18 September, 2014 Lewis Allen
One of the most useful disciplemaking ministries I’ve been involved in over the years are Theology Reading Groups. They’re a brilliant way of growing believers in understanding Christian Truth, in developing relationships, and in discerning who has teaching gifts for ministry. In my experience, these groups are easy to set up and run, and are a massive benefit to those who get involved. I’m an enthusiast for them, and I want you to be, too.
Running the group.
What, and how?
A Theology Reading Group (give it your own snazzy name) is a meeting of believers to discuss a book you’ve all agreed to read. Viable groups have three to twelve members. Members are told the pages to read at least a week beforehand, and must commit to doing that. They may want to make notes, if they’ve got time and enthusiasm. Explain that the group starts and ends very promptly, and model tight time-keeping. One group I ran met in my study, started promptly at 7am in term times, with a couple of members asked to bring pastries and prepare coffee beforehand, and finished with two minutes of prayer at 8am. My current group meets from 1-2.15pm in a local café.
Invite those you feel will benefit the group. Arguers / ranters / the odd and the antagonistic need not apply! Anyone who is hungry to grow in their faith, willing to be committed, and with the necessary work-life capacity, could well suit your group. Explain the commitment it will entail (i.e. a free hour or two of reading between meetings, and then regular attendance at the group), decide together on a best time to meet (weekly is ideal), and run it along term times to build in natural breaks.
Read the best.
Choose your books carefully. Give people a choice between books that you know will nourish and stretch them. As the leader and chief sheep-feeder, make sure you’ve got the final decision. You may want to list suggested titles under the headings of the Christian Life, Church History, Theology, Evangelism, and Bible, with three or four books in each category. You could put out a running order of the group’s favourites. Or cut the cake however suits your group best. As you give the choices, give a line by way of recommendation on each title, along with the length of book, its price, and an estimate of how long it would take for the group to study it. Include an email link to a review of the book, so people can weigh whether they want to read it. My comments on two books we were considering were:
‘From Glory to Golgotha, Donald MacLeod. Small paperback, 160 pages, 5 sessions. A study of the Person of Christ by an amazing author. Profound, fresh and very thought-provoking.’
‘Every Good Endeavour, Tim Keller. Hardback, small format, 280 pages. The integration of the work with the Christian faith. Highly practical. 6 or so sessions.’
In my current group we’ve read From Glory to Golgotha (Donald MacLeod), Respectable Sins (Jerry Bridges), Cross Words (Paul Wells), The Abiding Presence (Hugh Martin), and Naked God (Martin Ayers), in a seven-month period with holiday breaks. We’re just about to start Salvation Belongs to the Lord (John Frame). Our group has been made up of largely more mature and older Christians, and that’s been reflected in the choices we’ve made. Next term we’re set to have a more mixed group with a wide age range and with members from different backgrounds, so we’ll start off with Frame as a theological primer, and then plan the way after that.
Leading the Group.
The leader steers the conversation with a light hand. Ensure that the train of the book’s argument in any given section is understood, ask confident members to summarise a passage or key section, and encourage people to enthuse about what they’ve benefited from in their reading. Remember, you’ve not got the time to turn over every stone in the session. You’re reading (and leading) at a pace. Don’t feel uncomfortable skipping over sections during your meeting. Steer the ship with a light hand, and make sure that you’re giving others space to talk. Allow conversation to run, and don’t be scared of disagreements. Keep distractions to a minimum.
You will be amazed.
You will be amazed at how much you read over the course of a year. You’ll also be amazed at how much people grow, and at how friendships develop.