Several dozen women from our congregation participate in the Women’s Bible Study Fellowship meeting weekly at a nearby larger community church. I have heard some striking stories of lives changed through involvement in these small groups. Some congregations might resist such involvement beyond our congregation. I applaud it.
Consider such Bible-focused groups to be primary fellowships of the Holy Spirit. Jesus explained, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” through my Spirit. Occasions for such sharing, wherever that happens, are building blocks for believers serious about their life in Christ.
Establishing what is primary leads to three observations to consider for shaping church life today. One is that all but the smallest congregations have a secondary organization that provides a framework for fellowships of the Spirit. The measure of how good a congregation’s formal organization is the health of primary fellowships it shapes and cares for.
Second, informal networking for effective resources is becoming more important than denominational structures. Appreciate good church leadership wherever it happens.
Third, consider what then happens with doctrinal issues? Is full agreement on details of inherited theology necessary?
Christians in the first several centuries would have a hard time understanding church life in modern America. Of necessity, they met in houses that could accommodate only twenty or thirty at a time. These were primary fellowships of the Spirit, who devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching, to the fellowship, to eating together and to prayer (Acts 2: 42). They networked in the same city under an overseer/bishop.
Protestant theologian Emil Brunner highlighted the basic misunderstanding of the church that was driving the ecumenical movement in the decades after World War II. Still-strong, mainline Protestant denominations were trying to work out their differences so they could be united. Their mistake was thinking their institutional structures were real churches, accurately described by their defining documents and represented by a few institutional spokesmen. Brunner pointed out that the real churches were the underlying fellowships brought together by the Holy Spirit. He called for greater appreciation of the freedom the Spirit brings.
Most of those historic Protestant denominations are now in the process of disintegrating—becoming small congregations sharing similarities in historic circumstances and over practical agreements on biblical lifestyles and mission. What will replace them? New national church bodies will try to turn around decline, maybe trying to plant new congregations. But don’t expect much.
What remains fundamental is the quality of church life available in individual congregations, and that quality depends on how participants experience primary fellowships of the Holy Spirit at work changing their lives. It might seem unfair that God’s churches should be exposed to the same kind of market forces at work in other parts of American society. But that’s the reality. Either be a place where Spiritual life is evident, or slowly wither away.
Historically beliefs were fundamental to higher-level organizations of congregations in a denomination. This expectation of full agreement on doctrine is basic to my branch of Lutheranism, going back to a time of villages where beliefs could be mandated. In today’s much more fluid environment of church shopping, the full agreement among all participants cannot be expected. But the teaching ministry of that congregation can and should be held accountable to the historical confessions of that denomination.
Inevitably there will be a sorting out of primary biblical beliefs and secondary historically conditioned beliefs. For a Lutheran, the primary would be the Confessions in the Book of Concord. Do all smaller historic doctrinal details need to be insisted on in the future?
Frank Janzow says
Yes, I agree. As someone said, the age of denominationalism is over. Small faith communities or face to face groups exploring Christian teaching and life together have tremendous staying power – many staying together twenty or thirty years, even while many other issues and changes afflict the larger congregation or church body. Diverse views are always there too.
David Luecke says
Let’s all work hard to bring this kind of church life about. It will become necessary for survival of congregations.
michael hoopingarner says
Pastor Dave, while in prayer earlier this morning my mind was on the definition of what the church body really is. Not just “my church” but the entire body of believers. And there was nothing in my Scripture reading that would have pointed that out to me today. Your comments are very timely and have helped me to broaden and open my mind to what “The Church” really is and not be so narrow-minded on the topic.
David Luecke says
Great. I am glad this blog was so helpful. Let’s do lunch again soon.
Judy Tyreman says
Thank you, Pastor Dave, for your comments regarding the many women who have been studying God’s Word with Bible Study Fellowship (BSF). This in-depth study is exceptional as children, men and women from all walks of life and church affiliations come together to study only God’s Word. My husband and I have been greatly blessed and encouraged over the years through this 60+ year-old worldwide Bible study ministry. Several men from Royal Redeemer also attend the men’s BSF study.
I would like to see our own church family have more in-depth studies like the current Philippians Bible study be done instead of using Christian authors’ books as a study source. Praying for Spirit-led wisdom to help one understand and apply God’s Word is the best!
David Luecke says
When I came to Cleveland 30 years ago, I hear great things about Bible Study Fellowships and attended several of the Mens Fellowships. I was very impressed and have tried over the years to get something like that offered by Lutherans. Now I think, why bother? What’s already here in Cleveland is great. I am committed to supporting it as much as possible.
As you pointed out Thursday, I think that is happening under of Pastor Zahrte’s leadership and Pastor Harris’ guidance in his discussion questions. Sounds wonderful. I think five years from now RR will be an even better congregation, and it is already great.
Lee Larsen says
Coming together in service to the Lord is an awesome opportunity to witness the true power of the body of Christ. While those who sit in high places in each denominational authority are very concerned about protecting their Biblical interpretations & practices. They also seem to be very concerned that their volunteers would have difficulty in working together with others of a different denomination. We experienced that in our volunteer efforts in Minot ND where there was much debate about how they would house and establish work teams with all the different denominations coming to help. Obviously we worked together flawlessly and we learn different skills and shared ideas on a great deal of other church related topics.
If your group meets quite often and provides more time to socialize rather than focusing on a specific mission task then you do run into the possibility where stronger minded individuals will try to pull others to their way of thinking. Unfortunately there are some groups that walk that line between accepting all people into their church so that they may experience Christ’s love and message for their lives and embracing whatever lifestyle choices they desire.
At Acts 1:8 Ministry we are non-denominational but are deeply rooted in the LCMS traditions. Our free outreach program is now at work in 114 countries and while I target pastors, youth pastors, missionaries, seminaries and the like, that appear to believe Jesus is the only way to salvation. I pray that through the doing of Planned Acts of Christian Kindness (PACK) the firsthand witnessing of the power of the Holy Spirit at work will strengthen their faith and encourage them to pursue a deeper and closer walk with Jesus. This is what PACK has done for me.
David Luecke says
Your observations are astute. I want to spend time with you at the next Best Practices. Will you be going to the one in Frankenmuth this October?
Linda Campbell says
Pastor Dave: I truly enjoy our RR church services and have learned much from them. However, I feel smaller Bible Study Groups are important. They are more personal and usually more dedicated to each individuals requirements. The fact is, you can share an opinion, ask a question or toss around thoughts. This type of dialog with others has helped me understand the Bible and God’s word more than sermons. It has also helped shape my decisions as to what needs to be done or what mission in life I want to be part of. Small groups often open doors not otherwise opened. I have personally grown by attending not only BSF but other small Bible Study Groups within RR. .
David Luecke says
The best of all worlds is to have both the large worshipping community and really good small groups, like the ones that are emerging. Royal Redeemer is almost there, and the staff are getting even better at developing this good mix.
Marilyn Weitzel says
Thank you for the affirmation of Bible Study Fellowship ( BSF) . BSF started over 50 years ago. A missionary to China was home and the women in her circle of influence asked her to teach them from the Bible. She agreed but under certain conditions. The participant will: 1. read the passage and answer questions about it on paper. 2. Come to a gathering once a week and discuss the passage through the questions that were provided. 3. Listen to a lecture that she provided, 4. take home and read Lecture Notes to reinforce the week’s learning. This format has continued until today. My point is that the need for Bible study was felt by the women and asked her for help. She insisted that this not be a lecture as in a classroom, but an engaged process. ( BTW Engaged in a modern day buzz word in universities) 🙂 I personally have deepened my faith through BSF. God’s Word is always placed first and then teaching and readings from others. BUT, the uniqueness in BSF is the fellowship and opportunity to share The Spirit’s fellowship with other women. I have felt His Presence while in prayer over someone in crisis. God is good and speaks to us through His Spirit through His children. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Translated: When I am ready to know more about God, the Holy Spirit comes to teach me. Are there people in our churches that are ready to learn more about God and a personal relationship?
David Luecke says
You have given me good phrases, like the Spirit is a gentleman. Now: when I am ready the Spirit comes to teach me. Marilyn, you have taught me a lot about the Spirit. Thank you.
Paul Koehn says
Very good stuff! Has God possibly been speaking to believers during this “shut-down” time that small group home meeting/secondary fellowships are more enduring (essential?!?!) than the primary organizational setting of “sanctuary worship”? Interesting how my pastoral fellowship experience has rarely been as right within the denomination as it is with those in the larger but local body of believers.
David Luecke says
Right on! You’ve got it.
Lori Sardiga says
Thank you Pastor Luecke for affirming Bible Study Fellowship (BSF). Before I joined BSF, I was starving for more of His Word. Bible Studies at church seemed superficial and attendees not all that committed. Then I was invited to BSF. Actually it took about 3 invites before I went because I was hesitant to go outside of my own church. But once I did, I knew this was exactly what I was looking for – dedicated women coming together to study God’s Word, seeking to understand and Spirit- filled discussions. The weekly lessons use quality materials that are thought provoking and remain true to scripture. We don’t talk denominational differences but focus on being united in Christ. I have since become a group leader, and receive weekly training not only on the lesson but on how to be a leader. I am so grateful to have found BSF. I hope my enthusiasm comes through in my comments. That is the work of the Spirit.
David Luecke says
When I came to Cleveland 30 years ago, I heard great things about Bible Study Fellowships and attended several of the Mens Fellowships. I was very impressed and have tried over the years to get something like that offered by Lutherans. Now I think, why bother? What’s already here in Cleveland is great. I am committed to supporting it as much as possible.
Lori, we have been working together for almost 25 years. It has been a joy to see you blossom into a mature Christian and a valuable Christian leader. Thanks for all your contributions.