The Joy of Theology Reading Groups
Pastor, I want to thank you. My marriage has been totally turned around.
These aren't the words you expect someone to write three months after their spouse began reading a 1,291-page systematic theology book, yet that's exactly what I was being told in a card. My prayers had been answered. I'd prayed that God would give people such a love for him and his Word that it would begin to affect all areas of their life. I'd also prayed that reading and discussing a systematic theology book with others would be one of those means.
Soon after I came to my church in 2008 and began preaching expositionally, I realized many of the men had only a cursory knowledge of the Bible. Further, I observed most of the young men had been neglected in any intentional pursuit. I prayed for three months about what to do and whom to pursue. I decided to start a theology reading group with eight men.
The journey began in January 2009. We met in my basement every Friday morning at 6:00 a.m., for an hour and a half, for 16 months. The men were told they must be committed, which meant be present, on time, and prepared to discuss their reading of that week's assigned chapter. I didn't think I would retain all of them. But the more they studied God's Word and discussed it together, the more hooked they became. How hooked? One guy was out of town for three months and would drive to a rural McDonald's for free WiFi so that he could Skype with us. Another had appendicitis and needed emergency surgery. When Friday came around, the discussion time moved to his hospital room.
Why Theology Reading Groups?
Though God has revealed himself in his Word and preserved that Word for thousands of years, so many of his people don't know it well. They haven't thought deeply about the wonder of the Trinity, the significance of the resurrection, or the promised return of their Savior. It's not that they don't believe it. It's that they largely defer to their elders and pastors to know it, believe it, and tell them it's true. Theology reading groups allow the believer to wrestle with verses and the truths contained therein. It helps audit the bad theology that has crept into all of our minds based on experiences or tired truisms that turn out to not be true (such as "God helps those who help themselves").
I wanted to see the people entrusted to my care know their God better and live lives reflecting joyful devotion to him. I wanted that for myself too. I also wanted to provide an environment where Christians would enjoy discussing truth and working out its implications together. In other words, the goal of a theology reading group is to get people reading, thinking, talking, and living in light of God's revelation.
Here's how you can begin.
1. Select the book. I chose Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology. I wanted a book that directed the reader to application with each truth. I also know Grudem has smaller works (Bible Doctrine or Christian Beliefs), but I wanted something that would offer a real challenge for all of us.
2. Plan the schedule. The book you choose will greatly shape the length of time it takes to cover the work. We scheduled the reading, including the appendix, to cover the span of 13 months. Perhaps in your context smaller time commitments would serve you better.
3. Set the expectations. Christians often attend Sunday school classes and other additional gatherings where their attendance alone is considered a win. I encourage you to raise the bar. In our case the expectations were twofold: (1) you always read before you come, and (2) you're always there unless you're out of town or in the hospital. Sounds strict, I know. But you'd be surprised how much people will step up when challenged.
4. Share the discussion. I launched the group with the clear expectation that I'd facilitate the discussion for two months. Then I'd assign all of us to a rotation of leadership each week for the remainder of the time. I'd also give feedback after each meeting. This approach keeps you from being the "answer man" and identifies potential future small group leaders, whether for theology reading groups or other areas of ministry.
5. Encourage regularly. You're asking people not only to read a book (something 28 percent of Americans didn't do last year), but also to read a significant book. It can appear daunting at first. I encourage them like crazy for the first three months. I find once they cross the three-month mark, however, their own excitement for what they're learning rubs off on each other and helps carry them to the end.
6. Pray for fruit. Some people will think theology reading groups make people proud in their knowledge and apathetic in their life—"They should read less and evangelize more." I disagree. Pray earnestly that people would be amazed at the God who created them, saved them, and promises to return for them. In simplest definitions, I define evangelism as taking your worship public. Pray that as people are amazed at God's love for them in Christ they'd grow contagious as Christians, whether they are talking to other believers or not.
Take the Plunge
It's now been five years since that first cold Friday when those eight men met with me to discuss theology. Since then our church has enjoyed four generations of men's theology reading groups and three generations of women's theology reading groups. Young and old, single and married, teenager and parent—you name it, they've all participated in these groups.
Though reading together isn't the only means we use to put the truth of God's Word before God's people, it's been a profitable way for us to challenge people to know and love the God who has rescued them. Don't take my word for it. Try it for yourself.