Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Ministry and the 18:26 Principle

I have recently experienced a revolution in my ministry. I’m calling it ‘the 18:26 principle’, and whilst I’m glad to have discovered it, I can’t help wishing I’d been doing it for the last twenty years rather than the last four months.
In June this year I went to the Evangelical Ministry Assembly at the Barbican, where I heard Rico Tice and Vaughan Roberts both extolling the virtues of ‘one to one’ Bible study.
Like many clergy, I suppose, I’ve been leading and encouraging group Bible study for most of my ministry. You know the thing — gather a group, appoint a leader, read a passage, discuss what it means. They vary in quality, but they have been the staple of the church’s life for decades, not just for evangelicals (as perhaps used to be the case) but across the spectrum.
About ‘one to one’ work, however, I knew nothing. I’d never experienced it, I’d never seen it done and I’d never trained in it. For me (and I guess for many others) the ‘secret’ of ministry lay in pulpit preaching. Study the passage hard with all the resources available, work out what it was saying, prepare your material and ‘preach the word’. Do that, I thought, and they would come — except they didn’t, and when they came they didn’t stick.
Recently, however, I’ve had time for personal reflection (let the reader understand) and on the principle that God works everything for good, it gave me the opportunity to talk with a colleague about the practicalities of ministry. Amongst other things, he expressed the view that the conservative evangelical constituency (of which we are both members) is over-reliant on pulpit work and insufficiently engaged in working with individuals.
The same thought, incidentally, was voiced by the 17th century Puritan Richard Baxter in his The Reformed Pastor:
It is too common for men to think that the work of the ministry is nothing but to preach, and to baptize, and to administer the Lord’s supper, and to visit the sick. [...] It hath oft grieved my heart to observe some eminent able preachers, how little they do for the saving of souls, save only in the pulpit; and to how little purpose much of their labour is, by this neglect.
And Baxter, too, recommended focussing on individuals — not just in meeting their needs but in teaching the faith.
With all this in mind, and having recovered somewhat from my period of reflection, I began looking and praying for opportunities to read the Bible with people ‘one to one’. And soon they began to come in. At present, I am working with seven people on a weekly basis (one individual and three couples) as well as leading two larger groups, and fascinating it has been.
This is not, however, your typical Bible study. I am there as a teacher, and so I teach. The result is much more of a ‘tutorial’, much less of a seminar. But judging by the response it is hitting the spot.
When I say it is a ‘tutorial’, I mean I don’t just look for a sharing of opinions. These are people without a theological education, without training, whose desire for God is strong, but whose knowledge of the Scriptures is piecemeal. So we will look at a passage, and I will explain it to them. The ultimate model for this, of course, is Jesus himself. When he met with the disciples on the Emmaus road,
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27, NIV84)
Or again, in the Upper Room:
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44–45 (NIV84))
Perhaps we should read these accounts not just as descriptions but as methodology. But note (a) the group is small and (b) opinions count for nothing — the teacher is there to teach.
Another example is found in Acts, and this is what gave me the ‘18:26 principle’:
[Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. (Acts 18:26, NIV)
What I have found is that those with whom I have been doing this have said they are getting into the text more deeply, that they are getting a new grasp of things, and so on. So the more I can do, the better.
It does, however, require a number of qualifications. First, you’ve got to be able to do the textual thing yourself. And you need a breadth of knowledge of the Bible and biblical theology. Often the best bits in these studies are when we ‘digress’ — when we go off on a side track — and this requires being able to think on your feet theologically. Finally, perhaps most importantly at first, it requires a willingness to buck the cultural trend of being uneasy with the idea of ‘authority’.
It is a feature of our culture (and of our church as a result) that there aren’t ‘answers’, there are just ‘questions’. By contrast, this sort of study is based on the principle that I know more than the people I’m teaching and that I have the authority to teach them. Like Priscilla and Aquilla, I must work on the principle that there are better understandings of these things that some people need to hear.
But it is wonderful work. Like I said, I wish I’d been doing this for decades not months. But better late then never. May I commend it to you as well?
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  1. John could you give some examples of the sort of studies you do with people, and how you've persuaded them to start? The latter is the big problem I've encountered in this. That would be really helpful

    Stephen Walton


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  2. I too am a great supporter of 1 to 1 bible study. But whilst it can be helpful for one person to be a mature Christian and theologically nimble, they are a great thing for any two Christians to do together. Let's not require any qualifications beyond the desire to learn from God's Word.

    David Brock, Elmdon

  3. Steve, it depends on the person. I've used 'Just for Starters', but also Colossians, Hebrews, or 'any questions'.

    Persuasion has mostly come by picking on people and saying, "Why don't we ...?" I've based this on 'likely yes', 'existing ministry', 'development potential'.

  4. Amen David!
    I'm very slow, so keep forgetting how good this is, then re-discovering it, as if for the 1st time. 1 thing that puts people off (read me), is time, so many thing to prepare, 1 more thing to prepare. Actually (this may shock some in our "camp") it's better to do something un-prepared, than not at all! It also makes it less teacher-pupil & preachy. Go for something very familiar (I've used 1 Peter, 1 Thess & Colossians). Read a small bit, ask some questions, limit the time.

    Also, if you can, do it with non-Christians.

    Steve - tricky one, some soil is tougher than others. But I find that beer helps in the early stages. (local, or brew your own - Tesco has a special on home brew right now).

    Darren Moore

  5. It's Sloe Gin around here. Pick Sloes after first frost has cracked skin; half fill bottle with them; add roughly same or slightly less by weight of sugar; top up with gin (or vodka, or brandy); leave for at least two months; only drink when sitting down or assured of soft landing. Sloes are the round purple ones on blackthorn bushes that take away all your saliva when you try and eat them.

    Seriously, I'm humbled. I've been trying to do this (121s, not sloe gin) for 6 years, on and off. John has accomplished more in 6 months!

    Stephen Walton

    1. Sorry Steve, are sloes an analogy for people in rural Cheshire who drink gin?

      You're neck of the words is fantastic for real ale pubs. It doesn't have the micro-brewery craze that seems to be round here, but still very good.

  6. Hi John,

    An excellent piece. I was converted through "one to one" work, so do extend your reach to the lost as well !

    Peter, Oxfordshire

  7. I am convinced that 1 to 1 is the greatest form of evangelism and also the teaching of the word. At least with a 1 to 1 the other individual can't go to sleep!
    On that point I recall my cheeky son saying to someone, "why did they bother getting dressed if they were going to sleep at church. They might as well have gone in their pyjamas". Sleeping congregation goes back to New Testament time whaen a sleeping listener fell from a window.

  8. You might find it beneficial to check out a great little book by David Helm called "One to One Bible Reading" put out by Matthias Media in Australia.
    Ben, Perth, Western Australia

  9. John, I don't think this is just your discovery. 2013 seems to be the The Year of the One-to-One amongst conservative evangelicals. My local church has just started pushing them very heavily. You mentioned Rico Tice at EMA; he explains the background in this article:

    Do we see that the Oxbridge CUs are again setting our agenda?

    (Name and address withheld because of a sensitive country)

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