prayer. This would vary with the circumstances. It is my feeling that sometimes the non-Christian isn’t ready for it.
Continuous evaluation is important to assure quality studies. If you are leading the study group, ask two or three key people to evaluate your leadership and the group’s interest and response. Never assume motivation. In every group session a leader must overcome an initial inertia. This is where a good study or a personal experience shared at the beginning can “break the ice” and get the group rolling. Pay attention to how the group session ends. An effective leader summarizes the group’s deliberations in such a way that the members sense that significant observations were made and significant conclusions were reached. There needs to be a sense of resolution or “closure.” Otherwise, many conclude that the group simply “pooled their ignorance.”
As mentioned earlier, jot down significant observations and the name of the one who contributed it during the course of the study. Use this record of observations as the basis of your summary. Not only will it reinforce the important truths, it will affirm the group members.
Finally, vary the content according to the needs of the people. The following are some suggested topics for consideration.
1. A series on the home.
2. An overview of the Bible, such as “Walk Through the Bible.”
3. A series on the inspiration and the reliability of Scripture.
4. A series on evolution and the biblical view of creation.
5. A series on the Bible and modem culture.
6. A series on contemporary theology and Scripture.
7. Individual book studies: John, Mark, Romans, etc.
8. Biographical studies (Biblical characters).
9. Doctrinal studies: A series on basic Bible doctrine.
10. A series on 20 Difficult Questions: “Are the Heathen Lost?”, “Is the Bible Inspired?” etc.
11. A series centered around a significant Christian book, such as Mere Christianity (C. S. Lewis), The Genesis Flood (Moths), Escape from Reason (Schaeffer), The Late Great Planet Earth (Lindsey), Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns (Swindoll), Secrets to Inner Beauty (Aldrich).
When inviting friends to participate in the study, don’t panic. Here are some suggested “invitations.”
“I’m sure you are aware, Bill, of the pressures exerted on the family today. Homes are breaking up at an unprecedented rate. Ruth and I are concerned about these trends, and we have invited five to six couples to participate in a study of biblical principles of marriage and family life. We’d love to have you join us.” Incidentally, I have found marriage and family to be one of the most valuable topics for an evangelistic study. Chuck Swindoll’s book, Strike the Original Match, would be an excellent text to use. It has a study guide which makes it even more valuable.
If the study is going to focus on one of the books of the Bible, an invitation might sound something like this. “I know you are aware of the fact that for years the Bible has been the number one selling book in the world. No man is really educated who is not at least familiar with its basic content. We thought it would be fun to get seven to eight couples together and work through selected portions of John’s gospel. The study will be informal and discussion- centered. We’d love to have you join us.” After the initial introduction, one should discuss the length of the series. People are more apt to come if they know it is for only eight to ten weeks.
A series of films may be the easiest way to launch a neighborhood study. One church in Texas started twenty-six evangelistic home Bible studies by showing the Moody Science films each week for twelve weeks. Why not rent one film per week and then schedule it to be shown in a different neighborhood each night during the week. You will find that when the film series is over, the vast majority of the groups will want to continue. They have made new friends; they have been challenged intellectually and spiritually, and have tasted fellowship at a deeper level. Of course, being perceptive, you have anticipated this response and are ready to suggest that the group take another ten weeks to study John’s gospel (or Romans, Marriage and Family, etc.). James Dobson’s film series on the family is another powerful tool for evangelism.
Believe that people will find Christ. Expect them to respond and anticipate sharing Christ personally. Look for opportunities to talk individually with seeking people in or out of your study. I find it best to set up an appointment where we can discuss their concerns in a private setting with no fear of interruption. Make your home circle an open circle whether or not you actually have a “formal study.” Believe me; if they become your friends, they already are predisposed to become a friend of Christ.
Isn’t that what evangelism is all about? Living beautifully and opening up our webs of relationships so that others can see His beauty…in us!
Excerpted from ‘A Critical Concern Book’ ‘Life-Style Evangelism’ ‘Crossing Traditional Boundaries to Reach the Unbelieving World’ By Stephen C. Aldrich,Th.D.,
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”