Back in the day when the world was young and cell phones were used to make actual phone calls and social media was limited to the things you read on the walls inside of public restrooms, I went to college at the University of Oregon. Go Ducks! (As an alumnus I think it says on the back of my degree that I’m legally bound to add that last bit in perpetuity). No joke, I rode my bicycle uphill both ways to get to and from campus. A few times I even had to do it through the snow! That, however, is not the point. The point is that it was during my time there that my mind was opened to the true purpose of Bible studies.
Ask most Christians about the purpose of a Bible study and the normal reply is nearly always something about understanding the Bible better so they can grow deeper with God. It’s not a terrible answer, to be honest; it’s just not the best one. You see, Bible studies aren’t meant to be about Bible study.
(No, he did not!)
Oh yes, I did.
The Connection Between Bible Studies and Discipleship
Listen, way too many people go into a Bible study thinking it’s about getting deeper in God’s Word. It isn’t. The purpose of a Bible study is discipleship. Let me say that again for the people in back, the purpose of a Bible study is discipleship. Don’t miss that. The whole ‘getting deeper in God’s Word’ thing? That’s a nice bonus.
I say this not to belittle studying the Bible but to highlight the simple truth that every man, woman and child who has ever followed Jesus has a mandate from God to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). At the same time, nowhere in the Bible does it say anything about going to Bible study. (Well, okay, there’s that whole Psalm 119 thing. I’ll give you that, but it isn’t nearly enough!)
If we’re going to be disciples who make disciples, we need a philosophy of Bible studies that reflects that calling. While there is great value in gathering to study God’s Word for the purpose of knowing Him and His Word better, there is also great obedience in making disciples—and we can kill two birds with one stone if we start aiming properly.
Shifting Our Mindset Toward Bible Studies
The argument here isn’t that Bible studies are bad or that we need to stop doing them. This is an article about purpose, not practice. For the most part, all that is required is a simple shift in mindset. Instead of thinking about the content of the study (which generally restricts our focus to what we personally get out of the study and how it impacts our individual relationship with the Lord), we need to think about the relationships involved (which shifts our focus beyond just ourselves to how it affects others’ relationships with Him).
As a student in college, I had this driven into me emphatically by Tim Watson, a campus minister who took upon himself the difficult task of helping me understand why God left me on earth after I accepted Christ into my life. According to the Westminster Catechism, the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” According to Tim, there is nothing more glorifying to God than living in obedience to His command for us to make disciples.
Twenty-five years and a seminary degree later, I agree, and that brings me to Cool Whip. Who doesn’t like Cool Whip on their ice cream? If we shift the purpose of our gatherings from deeper knowledge to discipleship, it’s like we suddenly get Cool Whip on our ice cream. Discipleship is our ice cream. Cool Whip is the deeper knowledge that comes with it. It’s that easy.
Discipleship in the Context of Bible Study
Practically speaking, discipleship in the context of a Bible study can take on a thousand different forms. The idea is to gather a small group and help them take their next step towards God. Depending on where everyone is at, that can look like almost anything, but three essential elements stand out.
Initiating personal contact outside the group context
If your Bible study is about discipleship, not just Bible knowledge, your group’s relationships should extend beyond your weekly study time. Being disciples who make disciples means caring enough about everyone else in your group to keep up with them throughout the week. When I went to college, that meant phone calls on a landline. In the digital age, it’s much easier."Being disciples who make disciples means caring enough about everyone else in your group to keep up with them throughout the week." -Jon Smith #collegiatedisciplemaker #discipleship What If Bible Studies Are About More Than Bible… Click To Tweet
Sharing with one another real actual thoughts and feelings
If your Bible study is about discipleship, not just Bible knowledge, your group should not only discuss the Scripture you’re studying together but also about the wins and losses you’re experiencing in the rest of life. Caring is sharing, or something like that, and making disciples means getting real with one another. When this happens, the knowledge of God and His Word has a chance to intersect with your hearts and lives.
Praying for one another
If your Bible study is about discipleship, not just Bible knowledge, your group should pray for each other like you matter to one another. Prayer is a primary function of how we relate to God vertically, and something powerful happens in horizontal relationships when we pray together for one another. It’s easy to pray that God would help you understand His Word better, but this goes beyond that. Whether it’s one person praying for the group as a whole or everyone praying for each other is almost beside the point—how you go about it matters far less than just making sure you’re doing it!
The Big Question
There are other elements, of course, but hopefully you’re starting to see the point. The big question of a Bible study focused on deeper understanding is, “What did I learn?” The big question of a Bible study focused on discipleship is different – “How did we move toward Jesus and each other?” Learning still happens, but it’s a byproduct of the time spent investing in one another.
From the perspective of someone invested in investing, the actual study part of a Bible study is an excuse to foster spiritual growth in the members. It’s the difference between focusing on head knowledge and heart knowledge. From the outside looking in, things might look quite similar, but from the inside out, it’s a sea change. Like pouring kerosene on a fire, focusing on discipleship instead of better Bible knowledge will produce an explosive reaction.
Don’t believe me? Give it a try. I dare you.