Reading groups show theology not boring
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following stories are part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)--Some folks may find reading boring. Not so for members of Hunter Street Baptist Church who attend theology reading groups, one of which convenes at 5.30 a.m. on a weekday.
Six years ago pastor Buddy Gray started a theology reading group with 10 men at the Birmingham, Ala., church. To date, more than 800 members have participated, gathering weekly at various times to discuss the conservative, classical and contemporary theology books they're reading.
"It's such a joy to be in the room with people who fall more deeply in love with God every week," said Gray, who reads with four groups: his staff, middle-aged men, college men and 10th-grade boys.
Among the first readers was Wayne Myrick, founder and CEO of a successful construction company, whose reading led him to start a missions organization, Doulos Partners, that helps plant churches in Mexico, Spain, Croatia, Southeast Asia and Cuba, yielding numerous new believers each month. The organization also trains local pastors.
His reading "helped connect all the dots I had never connected before with the traditional church approach to education," Myrick said.
Myrick also helped start a Sunday School class for young couples. "I was told by several people that it wouldn't work and that people didn't want to hear theological teaching on Sunday morning," Myrick said. But "they were wrong, and it could be done, and people were eager for it when presented in a systematic way, and the class grew substantially over the next year."
Among the 10th-graders Gray reads with is David Meinberg, 16, who excels in his high school advanced physics classes. "I was excited about the groups because I saw it as an opportunity to get to know God and discover what my job is as a Christian," Meinberg said.
The group gave Meinberg a "deeper understanding of God" and the ability to bring "theology into casual conversations at school." He said he has a better grasp on "what it means to be a Christian and how to explain it to someone else."
"And if you don't know what you believe, then you really can't say you believe it at all," Meinberg added. "You're just following the crowd and an idea; you're not getting the whole picture."
HOW IT STARTED
"I'm thankful for my pastoral ministry and denominational service," Gray said, but six years ago he began to reason "if that's all there is -- well, there's got to be more, another way to make a greater impact."
Beginning with the first reading group, Gray said, "Those guys fell in love with God and the truth that theology is all about knowing God and loving God. They fell in love with the study of God and got serious about theological education."
Each of the 10 men has led in subsequent reading groups. "I had and still have a burning desire to know God and to help others know God," Gray said, "and the reading groups have been one of the most rewarding aspects of ministry."
Gray explains to the participants that the 90-minute discussions are not prayer meetings, devotional conclaves or accountability groups. "I tell them to pray for one minute and discuss for 89 more," he said.
Gray also tells them that the only perfect book is the Bible, and it's OK to disagree with the authors of various books they read. He reminds the participants that Hunter Street embraces the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 statement of beliefs of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The theology reading groups -– called "TRGs" at the church -- last for 15 months and have some requirements: no mixed gender classes; at least seven and no more than 12 participants; discuss, don't debate. Participants commit to read a chapter per week, to attend the group unless unavoidably hindered, to take turns leading the group and to keep the discussion on topic and on schedule.
Initial readings include Wayne Grudem's 1,300-page "Systematic Theology"; "The Drama of Scripture" by Goheen and Bartholomew; and two books by Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.: "The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made" and "The Message of the New Testament: Promises Kept." Included among dozens of authors whose books Hunter Street members have read are C.S. Lewis, Millard Erickson, John Piper and Jonathan Edwards. Some also have read Bruce Shelley's "Church History in Plain Language."
Octogenarian Robert McLain, who retired as a financial consultant two years ago, is in his third consecutive reading group. He has gained "a bolder witness to talk with other folks" and an ability to "speak more intelligently to unchurched people. Even when they reject the message, I'm still able to talk about the Scriptures in a positive way."
McClain said he also has gained "great insight into the Scriptures. I understand the Bible, which is something I never really had in former churches. I look back on my early life and I realize how much I lost and how far behind I was in biblical knowledge compared to my younger friends. I missed out on a lot of good things."
Gray said one woman told him the groups changed her life and her family because her husband hadn't been confident enough in his knowledge to take the spiritual helm of their home. But after joining a reading group, he now leads family devotionals and prays individually with each of their children.
Brian and Heather Hinton -- he, a lawyer; she, a homemaker -- are two 30-somethings whose lives have taken a dramatic turn through the theology reading groups. Brian has applied to enter a local seminary, Beeson Divinity School, in January.
"Going deeper into God's Word pointed me toward the desire for the ministry," Brian said.
Heather said her TRG scared her at first. "Why do I need this?" she asked. But she came to realize that "what we study and discuss is so applicable once you push the information from head to heart and walk it out in everyday life."
"The reading group impacted me personally and changed how I interact with people," Heather said. "In everyday conversations we talk theology not realizing it. And I'm enabled to interject more truth into these conversations with people who are trying to understand the world around them." She said her reading also "helps me to challenge others and their views on why things happen and how God uses them."
"My theological readings changed the way I read the Bible, too. I now see a more global picture of the Word instead of reading segments here and there, trying to find what God wants me to do," Heather said. "I have a better understanding of God's redemptive history and how He's working that out in our lives."
Church member Larry Young, quoted in the church's magazine, The Street, said the most difficult aspect of the TRG "is both balancing a busy schedule and being prepared each week for the 15-month commitment. But I can see the most rewarding part of this will be that God will use me more fully."
Carla Long said in the magazine that her TRG experience "has developed a sense of urgency in me. [There is] a sense that life is the true game and we are playing now. Everything matters. This is not a warm-up or practice. Everything that happens to me is by God's sovereign plan and my response is critical."
Others in the article said:
-- "As I look back to my expectations when I signed up for TRG, I realized I totally underestimated the value and impact on my life and witness."
-- "Realizing that too many times I have been complacent in my Christian walk was the most difficult thing to face in this study. Before, I would take someone else's word as if it were God's. How much I have missed in all those years."
-- "I am less focused on myself and more focused on bringing glory to God."
-- "Being a part of [the group] has caused me to read numerous other books by Christian authors on a range of subjects I would have never considered if not for our current study."
Gray told Baptist Press, "Members are also telling me, 'Hey Buddy, you're sermons are better than they've ever been.'" Yet he said he hasn't made any substantive changes in his sermon study and preparation habits.
"It's life-changing just knowing God and loving Him. People are hungry for this," Gray said. "They want to know theology because they want to know God. And I'm having the time of my life as I watch people grow."
Norm Miller is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va.