by George Baum
So, before I went off to seminary, my local priest thought it would be good for me to lead a Bible study, just to have the experience. He suggested a name for the group, announced it to the congregation and for about half a year, six people joined me on Tuesday nights. We read through the scriptures together, and had conversations about what we read.
Then, my second year of seminary, my field-parish pastor at the Lutheran church suggested I lead a Bible study before worship on Sundays. He announced it to the congregation, and six people would regularly join in the basement across from Central Park, and we’d read through the scriptures and discuss what we read.
At my second field placement, on the upper east side, my mentoring priest asked me to join her in leading something called Bible and Brewskis. We tried various nights of the week for this experiment, but no matter the night, we’d get about six people. (And this was with beer!)
Once I became a priest, back in Ohio, I tried having Bible study after church on Sundays for a while, and I probably don’t have to tell you how many people came, do I? I helped out at a Lutheran church on Long Island for a while, and at Bible Study there are typically six people. Then, in my current call, I walked into a situation where I was told they always had Bible study between the two services on Sunday. I kid you not, there were six regulars. Sometimes, when I tried something unusual (like debunking the symbols of Christmas), we might have 12 or more show up. But whenever we went back to Bible study, we also went back to six participants.
Why is it always six? No matter the size of the parish, no matter the enthusiasm of the priest or pastor, no matter which book of the Bible, six people. And there’s something else going on too: No matter what I said, or read, or explained, nothing ever really seemed to change. The people retained their folk religion, or spiritual quirks, or fundamentalism, or whatever. Hours and hours spent looking into the scriptures and the result seemed to be…well, nothing.
This past summer, I stopped offering Bible study, and haven’t started it back up. No one has said anything and—to be honest—I sure hope they don’t. And here’s another thing…
When the Vestry and I were rewriting our mission statement, I told them that the three things that seemed to generate excitement and participation in the parish were worship, hospitality, and outreach (which also provides a perfect acronym, right?). One Vestry member suggested we should add Bible study to that (he was not one of the six who used to come). I told him Bible study does not generate excitement or participation in the parish (plus, it would really mess up my acronym!). As he thought it over, he realized it was true. I wouldn’t say nobody comes to Bible Study, because I know six people do. Always six people.
But here’s the thing I’ve realized after all this time trying to lead Bible study in all these different settings: Everybody wants to be in a church that offers Bible study, but nobody wants to go to Bible study. Or, more accurately, six people do. Always six people do.